A really good and important question comes to us today from an anonymous husband. “Dear Pastor John, I have been following your podcast ‘religiously’ for the past 6 months. As a backsliding believer it has played a significant role in bringing me back to God and to serving him, albeit in much weakness and stumbling. I am ever thankful. My marriage has suffered much due to me neglecting my wife in many ways over the past 22 years of our marriage. Currently it is teetering on the brink of collapse and it has reached the point where it is completely at God’s mercy and is proving to be the biggest struggle in my rekindled newfound faith and relationship with God. I wake up many mornings despairing that my marriage is beyond repair and I struggle to rejoice in the new mercies that the new morning is bringing to me. My wife has given up on me and I cannot blame her. My question is this: How is marriage, like mine, which is so hard to pull off, a model of Christ’s covenant love for his church? Can a hard marriage model Christ, or only easier ones?”
First, welcome back. Welcome home to Jesus. And I have prayed that, even though it feels hopeless, it won’t be hopeless. That is my prayer. Let me read the text that he is assuming; namely. Ephesians 5:22–26 about marriage as the picture or the model of Christ and the church that he is concerned about.
“Hard marriages that persevere in faithfulness against all odds tell a great truth about Christ and his church.”
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.
And then, just about five verses later, he puts the twist on it: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” — that is a quote from Genesis 2:24. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” So, marriage is designed by God to be a parable or a drama or picture of the covenant love between Christ and the church, the bride of Christ.
Now, I wonder if he really means to ask the question in just this way. He says, “Can a hard marriage model Christ, or only easier ones?” Well, the answer to that is easy. Yes. Whether a marriage is easy or hard is not what undermines the testimony to the world about Christ and his church. There are plenty of stresses between Christ and the church, and it is all the church’s fault, not Christ’s. What communicates something false about Christ and his church is when a marriage covenant is treated as broken, because the covenant between Christ and his church is never broken.
Hard, hard marriages that persevere in faithfulness, year in and year out, against all odds, tell a great truth about Christ and his church. The blood-bought new covenant will never be broken — ever. That is what is different. That is what is new about the new covenant over the old covenant. He secures its permanence by his blood. And that newness is why Jesus raised the standards of faithfulness in marriage above the standards of the Old Testament law.
Now, I would go a step further. If a faithful believer sees his marriage unraveling, he or she can tell the truth about Christ and the church by keeping the covenant, even if the other partner doesn’t. That is what is new and radical in the ideal that Jesus has lifted up to model the new covenant. And then I would add another crucial reminder. Marriage is only one of the many ways that the truth of Christ is shown in the world. A believer whose marriage is destroyed and no longer presents a parable of covenant love, that believer can show the worth of Christ in dozens of other ways that God has appointed. And one of those ways is how he or she treats people in that horrific process of dissolution. Christ’s all-satisfying worth is displayed when we find him sufficient to meet every need so that we have grace to return good for evil to our estranged spouse or children or parents or whoever has made life so hard.
“We display Christ’s worth when we find him sufficient to help us return good for evil to our estranged loved ones.”
It is possible to have failed to glorify Christ in one area and yet, in the very ruins of that failure, to glorify Christ in different ways. In fact, we are all in that situation, aren’t we? Don’t all of us bear the scars of some past failure that we wish we could undo? We can’t. And yet this is the very life with all of its scars, all of its ruins, that Christ intends to redeem and in which he intends to be glorified.
The apostle Paul had been a murderer of Christians and, therefore, lived all his life with the painful consciousness that he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:13, 15). You can hear it in his old age. It still gets him. That was the life God redeemed and in which, not just after which, in which — the painful ruins in which — Paul would glorify him all his remaining days.
So, my answer is that a hard marriage can, indeed, display the covenant-keeping love of Christ and, not only that, a faithful, covenant-keeping spouse after a failed marriage can display the truth of that covenant. And if it looks like there has been complete failure in regard to marriage, God can yet so transform you that, in the ruins of it, he gets glory.