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The Christian Art of Marriage

In the first years of marriage, I (Toby Coley) didn’t have a clue what being a husband meant in practice. All the theology, psychology, and self-help books in the world are just formal training without practical experience. The Ancients believed that to master any art a student needed natural ability (being drawn to that art), formal training (being taught and learning about the art, including imitating other masters), and practical experience (we have to do it ourselves). Our culture tells us that we’re supposed to keep the flame of passion alive, be romantic, and if we ever fall “out” of love, rekindle the flame elsewhere.

You don’t need me to say that’s not a Christian approach to the art of marriage. Fidelity to one spouse for life has been God’s plan from the beginning (Genesis 2:18-24). I want to share an insight I gained early on in my own marriage (now 15 years later) for how to develop the art of love from the inside—and it is an art. Being prone to romantic feeling, but not creative in the execution, I bought a book my first year of marriage titled The RoMANtic’s Guide. Insert cringe at cheesy title. My wife didn’t know about this book until now. I borrowed and adapted some of the author’s recommendations in those first few years, but one idea struck me as particularly relevant to Christian marriage so I copied it and pinned it to my office wall: it’s titled “The Most Important Gift to Your Children.” “What could that be?” I wondered.

The answer is not quality time, attention, comfort, happiness, or security—though all of these certainly help your children. The most important, the authors says, is to love their mother. To reallylove their mother. St. Paul tells us that we must love our wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25-33). The author of the guide made the point that our children’s sense of worth is often bound up with the way their parents treat one another. We’ve all heard the sage advice to “support your spouse in public,” but I want you to consider this: it is even more important to support your spouse in private—at home, when no guests are present.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis makes a distinction between public and domestic courtesy, an argument he elaborates on in his essay, “The Sermon and the Lunch.” His main point is relevant: we should practice a courtesy “more subtle, sensitive, [and] deep” in private than we do in public. This affection (Gk. storgé), he argues, “at its best wishes neither to wound nor to humiliate, nor to domineer.” When assisted by grace, we can practice self-denial, humility, patience, and goodness within the turmoil of domestic disagreement. How we treat our spouses reflects our inner dispositions, our progress on the road to full charity. And our children see this and imitate it. Do you want your daughters to expect relationships in which the man uses, abuses, and humiliates them? Of course not, so let us not treat our wives that way. Do you want your sons to be taken advantage of, domineered over, not able to fulfill their role as Spiritual head of the family? If not, then let us not treat our husbands this way. We should be different from our schizophrenic world, a world that says it is desirable to treat women as objects in the way they dress, in advertising, and in pornography, while also claiming the women should be treated equally in everything else. In a sense, the world has got its way, now both men and women are objectified for their purchasing power and political persuasion.

But that’s not the Christian duty of love (agape)—an act of the will that aims at the other person’s good for his/her own sake. Marriage offers an incarnation of God’s love for us in the person of another human being; it is the training ground for that death of self and fullness of life that is required for union with God. Husbands, present your wives to your children in private and to the public in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she might be holy. Not that she is currently without blemish yet, but that Christ sees her as she will be and we must also. Wives, submit everything to your husband as to the Lord, not so he can “lord” it over you or dominate you, but so that he can present you in splendor and give himself up for you. No one finds it easy to give of him/herself when the spouse wants to take instead of receive. Lewis admit that this “crown” of authority in marriage is one of thorns. “The real danger is not that husbands may grasp the [this crown] too eagerly; but that they will allow or compel their wives to usurp it.” Is this self-denial through charity easy? Of course not, we all fall down. Over the course of marriage, the overarching direction is what matters in our practice of the art of marriage, not a single failure, even if that failure recurs and each day we begin again.

What is the take home point? Husbands and wives really love (Gk. agape) your spouse—in private, not just in public. This does not mean mere displays of affection, or overt romantic gifts and gestures, but cooking breakfast, wrangling children, agreeing that its ok to disagree and still respect one another, standing still and giving your full attention when s/he is speaking instead of multitasking, sitting down and completing the budget together. Take every little thing captive for Christ. For the sake of the infinite worth of your children, for the sake of the body of Christ, for the sake of your own sanctification. If you’re not married, you can support those who are by redirecting conversations that have turned to bashing a spouse’s failures or laughing at limitations. Prepare your own heart and mind for how you will talk with and about those you love. Let us give our loved ones the best Valentine’s Day present we could ever give: let us love our spouse as Christ loves him/her.

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