It is ironic to me that some of the best thinking on marriage was by the perpetually celibate Fulton Sheen. He understood how marriage reflects the gospel in a way that is frankly, something of a breath of fresh air to those of us straining trinitarian image gnats out of the ointment of complementarianism. I would like to take Sheen’s idea and expand it out a bit into all of a Christians life then bring everything home.
Imagine a a profile drawing of a flight of stairs. Sheen posited this as a view of a healthy marriage moving forward. Every marriage should advance and then rise, advance and then rise. The propellent in this ascending and forward movement Sheen called, “the crises.” This is located at the inner corner of each step it is a vital crux where the marriage either rises or flatlines. It is the disagreement, where two sinners are at odds over how to advance. And at this point, he argues there must be a death and resurrection. Someone must let a part of themselves die, their desires, so that the unit can move up and forward, the next step. The death occurs, not when one wins out over the other, but when one or both submit their individual wills to the will of Christ. The old man is put to death, and the new man is resurrected more closely to reflect the image of Christ. The marriage is being moved from one degree of glory to another. This is revealed in the growing one-ness of the couple The two are no longer considering their own selfish goals but, putting on The Spirit, in love, joy, patience, kindness, charity, gentleness, self-control, peace, all of these are growing results made manifest in the unity.
This motif plays out in all of sanctification, Owen called it the Mortification of Sin. We consistently put our sins, the old man, to death and are resurrected into Christ. We grow to be more like Him. Lewis perfectly captured the glory of this in The Great Divorce. The man who had the little red lizard of lust on his shoulder. The pain of having it killed was great, but when the Angel had performed the operation it had become a glorious stallion. The sin was mortified and the man was resurrected to true freedom. Any sin, any lingering of the selfish, idolatrous old man is a twisting of the good, God initially made. And in mortifying it we are punching a hard reset that moves us closer to the original factory settings.
While this principal plays out across all of sanctification it becomes especially clear in marriage. Spouses are harder to ignore, and sins harder to hide, disguise, or justify. Conflict is inevitable. And yet there is the opportunity for two to become one. Marriage is spoken of Scripturally in this way. But this oneness can not occur outside of Christ. The individual can never successfully work as God to conform one being into their own image, or their imagined state of perfection for the other. This kind of manipulation and control poisons and marriage with bitterness resentment and failure do to lack of satisfaction. In another, sadly familiar and darker way if one does succeed in crushing the other will, forcing and cramming them to shrink to the mold that is required, a grotesque caricature results. Gods who demand fealty, service, and worship are petty gods indeed, ruling tragic little fiefdoms. And the cowering waifish little man or woman who submits to the tyrant is more like Smeagol than anything else. A twisted little creature cowering, bowing, and scraping, yet fill with hatred. It is an ugly picture that many have seen pitied, and been repulsed by.
Hope must not be lost, for in Christ all things are made new. Even those miserable creatures could be redeemed and made more glorious than you could imagine. But first they must die. Their sins were put to death on the cross, and they must daily die to themselves. Every marriage must die to itself in order to advance, “Further up and further in.” In Christ, “is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are pleasures for evermore.”* But before that pleasure my be enjoyed, the death must occur.
Recently, I stood next to a groom as he vowed to love and to cherish. And while the service presented the gospel with verbal clarity I could not help but think the greatest illustration was standing front and center. In a way a wedding is a funeral. Two people have come to die. The individuals are coming to lay down their lives. No part of them will ever be the same. They are making a covenant with God, not to one another, but with God. Just as the Children of Israel all as one covenanted with God, so to are these becoming one. And just as in the days of the prophets it is God who will be the primary worker in the covenant. He will use them to break each other down, strip them bare, and then He will bring forth a glorious; one. Indeed, the last day for them will not so much be a funeral as a resurrection. One will, before the other, slip into glory, made entirely new. How many, sadly, do not reach this day? How many when coming to the corner on the steps, reaching the crisis, refused to die, and instead turned and descended?
I enjoy a good argument as much as the next man, possibly even more so. But I wonder when dying on the mole hill of, “marriage could be a good way to image the trinity to the world,” we have perhaps completely missed scaling the Himalayas of the Gospel. In complementarian circles there is a growing tendency to agree and divide over minutiae completely forgetting to train couples in practical righteousness. So, yes wives submit to your husbands, and husbands take responsibility and submit to Christ. And in all of this you may be presenting a good if flawed trinitarian picture to the world. However, I would think that the best way to present the strength of the entire complementarian enterprise is to have marriages that are practical presentations of the, “further up, further in,” lived out Gospel.
Therefore a practical question, that I am pretty sure I am stealing from Paul Tripp, is in the heat of an argument, the crisis, the crux of the step; ask, “I am I arguing for the glory of God or the glory of myself?” The thought error that is common when we consider laying down our lives for our spouse is to take it in stark, literal, terms, as if we are going to go out in a home invasion scenario guns a-blazing. But what if instead it were harder and shockingly more mundane. To simply lay down our individual lives, desires, wants so that the marriage can move up the next step. Or to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man to marriage, he bids him come and die.”
*Screwtape Letters XXII