Inside a real marriage there will be conflicts rooted in gender differences that are seismic. It is not simply that the other gender is different; it's that his or her differences make no sense. And once we come up against this wall of incomprehensibility, the sin in our heart tends to respond by assigning moral significance to what is simply a deep temperamental difference. Men see women's need for "interdependence" as sheer dependence, and women see men's need for independence as pure ego. Husbands and wives grow distant from one another because they allow themselves to engage in a constant, daily drumbeat of thoughts of inner disdain for the gendered difference of their spouse.
But Jesus gives both a pattern and a power to change all of this.
The Cross and the Other
Christ embraced the ultimate "Other"—sinful humanity. He didn't exclude us by simply consigning us to judgment. He embraced us by dying on the cross for our sins. To love the Other, especially an Other that is hostile, entails sacrifice. It means sometimes experiencing betrayal, rejection, and attacks. The easiest thing is to leave. But Jesus did not do that. He embraced and loved us, the Other, and brought us into a new unity with himself.
Knowing this kind of gracious, sin-covering love gives believers in the gospel of Christ the basis for an identity that does not need superiority and exclusion to form itself. In Christ we have a profound security. We know who we are in him, and that frees us from the natural human impulse to despise anyone who is significantly different from us. This enables us to embrace rather than exclude those who differ from us, and that especially goes for our spouse, with all his or her mysterious and often infuriating differences.
This is one part of the glory of marriage, in the biblical conception. Two people of different sexes make the commitment and sacrifice that is involved in embracing the Other. It is often painful and always complicated, but it helps us grow and mature in ways no other experience can produce, and it brings about deep unity because of the profound complementarity between the sexes. This has nothing to do with who brings home the biggest salary or makes the most sacrifices to care for the children. The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop. The external details of a family's division of labor may be worked out differently across marriages and societies. But the tender, serving authority of a husband's headship and the strong, gracious gift of a wife's submission restore us to who we were meant to be at creation.
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