“Knowledge” by Louise Bogan:
Now that I know
That passion warms little
Of flesh in the mold,
And treasure is brittle,
I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.
Usually, I start off my blog post with Scripture, but today is different. This morning as I was getting ready for Easter services, I happened upon this poem, “Knowledge” by Louise Bogan. Occasionally, a poem will strike me so much that I will be lead to reflect how it connects to the Christian life and where I can find it connecting to the Scriptures. This poem is one of those poems. As I sit here on this resurrection Sunday, having grief over an overwhelming dream for marriage coming to an end and hoping that God can bring a new, realistic version of this dream in my life, this poem spoke to my longing for a wife and family: what sort of husband will I long to be if God ever brings that gift into my life. I take this poem as a signpost sent to me by God in this reflection, though ultimately what I am saying comes from the Scriptures, not the poem as some authority.
So, what does it mean to be a husband? Various cultures have different expectations and customs for the duties and roles of a husband to a wife. It is not my intention to describe those varying gender roles, because my intention here is to describe what a husband who has Christ living in him would be like. Yet, it is important to know, while to be as Christ to a wife can look different in different cultures, ultimately there are certain things a faithful Christian husband is to be and do for their wife. We get a word about this from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33:
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
In this passage, we see Paul defining the role of the husband to be the role of Christ. Before expanding further on what exactly that means, it is important to note that there is no reason to believe that Paul is describing some fixed, creation order that outlines the relationship between husband and wife. In fact, it is quite the opposite: he tries to get them to look at the marriage relationship through the lens of Jesus Christ. In that spirit, is much more likely that Paul is trying to address the way he saw husband and wives were interacting with each other that fell short of the goodness of the Christian life by giving them specific instructions to relate to each other as if Christ was in the marriage. The goodness of Christ, not creation, is at the heart of Paul’s instructions to the husbands and wives in that time.
At this point, however, how we understand the husband as the Christ-bearer in the marriage functions something like an inkblot test. When many hear is that “Christ is the boss of the household,” that they somehow come to the conclusion that the husband gets to say what does and doesn’t happen in the home. Whether in more overt, authoritarian forms or more subtle, covert authoritarianism, it is often taken that the husband as the Christ-bearer means that whatever the husband says, the wife is supposed to do. After all, if Jesus is Lord of us, then the husband is smaller lord over the wife, right?
Absolute, utter garbage! How little such an interpretation reflects a knowledge of the man Jesus Christ. What does it say in John 12.47:
I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
Jesus does not come into the world, demanding allegiance and obedience to those who hear him, which implicitly meant that they believed in Jesus to some capacity. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry isn’t the presentation of some set of thou shalt’s that others must accept and obey. Rather, Jesus’ words are given to save the world, they are given to help set people free (John 8.31-32) The words of Jesus as the Rabbi are not as a boss giving orders what people are to do or they will be in the wrong, but they are a source of life for those who hear and follow them. Jesus does not seek to control and enact obedience to those whom He teaches, but as a gentle Teacher whose yoke is light, Jesus is patient and not seeking to put further burdens upon people who already have their own burdens to bear.
If people were more attentive to the actual words and actions of Jesus, and not just to some theological representation or title, they would see Paul’s words differently. Perhaps like a tree, a husband casts a long shadow in which their wife can take shade, can find protection, support, and comfort, but in the end speaks lightly, and when he does speak, it is for the purpose of building up the wife, as Christ’s words are intended to build us up into purity and holiness.
But, if we as men truly want to be Christ-bearers in our relationship to our (future) wives, then take heed of these words in John 14:12:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
Is it not Jesus who sets those who He instructs to do things that are even greater than what Jesus did? How much more so should Christ-bearing husbands seek to raise their wives to do even greater, more magnificent things than they themselves? Of course, this stands against some forms of masculine pride that seeks to be at the top, but if one wants to be as Christ to their wife, then they should seek to raise their wife even above themselves.
How one understands the Christ-bearing role of the husband that Paul talks about all comes down to an inkblot test: are you paying attention to Jesus? Might I suggest Louise Bogan’s poem as a good source for reflection in light of the Scriptures.