Marriage and the Gift of Dying to Self

By Matthew Richard

Over the last 50 years in America, we have seen a reduction in marriages to the point that marriage is now at an all-time low. However, simultaneous to the decline of marriage, the rate of cohabitation (living together apart from marriage) is increasing. Over the last 50 years, there appears to be a direct correlation between marriage and cohabitation: marriage has decreased by 65%, and cohabitation has increased by approximately 60%.

People are also getting married much later in life. In other words, those who do marry are not getting married in their early 20s but are tying the knot later in life.

What has led to these changes? What is bringing about this shift in views and actions regarding marriage?

One of the many factors is that our culture tells us that we have the “right” to pleasure and ease. But this cultural mantra does not jive with the reality that marriage is tough. Indeed, marriage is tough, and as we know, our culture does not like tough things but wants pleasure and ease at all costs. Thus the tension.

Martin Luther once said of marriage:

The purpose of marriage is not to have pleasure and to be idle but to procreate and bring up children, to support a household. This, of course, is a huge burden full of great cares and toils. But you have been created by God to be a husband or a wife and that you may learn to bear these troubles.[1]

We also hear about how tough marriage is from Ephesians 5:22–33: We read that the husband is to sacrifice everything — to die — for the sake of his wife. And the wife is called to trust her husband — to submit to and respect him. Now, this is hardly the setup that someone seeking pleasure at all costs would aspire to. It doesn’t sound like fun. If marriage is all about dying to self to serve a spouse, this is most certainly against the tune of our culture that sings self-love and encourages us to do whatever we want as long as we are happy.

Tragically and bluntly stated, one of the main reasons why marriage is on such a decline is that marriage does not let life be about you.

Permit me to explain.

If there is no spouse or children, there is immense freedom, comparatively. An unmarried person seduced by pleasure can indulge in whatever activities they want, when they want. If they have a partner who impinges on their freedom too much, they are free to leave them. Their resources and efforts can be invested in themselves. Marriage complicates such self-pleasure and ease by calling a man to die for his wife and calling a woman to submit to her husband. Furthermore, being married with children requires a great sacrifice of money, freedom and energy for one’s children.

And so, marriage has become seen as something like a curse in our culture — a “ball and chain” — something to be avoided.

But is this all true?

Dear friends, marriage is not a curse to avoid or put off for a better time. It is not something that ends dreams and ruins lives. It certainly is not a ball and chain. Instead, marriage is a gift that creates a husband and wife and a blessed family.

We must remember that Satan continually attacks marriage. Satan can never create but only pervert God’s gifts. And he does just this to marriage. He attempts to distort our perception of marriage so that we will stay away from it. He holds self-love over sacrificial love as the ideal. He strips sex out of wedlock and then sets it loose to cheapen it. He entices us to place other priorities above marriage, as if marriage is some old-fashioned thing. He tries to convince us that marriage is just too inconvenient, and that we can put it off until someday in the future, when we will have supposedly more time and resources. Indeed, the evil one — with the world and our flesh — gives a false view of marriage, sex and family. They give a view that is not real.

So, what is real? What is marriage?

To paraphrase an old professor of mine named Norman Nagel, a bride and groom do not make a marriage; instead, they step into marriage and take their places. The reason for this is that marriage is God’s gift. It is the perfect setup and the perfect gift that men and women receive. And so, when young people in the church aspire to the institution of marriage, we should be clapping and dancing for joy. Their desire to be married is good!

But what if the couple is young and poor? Do we tell them they ought to have waited and avoided marriage? Well, no. Just as we work to be faithful stewards to financially support God’s gift of life in pregnancy centers, we certainly should be good stewards to financially support God’s gift of marriage given to younger Christians. Frankly stated, we should be ready to open our wallets and show our children that we believe in marriage rather than painting it as an expensive burden that they cannot afford and should not aspire to at a young age.

At this point, I can hear the voice of someone saying, “But what about having fun at a young age and taking in everything life has to give? Do younger people want to enter a marriage when they are so young?”

To this, the church responds, “Sure, there will be dying to self in marriage. That is the whole point. That is why marriage is tough. Dying to self hurts the sinful nature. But tough does not mean bad. Marriage is tough on the sinful nature, even though it is a good gift for you.”

Marriage is indeed tough — but it is also a good gift. And so, let it be stated as plainly and clearly as possible: Men, as you step into the Lord’s estate of marriage, you become a husband. And as a husband, you are called to deny your desire to callously assert yourself. Instead of being the King of the Hill, you are called to die to your selfish desires, ambitions and dreams. You are called to lay down your life — thoughts, words, and deeds — for your wife. When you make your wife secondary to watching reruns of The Simpsons and drinking Miller Light, you are not only demonstrating the exact opposite of what it means to be a husband but are perverting who you are as a baptized husband.

Husbands, Christ bids you to die to yourself — to love your wives with the same sort of love that He has for His church. It is a love that keeps no record of wrongs, forgives, and sacrifices everything, even to the point of death.

And wives, Christ bids you to die to yourself — to deny your desire to callously assert yourself. You are called to love and submit to your husband, just as the church herself delights in submitting to Christ, and Christ Himself submits to the Father. However, when you sigh and roll your eyes behind your husband’s back while complaining to other women about how he can’t do anything right, you are doing the exact opposite of what it means to be a wife; you are perverting who you are as a baptized wife.

Wives, Christ bids you to die to yourself — to love your husbands with the same love that Christ’s church is supposed to have for Jesus. It is a love that strives to forgive, please, honor and be loyal while putting the best construction on your husband — even if that means excusing yourself from a group of women slandering their husbands over appetizers at a restaurant.

Husbands and wives, as you take your place in the holy estate of marriage, you die to yourself and live for your spouse. As husband and wife — reflecting Christ’s sacrificial love to His bride, the church — you learn to die to yourselves for your children. This is not a curse but a gift.

God be praised that through marriage, the Lord provides and preserves families, as spouses sacrifice for and trust each other out of reverence for Christ.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 5: Lectures on Genesis Chapters 26-30, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), p. 363.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

10 thoughts on “Marriage and the Gift of Dying to Self”

  1. Virginia Mulhern

    As a woman who has been married for 57 years, I understand what the Pastor is saying. I was 20, John 23 when we married. We have 3 daughters and 3 grandchildren. Truthfully, it was not until I was older that I understood all the sacrifices that are so necessary. Many years of ups and downs. Tears and laughter. At times, I resented my husband and he resented me. But, we stuck it out. The key for us was Church attendance and constant forgiveness. Knowing one’s own sins and hating them. But, with all the good times, marriage is a struggle because each person clings to their own way. Daily devotions are helpful as God’s Word is powerful and healing.
    When you fail, God forgives you for Jesus’ sake. To all the marriageable people I say yes! But know that it is hard and you will suffer. Every relationship of love involves suffering and sacrifice…

  2. Hang in there brother. I and many other men have been in your shoes. Please forgive the unsolicited advice but be patient and wait on the Lord. If you are to be married, He has her waiting and looking for you too. Focus on your devotion to Christ and being the best man God made you to be. Your future wife will love for who you are not what you think she wants you to be.

  3. My guess is that The Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard married at a young age and has been blessed with spouse and children. From the time I was 18, I longed and prayed to meet a Godly man to build a marriage and family with. I didn’t marry until I was almost 43 years old. Was I living immorally for those 25 years? No. By the time I did meet someone I thought was a good Christian partner and spouse, it was too late for me to have the blessing of having children. I sacrificed greatly for my husband and he instead lived selfishly and found a “newer model” while both of my parents were ending their earthly lives. I was left with neither husband, children or parents while he walked away and married someone half his age. Don’t assume that every unmarried person, Christian or not, is choosing singleness because they are too selfish to commit and to sacrifice. Many of us are waiting and praying hopefully for a partner who wants to share the blessings of marriage.

    1. I agree with you, Kristen. The article claims people are marrying less or later in life because of selfishness. What a huge, over-broad generalization! Plus, the world has changed. Being able to support a family on one paycheck right out of high school is not realistic anymore. Women now want the same educational opportunities that men have always enjoyed. Divorce is common among Christians, too (I experienced it myself), so folks want to take their time during dating before committing themselves to marriage. People rightly want to be able to support a family before starting one. It also seems to me that stressing the sacrificial part of marriage is an odd way to encourage more and earlier weddings! Why not stress the positives of marriage? I think most folks with common sense realize that marriage requires spouses to make adjustments, allowances, etc. for things to last, and don’t need to be lectured about “dying to self.”

  4. This is a good, theologically sound presentation about marriage but the brief examples it offers feel artificial and it leaves out some important considerations, like the blessings we receive from having the other spouse sacrificing for our benefit (a principle that also applies to intimacy in marriage), the value of one hand washing the other in a relationship, and companionship providing mutual spiritual support between two people who have spent a lifetime together as one flesh.

    With its focus on the obligations of self-sacrifice, grace seems to be morphed into law, thereby losing the sense of grace by which only two sinners can live well together.

    1. Rev. Steve Andrews

      The New Testament clearly and regularly focuses on our obligations to self-sacrifice. And the Law is prevalent even in the preaching of Jesus. He commands His followers to live in certain ways, and actually expects that we will. This is not wrong; it is actually good! As we seek to walk in His ways each day, we do so in repentance, rejoicing in His forgiveness for us for all the ways we fall short. And that becomes one of the best ways marriage is a gift, as we speak of Christ’s forgiveness to one another, helping to point our spouse to God’s love for them.

  5. Fear can be a factor. A number of recent polls indicate as much. And I am also aware of it from a variety of personal observations.

    If your parent’s marriage was filled with strife,
    if you see marriages among your friends come apart painfully,
    if your wages are being eaten up by inflation and housing costs are through the roof,
    if you cannot depend on your extended family to provide much support,
    if the prospects for steady employment are uncertain,
    if unhealthy and unhelpful habits persist —
    any of these and more can result in significant misgivings about whether your relationship can go the distance or whether even you yourself will be able to fulfill your role adequately as a spouse or parent. Cohabitation appears to offer close companionship with an escape hatch.

    So surely one way to provide support for marriage is to draw out, validate, and thoroughly address with care the particular fears that young people have as they anticipate the possibility of getting married.

    “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28 ESV).

    Some congregations identify mature married couples who are able and willing to mentor young couples. Other congregations host marriage workshops on their own site or publicize marriage workshops elsewhere. And for any couple who needs it, a congregation could establish a Marriage Support Fund that underwrites the cost of participating in the workshops or in any other activity that promises to help fortify their relationship.

    1. Tskjesusfreak

      In terms of a guy who has a desire to get married to a sister in Christ, I come to the conclusion that most single Christian women want their husbands to either be making 6 figures or become Pastors. When I was attempting to find a wife online, I was finding out that most Christian women especially those who are in my age range want their future husbands to be Pastors. Because they really want to be a Pastor’s wife. The only women that won’t mind having me are those who are divorced with kids or in their 40s.

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