25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:25-27 (NIV)
It is hard to imagine a more unlikely text with which to begin a discussion of marriage than the one I have quoted above. After all, “hate” is hardly a good place to begin if one wants to have a happy, healthy marriage. Besides, the context of Jesus’ words as they are presented in Luke makes it clear he was talking about the need to (perhaps literally) die for the sake of one’s devotion to the Messiah.
Nevertheless, I have become convinced it is precisely the place we need to begin if we are going to practice marriage in the way God intended. My thesis is quite simple, and it is related to what we discussed our last time together. Marriage can only flourish when we have our loyalties and priorities in the right order.
Learning from Human Dysfunction
I like to watch crime documentaries. I readily admit that I have a justice complex: I like seeing the bad guys (and gals) get caught. Plus, I like a good mystery.
As I have indulged this not-entirely-harmless avocation, I have noticed something interesting. It is surprising how often otherwise intelligent, basically moral people are led astray by their loyalty to a particular person. Oftentimes, it is a spouse or other lover. Sometimes, it is a family member or friend. But, in either case, the person is led to their undoing by an unhealthy attachment to a predatory person.
To be sure, Jesus has taken this observation, radicalized it, and focused it specifically upon himself. Nevertheless, the observation still holds, and the larger context of the Synoptic Gospels indicates this is a fundamental principle of God’s Kingdom. Moreover, the principle applies in both a negative and a positive way.
The Mechanics of the Kingdom
When we commit ourselves to Jesus, we are making him—personally—our primary focus of loyalty. This is an important point to make because, while it is important to be loyal to certain principles (as we will discuss shortly), humans are wired to relate to people. We will throw away our deepest commitments for the sake of a loving relationship which meets our emotional needs and fulfills our highest ideals.
It is out of the fertile soil of our loyalty to Christ that our loyalty to important ideals (like truth, goodness, justice, etc.) grows. These ideals give structure to our lives and protect us from those who would take advantage of us. They have the paradoxical effect of simultaneously moving us beyond ourselves while at the same time elevating our self-worth.
To put it another way, devotion to Jesus gives us the relational resources to be whole, good human beings. And devotion to the ideals, principles, and worldviews espoused by our Lord and his prophets gives us the conceptual tools to do the same. As we lean into this new matrix of loyalties, we learn how to care for ourselves without becoming narcissistic. We learn how to focus on the larger consequences of our actions without neglecting our own needs or the needs of those who are closest to us.
Hard but Good
Let’s put aside the technical mumbo-jumbo and get real practical. If my wife saw my picture on the news because I had been robbing liquor stores, she would be the first person to turn me in. And she knows I would do the same. Is that because we don’t love each other? Far from it. It is the thing that makes our relationship work so well.
My wife can entrust herself to my care precisely because she knows I share her loyalty to Jesus above all else. And I can do the same for the same reason. Yes, it puts limits on our relationship. There are certain things we simply will not do for or with one another. But those limits are life-giving.
It can be hard to bring such limits to a relationship that has not known them before. Sometimes, we discover the love a spouse, sibling, or friend has for us is conditioned upon our absolute devotion to them, and when we withdraw that devotion, their love vanishes like morning fog on an Ozark river. But if we endure the pain with courage, we will discover Christ wants to give us—and the ones we love—something that is so much better for us.