In six years as a husband, I’ve learned two things about marriage. (In case you’re counting, that’s one thing every three years.) The first is that it forces you to become a better person in ways you wouldn’t have chosen.
Don’t get me wrong. I was no slouch before I met my wife. In fact, I was a diligent self-improver. Once in 2009, and again in 2012, I came very close to having six-pack abs.
Following a breakup in my early twenties, I realized I had to come to grips with my sense of entitlement. Around the same time, I finally caught on that everyone in my grad program was at least as smart as I was—no one was going to hand me a Ph.D. just for showing up. So I learned to work hard instead of skating on natural ability and the advantages of growing up in a home with two teachers who have doctorates in education. By the time I got married, for all I knew, I’d conquered most of the character flaws that had been with me, in some way or other, since my days as a husky jean-wearing twelve year-old.
marriage isn’t convenient
By the time I met my wife at age 28, I honestly believed I was a patient person—nevermind that I literally did whatever I wanted when I wasn’t teaching class. I thought I was emotionally enlightened—nevermind that I simply excused myself from situations that required me to emote anything other than happiness or anger. And I took great pride in the fact that my apartment was always spotless—nevermind that my meals consisted entirely of cheerios or take-out, typically consumed while hovering over the kitchen sink.
So I wasn’t hopeless before I met my wife. But before marriage, the quest for my best self moved at my pace, according to priorities that I set. Everything was clean and convenient.
Marriage, on the other hand, is not convenient. But God didn’t create my wife or the institution of marriage with my convenience in mind. Marriage is about sanctification. It’s about acknowledging personal flaws that I’d be more comfortable ignoring, and reorienting my understanding of self-fulfillment toward a shared horizon.
there’s no such thing as an excellent husband
The second thing I’ve learned about marriage is that there’s no such thing as an excellent husband. There are things that every good husband does and there are things that no good husband does: a good husband remembers his wedding anniversary and his wife’s birthday, and he doesn’t commit adultery. But remembering my anniversary doesn’t make me a good husband, and neither does not committing adultery.
In other words, there’s no universal ‘excellent husband’ checklist. My marriage will not go well if I make a habit of saying, “Well, I earned a paycheck, washed the dishes and took out the trash. I talked to you about your day and how it made you feel. And I’m still undefeated in the adultery department. Check, check and check. I’ll be in my study, nailing down the details of the tribulation-rapture timeline.” That’s just too easy.
I am a good husband only insofar as I am a good husband to my wife, in the context of the life that we share. It’s impossible to be a good husband in the abstract. Beyond minimal guidelines like “say sorry” and “buy flowers,” success as a husband is totally meaningless apart from the unique demands of my particular marriage.
there’s no such thing as an excellent Christian
Following Christ is no different—which is why Scripture likens the relationship between God and his people to the sacrament of marriage.
It’s impossible to be a Christ follower in the abstract. There are things that every excellent Christ follower does and there are things that no excellent Christ follower does. No excellent Christ follower takes a widow’s only coat as collateral for a loan, or refuses to provide refuge to orphans and immigrants. All Christ followers demonstrate our love for God in the way that we care for those who bear his image. And caring for those who bear God’s image is meaningless apart from the unique needs of particular human beings.
I am not a good Christ follower if I’ve made a habit of saying, “Well, I put my tithe in the offering plate. I invited that cashier at the grocery store to church last week. And I’ve taken every opportunity to reiterate exactly where I stand on homosexuality and abortion. Check, check and check. I’ll be down at Starbucks, working on a blog post about the mature manliness of Christ.”
All of that is just too easy. Anyone can donate to a building fund. Anyone can invite strangers to church. It’s a lot harder to put your ambitions on the altar every day and practice a faith that attracts people who know you—a faith that interests those who aren’t Christians and challenges those who are. And railing against homosexuality and abortion to a room full of people who say “Amen” and pat you on the back on their way out the door doesn’t make you a mature man. It certainly doesn’t make you a prophet. Prophets say hard things to the church about people in church.
According to the Gospels, those who didn’t claim to know God received from Christ nothing but kindness, gentleness and truth spoken in unmistakable love. According to the Gospels, Christ rebuked those who claimed to know God and didn’t act like it. According to the Gospels, Christ encountered the moneychangers in the Temple and threw them out, citing Jeremiah’s warning to the religious establishment:
Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever. But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help. Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods that you have not known? Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”? Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.Jeremiah 7:4-11 (CSB); emphasis added.
Church isn’t a hideout for thieves—not because thieves are irredeemable, but because the house that bears God’s name isn’t a safety deposit box for the spoils of injustice. This is echoed in Paul’s admonition to temper our association with immoral people inside the church:
I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? God judges outsiders. Remove the evil person from among you.I Corinthians 5:9-13 (CSB); emphasis added.
Jesus isn’t a cowboy
An alarming number of evangelical males think that since Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, they have license to turn Christianity into some sort of gnostic virility cult. This astonishes me. They’re calling for a return to 1950s-era norms of masculinity—conveniently omitting the fact that we didn’t live through the great depression or kill any Nazis. A lot of them actually drink lattes. Lattes. I cannot imagine a more comfortable mode of human existence than that of a 21st century, latte-drinking John Wayne with a smartphone and nothing better to do than tweet at Beth Moore while his wife folds his laundry.
Surely Christ has called modern man to something more difficult than that. Anyone can pick a persona that he finds interesting and emulate it. Anyone can shoehorn John Wayne into a series of proof-texts. Following Christ is about giving up my power so that the power of God can be perfected in my weakness. Following Christ is about forsaking comfortable notions of manliness for a life of fear and trembling.
Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .