“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:28–31, NASB95)
Sometimes trying to grasp just what it means to love someone else as we love ourselves is a mind boggling thing. This can be in part because of a self-deprecating attitude which tells us that we are not worthy of such love especially of ourselves by ourselves, but it might also be because we are sometimes so self-focused that it is hard to put other’s needs ahead of our own. These are some of the extreme ends of self-loathing and self-loving that affect how we love others. At the heart of them is the concept of how we view ourselves and how we view that other special person.
This struggle has led many to wrestle with the words of today’s passage where the heart of this struggle might best be traced back to the curse in the garden after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and were judged. There we read that the wife’s desire would be for her husband, and that desire is the kind of desire that seeks to have charge or control. But the husband, who was made head, would tend to exert that headship maybe in the form of undesirable rule. We see conflict in the curse. But, God’s perfect plan for the husband and wife was that they would separate themselves from their parents and become one flesh where they were joined in a oneness union that mirrored the oneness of the Trinity, where there was neither self-debasement or self-exaltation. It is a perfect oneness that the Father, Son and Spirit share which is perfect in love, unity, and harmony of thought and action. It is one where the Son demonstrated His love for the Father by not regarding who He is as God to become man to give Himself for us. And it is one in which the Spirit comes to perfectly work in us to do the will of the Father. There is a oneness which cannot be separated other than to know that our one God is in truth manifest in three persons.
Marriage is to be that kind of union. But, as people who know sin and struggle with it, we know the very real tension of our own desires possibly being different from those of our spouse. We know opinions that vary, and we know ways of doing things that are different. We know one generally being more wired to love and the other being more wired to respect and honor. We know one who might be able to deal with multiple things at once and the other who might have to pack one thought or action away before unpacking and managing the other. There are so many ways that husbands and wives vary from each other. This does not make those differences better or worse. But it does indeed evidence a difference, maybe even as we see the roles of the Trinity varied throughout Scripture.
Knowing the difference between God’s ideal and man’s tendency, Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies. This kind of a love speaks not necessarily to a comparative love, but to a love of oneness without distinction. The husband is to see his wife as part of himself just as it was stated in creation that the two would become one. The husband is to relate to his wife as the special one who was made one with him. This means when things come along to cause division, even if it is by the other, the husband is charged to keep this priority of practice in mind and love his wife accordingly. This is not automatic. It is not an easy thing to do, or it would not have needed a command. But it is a necessary thing to do if the couple is to experience the kind of marriage relationship intended by God.
And to say that this is only the responsibility of the husband is to miss that fact that both husband and wife are called into the same relationship together with the same submission to one another that we are to have to Christ and which Christ had to the Father. The difference here is that the husband has been given the headship role in the home, and it is incumbent on him to take the initiative. But when he does not do this, there is nothing keeping the wife from loving back and winning him even in his disobedience as we read in 1 Peter 3:1-6.
Being of one body we cherish the entire body, and in the marriage relationship this means cherishing one another as we are to cherish and take care of ourselves. It is to tend to the other in loving ways, making sure that your oneness is a priority and that in so doing, for us husbands, that our wives are built up and encouraged in the Lord. This is what Jesus does for us, and it is the model that He has given us as we love our spouse. It is the heart of the purpose statement of Genesis 2:24 quoted here in our passage today. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Conflict, disappointment and failure are huge barriers to this kind of love. When we feel that we have let the other down it is very difficult to feel that we are holding up our end of the relationship. It is in conflict that other feelings rise and division occurs. It is in disappointment and failure when we focus on our inadequacies and inabilities and we feel unworthy of our role. When we sense these feelings we need to take them captive right away. We may not have the answer for what to do next, but what we do have is the answer to how we are to treat one another while we are working through the tough times.
Jesus endured a lot for us. He endured more than we could ever imagine. He set aside who He was as God for a season to take on the form of man to come and redeem those whom the Father loves. Keeping this bigger picture of Christ is huge for us in keeping the big picture in loving our spouses. And, for us who are husbands, to love our wives as Christ loved His church will not be easy at times. This is not because they are unloving in return, but because we all struggle. The rewards, however, for both are amazing.
I cannot imagine these past thirty-eight years without Robin. I am so thankful for a couple of friends of hers who put me on the spot to take her on that first date. The years have definitely had their tough times, and we have had our difficult moments. But our God is so amazing in designing such a wonderful institution as marriage where one man and one woman could give themselves so imperfectly in love to one another. Our model is perfect and He is the one from whom we are charged to take our lead.