I know, I know—Valentine’s Day is a commercial holiday, insidiously perpetrated by Hallmark and Russell Stover and Victoria’s Secret and the Vermont Teddy Bear Company. But it’s here anyway, and as a guy wearing a wedding ring, I’m doing a little self-assessment on this Valentine’s Eve. Of course, I’ve taken care of the basics: got her something thoughtful (just placed the chocolates—the Ferrero Rochers she loves—on her pillow) and made the dinner reservations (took a chance on a new place—hoping Yelp doesn’t let me down). Chocolate and dinner: after 25½ years of marriage, if I can’t get that much right, I’m a lost cause. (And in case you’re wondering, she told me not to buy her flowers this year—unless I wanted to get her “one of those gas station roses.” Those were her actual words).
So on the Valentine’s husbandly checklist, I think I’m doing okay. Not “he went to Jared” level, but solid.
But as a guy who increasingly thinks about the big questions of life, I’m stepping back and asking a larger question: if Valentine’s Day is all about celebrating the love between two people, how am I doing in loving this woman the other 364 days of the year? One of the things I like about the Christian faith is that when it’s lived with integrity, there is a strong connection between our relationship with God and our relationships with people. To paraphrase the New Testament, if I say I love God but I’m a jerk to people, my faith is fake. And of all the relationships that my faith should influence, my marriage should obviously be at the top of the list.
When I look at the New Testament, I see a few specific places that tell us how to love our spouses. And the most laser-focused of those is in the 5th chapter of Ephesians. As I look at it today for the millionth time, in honor of Valentine’s weekend, it still challenges and motivates me. It’s a two-part vision of a husband’s love for his wife, and here’s what it calls me to do:
Sacrifice for Her. Ephesians says it like this: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (verse 25). In one sense, it’s ridiculous to tell me to love the way that Jesus loved. It’s like telling me, “Dunk the ball like LeBron does.” But I don’t think this is meant to frustrate us; it’s meant to clarify who our model is. Jesus treated people with breathtaking unselfishness and sacrifice. He gave up his time, his comfort, and his preferences for common people, many of whom the world deemed unimportant. And then he gave up his life on the cross. And that’s the way I’m supposed to love my wife.
I’m giving myself very mixed reviews on this. By nature, I enjoy serving people—including my wife. But I’ve found that I like to define the terms of service. As a morning person, it’s not a big deal to make her coffee and sometimes breakfast. “Look at me—the devoted husband—rising while it’s still dark to slave for my family,” I want to say. It’s actually not much of a sacrifice. But ask me to do the midnight drive home for one of our kids—now that’s a heavy cross to bear. On Saturday nights, I often pull out the “but I have to get up early to preach tomorrow” objection, which tends to work pretty well. On Friday nights, in the absence of such a handy excuse, I still find myself all too willing to send my wife out in the cold so that I can collapse in bed.
Am I really that unwilling to sacrifice for this woman I claim to love? Embarrassingly so, sometimes. Despite 20 years of pointing others to the unselfish example of Jesus, I still have a pretty stubborn selfish streak. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m admitting that—and I’m seeking supernatural help to give myself up for my bride—in small ways and large ways—just like Jesus did for his people.
Cherish Her. Ephesians says: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church” (verses 28-29). The point is: we naturally take good care of ourselves. When I’m hungry, no one has to plead with me to have lunch. When I accidentally touch the hot frying pan (while I’m heroically cooking breakfast for my family), I instinctively pull my hand away. Those self-preservation instincts are deeply ingrained in me. And that’s the way I’m called to cherish my wife.
Increasingly, this is becoming a countercultural concept. Gary Thomas, who spoke in our church last Sunday, talked about a recent conversation with a cashier—a young man—who complained that because of his lack of girlfriend, he wouldn’t be “getting any” that night. “Getting some”: is there a more “all about me” way to think about sex? Actually, yes: this weekend, thousands of people will go see a movie that celebrates BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism). At the risk of sounding crotchety, I don’t think seeing 50 Shades will help us guys love our wives better. It may bring a brief adrenaline rush, but at the end of the day, you can’t simultaneously cherish and dominate your woman.
Obviously, the call to cherish my wife goes way beyond the sexual realm. It’s a call to overcome my self-absorbed tendencies and actually care about the things that are important to her. For the most part, this isn’t a romantic thing. It means random Tuesday afternoon texts asking how her day is going. Deciding to empty the dishwasher instead of piling the dishes in the sink (a particular hot-button for my wife). Planning ahead for a weekend date (another of her hot buttons). Basically, it means adopting her important things as my important things.
Again, mixed reviews for me. All of the examples above are things I know are important to her, and yet I struggle to consistently focus on them. Funny story (told with her permission): not too long ago, an unexpected guest showed up at our door. Before letting him in, my wife asked that I quickly check the guest bathroom for basic cleanliness. I decided this wasn’t a worthwhile use of my time (really bad decision), and told her so as I went to the front door and let the guest in. Moments later, as said guest was using said bathroom, my wife shared her feelings with me: something to the effect of, “Everyone thinks you’re perfect Pastor Dave, but they have no idea.” And then the stinger, in a whispered hiss to avoid being overheard by our guest in the next door bathroom: “People should know what you’re really like!” That line—now usually quoted with a laugh—has become famous in our house: “People should know!” Kind of funny, but with a ring of truth that reminds me I’ve got a long way to go.
I’m not trying to beat myself up or show some kind of false humility; I’m just owning the fact that I could love my wife better. And I want to. I want to become the kind of husband who sacrifices for her and cherishes her more consistently, more joyfully. I want to because God calls me to. I want to because my kids are watching. I want to because life is just more enjoyable when my marriage is better.
Years ago I heard a love story that has stuck with me ever since. Robertson McQuilkin was an educated, successful college president. He had proposed to his wife, Muriel, on Valentine’s Day 1948, and they enjoyed decades of happy marriage. But around 1990, she started forgetting things, repeating the same stories…signs of Alzheimer’s. And over the next few years, the disease progressed to a point where she needed constant care. And Robertson made an unexpected decision: to step down from his position at the college in order to care for his wife full-time. For more than 15 years, he took her for walks, fed her, and changed her. By the time their 50th anniversary passed in 1999, she had lost all ability to function on her own, and spent each day lying in bed. And when she died in 2003, he looked back on life with no regrets.
So this Valentine’s weekend, I appreciate his words more than ever:
The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago when I promised to care for Muriel "in sickness and in health…till death do us part." So, as I told the students and faculty, as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her for the next 40 years I would not be out of her debt.
But there is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me—her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don't have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person.
I’m so grateful for that example, and I think our world craves models like that. And it makes me realize that, by God’s grace, I can overcome both my innate selfishness and the dark, counterfeit images of love in our culture, and love my wife well. Or at least a little better than I did last year. She really is worth it.