|Image via Vincentiens|
He didn't want that wife. He didn't want a blank slate to write on. He wanted me, the real me! Me, wounded, abandoned, and prone to depression. Me the uptight woman more worried about what others thought of her than what he did. But really, though he was not blind to those weaknesses, that was not what he saw in me. What he saw in me was a woman with a heart being shaped and gentled by the grace of God - a heart he could trust with his own heart. He saw his friend of two years who would understand and accept him, who he could safely tell anything, who would really try to understand his perspectives and intellectual interests, whose own wounds and frailties enabled her to feel compassion for his. In me he also saw an intelligent, creative soul, an erstwhile artist who would appreciate his idiosyncrasies, delight in his delights, and perhaps even give him new things to be delighted in. He truly valued everything I brought to the table, and I don't just mean food. He eagerly sought out my thoughts and opinions. Paul married me because he recognized it was not good for him to be alone, and he had come to love this woman God had formed and placed in his life. From the day he determined to marry me he set about nurturing all he saw that was beautiful in me, and, seeing my struggles and weaknesses, to set me free from my emotional chains. Every single day, for four years my husband has encouraged me with the hope of the Gospel and demonstrated Christ's own love and dedication to me.
And so, as I said before, I am not a great woman. Nor, as I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, do I have the kind of marriage the books led me to expect. And yet I can with all honesty say that I have a wonderful and uniquely Christian marriage. My husband even insists that I am an excellent wife! So how can that be? Well, I attribute it largely to the example of a truly excellent husband. My husband is a quiet and unassuming man, nearly the definition of meekness, and yet as I look back over the years of our life together it becomes clear to me that it is he who has been primarily responsible for shaping the character of our marriage. So how does he do it? I've given this matter a lot of thought and decided to try to distill here, as best I can, the essence of his strength. What I've come up with, interestingly enough, is not a list of do's or don'ts so much as a set of character traits. Good husbanding begins in the heart.
An excellent Christian husband, above all, is formed by the Gospel. His focus is aligned with Christ's, his emphases on what the Scripture emphasizes. For instance, he has gathered that the Scripture nowhere says, "Husbands lead your wives...." so his focus is not on leading. And yet he does lead, instinctively and strongly, but (like Christ) in ways often so gentle, so imperceptible as to almost be missed. In fact it is almost always in retrospect that I recognize how my husband has led me. I can only trace this to the fact that he has internalized those key Christian truths that turn relationships entirely upside-down - or rather, right-side-up - from what sin and fallen culture has done to them.
"But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt. 20:25-28)Being a Christian requires an altered understanding of authority. In the kingdom of God those with authority are to behave as those who have the least authority of all - servants. In Christ the highest rank is that of slave. Positions of leadership are actually positions of servanthood. Servants by definition submit their wills to the good of others. When we really believe this, it turns our lives upside down. Wives give themselves up for their husbands. Husbands love to serve their wives.
The excellent husband, for the sake of love, has submitted his right to wield authority. His heart's goal is not to rule, but to serve - not to lead, but to love. He will lead when that is what love requires, and when love leads it does so lovingly, with meekness and gentleness.
In Ephesians 5 all Christians are commanded to "walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (v.2) Wives are then specifically told to reflect this in their marriages by submitting to their husbands. This submission implies a heart-felt and willing giving up of self for the sake of the husband. Husbands, are addressed next, with their appropriate expression of Christian love expanded upon at some length:
"Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body." (vs. 25-30)The excellent husband places the same value and regard upon his wife as he does his own life, and gives himself up for her, just as she does for him, and Christ did for the church. This expression of the self-sacrificial nature of husband love is so strong that the apostle senses a need at the end of it to protect it: "let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband." The temptation to abuse a love that tender is strong. Which reminds me of the admonition of Peter: "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered." (1 Peter 3:7) A godly husband will not use the tender, submissive nature of his wife as temptation or opportunity for scorn or abuse.
In fact, the excellent husband has great respect for women in general. His wife will never have the sense that she is valued only for sex and service. He recognizes that physically and culturally, men throughout history, as a result of the curse, have wielded the power in relationships and demeaned and subjected women in every level of society. Christians, however are not called to perpetuate the curse of sin, but to restore what sin destroyed. And so a godly man remembers that "in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God." (1 Cor. 11:11) And that in Christ "there is no male and female" (Gal. 3:28), that his wife and his sisters in Christ are fellow-heirs with him of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7), and that they, too, are complete human beings created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) fully capable of serving and pleasing Him independent of marriage, should they be called to do so (see 1 Cor. 7).
An excellent husband recognizes that God did not hand him a blank slate, a shapeless lump to do with whatever he pleases or make into whatever suits his perceived needs. Rather, he recognizes his wife as God's handiwork, beautiful and suited to him, created to share his joys and pains, to reign with him in life, to glorify God together with him, and to be his strong support. (Gen. 2:18-14)
Paul sees me as his equal in every way (though of course we are very different). He sees our marriage as two people following the Lord together, one flesh, side-by-side leaning upon one another, not marching single-file. He leads by example, by his strong presence, and by the exercise of a love that won't bend when it sees me leaning toward a wrong path. If I veer off in a harmful direction, he plants himself firmly and urges me back to the right road. And though I've no intention to be a leader, I've done the same for him on occasion. This is part of what it means to be a strong help. This is marriage. This is husband and wife living as one flesh, loving and following Christ, glorifying Him together, each with all our hearts desiring to display His self-sacrificial love.
Paul likes to compare marriage to making a cup of tea. In the beginning there is water and there is tea - two very different things. Yet once the tea is introduced to the water, it infuses it entirely. These two when joined change each other, forever. Their individual qualities are integrated throughout. I've told my husband repeatedly that it is only because of his Christlike behavior that we have the lovely marriage that we do. I know he likes to hear that. He always smiles. But he then always shakes his head and says it's not true. It is true that his love is a powerful driving force in our marriage, but it would not be sufficient were I not devoted to Christ myself. He and I both know that were it not for Christ and His example of self-sacrifice I would be a cruel, bitter, and dominating force in our home. I would interpret my husband's deep love as pathetic weakness and despise him for it. So it is the work of Christ and His love in my heart which makes me receptive to the loving influence of my husband.
So it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that makes a Christian husband excellent. Specifically it is the husband living in his own home as Christ did when He walked on this earth, loving, serving, humbling Himself for His church. And it is the Gospel again, working in the heart of a wife, which leads her to treasure the love of her husband, seeing in it the reflection of that Savior she so adores and relies upon. It is this that shapes her into a godly wife. And it is these two, living as one, sacrificing for each other that become a living picture of the God's self-sacrificial love for all the world to see.