Loving and serving my spouse…. and loving and serving myself. What’s the relationship between the two? Are they opposites? They certainly seem to be! Is one part of the other? Which one?
Two truths from Scripture
Jesus is very clear in Luke 9:23—
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
We also have Paul’s words to the Philippians—
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4)
These texts seem to be clear: we’re to deny ourselves and look after the interests of others. There’s no room for self-interest in the Christian life!
But wait— now consider these passages:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:44-46)
Jesus even commands us to “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven” in Matthew 6:20.
So how do we synthesize these two truths? Apparently we’re supposed to do both. Deny ourselves and sacrificially love and serve others (including our spouses) on one hand. And seek our own highest self-interest on the other.
Instant vs. delayed gratification
As I’ve chewed this over, I’ve realized that it all comes down to the difference between instant and delayed gratification. Or we could call it earthly vs. eternal reward.
Look at Matthew 6:20 in its wider context:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” (emphasis added).
Instant gratification means doing what I want right now. What’s easy and convenient now. Usually resulting in a fleeting, earthly reward.
Delayed gratification is sacrificing and missing out— but not for its own sake! Not to be an ascetic! Delayed gratification is sacrificing and missing out now for greater payoff down the road. An eternal reward.
The key text here is Hebrews 12:2—
Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (emphasis added).
In other words, Jesus knew what awaited him on the other side of the cross and that reward motivated him to endure the cross.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross to be a martyr. He didn’t do it without any self-interest. He did it for the reward.
Christlike love in marriage
So what does all of this have to do with marriage?
In short: I’m called to love, serve, and invest in my spouse— but not just for the sake of my spouse. Not as a self-righteous martyr. I should recognize that it’s also in my best interest to do so.
In his seminal work, Desiring God, John Piper puts it this way: “Seek your own joy in the joy of your spouse.”
Does that sound totally awful and manipulative to you? Aren’t I describing what it means to have an ulterior motive?
“By some definitions, this cannot be love. Love, they say, must be free of self-interest— especially Christlike love, especially Calvary love. I have never seen such a view of love made to square with [Ephesians 5:29-30]… According to this text, love is the pursuit of our joy in the holy joy of the beloved. There is no way to exclude self-interest from love, for self-interest is not the same as selfishness. Selfishness seeks its own private happiness at the expense of others. Love seeks its happiness in the happiness of the beloved. It will even suffer and die for the beloved in order that its joy might be full in the life and purity of the beloved” (Desiring God; emphasis added).
Did you get that?
If I want to love my spouse the way Christ loves the church, I must do so for the joy set before me. I must seek my own self-interest. But the beautiful and amazing thing is that this doesn’t contradict genuinely loving and serving my spouse. It’s one and the same.
I sacrifice and serve now with the long-term goal of eternal joy and treasure in mind; namely, to be with Christ for all of eternity.
This is emphatically not the same as manipulation or having an ulterior motive. In that case, I would seek my own self-interest at the expense of my spouse. But here I seek my joy in their joy.
So what does this look like on the ground?
C.S. Lewis’s famously wrote,
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory).
Consider C.S. Lewis’s analogy in the context of your marriage. What “mud pies” are you making that are costing you a holiday at the sea?
Some examples from my marriage:
- Sleeping in instead of serving one another in the morning
- Scrolling on phones after the kids go to bed instead of connecting with each other
- Vegging out to Netflix on the weekends instead of getting in the Word
- Gossiping and/or complaining to/about each other instead of praying over one another
The former choices are easy— like making mud pies in the slum. Our desires are too weak— our sinful hearts too easily pleased with ease, comfort, and convenience.
Choose the narrower path. The steeper, rockier trail of self-denial and sacrifice that leads to a way better vista. Love, serve, and invest in your spouse— not just for a happier marriage in this life (although I’m confident your marriage will be happier!)— but for the eternal, lasting joy set before you in Christ.
Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?
Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?