In 1989, I began my sophomore year at Baylor University. My best friend, Kevin, had been hired to be a resident assistant (RA) in the dorms that year and had left our shared state of South Carolina a few weeks prior to attend RA camp and receive his training for the job. I soon followed, arriving at school a week before classes began, so that I could settle into my dorm room early and hang out with my friend.
During Kevin’s off hours, we attended movies, ate together, stayed up late talking, and began the gradual transition to playing racquetball (due to Kevin’s disdain at barely losing in tennis to me most days). The campus was relatively quiet that week, and when Sunday rolled around we stood at the back of the church’s sanctuary, hopelessly looking for a familiar face to sit with. Eventually, Kevin spotted two girls across the sanctuary that he had met at RA camp and suggested we sit with them. I agreed and we walked over. Kevin entered the row first, placing me at one end of the four of us. I later found out that this was a strategic move so that he could sit by the girl he wanted to. But it created a slight awkwardness, so that when I was introduced to the cute brunette at the opposite end, I had to lean forward to casually wave at the woman who would become my wife.
At the time, I was 19 years old. In a remarkable tribute to her patience, we didn’t wed until I was 26. This summer we will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. As with all good marriages, my love for my wife has only grown over time. She has taught me more about love and how to express it than I could have ever gleaned from any self-help book or psychological text. In the beginning, my attempts at love were juvenile at best, because my goal was to keep her happy. Whether I bought her gifts, helped out around the house, resolved conflicts with her, or planned a romantic time together, most of my actions originated from an unwritten list of “marital commandments” that I had developed over our seven-year dating life. I believed that as long as I followed these rules, she would know she was loved and I would be a good husband. No one told me to follow these rules, least of all her (lectures and nagging have never been her method of expressing expectations or desires), but over time I realized that although my rules were helpful, they used my wife as a means to an end. Whether that end was friendship, love, companionship, or sex, the primary purpose of these rules was to make myself happy by maintaining her happiness. It looked like love because it followed the old adage “Nothing makes me happier than to see you happy.” It felt like love because it could be thoughtful and self-sacrificing. But in reality, it was a self-centered attempt to validate myself as a husband and a man, rather than elevating the worth of my wife.
As anyone who has stood before the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s statue of David can attest, there is only a certain amount of time one can stand in the presence of pure beauty before that pristine work of art measures all of a person’s imperfections and forces their eyes to the floor. Their lifelong attempt to create a masterpiece of themselves lay shattered on the ground, leaving only a stupendous awe at their own arrogance and a long forgotten humility. So it is, I learned, in marriage.
When I stopped trying to fulfill a list of random rules and began trying to daily exalt my wife’s innate value, I began to feel ashamed at competing for my wants and unworthy to have her in my life. I continued doing the same behaviors I had always done in the relationship but these expressions of love no longer exchanged her happiness for what I wanted. Now, my love expressed itself by responding to the sweetness of who she is. Her servant’s heart. Her strong will. Her artistic talent. Her sense of justice. Her self-confidence. And, of course, her loving, compassionate nature. I loved her out of joy because I had encountered her beauty. And I realized that if I desired to maintain my connection with the power of that beauty, four principles must be daily enacted.
I must follow the leadership of Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” (Php. 2:6) This means that I move from a willingness to act and actually sever myself from those things that prohibit intimacy with my beloved. I must conduct surgery on my life and permanently remove specific things so that our connection can grow and thrive.
For instance, when my wife and I were dating, she had the opportunity to meet one of my childhood friends. I had known him since I was four years old, and although we had drifted apart over the years, he had still asked me to be his best man at his wedding when the time came. I had gladly accepted, considering it an honor to stand by him at such a momentous time. But during the weekend of the wedding, my friend allowed a part of himself to come out that truly offended both me and my wife. So when it came time for my wife and me to marry, she made it clear that she did not want him in the wedding party. At that moment, I had a choice to make. I could count my friendship “something to be grasped” or I could release it for the joy of a deeper relationship with my bride. I chose the latter. Other people I have known have had to make similar choices for the sake of their marriages, severing things such as Facebook, ex-girlfriends, their “right” to privacy with their cell phone, the consumption of alcohol, or specific words from their vocabulary. In each instance, though, they did so because they valued a deeper connection with their spouse more than the thing they had to remove from their life. In other words, desire for a spouse is most clearly articulated in the things we willingly give up for the other person. Just as Christ permanently removed the distance that separated Him from man (Heb. 4:15-16), so we are to sever all that separates us from connection with our spouse.
Too often, when someone brings up the necessity of sacrifice for a marriage, a vibrant hypocrisy blooms within our heart. Like the seed cast upon the rocky soil, we receive the truth with joy, but our hearts are shallow and cannot endure the burden of suffering that is necessary to develop a sacrificial life. Deep inside we know that we cannot be authentic people if we choose to believe but do not act, yet when it comes to sacrifice, we agree with the principle but abhor the practice. Like all passivity, this choice prohibits us from participating in the marriage. It is as if we have told ourselves that the people in the stands are more important than the players on the field, or the game itself.
It is easy to confuse the principles of severing and sacrifice. Both require that you give up something valuable for your relationship. Both are painful to practice. And both clearly demonstrate that you cannot wrap your fists around the treasures of your heart and expect there to be any space left for your wife. But whereas severing is permanently cutting things out of your life that prevents intimacy or closeness with your spouse, sacrifice is temporarily giving up something prized in your life for the long-term benefit of your beloved. Severing things out of your life may not be a daily or weekly practice. Sacrifice is. Sacrifice is done as a demonstration of how much you value your spouse and the first step to communion with them. While severing could be done for selfish reasons, sacrifice insists that your relationship with your spouse is more important than yourself.
Absent the spiritual discipline of fasting or a serious mental illness, a person does not neglect to nourish his own body. In the morning, we take a shower, put on deodorant, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, and drive safely to work (taking care of the physical needs). Later, we read the news, check our emails, keep current with professional developments, and if we’re insightful, try to learn how we can improve ourselves (nourishing the mental needs). Later, we may romance our wife, guide/discipline our children, empathize with the victories (or defeats) of our favorite sports teams, and seek to perform well enough at work to be recognized in some fashion (nourishing our emotional needs). Finally, we may open our Bible, pray (either by ourselves or with our wife and kids), listen to sermons, seek God’s will, and pursue how to practically apply scripture to our busy lives. Or, if you are an atheist, you may seek to live in the moment, find symmetry and balance in healthy life choices, appreciate the transcendent nature of aesthetics and beauty, and press towards the goal of eventual self-actualization so that something significant may be left behind to the next generation (meeting our spiritual needs). Whatever method we choose, though, the nourishment of one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs are often found in between the lines of life, hiding among the commonplace, habitual patterns we have developed. But regardless of the permutation, all of these efforts evolve out of the primordial ooze of self-love.
It is no surprise, then, that we are a species whose highest priority is self-preservation and whose first allegiance is to self-exaltation. This dynamic works great when we depend on others to take care of us, or as we attempt to assert our independence to take care of ourselves. But when we choose to include another person into our lives and establish an interdependent, loving relationship, everything changes. Now, we must love our spouse as much as we love our own body. We must seek to nourish her physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs by intertwining them with personal sacrifice. For if we don’t, if we only give mental assent to the principle of sacrifice without invoking the practice of it, we block connection with her on all four of these levels and demonstrate that we are more invested in ourselves than the relationship with or the person of our wife. This may be love, but it is only self-love. Sacrifice cannot be done successfully if the focus is on one’s self. The ultimate goal must be for the betterment of one’s wife. To deny ourselves something temporarily, so that she can become what she needs to become permanently. Just as Christ gave Himself up for the Church so that she might be without spot, wrinkle, or blemish, so a husband should prioritize and sacrifice for his wife. (Eph.5:25-28)
When men think of romance, they often envision some grand gesture that requires a lot of money, a candlelit dinner, and a dash of creativity. But the reality is that romance is not found in the infrequent weekend getaway. Instead, romance is in the details. It is understanding the struggles and triumphs of her day to day life. Following up on these things out of genuine concern for her well-being. And identifying and meeting the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs she has to the best of your ability. In these ways, she will continually feel safe, loved, joyful, and inspired to respect you in reciprocal ways.
But serving is not done as a quid pro quo. Serving is done without expectation of repayment. If you serve your wife in order to receive something from her, you are manipulating her emotions so that you may consume your pleasures. This is not loving, and it is definitely not serving. Rather, it is self-exaltation and self-centeredness in its most naked form. When you forget that it is better to give than to receive, the end goal of your good behaviors becomes yourself. Like a toddler grasping onto those things that make you happy, you yell, “MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE!” until others resign themselves to the reality that they will never be a priority to you.
If you are like most people I have met, it is not your intention to make your partner feel lonely, angry, bitter, or resentful. But this is always the result of self-serving behavior. To correct this pattern, you must follow the instruction to do nothing out of selfish ambition but in all things to consider others better than yourself. This often means getting outside of your comfort zone, and it must be intentional because it is counterintuitive. Service means continually searching for what you can do for them. It is an active thing, not a thinking thing. You cannot serve your spouse sitting on your rear end. However, before you serve, you must pose some questions to yourself, such as:
- How can I adjust my tone of voice so that I do not come across as condescending?
- What can I do to make her day easier today?
- Is there any way I can assist her or give her aid?
- What would she like?
- What does she need?
- How can I help her accomplish her dreams?
- How can I be her friend?
- What do I need to do to earn the right to speak truth into her life? How can I be the type of friend she willingly receives wounds from? (Pr. 27:5-6)
- How can I model Christ to her, intentionally taking on the work of the lowliest person in the flowchart, so that she may receive what she needs (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically)? (John 13:1-20)
- What is my energy going into? Is it about building up my own name? Or what people think about me? How can I demonstrate that I am serving her not to seek the favor of men? That I realize that if I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ? (Gal. 1:10)
- How can I demonstrate the truth “Love does not seek its own” in my marriage today? (1 Cor. 13:5)
- How can I defend what is precious about her before I defend what is precious about myself? (Php. 2:3-8)
- How can I trust her with my heart? To demonstrate that I no longer own the responsibility of defending myself, but understand that that responsibility lies in the hands of God, who demonstrates His love towards me through her?
- How can I, like Christ, put aside my glory and worth, in order to serve the one I love? (Php. 2:6)
- How can I let her know today that she is valued? That her heart is safe within my hands?
Don’t be a person who does nothing. Don’t be just a consumer. Give. Serve. For where sacrifice creates an opportunity for another person to have their needs met, service provides the conduit, or bridge, for meeting those needs.
Finally, ensure that you continually shelter your spouse. This may be expressed by telling your kids that they will not talk to their mother in that tone of voice, or you may come crashing through jungle, a string of artillery crossing your toned pectoral muscles, holding your machete high in one hand, and yelling across your shoulder, “Stay behind me!” as you attack the oncoming horde. Regardless of the external dangers that may attack her, though, you must make sure that the one person you ALWAYS protect her from…is yourself. You know her better than anyone. She has entrusted you with her past. You have witnessed her flaws and her failures. You know where the insecurities lie. More than anyone else in her life you hold the keys to wounding her heart. Therefore, hold your tongue. Honor her. Value her. Respect how vulnerable she is to you. And impose boundaries upon yourself so that she experiences you as the safest person in her life.
To shelter your wife means you are willing to take the proverbial bullet for her. It is not the absence of fear that you need. Rather, it is action in the presence of fear. It is understanding that you may be asked to give up everything for her, to be temporarily injured so that she can escape, or to put her needs above your own so that she may flourish. In other words, this final pillar is the culmination of all the other acts of selflessness.
But one fact cannot be ignored: sheltering requires suffering. You cannot be a shield for someone and expect to not get wounded. This is an inescapable facet of being another person’s protector and provider. And how do you best protect your spouse? How do you daily communicate to them that their heart is safe within your hands? The answer lies in the one territory that most men try to avoid — feelings. Sheltering your spouse is all about protecting her heart. There may be times when she requires you to protect her body, but the essence of sheltering, whether enacted physically, verbally, spiritually, or emotionally is that you willingly, intentionally put yourself in harm’s way so that she can be safe.
A good marriage consists of having both faith and trust. Faith is assurance in what you cannot see. Trust is confidence in what you can see. Your wife may have faith that you will protect her, if necessary, but she will not trust you to do this until she sees it in action. This, of course, begs the question can a person have faith in whom they cannot trust? In other words, if I protect my wife from other people, but not from my own words or actions, can she have faith in me as her protector? If I won’t shelter her from myself, can she trust me with her hopes, fears, or dreams?
In Hebrews 11 faith and promises are linked closely together. In fact, it is impossible to have the former without the latter. In the beginning, you promised her on your wedding day to love and cherish her. But afterward, what were the promises you made to your spouse? If you established the habits of severing, sacrificing, serving, and sheltering you have made an unspoken vow to behave in a specific manner towards her. This is a promise they can both trust and have faith that such habits will continue. But if you are a selfish consumer, if you only look out for yourself, or place your needs above hers, you have made a different vow and that promise will be validated as well. Whatever the answers are to these questions, your actions have created a specific emotional environment within your marriage.
If this environment is boring, shelter her heart by pursuing her intellectually and emotionally. Show her that you are more interested in her person than her appearance.
If the environment is exhaustion, shelter her by supporting, encouraging, and picking up the slack. Be a person who takes initiative, instead of one who waits for instruction.
If the environment is monotonous, shelter her by introducing spontaneity. Let there be fun again in your relationship. Try something new. Go on dates. Not everything has to be planned or logical.
If the environment is betrayal or mistrust, shelter her by expecting nothing but giving everything. She must grow to experience you as a man of new promises. A person in whom she can put her faith and trust. One who will do what he says because he believes that she and the relationship are worth it. One who will look out for her and the marriage before satisfying himself. According to Dr. Gary Smalley, in his book The DNA of Relationships, the way to create an emotionally safe environment in a marriage is by incorporating 5 principles: 1) Respect the wall 2) Honor others 3) Suspend judgment 4) Value differences 5) Be trustworthy (i.e., respect the other person’s incredible value and incredible vulnerability)
For twenty years I have tried to uphold this “house of intimacy” with the four pillars of selflessness: sever, sacrifice, serve, and shelter. I have not been perfect at it (and I continually try to improve) but the continual practice of these principles have kept me close to my wife and in constant connection with her unfading beauty. It has taught me what it means to lay down my life for someone and how to practically apply the rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Lk. 6:31)
But recently, as I sat near the back of the sanctuary at church and listened to the sermon, the Lord said to me, “Ok. You know how to love your wife. But do you love me like that?”
“Are you trying to save your life? Or are you willing to lose it for my sake? (Mt. 16:25) Are you willing to sever yourself from all that you have in order to gain intimacy with me? (Lk. 14:33)”
“Are you presenting your body as a living sacrifice to me? (Rom. 12:1) Are you living your life in such a way that whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you do not hinder others from seeing the perfections of Christ through you? (1 Cor. 10:31)
“Are you willing to go where I call you and to do what I ask of you, even if it costs you personal hardship or is outside of your comfort zone? (Php. 1:21; 2 Cor. 11:24-30)”
“Are you willing to protect my name, to not be ashamed of me, regardless of the cost to yourself? (Mk. 8:38)”
“Do you love me…really?”
The volley of questions floored me.
It was true. I had heard the verse “Love the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” but I had never applied it. For years, I had stood in the presence of someone more humbling than art and more valuable than my wife, and I had failed to see the inadequacies of myself.
Suddenly, the revelation hit me: Just as I love my wife by exalting her above myself, so I must also love God. I cannot claim to love if I do not practice self-denial. I cannot have a relationship if I do not die to myself. Christ once said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” Up until now, I had always thought that if I obeyed enough of the “rules,” then I could demonstrate how well I loved God. But obedience is not the cause of love. It is the effect. As with my wife, severing, sacrificing, serving, and sheltering must extract all of me so that I may experience all of Christ.
Loving, I thought, is exalting.
And as this last thought danced across the neurons of my brain, something moved in my periphery. Turning my head, I saw a figure leaning forward and staring across the pride, the dreams, and the fears that had kept us from one another for so long. To my delight, He was smiling and casually waving hello.