A husband’s sacrificial love: what does it actually look like?

From The Briefing:

Commenting on a previous post, Andrew asked a question that was so worthwhile it deserves a whole new discussion:

I find the discussions about submission and love and even mutual submission helpful but a bit hard to understand practically.

Often the discussion is centred around the controversial passages and is understandably directed towards women who have qualms about what this means for them. This is a good thing. However (sorry if I missed the updates) I find precious little directed towards how men would apply this and how they should be a loving husband.

If I were married I’d want to know this especially if we are supposed to love and lead. So in wives submitting to their husbands, what does this mean for the husband?

Andrew went on to say (quite rightly!) that he was unsatisfied with simplistic solutions such as the idea that the husband is the ‘final decision maker’, or the idea that the husband just has to ‘sacrifice’ his own opinions whenever there’s a deadlock in the decision-making process. I also received an email raising similar issues from another bloke who’s been married for some time.

In this post, I’d like to make a few observations about the nature of a husband’s sacrificial love based on one of the relevant passages (Ephesians 5:25-32), and then invite others to contribute examples of how this sacrificial love might work out in their own situations.

As I begin, there are two important caveats:

  1. Although an online discussion like this is valuable, it can’t deal with the issue fully. Ultimately, the day-to-day reality of the Christian life is best learned in the context of personal relationships and communities. This doesn’t mean than an online discussion has no value; it just means that it is of limited value. In fact, if you’re a bloke, and you think this is a valuable discussion, then I’d encourage you also to actively seek opportunities personally to encourage, and to be encouraged by, other blokes whom you know.
  2. Usually, biblical principles will need to be applied in different ways in different contexts. In this case, since every man is different, and every woman is different, and therefore every marriage is different, the application of these principles will be different. Hence it would be a mistake to lay down absolute rules or policies. This discussion is more about godly wisdom, attitudes and desires, which are informed by biblical principles, and which work themselves out in different ways in different circumstances.

Now let’s turn to the passage from Ephesians. The key principle in this passage is that the husband-wife dynamic makes proper sense when it’s grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ:

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. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

Paul is not saying that the husband-wife relationship is parallel to the Christ-church relationship at every point. When you think about it, that would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it? Nowhere does the Bible teach, for example, that all husbands are splendidly holy like Christ, or that only wives need cleansing of sin. Rather, Paul is reminding his readers of what he’s been saying right from the start of his letter. Although none of us deserve anything but God’s judgment for our rebellion against him, nevertheless God has shown incredible grace and mercy to us. God, through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, has forgiven, redeemed and purified us, and made us his own children, a people for his very own:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:3-4)

God’s great plan for the world is a cosmic plan; a plan which includes our own adoption as God’s children and the forgiveness of our sins; a plan which culminates in the whole world being united in Christ (Eph 1:10). This theme continues all the way up to chapter 5, where Paul  reminds his readers of this great truth, and insists that the husband-wife relationship is best understood in light of the great plan God has for the world in his Son Jesus Christ.

This is the key for us as we come to think about the idea of sacrificial love in marriage. If we don’t have the gospel of Jesus Christ firmly in our sights when we read Ephesians 5, we’ll only end up with a twisted distortion of the sacrificial love / submission dynamic that it describes. That’s because we’ll probably be thinking about the husband-wife relationship in terms of some other paradigm which we’ve gleaned from somewhere else, and which doesn’t do proper justice to the meaning of the passage. For example, here are some common alternative paradigms for understanding the husband-wife relationship:

  1. The power struggle. In this paradigm, marriage is primarily about two individuals in competition with one another. The most powerful person wins, so you need to make sure you protect your own interests. If we are thinking about marriage in these terms, the sacrificial love / submission dynamic will just end up being a cynical effort at aggressive or passive-aggressive power-plays. We shouldn’t be surprised that this paradigm exists, of course; after all, in Genesis 3:16, after the man and the woman rebel against God, God himself says that the man-woman relationship will be cursed by a struggle of desire and rule. It’s a paradigm that affects our own sinful hearts, and one to which we are still constantly tempted to return.
  2. The economic partnership. Sometimes, even without realizing it, we can think and act as if marriage is simply an economic partnership. Marriage, in other words, can be thought of as a contract between two people who acknowledge that they have somewhat conflicting interests, but who nevertheless enter into a mutually satisfactory co-operative arrangement to ensure that each others’ needs are met, a little like a corporate partnership. Of course, this way of thinking isn’t entirely wrong, because marriage always has economic aspects. If, however, we view marriage primarily in terms of an economic partnership, we will tend to be absorbed by the questions that characterise the corporate world: management, chains of command, questions about who makes the ‘decisions’ and who does the ‘tasks.’ The sacrifice / submission dynamic, if it is understood in these terms, is at best a convenient management structure for making the partnership run smoothly, and at worst a way for the husband to keep his wife as a ‘subordinate’ in the chain of command.
  3. The fairy tale (a.k.a. the Hollywood “happily ever after”). In this paradigm, marriage is ultimately all about ‘the two of us.’ We are ‘fulfilled’ in one another. Perhaps we’re on a romantic journey together; we don’t know where we’re going on this journey, but it’s nice to hold hands on the way. Of course, love and marriage go together like the proverbial horse and carriage. But if we put such inward-focused romantic love on a pedestal and make it the ultimate goal, it becomes idolatry, as Valerie Ting points out in her recent article on singleness.

We need admit that all these alternative ways of thinking affect us at various times. That’s why we need to keep coming back to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who know Jesus Christ have been redeemed and made God’s precious children. We have been given a vision of a better way of life. It’s a way of life which can rest secure in God’s forgiveness rather than needing to struggle for power in the world. It’s a way of life that cannot be reduced to economics. It’s a way of life which isn’t oriented toward ourselves and our own desires, but which has a further goal outside of our own relationships, a goal which we do not determine for ourselves. This goal, as we have seen, is God’s great plan to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). It is from this goal that the “profound mystery” of marriage (cf. Eph 5:32) must take its ultimate cue.

According to Ephesians 5, the paradigm for marriage is not a power struggle, or a partnership, or a paradise. It is, rather, a deeply profound union, with an orientation to something even more profound, outside the union. Marriage is, in other words, a Christ-oriented one-flesh relationship. This is the basis for Paul’s instruction to husbands:

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. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:28-32)

What might this mean when it comes to a husband sacrificially loving his wife? Here are a few general observations:

    • Because marriage is a one flesh relationship, the immediate goal of a husband’s love is to nurture a deep and tender union with his spouse. His responsibility is to love his wife in a way which seeks to maintain and deepen the profound unity of the marriage relationship itself, a unity which is for the mutual good of both of them.
    • Because marriage is a Christ-oriented relationship, the ultimate goal of a husband’s love is directed toward God’s great plan for the world, to unite all things in Christ. What should matter to him is whether the marriage is heading towards greater godliness, greater concern for God’s desires, greater love for one another, greater concern to see Jesus Christ known and honoured in the world, and greater service of others.
    • Because a husband’s love is Christ-like, it will involve sacrifice. However, this ‘sacrifice’ is not simply a matter of giving in to his wife’s whims at the expense of his own whims. Just as Christ’s sacrifice was intended to achieve a purpose—our cleansing from sin and unity with God the Father—the husband’s sacrifice is also intended to achieve the purpose of the marriage. He sacrifices himself and his desires for the sake of maintaining and deepening his unity with his wife, and for the sake of making his marriage a marriage which glorifies Christ.

What might that mean? It would be unfair to ask you what it would mean without giving some thoughts from my own life. So here’s some of the things it means in my own situation. We’ve just returned from a 3-year stint in the UK, where I was a theological student. Although we’ve been well provided for through generous donors, being in this situation has meant that I haven’t been able to ‘provide’ for my wife the same level of material security and stability that some of our peers enjoy. But that’s OK; our marriage is meant to be Christ-oriented, and we made the decision for me to do this study in order to serve Christ together. At the same time, my constant temptation is to be too absorbed with study. I really like reading and writing and preaching; and if I’m not careful, my wife gets the second-best of my energy and attention. I need to be pro-active in cherishing my wife; not just reactive. That sometimes means I need to say ‘no’ to more opportunities to read and write and preach. How do I actually go at loving my wife? Sometimes I fail; sometimes, by God’s grace, I succeed.

In concentrating on a few verses in Ephesians, I’m aware that there are many things that haven’t been said. I’m also very aware that Ephesians gives us a standard to which we men so often fall short. But hopefully it’s enough to go on. Now it’s over to you. How might a husband’s sacrificial love be expressed in the various situations in which you find yourself?

To ensure that this discussion achieves its aims, I’m going to add some special guidelines for comments on this post:

  1. The assumption for making a comment is that you agree with complementarian principles for marriage, and that you are providing an example or a thought about how these principles actually work out, or asking a question along these lines. If you don’t share the assumption, this thread isn’t for you to contribute. There are plenty of other forums in which you can express your disagreement.
  2. Although the discussion should stick to the one topic of a husband’s sacrificial love, that doesn’t mean that only husbands are invited to make comments. Whether you’re a man or woman, married or single, please feel welcome to contribute.
  3. The examples you provide can include things you’ve learned from your own failures, or your own successes, or the failures of others, or the successes of others. You don’t have to tell the rest of us where you got your example from, and we won’t assume anything either.

Comments at The Briefing.