What does it look like when we apply the command to love our neighbor as ourselves to a spouse? We are only human but sometimes people treat spouses like they are supposed to fulfill them in a way that only God can. Love will not hold people to impossible standards.
A friend of mine, who desires to get married, once told me she got to a place in her life where she would always complain to God saying “Where’s my husband, when is he coming, if my husband were here I wouldn’t have to deal with this” and such. Her young daughter started repeating her and saying “When the husband comes we’ll be able to get this right Mommy?” And immediately she felt conviction because she realized she had idolized having a husband, and essentially was praying for God to send his replacement. We must be cautious that we’re not trying to use another person to replace God in our lives. Also idolizing a spouse can lead to a person holding them to impossible standards making it difficult to value them for who they are, this leads to people trying to control their spouse as if they are dolls to be played with.
From the male perspective, men aren’t usually looking for a woman to save them or provide for them so the framework is a bit different. Men need to avoid being drawn away from God by a woman, like Solomon who married many wives who worshipped idols and was led away from the God of Israel. We should not be so lust minded that we think a spouse will satisfy all of our desires. God must always be God in our lives, not a spouse, and people must be cautious about whom they connect with because some people want to be a god to them and will take advantage of their desperation.
Ephesians 5:21-30 talks about how we are to properly see our spouses. For women, the husband should remind them of Christ, but not be a replacement for Christ. Think of a husband as a personal priest to an extent, a man who represents God on earth to his family. Her personal relationship with God is not threatened and the husband simply functions as the hands of God on earth operating for her benefit. This is why she submits to him because he should represent God’s love to her. He is still just a man and may not even be a believer, yet she can still praise God for his position in her life which is functioning as a way for her to be blessed by God. Note her submission is limited to that of a place of love and respect for him because of who he represents, and not fear of him. A wife has a right to deviate from her husband’s wishes if God’s interests are in conflict with his. In 1 Samuel, ch. 25, Abigail the wife of a wicked man named Nabal, subverted his stubborn refusal to supply David and his men with resources when they were asking for it because it was the right thing to do. Especially since David’s men protected their farm workers. David was angry and wanted to kill Nabal but Abigail stopped him by supporting him anyway. She submitted to God first. Ultimately God killed her husband with a stroke for his wicked attitude, and she married David and produced an heir to inherit Nabal’s estate (2 Sam 3:3). Her husband never replaced God, so she was willing to go behind her husband’s back not just to do what was right, but out of love for her husband she protected him from David’s wrath. So even in the subversion of her husband’s wishes, she acted to save him because she loved him.
The wife is the helper, not “the help”. The Bible uses the word “ezer” (עֵזֶר) for “helper” which applied to both humans like Eve and to God himself. Being a helper is not about subservience since God is not our servant. A helper in the bible is someone to come rescue you or aid in a difficult challenge, to have your back. In the above human examples, we can see that these helpers have limitations, but God is the ultimate help (Exodus 18:4, Deut 33:7, Psalms 20:1-2, Ps 33:18-20, PS 121:1-2, and Ps 149:5-6). However, while God rules in the heavens, he put a man in charge of the earth and made a helper (the woman) sufficient for him to help accomplish the task of being fruitful and subduing the earth. She is clearly not his slave or servant since she was made by God specifically to do God’s work with him. The animals have roles that are subservient, that is why he had to make the woman for the man because animals and humans are not equal since animals are not image-bearers of God like humans are (Gen 1:26-27). We can see that in the military scenarios, God can send help from other humans, like sending the Israelites to rescue the Gibeonites (Joshua ch.10). God made the helper, not to rule over, or be ruled over but to help in finishing the task we were assigned.
The Bible refers to the church as a “Bride of Christ” (Ep 5:22-33, 2 Cor 11:2, Rev 19:7), yet he didn’t tell us to sit down, shut up, and look pretty. He gave us the “great commission”, to help him reach the world. He did the hard work of being sacrificed and resurrected so that we could receive the Holy Spirit and now we do the rest of the assignment by teaching all nations (Matt 28:18-20). He is the head and leads us because of it, but we are valuable for who we are and not simply God’s slaves. For married men that had slaves, their female slaves were not equal to their wives. Their wives represented them when they were not there because function as one flesh (Gen 2:24). When a female slave marries a free man she becomes a free wive and if she divorces she remains free (Ex 21:9-11). Based on this principle, since the church is married to Christ so “she” is free from slavery to sin. That is why Jesus said he set us free from slavery to sin in John 8:34-36. We as the body of Christ are partnered with God as his helpers and we follow his lead on helping.
Paul also says in Ep 5 that men are supposed to love their wives like Christ loves the church. A friend told me that becoming a parent helps with understanding God’s character because raising a child requires the same level of patience, love, and faithfulness that God shows us. All the fruit of the spirit are in full use when dealing with children because they are still learning and pushing the boundaries of their sin nature daily. Jesus even says this about God’s character: Luke 11:11 “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? 12 Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! 13 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Likewise, becoming a husband should have a similar effect. A man is responsible for his wife’s care and well-being just as he trusts God to be responsible for his. He does not become her God but he must be led by God in order to ensure that he is in the right place to be her provider and protector. Providing a safe environment for her to be what she needs to be, will allow her to be an effective helper. Being a protector means also protecting her from himself and not becoming a danger or bringing danger to the home. Christ’s love was sacrificial and that means making sacrifices for his wife, like maybe spending time with her instead of going out with friends, doing tasks for her that he doesn’t like, or investing interest in something she likes so that she can feel appreciated and valued. God’s value on humanity is not based on what we can do for him, but simply because he loves us. Remember we are worth more than lilies and sparrows (Matt 6:24-34), and even though the sparrows don’t plant or harvest God still provides food for them. Husbands should do what they do for their wives because they love them and not only because they get something out of it. Even if his wife has become his enemy, Christ said to love our enemies because God loves his enemies and makes it rain the just and unjust (Matt 5:43-48). Eve was not just Adam’s wife, she was his first neighbor, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that is why Paul wrote for husbands to ” love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church” (Ep 5:28-29). This is the 2nd Greatest command being applied to a marriage, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).
Leaders are not bosses, leaders do something first and ask others to join them, bosses simply tell people what to do because they have rulership. Christ was a leader, he washed his disciple’s feet as a display of service to the ones he loved. Christ does what he wants us to do first, he leads by example. Parents should lead their children by example, so shouldn’t husbands do that for their wives? Therefore, men should do things for their wives first and let them respond with reciprocity. Remember we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:18), so the wife should have no excuse for responding in love if her husband loved her first. Of course, the wife who is a woman of God is going follow the second greatest commandment and love her husband on the bases that he is another image bearer of God, not just because he did everything she wanted. Just like we should love God even when he doesn’t answer certain prayers and doesn’t respond to our inquiries right away, we must trust that he is still going to be faithful even in trial, tribulation, and tragedy. 2 Tim 2:11-13 (NLT) says: “This is a trustworthy saying: If we die with him, we will also live with him. 12 If we endure hardship, we will reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us. 13 If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is.”
Aim to be faithful like God is faithful, even when your partner fails. We are only human and neither spouse will ever replace God, but we can at least emulate God with the help of the holy spirit. Hosea took his wife back after she committed adultery by prostituting herself (Hosea ch. 1-3), just like the father of the prodigal son takes his rebellious son back in the parable of Luke 15:11-32. This is an act of mercy that comes with being led by the spirit. Love is a choice, not a feeling based on conditions, so we must choose to love God with all of our heart, soul, and might (Deut 6:4-5), and love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18). This includes spouses because these are the 2 greatest commands (Matt 22:34-40).
Ep 5:21 (NLT) And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.
25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. 27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. 28 In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. 29 No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. 30 And we are members of his body.