The Apostle Paul was an interesting fellow. I'm being reminded of that these past six weeks as I have been preaching sermons the various letters he wrote that are embedded in the Bible.
On one hand, many people loved him and made great sacrifices for him. On the other hand, he was an intellectual giant whom few people, then or now, fully comprehend. On the other hand, (you're going to need several hands here to handle Paul) he was fearless and sometimes even seemed to have a death wish. On the other hand, he was so mouthy that people were always attacking him...literally beating him up, and sometimes throwing him in prison.
If you ever decided to put his profile on a dating site, I'm not sure what kind of a match would find him attractive. Using his own words, a profile might read something like this:
Paul, full of grace and love for everyone. Circumcised, but not proud of it. A bit of a problem with a thorn in my flesh, put there by Satan to keep me from being too elated. Love sailing, except for those three times I was shipwrecked. Stoned once, and I don't mean with drugs. Not a masochist, but keep coming back for beatings, sometimes with rods, other times with whips, and then other stuff I will tell you about when we meet. Love to travel on land, but keep encountering bandits and have trouble crossing rivers. Trouble follows me, whether I'm in the city, in the wilderness, with Jews, or with Gentiles. Suffer from sleep disorders, due to worry and anxiety. Am likely to show up at your house hungry and naked. Don't believe everything they say about me, because most of it isn't true. They are just out to get me. Some say I am self-righteous, but I disagree... vehemently.
Of course, if a woman did take the bait and agree to go out with Paul, their conversation over a first coffee might get a little rough.
"So, Paul, what is your opinion about marriage?"
"Each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband... and the husband should give his wife her conjugal rights, and vice versa... but if possible, it is best to remain unmarried... those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that... the married man can't fully please God because he is too busy trying to please his wife..." (excerpts from First Corinthians 7)
So, if the woman hasn't walked out of the Starbucks after that, she might then inquire, "So, Paul, what do you really think about women?"
"I want you to understand that the husband is the head of his wife... and any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head... it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or be shaved (editors note: not sure if this includes shaving the legs... or just the top of the head...) man was not created for the sake of woman but woman for the sake of man... women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate... if there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home..." (excerpts from First Corinthians 11 and 14 and Ephesians 5)
I'm guessing there wouldn't be a second date, unless the woman couldn't understand plain Greek... or Latin... or Hebrew... or Aramaic... or whatever language Paul was using that night to whisper his sweet nothings.
Now, in fairness to Paul, I did take everything he said out of context. And that brings me to today's topic: contemporary marriage. I am sure that every time a husband has gotten in trouble with his spouse, it is because something he said got taken out of context. At least, that's my defense!
It's virtually impossible to cherry-pick marriage advice from the Bible. Ancient marriages were vastly different from the phenomena we call "marriage" today. We can see that some biblical marriages seemed to involve love. But throughout vast sections of the Bible, including the New Testament, marriage is nothing more than an organized way to have sex. Most "men of God" in the Bible provide abysmal role models for the marital relationship. And the biblical writers give them a free pass! Biblical laws about adultery actually aided and abetted men in their promiscuity... prohibiting playboy behavior only when it came to other men's wives.
The legalistic prohibitions of the Bible give me no help or affirmation when it comes to my marriage to Jie. Jie was not a Christian when we met or married. Paul would have forbidden our marriage... likely he would have not only kicked me out of the ministry for marrying a "heathen," but out of the church as well. And since Jie is a foreign wife... Ezra and Nehemiah teach that I should send her back to China, with her daughter and my grandchildren... even after nearly 15 years of marriage... all because of their foreignness.
Therefore, does the Bible give me any guidance in being married to Jie? Yes. It give me a noun and a verb. And it's probably best if we don't pay much attention to any of the other words found in holy writ. The noun is "covenant." And the verb is "love."
We stay together, not because we always agree on everything or always please the other one, but because we've agreed to make it a long journey together, not a short one
. Covenant is an agreement to make a long journey. And a long journey will only work if the Holy Spirit keeps giving us both an ongoing provision of forgiveness, kindness, generosity, patience, joy.... As long as the Holy Spirit continues to give us insight into the goodness and potential of the other one, we will be able to stay together, despite differing determinations and convictions. "Covenant" in essence is "spiritual resilience and resourcefulness."
That applies to any marriage, whatever the gender mix.
And the verb from the Bible is "love." Oddly enough, the Apostle Paul, for all his gender cluelessness, gives the best definitions of love in the entire Bible. Ironically, it is his definitions of love that help us see what a sexual fool and bully he could be. (It's like being a parent who does something really wrong... and your child turns your own words back on you!) Love builds up. Love is patient and kind. Love bears all things, believes all things. Who can believe that everything we know about love comes from the pen of this guy!
Marriage is a long obedience to "love." To build someone up, it is best to get a sense of God's blueprint for that person.
When I look at Jie, I look for the divine blueprint. And when I do that, I can see the raw gifts that God gave her: her humor, her discipline with money, her emotional freedom, her ability to think out of the box, her indignation when someone is mistreated... To love someone is to notice the gifts God has given them, to give thanks daily for those gifts, and to be the best steward one can possibly be in building up one's spouse on the basis of those gifts.
I'm thankful for Jie...and God...and even Paul. Imagine how much greater he might have been had a good spouse built him up!