By Al Janssen
If I were creating a hero, I would not have imagined Guido Orefice, the protagonist in the Italian romantic comedy Life Is Beautiful.
Isn’t it ironic that a story where the protagonist loses his life should feel so joyful? Americans rarely notice a foreign film with subtitles, but this movie transcended language and culture because it captured the sacrificial love that all of us, in the deepest corner of our souls, long to experience. Dora didn’t have to get on that train to the gulag, but she gave up her comfortable life to be near her husband and son. Guido literally sacrificed his life for his wife and his son. Both were heroes, and the world celebrated by awarding this film three Academy Awards.
When it comes to depicting a hero, James Bond can’t compare with Guido Orefice. We may think we need a superhero with mighty powers to rescue us from injustice. The people of Israel were looking for a military hero to rescue them from the Roman occupation. But Jesus had a higher mission: to die for His beloved. Is there any love more powerful than that?
Romans 5:12-21 compares the first man, Adam, with the first perfect man, Jesus. It is at their points of greatest danger — for Adam, at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane — that their dramas reach the climax.
Will Adam, after listening to the serpent, accept Eve’s invitation to eat, or will he resist and try to save her?
Will Christ accept His Father’s will and give Himself as the sacrificial lamb for His beloved?
Both Adam and Jesus faced a choice: to heroically sacrifice himself for the good of the bride, or to take the easy way of escape.
The latter is the way of the coward.
The former is the way of the hero.
Adam chose the way of the coward.
Jesus chose the hero’s sacrifice.
Adam’s choice gives me the excuse to take the coward’s path in marriage.
Jesus’ choice provides me with the opportunity to be the hero to my wife.
Having a Christ-like Attitude in Marriage
Why is this significant? Because in life, and especially marriage, I am instructed to have the same mindset as Christ. In Philippians 2:5-8, I might start it this way: "Your attitude toward your spouse should be the same as that of Christ Jesus;
Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!
The phrase "made himself nothing" can also be translated "emptied himself." The selfish man is full of himself. Jesus Christ emptied Himself. A selfish marriage consists of husband and wife demanding their own rights. The heroic marriage reflects Jesus Christ, who gave up His rights as deity. The selfish spouse insists on being served. The humble spouse becomes a servant.
You may have heard many messages on Ephesians 5:22-33 or read explanations in books. It seems ironic that teachings on this passage concentrate on the roles — wives submit, husbands lead. Those roles are certainly there. But I am struck with this fact: Both the husband and wife are instructed to follow the example of Christ! Jesus is the model for both headship and submission.
Take, for example, these words: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord." Our culture hates the word submission. It goes against human nature to be humble and submit to anyone — especially to a husband who may be difficult to respect. Submission is considered demeaning, and in one sense the culture is right. It is demeaning. I read again from Philippians 2:
* Jesus Christ…made himself nothing
* He took the nature of a servant
* He became obedient to the point of death
The most glorious God of creation, submitting to His Father’s will, gave up all His rights and privileges and glory as God. Isn’t that demeaning? Absolutely! But He did it willingly in order to serve a spouse who didn’t deserve His respect. God asks us to do likewise, not for our personal fulfillment, but to reflect His heart. That’s why husband and wife can submit to one another. That’s why a wife can submit to her husband.
A husband also is instructed to follow Christ’s example, for that is how he can truly love his wife. I might paraphrase the instructions of Ephesians 5 to husbands: "Al, give up your rights and be the hero to your wife, just as Christ was the hero to the church and gave Himself up for her."
We know what heroism looks like. From the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save his buddies to the daughter working 16-hour days to care for her aging mother, at the heart of every hero is self-sacrifice — laying down one’s own life or self for another. When God entered human history and sacrificed His life to redeem ours, He was carrying out the most heroic act of all time. In the process, He modeled what it means to have a heroic marriage.
The example of Jesus forces me to make a choice. Will I do what feels good, what I think will make me happy? Or will I do the right thing and take whatever courageous action is necessary for the good of my marriage?
God shows me how to love heroically by the fact that He never gave up on His love for humanity. His marriage was so important that He paid the highest price possible to have it — He sacrificed His life for His bride. Why did Jesus do this? Because doing it made him happy? No! The agony He suffered in Gethsemane conclusively shows how distraught this sacrifice made Him. He endured the suffering for His future happiness. This is the conclusion of Scripture: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2, italics added)
Jesus wanted a bride — the church. He couldn’t have her without being the hero. He didn’t enjoy being the hero, but He did it for the joy He knew would eventually be His.
How to Gain Happiness in Marriage
Is marriage about happiness? Yes, but we don’t gain it by demanding it now. We don’t obtain it by insisting on self-fulfillment in the relationship. Expectations that my spouse will make me happy inevitably lead to disappointment.
The Masterpiece Marriage of God with Israel, of Christ and His beloved church, brings me to this conclusion:
Meaning in marriage is not found by pursuing happiness or self-fulfillment
Meaning in marriage is discovered by practicing self-sacrifice.
How does this play out in daily life? In much the same way it happens for an athlete. If a team wants to win a championship, every player must sacrifice daily by training and following the coach’s instructions.
I have numerous opportunities every day to give up what I want to do and instead serve my wife. In this way, I glorify God because my sacrifice is a reflection of His heart and how He loves His bride. I’ve finally realized that my marriage is satisfying to the degree that I daily sacrifice myself for Jo’s good. What does that mean?
It means biting my tongue when I would rather defend myself against something she said.
It means hugging her when she says she’s feeling tired rather than asking her if she’s taken her vitamins lately.
It’s getting up in the middle of the night when a child cries rather than pretending I don’t hear anything.
It means putting down my reading material and really listening when she wants to talk.
It means taking over some chores when she’s got a hectic day.
It means cleaning the kitchen Sunday evening rather than leaving the mess for her to face on Monday morning.
It means that when I am accidentally exposed to porn while channel surfing in a hotel room far from home, I shut off the television because I won’t allow any impure thoughts to invade my marriage.
God’s Ministry Through Marriage
Marriage is about something bigger than the two of us. Marriage is one of God’s primary means of speaking to the world, and the world does take notice when a man truly loves His wife the way Christ loves His church. An athlete doesn’t enjoy the pain of serious training. But he trains for the future reward of winning. This is the challenge for marriage — to sacrifice my momentary definition of happiness for the long-term good of my spouse, thus reflecting God’s heart and earning His praise, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Marriage becomes a masterpiece when I choose to surrender my selfishness and give myself to my wife. That is a daily challenge. But as hard as it is for me to love as Christ loves, I think wives have a harder job submitting to their husbands as to Christ. I can think of many an evening when I’ve thanked Jo for preparing another wonderful meal, and she has said, "I didn’t feel like fixing dinner tonight." What compelled her to do it? Sure, she knows that her husband and family expect it. But it is also her sacrifice for Christ.
I wish my wife and I could say we succeed in always loving each other sacrificially. Of course, we fail often, but one consolation is that we are in the game. Every athlete knows he can’t be a hero unless he is actually playing in the game. Every day Jo and I have new opportunities to demonstrate sacrificial love, and when we fail, our marriage covenant reminds us that the next day we have another chance to try again to get it right.
Part 1: Happily Ever After?
Part 2: Covenant Marriages
Part 3: Passionate Marrages
Part 4: Fighting Marriages
Part 5: Heroic Marriages
From The Marriage Masterpiece, by Al Janssen, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2001, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.