Marriage and Self-Denial

For if someone wants to save his or her life/soul/self, he/she will lose it. But whoever loses his or her life/soul/self for me will find it. – Matthew 16:25

It was more than a decade ago. My wife and I were not yet married. We were both insanely busy graduate students, and we needed all the time together we could get. So, there we were, walking around the track in the wonderful exercise facility Texas Christian University provides to its students. Suddenly, this woman who was already my best friend and who would soon become my bride asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks (at least metaphorically).

“Why do we always have to keep score?”

The Self-Protection Model of Marriage

One of my wife Natallia’s most consistent—and most frightening—spiritual gifts has always been her ability to boil down a difficult and complex matter to its essence. In one sentence, she summarized my approach to our burgeoning relationship, and I did not like how it sounded.

The weird thing was that she was not exasperated with me for keeping score on her. She was exasperated with me for keeping score on myself. As I admitted to her at the time, it was the only thing I knew to do to reign in the selfishness (and, if I’m honest, the laziness) which can undermine my interactions with other people. I thought what she needed was a man who would treat her fairly, and I was determined to be that man.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. It is all too easy for men—especially men with strong personalities like me—to overwhelm the women in their lives. And both men and women have the unfortunate habit of using whatever emotional levers are available to them to bully and/or manipulate others.

Marriage as the Laying Aside of the Self

That is what had happened to my wife in her first marriage. Nevertheless, she had the insight to see the self-protection model of marriage doesn’t work, and she had the courage and the creativity to imagine another way to be “one flesh.” For her, marriage was just an extension of—and an intensification of—the self-giving love that is to be the essence of all aspects of our lives as believers.

I instantly knew she was right. I had read Elizabeth Achtemeier, Stanley Grenz, Richard Foster, and Lisa Sole Cahill. I knew both the challenge and the beauty of a genuinely Christian understanding of marriage, and I had long ago committed myself to pursuing that model of married life in my own experience of this sacred institution. And yet, the self-protection approach seemed so intuitive to me, and had been modeled so often for me by others, that I found it difficult to resist.

Is there risk in making self-giving love the cornerstone of our married life? Is there risk in embracing the radical teachings of Jesus and making them the sum total of our own way of being in the world? There certainly is. In the sentence that immediately precedes the one we quoted above, Jesus says, “If someone wants to come after me, he/she must deny himself/herself, take up his/her cross, and follow me.” In our world, such a risk is deemed to be “unacceptable,” but, for Jesus, the alternative is to lose everything—including our very self (v. 26).

More importantly, when we lose ourselves for the sake of Jesus, we find we haven’t lost anything at all. Rather, we have gained something of immeasurable worth. We have found our true selves. Yes, we have died—sometimes physically but always emotionally, socially, economically, politically, etc. But we have also been raised.

Imagine, for a moment, what it would look like if your marriage went through this resurrection process. How would Christ’s Kingdom be manifested in your relationship? How would Christ’s love be embodied to a watching world—and especially to your children? How would your own soul be nourished by the rest, the support, the encouragement, and—yes—the pleasure you received from your mate, and how would your soul be nourished by the ways you gave these things to your mate?

Safeguards

As we have already pointed out, following Jesus will cost us something. It will restrict the kinds of things we can do in pursuit of our own happiness. More importantly, it will devalue that pursuit so thoroughly that we will gladly accept whatever hardships come our way if that is what it takes to see God’s Kingdom come in our own hearts, lives, and families (cf. Matthew 6:10). 

Nevertheless, I am convinced Craig Keener is right when he says Jesus’ teachings were never intended to harm vulnerable populations. They were never intended to foster injustice or protect evildoers.

So, if we are going to guard Christ’s sheep from the wolves among us, we will need to set up some safeguards for those who want to honor Jesus in their marriage. The first of these safeguards is the simple acknowledgement that the approach to marriage I am talking about in this blog will only work if both parties are committed to it. If one spouse is pursuing a life of self-sacrifice, but the other is pursuing a life of self-protection (or worse, of self-indulgence), that is a recipe for disaster.

Second—and I realize this idea may seem a little controversial—we need to take a bigger role as churches in who our members date and how those relationships progress. Frankly, I’m not interested in having the discussion about whether love marriages or arranged marriages are better. I’m interested in dealing with reality as it is now, and in that version of reality, people date. It is ultimately their decision who they marry. Still, we need to disciple them in such a way that they recognize their own limitations, especially when hormones and emotions are involved, and we need to be trustworthy enough as leaders, institutions, and friends that they will actually listen to us when we are trying to save them from a toxic relationship.

Third, we need to recognize that the concerns people have for their well-being are not illegitimate. Yes, Jesus calls us to “die” to ourselves, but people still asked God for the things they needed. Indeed, Jesus commanded them to do so (Matthew 6:11). We need to have the same concern for those under our care. The point is not to make them miserable. The point is to help them find the way to true joy.

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