August 26, 2012

Humble Submission, Part 2

So two weeks ago we look at the first six verses of Peter’s words to husbands and wives regarding the defining characteristic of the marriage relationship.  What we discovered is that he draws this characteristic from the pattern of Christ as laid out in 2:11-25.  Jesus’ approach to the world around Him was one of humble submission.  Making the applicational leap, then, marriage runs on humble submission.  In the first six verses we examined a couple of weeks ago Peter focuses his attention on Christian wives.  They were encouraged to humbly submit to their husbands.  We dealt in some detail with what Biblical submission actually looks like over and against the bad cultural parodies we encounter on a daily basis.  Our culture would have us think that submission is simply passively allowing someone who has falsely pronounced themselves our superior do whatever they want to us.  But as we saw, this is not at all what the Bible has in mind when it talks about submission.  And if we take such a cultural image of submission with us when we go to the Bible—as many of us do—it’s no wonder nonbelievers and believers alike have such trouble with texts like these.  Even at the seminary level—in a fairly theologically conservative seminary—I encountered female students who were openly hostile toward this text.  As we saw, though, Biblical submission toward people in our lives is rooted in our deeper submission to Christ in an attempt to follow His pattern of interacting with the world.  It involves seeking to treat the other person as if they are more important than us and to put meeting their needs at the top of our priority list.  There’s nothing passive about this and sometimes seeking to meet a need—which we come to understand by a lot of hard investigation and spiritual discernment—means doing other than what he wants.

As a part of this call to humble submission in marriage, we worked through Peter’s call for women to pursue the true beauty of Christ-like character at the expense of the false ideals actively circulated by our culture.  The vanity driven appeals our culture makes for women to, frankly, hate themselves unless they fit a certain image has destroyed the psyches of countless numbers of women in our society.  As a church, we should be at the forefront of this cultural war proclaiming the truth: the most beautiful women are those who, regardless of how they compare with our broken culture’s empty definition of physical attractiveness, display purity, modesty, humility, and other Christ-like characteristics.  In fact, women who do this become more physically beautifully over time as they radiant the splendor of Christ.

Alright, with a bit of review then in place, let’s turn our attention, as promised, to the guys this morning.  Let me read Peter’s words to us one more time and we’ll dive right in.  “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”

Now, Peter doesn’t say as much to or about the guys here as he does the gals, but I am going to try to make clear that this doesn’t mean we get off any easier.  Peter uses the same Greek word, homoios, as he did when talking to the women, to set the foundation for how men are to treat their wives.  If you’ll remember, this word rooted the behavior of husbands and wives in the humble submission of Christ toward the world.  Now, nowhere in Scripture are husbands told to submit to their wives.  But, Peter already made clear that Christ’s approach to the world was one of submission to authority.  “But my wife has no authority over me!” you might be saying in your heart of hearts.  Yet, the Bible describes marriage as two becoming one flesh.  Your body is her body, as Paul proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 7, and she has authority over her body.  In other words, even though he doesn’t say it, Peter’s saying, “Husbands, submit to your wives.”  So how do we do that?  Take her needs, be they emotional, relational, spiritual, and even physical, all of which are very different from yours, and put them ahead of your own.  “But how do I know what her needs are if she won’t ever really tell me!  It’s like I’m always playing a guessing game.”  Well, have you ever really listened?  Really listened?  She’s got to trust that you really want to know and that you’re going to do something about it before she’s going to open herself up to you.  If you’ve ever broken that trust, you’re going to have to do the hard work of rebuilding it.

There’s a hard truth standing in the way of this guys: for most of us—myself included—we don’t really understand our wives and the kinds of struggles and doubts and insecurities they face on a daily basis.  We just don’t.  And what more, we don’t really try all that hard.  Let me see if an example might help.  When Lisa and I were still early in our marriage (that is, earlier than we are now for those of you who are snickering), when we would drive somewhere, she would routinely lock the doors.  Well, this drove me crazy because I’ve never locked the doors while I’m driving and when we arrived at our destination, I’d go to hop out of the car and the doors would be locked.  I ignored it for a while, but eventually I said something.  I asked why she did it.  Do you know what she said?  She said that given the current rather dark state of our culture, as a woman there’s always a little fear in the back of her mind that someone might try to take advantage of her.  Growing up she’d heard true stories of women who didn’t have their car doors locked, stopped at a red light, and were accosted in some way by a stronger man.  Locking the doors was a way to give herself a bit of security.  I had no idea this kind of thing was in her mind or that of any other woman.  Such a thought as this had never even been on the radar for me.  But then, I’m a guy, so it shouldn’t have been.  I was worried about my convenience while she was worried about security.  I’d have to say that security is a greater need than convenience.  Humble submission in this case was locking the car doors.  Now, out here we don’t do it nearly as much because the specific culture for this area is a little different than that of Denver, but the point is relevant all the same.  Marriage runs on humble submission and seeking to understand our wives takes a good deal of this.

Do you know what else they need even more than you understanding them?  They need our heart.  They need us to share our emotions and feelings with them so they can understand us.  Guys, just like you tend to feel the most personal fulfillment in the physical, she feels it in the emotional and relational.  Now, I know it’s not terribly manly to talk about emotions and feelings, but maybe that’s because our definition of manliness stinks.  And don’t hide behind the lie that you don’t really have any emotions.  Sometimes I like to tell people that my emotional range is about 2 inches wide.  That’s not really true.  It just takes me a long time to process through exactly what emotion I’m feeling such that I could express it to someone else.  By that time the moment in which I needed to share the emotion is long past and rather than risking waking a sleeping giant, I just leave it alone.  I suspect there are more than a few guys in this room who have taken the same approach at least on occasion.  It’s easier to just deny emotions than it is to do the much harder work, for us, of putting words to them in order to share them with someone else.  After all, when we open that much of ourselves to another person, they might not like what they find.  Well men, let’s man up.  Let’s get over ourselves, drop the vanity act, do the hard work of humble submission, and let our wives make the decision as to whether or not they’ll be happy with what they find rather than belittlingly making the decision for them.  She doesn’t need you to think for her, she needs you to love her.  She needs your humble submission.  Marriage runs on humble submission.

Now, here’s a real challenge to this effort: You’ve got to decide if all this is worth your time or not.  Here’s the truth, though: if you’re an honorable man of Christ, it is.  All of this is what Peter means when he tells men to live with their wives in an understanding way.  As the Message puts it: “Be good husbands to your wives.  Honor them, delight in them.”  Guys, do you really delight in your wives?  How about this: do you have some hobby in which you delight?  Come on, we both know you do.  What if you took all the excitement and wonder you apply to whatever that is and applied it to your wife?  What if you really delighted in your wife and out of that delight sought to put all her needs ahead of your own?  You think that might have an impact on her?  You think that might make her more disposed to seek to meet all of your needs?  Try it for a month and tell me if you don’t see some real movement in your marriage.  Marriage runs on humble submission.

Now, the next part here often gets lampooned as needlessly offensive to women.  Who’s Peter to call them the weaker vessel?!?  All he’s talking about, though, is the fact that women are generally less physically powerful than men.  There’s nothing offensive there unless you’re looking to be offended.  This is just an observation of a biological fact.  There was some controversy during the women’s Olympic swimming competition because one young Chinese swimmer was posting times that rivaled some of the times the men were putting up.  The reaction wasn’t: Good for her!  It was: She must be cheating.  Why?  Because women are generally less physically powerful than men.  That simply is.  How we handle it is the question.  Peter’s advice to husbands: keep it in mind as you interact with her.  How do you handle something more frail than yourself?  With the utmost of care and respect.  This is no slight to the object of this treatment, but instead a mark of honor.  Now, culturally behavior like this can draw some ire on the part of women who have soaked up too much of radical feminism’s bile.  But guys, this doesn’t let us off the hook.  Christ took some bile as He humbly submitted to this world and kept right on at it.  We do this because the deep, Biblical truth is that God values women just as much as men.  The world doesn’t and never has.  That’s why this point, which some of you might have considered a no-brainer, is so important for Peter to have made.  In cultures which have truly embraced the Bible’s teaching the situation of women and children is always almost immediately improved over those which have not.  When the Bible’s teachings regarding women are left behind or otherwise rejected it’s women and children who suffer first and most.

We’ve already talked about the place of women in ancient society.  Today in India and China and among their minority groups in other countries including this one the practice of sex-selective abortions has resulted in millions upon millions of women not being born because they weren’t wanted.  And lest you think this is just a religion problem, I read recently that a national convention on secularism (that is, atheism) was reporting lower-than-expected registration numbers at least in part because a large number of women who would have otherwise attended felt devalued and objectified and, frankly, abused by the men in the group.  And yet here the Bible says very clearly: both men and women are of equal value to God.  To act as if there’s a disparity in any way is to live outside the teachings of orthodox Christianity on at least this point.  And yes, a lot of folks over the centuries who have claimed the title of Christ-follower have gotten this wrong.  Humbly submitting to your wives, guys, means acknowledging their great value and behaving toward them in light of it.  Marriage runs on humble submission.

In the end Peter gives a reason for all of his words to guys.  Do this so that your prayers may not be hindered.  If as a guy you are at all interested in maintaining a close relationship with Christ this statement should absolutely terrify you.  If we don’t behave toward our wives as we should, we’re cutting ourselves off from God.  Now, does this mean our salvation is gone?  No, but it does mean we are no longer in the kind of place before Him we need to be in order to receive the spiritual food we need to live the life He’s called us to live.  Failing to practice the humble submission of Christ toward our wives, men, is like putting on one of those old diving suits with an air hose supplying us air from the boat, jumping into the sea, and putting a clamp on our air hose when we get to the bottom.  Why cut yourself off from life when by doing what you ought to be doing you can really live?  It doesn’t make any sense to me either.  And yet we do it.  Over and over and over again.  Let us repent, men, because if we’re honest, we probably need to.  And let us do the hard work necessary to see our marriages become fully what they were designed to be.  Let us make sure our marriage engines are running rightly.  Marriage runs on humble submission.

So now we’ve worked our way through Peter’s words to both wives and husbands, to both women and men.  What can we say to wrap all of this up?  How does this become real in our daily lives?  I think we have to build our answer on this big idea that marriage runs on humble submission.  The idea here is mutual submission—actively seeking to put the other first.  Put the other first.  Figure out what the other most needs—and be aware that this might take a lot of effort—and make it your daily goal to see that happen.  Actively look for ways to put your needs second in the relationship, trusting that when this is done out of reverence for Christ, your heavenly Father is going to take notice, make sure that you have the strength to keep on giving, and meet your needs.  Let’s hit three quick corollaries to this.  First, there is a way to put the needs of our spouse first not out of reverence to Christ, but out of a selfish desire to be seen as the bigger, more self-sacrificing, holy party in the relationship.  Don’t make yourself a martyr.  Martyrs like this don’t die to self, but rather for self.  This kind of an approach won’t leave anybody happy, least of all you.  And the heart is deceptive so watch closely for this.  Second, remind yourself that God knows your needs better than you do.  If you are pursuing this kind of humble submission rightly and still feel like God is letting one need or another go unmet, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate whether or not it’s really a need.  Third, when it comes to kids, put their needs ahead of yours too.  All good parents do this.  But, don’t put their needs ahead of the needs of your spouse.  The best thing you can do for your kids in this regard is to not make them the first priority in your marriage.  The very best thing you can give to them is a gleaming picture of what a Biblical marriage done right looks like.  This will radically increase the likelihood both that they are going to come to embrace the Christian faith in a personally meaningful rather than merely socially meaningful way, and that they will have the tools necessary to have that kind of marriage for themselves one day.  But, if you elevate them to the place your spouse should occupy in your life, you’ll do a great deal of damage that will take the rest of their lives to manifest itself and you won’t be doing your marriage any favors either.  There are far too many couples who didn’t bother with the hard work of mutual, humble submission when their kids came along, preferring instead to take the easier (not easy, mind you) road of putting their kids first in the relationship.  Twenty or thirty years later when they were on their own again, there was a stranger staring at them from the other side of the table.  Who was helped by this?  The kids can’t relate to both parents the way they should any longer because they can’t grasp the position they should have with respect to their parents and the couple doesn’t have any kind of a foundation to stand on for the rest of their life together.  Marriage runs on humble submission, but it’s a specified kind of submission not directly useful in any other kind of relationship.

Let me deal quickly with a big what if here that a lot of people are going to ask in response to all of this.  What if my spouse doesn’t respond well to all of this?  What if he gets off track?  What if she keeps ignoring my needs?  Well, what of it?  Did Jesus change His approach when people rejected Him?  Did He stop loving even during the crucifixion ordeal?  But, wait, I thought you said we weren’t supposed to simply take it when our spouse treats us badly!  So I did.  Keep in mind how we defined submission last time.  That’s really important here.  When the other gets off track, go ahead and be angry.  You were hurt by that.  Don’t deny the emotion.   That doesn’t do anybody any good.  That’s not being humble or submissive.  It’s being deceptive and belittling.  So be angry.  Be hurt.  But, don’t act out of this.  Have hard conversations.  But have them in a humbly submissive way.   And keep loving even when you’re not feeling it because love isn’t a feeling.  It’s an intentional decision to see the other become fully who God designed them to be.  Keep humbling yourself to do all of this because you’re not the most important person in the marriage.  Your spouse is.  See how this works?

If that’s how all of this works inside the marriage, how does it work when it comes to relating to the world?  Well, you might be expecting this given our series, but the world isn’t going to receive this picture of marriage very well.  Women, you’ll be treated with scorn because you’ve debased yourself to put your husband first.  You’ve bought into the old patriarchalism and are perpetuating evil stereotypes.  How dare you subvert all the work that’s happened in the last hundred years to advance the place of women in society out of the darkness into which the church had relegated them!  Men, you’ll be treated with scorn because you’ve made yourself less than a man.  You’ve been domesticated.  You’ve been emasculated.  You wear a ring through your nose and ask how high when your wife says jump.  Do you see how the world doesn’t understand the humble submission after the pattern of Christ that provides the only sure fuel to make marriage fully what it could be?  Instead of humble submission, the world advocates for equality in marriage.  It advises each partner to maintain their own identity.  This is at least partly a result of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s (as opposed to the feminist movement of the 1910s and 1920s).  For many years now, women have been taught that in order to feel most fulfilled in marriage they must retain their own identity.  “Be your own woman,” is the rally cry here.  Now, so we’re clear, men did this for many years prior to women taking up the approach.  Women were slower to the game because God designed them to be able to naturally bear a lot more relational strain than He did guys.  The call was for the playing field to be consistent…the problem is that consistent doesn’t mean level.  In this case the field was made consistently skewed.   This was necessary, the argument went, because men don’t lose themselves and their identity (their career, for example) in marriage, so why should women?  Biblically speaking this is nonsense.  From a Biblical perspective, in marriage the two are supposed to become one flesh.  Neither should retain their “own identity” any longer.  It is entirely consumed, transformed, and put back on display as a new creation of the covenant which has been created between the man and woman.  Now, traditionally speaking, the husband has been more likely to have and maintain a career, but this should not be his “own identity.”  If it is, he is in the wrong.  Encouraging women to advocate for their own identity in this manner in the name of equality hasn’t helped to empower them at all.  It’s instead been a contributing factor to higher rates of marital dissatisfaction, divorce, and the general degradation of our society.  Maybe Peter really was onto something here.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  Now, does this mean a wife can’t have her own career?  Of course not.  But if this is pursued for the sake of creating her own identity, it’s not going to do anything helpful for her or her marriage.  When pursued in the context of a desire to be humbly submissive to her husband, though, everyone will win.  Marriage runs on humble submission.

In the end, then, where does this all leave us?  Well for one, it means the life ahead of us if we are going to take up the mantle of godly stranger isn’t going to be easy.  Operating a marriage along the lines of the humble submissiveness demonstrated by Jesus is radically countercultural.  If we look to the world around us for encouragement and support we’re not going to find any.  The world, our culture simply doesn’t understand why we would want to voluntarily put the needs of someone else ahead of our own.  Thankfully, the world isn’t our chief frame of reference when it comes to living the life of a godly stranger.  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ you are by definition different from the world.  You don’t operate on the same premises anymore.  Instead of “be served,” our mantra is, “go serve.”  Instead of “it’s all about me,” our rally cry is, “it’s all about thee.”  Instead of crying out for our own identity we proclaim that our identity is in Christ and so it doesn’t need to be defined in any other way.  In taking on this humbly submissive approach to marriage in which our first and greatest submission is to Jesus Christ, we will find more joy and peace that ever before.  Now, depending on the current circumstances of your marriage you may not find them there at first, but as you live as an emissary of the kingdom day-in and day-out, you’ll find that the lifestyle of the kingdom will begin to spread until you do find that joy and peace even there.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  It runs on wives putting their husbands first in all things.  It runs on husbands putting their wives first in all things.  In this race to lose for the sake of the other, everyone wins.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  So friends, take Jesus’ advice and die to self.  Make yourself nothing so that in Him you can be all things.  And then take this firm identity and put your spouse where she ought to be.  Marriage runs on humble submission.