Every day, millions of couples wake up and evaluate their marriages by asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), "Am I happier today than I was yesterday?" But I think there's a better and healthier question to ask. Actually, it's more of a prayer: "God, how can I love my spouse today like she (or he) has never been loved?"
You know what I've found? This is a prayer God loves to answer, in very practical ways. He delights in finding someone willing to be his agent to fulfill this quest. This prayer has the added benefit of creating an environment for the soul satisfaction that comes from sacrificial service.
One morning I prayed this prayer and shortly afterward felt as though I needed to take my daughter to her physical therapy session that afternoon. Normally, my wife, Lisa, takes on this four-hour task, and my day was packed with work responsibilities. I wanted to argue the point, but the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I became convinced God wanted me to do this—even though it would blow a hole through my work schedule.
When I mentioned my plans to Lisa, her response was a tepid, "Okay, whatever."
I was expecting something a little heartier, such as, "You know, I could search the world over and not find such a generous, loving man as you, one willing to give up his work time so that I can have an afternoon off." But I'd already made the offer, so I was stuck.
As the morning wore on, Lisa began to feel ill; she actually took a nap after lunch, something she almost never does. Then her sister called and mentioned that she was coming to visit from out of town. We'd recently moved into our house and none of Lisa's siblings had seen it—so Lisa went on a tear to get the house ready for the next day.
When I prayed that morning about loving Lisa, and God answered with a practical suggestion, neither Lisa nor I knew she was going to become ill—but God knew. Neither Lisa nor I knew her sister would call about an unexpected, last-minute visit. But God did. And he wanted to love my wife through me by removing a major time commitment from her day.
God had gently led me into what I believe is the mark of Christian marriage: sacrificial service.
Spouse equals servant?
What does it really mean to be a husband or a wife? In biblical terms, I believe both "husband" and "wife" are synonyms for "servant."
The apostle Paul talks about the importance of servanthood when he writes: "Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:1). Later, in that same chapter, Paul brings that sacrificial service theme into a marriage context. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …" (5:25). Paul states clearly that our love as husbands must cost us something if it's to rise to the standard of biblical love and marriage. That's why I thought it sounded just like God when he asked me to give up an entire afternoon to serve my wife.
An accurate description of the wife's call to service comes from her creation: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18).
What does "help" mean, other than, in some way, to serve? Genesis reveals a man who was created with an acute vulnerability. He isn't self-sufficient; he needs someone to come alongside him, to live this life with him. Being able to help assumes, in one sense, that you have something the person you're helping lacks!
In God, we have an excellent example, for the Bible describes God as our helper: "My father's God was my helper" (Exodus 18:4); "He (the Lord) is your shield and helper" (Deuteronomy 33:29); "You have been my helper" (Psalm 27:9).
Can there be a higher calling for us as Christ-followers than to serve? And God places us within marriage to learn the importance of serving—by giving us someone to serve every day.
In marriage, we are called to be each other's servant. But rather than seeing sacrificial service as our society sees it—something to avoid as we look out for "me first"—God places a high priority on it. In fact, Christ calls himself the sacrificial servant!
Serving or helping our spouse can take different forms, but it's always motivated by the other person's good. To willingly assume the role of mate means we are pledging to spend a good deal of effort and time on the welfare of our husband or wife.
How often do we wake up and think, How can I help my husband today? or How am I going to love my wife today in such a way that it's costing me something?
In both instances, marriage tutors us in one of the most fundamental Christian disciplines: service.
The ultimate servant
Jesus lived a selfless life: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28). And Paul says a selfless life is the essence of faith for Jesus' followers. He urges us to do nothing (and that would certainly include marriage) "out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4). In this, Paul is simply calling us to emulate Christ, who, though he was "in very nature God," "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant."
To be a Christian is to be a servant. It's not sufficient merely to voice our assent to a few choice doctrines. We're called to act in such a way that we put others above ourselves. Marriage is one of God's primary schools to teach us this vital, soul-stretching truth.
It's precisely this servant-call that makes marriage so beneficial spiritually, and so difficult personally. When I asked my wife to marry me, my decision was based almost entirely on what I thought she'd bring to the marriage. She looked beautiful; we had fun together; she loved the Lord. And my suspicion is that her thoughts were running in the same direction: Can this guy support me? Do I find him attractive? Would he be a good father?
Be honest: didn't you get married largely because you believed your life would be better living with this person than without him or her? Our motivations for marrying are often selfish. But regardless of why we got married, once the ceremony is over, if we want to enter a truly Christian marriage we have to stop evaluating our spouse and start evaluating ourselves with the pertinent question, "How can I serve my mate?"
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote "Christian marriage is marked by discipline and self-denial … Christianity does not therefore depreciate marriage, it sanctifies it." To sanctify fully the marital relationship, we must live it together as Christ lived his life—embracing the discipline of sacrifice and service as a daily practice. As Christ gave his body for us, we are to lay down our energy, bodies, and lives for others, beginning with our spouse.
So if we want a truly Christian marriage, we must stop obsessing over the world's favorite question: "Am I happier today than I was yesterday?" and start praying the prayer: "How can I love my spouse today like he's never been loved?"
Just imagine how your marriage might change if, before your mate returns home from work this evening, you spent some time asking God that question, and listening for his response. The answer might be practical: take over a chore, say something encouraging, offer a back or foot rub. Or it might be romantic, or over-the-top creative, or generous, or simple.
Ask God to help you. Partner with him to build and encourage the person with whom you've chosen to spend the rest of your life.
When we focus on what we can do, it's amazing how little time we have left to become consumed by our disappointments. And along the way, we'll become a little more like the loving One who gave himself so generously, so selflessly, and so sacrificially, for us.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.