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What Does It Do for Me?

"Seinfeld" moments and the humble—and noble—act of serving

On a "Seinfeld" rerun I watched tonight, Jerry and a girlfriend, played by Courteney Cox, pretend to be married in order to get a discount on dry cleaning. Afterwards, in the coffee shop, they toast each other with orange juice.

"To my beautiful wife."

"To my adoring husband."

"Adoring? What about handsome?"

"I like adoring."

"Adoring's good for you, but what does it do for me?"

None of the characters on that show ever found a relationship that lasted. I'm not sure if the writers meant to make such a profound point, but it comes through in almost every episode: People who live by "What does it do for me?" are revealed as shallow, self-absorbed, and comically pathetic.

Twenty years ago this June, Lauren and I vowed to love each other for the rest of our lives. As starry-eyed lovers barely out of our teens, we eagerly promised to comfort and encourage each other, to cherish and serve each other. No problem. Those early years together, we couldn't wait to serve each other: breakfast in bed (well, lots of meals in bed, actually); little gifts; love notes left around the house.

Then we had three kids. Then jobs demanded more. Then our kids became teenagers. Too often lately, all of our energy gets used just keeping up with each day's demands rather than truly keeping those wedding promises. To be honest, there are those "Seinfeld" moments when I silently ask: "What does it do for me?"

Take today, for instance. I had a crummy day at work. For reasons real and imagined, I felt unappreciated and slighted by my bosses. My entire 50-minute commute home was a pity party: telling myself I deserve better than this …. wondering if it's time to think about a career change.

At home, no one was in the greatest of moods, either. Lauren's had a rough week with the kids home for summer break, bored and lying around the house. They've been less than respectful to her at times, and she's tired of it. She knows she deserves better.

Our pity parties collided at dinner, where the two of us just looked glum and didn't say much. The kids took the cue and excused themselves early. Each of us had hoped, I think, that the other would lift our spirits and show a little appreciation. But that wasn't happening. Sometimes, when you've given and given and no one knows or cares, you just want to come home and take. And then, when no one's giving at home, you feel even more slighted.

It's no wonder so many couples bail out of marriage after a few years. "What does it do for me?" is burned into our human nature, and the answer isn't always obvious. I work with college students, many of whom have been hurt by parents whose commitment to each other turned out to be considerably less than a lifetime. Some of these students are preparing for their own weddings with a mix of excitement and fear. They're worried they won't be happy because that special someone won't meet all their needs. Others want no part of marriage as they've seen it modeled in their homes.

So what's the secret? Twenty years into a lifelong commitment, what keeps us crazy about each other most days? And what sustains us on those other days when we just annoy each other with our shortcomings?

Tonight, about 9 o'clock, I took a break from writing to fix a bowl of vanilla ice cream. I added two spoons and took it into the other room where Lauren was watching a movie.

"Want to share?" I asked.

Her eyes brightened. "Sure."

We didn't have to say anything. We quickly finished the ice cream, I gave her a kiss, and went back out to the computer. It was nothing, but the whole evening's mood changed.

She's done the same for me countless times: little acts of service, such as mowing the lawn while I'm at work because she knows I hate giving up half a Saturday to do it. Or offering a back rub when she's tired and really would rather just go to sleep.

It's choosing servanthood when you feel like being served. In Philippians 2:3-4 the apostle Paul tells us to "Do nothing from 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."

From a "Seinfeld" point of view, that makes no sense. Our first inclination is to ask, "What does it do for me?" The amazing thing is, mutual servanthood makes marriage work. It makes marriage last. It makes marriage exciting. I think it's what Paul meant when he wrote, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).

It's not easy, nor is it natural. In fact, husbands or wives who choose servanthood often get criticized as being doormats—by the very people destined to become part of the divorce statistics.

I read recently about a wedding where the groom, instead of the traditional garter ceremony, brought out a basin and washed his bride's feet. That guy might have freaked out the wedding guests, but he had it right—even if the equivalent real-life act won't be so easy after the honeymoon.

It's all so simple, and yet so hard sometimes. We lapse easily into "Seinfeld" mode, before we remember that's not what brought us this far. On our best days, we don't worry about how much love we'll get, but instead we find excitement in looking for how much we can humbly give away.

That wouldn't make for much of a sitcom. Twenty years tells us it makes for a pretty good marriage, though.

Jim Killam, an MP regular contributor, teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He is co-author of When God is the Life of the Party (NavPress) and Rescuing the Raggedy Man (Xulon Press). He and his wife, Lauren, live in Illinois with their three teenagers.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Marriage; Selfishness; Service
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2005
Posted September 12, 2008

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