About five centuries ago, Copernicus changed the way we think about our universe when he postulated that the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of our universe. (We, of course, now know that it isn’t the center of the universe, but the Sun remains the center of our solar system.) Plato, Socrates, Augustine, and Aquinas all lived without understanding a basic truth that any educated person today takes for granted.
One hundred years later, just four centuries ago, Sir Isaac Newton discovered what we call gravity, something that even a contemporary fifth-grader could describe.
The relative youth of basic knowledge is rather stunning. For all his wisdom and brilliant insight, Aristotle knew less of hard science — astronomy, anatomy, and even physics — than the vast majority of Advanced Placement high school students do today. It’s remarkable to consider relatively recent advancements in intelligence and understanding.
A TV series like Mad Men, initially set just 60 years ago, seems like a ridiculous relic of an atrocious past — men treated women like that? People were that insensitive to race issues?
Just as intellect and social understanding have grown, so our love should grow, as well as our view of what marriage can and should be. What was accepted as the highest and truest love in the ancient world of Paris and Helen of Troy, or the medieval world of Shakespeare, or the romantic era of Jane Austen, might perhaps look rudimentary to spiritually perceptive persons today, if we were to apply the same scientific methods to love and marriage as we do to science.
Why shouldn’t the love of a husband and wife of a Christian couple in 2017 look vastly different from the love of a husband and wife in 1617 or 1817? Why would we let marital love lag behind physical or social science? And shouldn’t Christians lead the call for the spiritual evolution of marriage?
A New Model of Marriage
There’s a key to “marital evolution” in the vows most of us uttered: “to love and to cherish until death do us part.”
Cherish is an attempt to define that higher love between a man and a woman. Just as we have sought to better understand the intricacies of the human brain, or the shamefulness of racial prejudice, so we should seek to understand true honor, selflessness, service, kindness, and even happiness as it relates to marriage. We’ve killed forests’ worth of trees writing books about “love.” Perhaps it’s time we pay attention to “cherish,” a higher kind of love. We should expect more of Christian husbands and wives, just as we expect more of today’s screenwriters, academics, and social commentary.
Choosing to Cherish
Since I spent an entire book exploring how and why we need to cherish our spouse, it’s difficult to summarize what cherishing means in a paragraph, but let me try: Love points to sacrifice, service, commitment, and “hanging in there.” Cherish points to delighting, adoring, as well as learning and choosing to think about our spouse in a certain way and acting in a certain way. It goes beyond “not going away” to being fully present when we are together. It involves “showcasing” our spouse (helping others see their excellence), and viewing them with the same exclusivity as Adam viewed Eve and Eve viewed Adam, at one moment in history the only man/woman in the world. Cherishing seeks to honor our spouse; it goes to war with contempt; it seeks to bring out the best in our spouse rather than reinforce the worst; it involves not just what we say but how we say it; it requires focusing on the particular, not the stereotype; and it necessitates a strong spiritual foundation so that we will have the power of grace to keep cherishing a very imperfect spouse.
The good news is that cherishing our spouse is something we can learn to do. People talk about “falling in love” (which is a misunderstanding of biblical love), but cherish is clearly a choice. It’s not just a feeling that comes and goes; there are spiritual and relational practices that generate feelings of cherishing your spouse as you act on them so that you do hold your spouse dear in your heart. Learning to cherish actually creates joy, fulfillment, happiness, and satisfaction. It’s one of those spiritual realities that may not make logical sense, but when you take it by faith and put it in practice, it works.
It just does.
Learning to take our marriage from polite co-existing or even just basic friendship to the much higher spiritual call of learning to truly cherish each other is a spiritual journey before it’s a marital journey. If you believe your marriage has all but died or even just gotten a little stale, the hope behind learning to cherish each other in marriage is found in this: God is more than capable of teaching us and empowering us to treat and cherish our spouses the way he treats and cherishes us.
Envy, Not Pity
May God raise up in this new era a renewed church that demonstrates a different kind of marriage. Not just a marriage that sticks it out — people have been doing that for millennia. But marriages that grow in grace, sweetness, kindness, service, joy, and understanding; where we even value cherishing each other more than we value being infatuated with each other.
Isn’t it a little sad that two young, infatuated people think they have something deeper, richer, and more profound than what most married couples share after 20 or 30 years of life together? Yet hasn’t that been the popular, almost unquestioned cultural message for the past three or four generations? By pursuing cherish instead of just love, we can build the kind of marriages that inspire younger couples rather than make them feel pity for us. A thoughtful, cherishing marriage can make infatuation look like a Neanderthal kind of love.
If God has been gracious enough to allow us to grow in our understanding of the physical world, and if God has allowed us to advance from the abacus to the slide rule to the calculator to the computer, why would he not allow his Church to move marital love from mere commitment to active cherishing?
It’s not that cherish is opposed to love or in competition with love, but rather a higher, deeper understanding of love applied. Jesus taught us that others should know we are his followers by our love. Our marriages should be factories of such a love. Cherishing marriages can be evangelistic, as others will ask, “How can a husband and wife cherish each other like that after 30 years of marriage?”
A New Day
A young couple I’m preparing for marriage recently asked me an honest question: “Gary, we’ve had so many older couples tell us that there’s one and only one secret to a happy marriage, and that’s for the husband to learn two words: ‘Yes, dear.’ Is that true?”
Though this is an old, bad joke, it was refreshing to see a young couple be all but mystified by it. The subtext of their question was sincere astonishment: “People used to look at and define marriage like that? Do we have to do that?”
No, they don’t.
People my age (I’m 55) have to understand that the way our children relate to each other in terms of gender roles is very different from what we grew up with. This shift is going to have a huge impact on the quality and nature of marriage. There will be some new challenges — as there is much to appreciate about old truths — but also potentially many key gains.
I’m not talking about the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Thoughtful complementarians take pains to distinguish what they believe from 1960s chauvinism. Yet young people in their 20s can’t even imagine women being “kept” or condescended to; they are valued, listened to, considered as true partners, with equal intelligence and worth. How can this evolving understanding fail to positively impact the depth of intimacy a couple might have in marriage, if we are willing to expand our view of marriage from merely loving each other to cherishing each other?
I think it’s rather promising. Old jokes and old prejudice must die, or preachers will start sounding like ad executives from Mad Men when we talk about marriage.
When we experience it ourselves, we can preach with more conviction. I’ve been infatuated, and I’ve been in a cherishing marriage.
Cherishing is better.
Perhaps it’s time to spread the good news that the world is setting its sights much too low when it comes to the standards of true, intimate marriage. We’ve spent so much time talking about love. Let’s raise the bar and start talking about cherish.