It was almost 17 years ago when we went on our first date as college students at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Between dinner and a movie with friends, we decided to make a stop for coffee. Brandt was driving his old Camry and began to make a turn down what he thought was a ramp. We were all chatting happily when, suddenly, we had the sensation of a free-fall, followed by the front of the car slamming down into the pavement. The old Camry was suspended on a 3-foot ledge with its back wheels left in the air spinning. We were all fine, but we’ll never forget that feeling of utter confusion, looking at the others in the car with our mouths open, thinking, what just happened?
This story is a good analogy of what we experienced a few years into our marriage. We were cruising along, but sooner rather than later, we crashed and found ourselves looking at each other, asking, what just happened? We thought we were as prepared for marriage as we could have been. We read books, attended conferences, heard sermons, and knew biblical principles. We had the right information, but the problem, we would discover, was that we were living in the wrong story.
What are you shaped by?
The philosopher Charles Taylor refers to “the social imaginary” which he defines as “… the picture or story that frames our everyday beliefs and practices.” This story affects the way that we see ourselves, our relationships with the people around us, and our place in the larger world. A social imaginary is not passed along through classes or books, but largely through the arts in movies, television shows, literature and songs. We grew up as kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Our ideas of romance and love were deeply rooted in the Disney classics, country and pop radio, and romantic comedies. These stories shaped the way we saw ourselves as well as our expectations for our relationship.
The prominent cultural story in our time could be described as a consumer story where happiness is found in accumulating possessions and experiences. This mentality is not only applied to products but to people. We even have shopping lists of characteristics we are looking for in a partner. In this story, other people become a means to your self-fulfillment. As consumers, we have been taught by advertisers that when something isn’t making you happy anymore, you need a new or better one. Many people think that way about their spouse. We wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but we were headed down that line of thinking.
Finding a better story
The answer in these moments of difficulty is not in finding a better spouse, but a better story. With all of our accumulated knowledge of the Scriptures, we had failed to actually be shaped by the most amazing love story that lay behind the verses we knew. In Ephesians 5, Paul gives the ideal picture of marriage, pointing to the story of Christ and his bride. He invites us into that story, not simply to embrace it intellectually, but to embody it relationally.
For example, Paul’s instruction for husbands in Ephesians 5:25-28 states that cross-shaped love is the context for leadership in marriage. Since this leadership is based on Jesus’ death for the church, husbands never have the right to use this position to be self-serving or condescending. If you are living in the cultural story of self-fulfillment, then you cannot truly lead as God intended. You may justify your actions with Scripture, but you are not participating in the story that actually brings flourishing and joy to marriage. When we root our definition in the story of the Gospel, we get a very different perspective of love.
In Paul’s instruction to wives in 5:22-24, the call to submission is grounded in Christ’s submission to the Father. For readers shaped by the cultural story, it is hard to turn off the alarm bells that sound when we see “submit.” Though there is much to be discussed about the outworking of submission, we invite you to focus on the last phrase, “as to the Lord.” A wife’s identity must be centered not primarily on her relationship to her husband, but as a beloved child of God, an essential part of the church, and disciple of Jesus and his Word. There is no inferiority in light of those identities. Rather, submission is a specific application of the commitment for all disciples of Jesus to “walk in the way of love” as Paul writes in Ephesians 5:2. Jesus perfectly displayed this love in the ultimate act of self-giving surrender.
We have come a long way since that crash early in our marriage. It hasn’t been easy or comfortable, but it’s been a beautiful journey. And, Lord willing, we still have a long way to go, together. But we are constantly having to remember that we aren’t playing roles in a cultural story, but a cosmic one. A story that started long before our first date, a story that started in a garden. A story that experienced a fall much bigger than the old Camry over a ledge. A story of unfaithful people loved by an unfailing God. A God who had every reason to give up, but instead gave himself up for them. And for us!
While this marriage story won’t lead us to a crash, it will lead us to a cross. As our favorite artist Andrew Peterson (who we first heard together at Union University), sings in his song “Dancing in the Minefields”: “Well ‘I do’ are the two most famous last words. The beginning of the end. But to lose your life for another, I’ve heard. Is a good place to begin. ‘Cause the only way to find your life Is to lay your own life down. And I believe it’s an easy price, For the life that we have found.”
Brandt Waggoner is the lead pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn. Jill Waggoner is content editor for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.