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How the Cross Shapes a Husband’s Love

A husband is one of God’s greatest inventions, equipped to shine a bright light into God’s world. He is called to illuminate his surroundings. How? By reproducing in his marriage the radiance of God’s own glory.

Few husbands understand the full nature of their calling, instead imagining themselves to be joined to their wives merely for the pleasures of romantic affection, common interests, and raising kids. To a degree this is true, but there is far more to marriage than mutual fulfillment. In the Bible, husbands and wives unite for a purpose beyond themselves: to spread God’s glory in a dark world.

And it’s especially the husband who’s called to stoke that glory.

No Taller Order

To that end, the apostle Paul issues a remarkable injunction: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Husbands are to lavish on their wives the same kind of love Christ lavishes on members of his family, the church.

There could be no taller order.

Who can measure the self-giving love of Christ? It spans a gulf infinitely wide, originating in the perfections of heaven and descending to the depravities of Calvary. No wonder Paul prays for strength to comprehend its breadth and length and height and depth (Eph. 3:18). And husbands are uniquely positioned to know, and to enable their wives to know, this matchless love.

Fit Receptacle, Vast Reservoir

But how is it possible to impart so great a love? Not every husband can. But to Christian husbands God gives a special gift. Cleansed of sin by the blood of Jesus, they are made fit receptacles for the indwelling Christ. And when Christ dwells in husbands, he transforms them into his own image, from one stage of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18), stamping his love on their hearts (Eph. 3:17). Through the Spirit’s internal work, Christian husbands can draw on the vast reservoir of Christ’s love and pour out that love for their wives.

Three-Stage Progression

So what does this love look like? We must take our cue from Jesus himself, whose love unfolds in a three-stage progression.

1. Love looks deeply.

First, the love of Christ looks deeply. He examines us with X-ray vision, peering past our outward veneers and into our hearts. There he identifies our greatest problem: in sinful neglect of God, we are separated from our Maker.

In a similar way, a husband indwelled by Christ can “go to school” regarding his wife, prayerfully asking the Lord to reveal what makes her tick at the profoundest level, what explains her dispositions, what brings her joy, what provokes her sorrow and, above all, what constitutes her deepest need. This is the love of Christ in a husband: it is a love that looks deeply.

2. Love acts quickly.

Second, the love of Christ acts quickly. He not only examines our hearts and identifies our needs; he moves promptly to address them. Not regarding equality with God something to grasp for himself, Jesus does just the opposite: he gives himself. In self-emptying love, he serves us at our point of deepest need (Phil. 2:6–7).

Similarly, a husband in whom Christ dwells regards his wife’s needs as more urgent than his own. “I’m going to take care of her concerns before I deal with my own.” “I’m going to put my interests on hold while I attend to hers.” This is the love of Christ in a husband: it is a love that acts quickly.

3. Love empties fully.

Third, the love of Christ empties fully. He identifies and addresses our greatest need. But he doesn’t stop there: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). To resolve our greatest need, to redeem us from our sins, the royal King of heaven submits his limbs and heart to be split open on the beams of a despicable cross. He empties himself fully.

For a husband, it’s one thing to see what a wife needs; it’s another thing to do something about it. And it’s quite another to do whatever it takes to resolve her needs, even to the point of laying down his life. This is the love of Christ in a husband: it is a love that empties fully.

To put it succinctly, a Christian husband lays aside his own life in order to pick up his wife’s. He treats hers as though it were his. He makes her life—her needs, her interests, her griefs, her joys—his primary concern.

Re-Enacting Cruciform Love

Hence the one piece of instruction Paul gives husbands—“Love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25)—could hardly be more radical. To reproduce cruciform love, to take up the life of your wife and make it your own—to look deeply, act quickly, and empty fully—represents a love far beyond most husbands’ aspirations.

Yet for Paul this love is more radical still. What drew out Christ’s love for us was, remarkably, not our inherent attractiveness but our natural flaws. It was our dirty baggage, our sordid past, our annoying inconsistencies, our selfishness and sin that moved him to give his life for us.

A husband indwelled by Jesus’s love will invest in his wife, not for her winsome traits but for her wearisome habits. It’s her ugly burdens he will take up and make his own. As C. S. Lewis observed in The Four Loves, this is hardly the husband “we should all wish to be”; rather, it’s the one whose marriage “is most like a crucifixion; whose wife receives most and gives least, is most unworthy of him, is—in her own mere nature—least lovable.” A Christian husband hoists onto his shoulders the things that burden his bride—her insecurities, her shifting moods, her hot temper, her gnawing guilt, her persistent fears, her sin. He gives himself up to bear her up.

Two Great Motives

What would motivate a husband to be so self-emptying? Two extraordinary realities.

1. God’s glory.

First, there is the assurance that the expression of marital love will bring glory to God. What could be more exhilarating to the world’s jaded eyes than to see a man dignifying his wife by investing himself in her well-being? The children born to that union, the neighbors sharing a cul-de-sac with that couple, the colleagues witnessing that love—all will be moved, and perhaps transformed, by a display of the one ingredient for which our self-obsessed society longs: self-giving love. To glimpse it in a husband toward his wife will glorify the source of that love, God himself.

2. Her beauty.

Second, a husband who loves his wife as though her life were his does no disservice to himself. Such love carries a spectacular promise. Just as Christ’s love transforms the church, so Christ’s love in a husband transforms a wife. It sets her above the common, cleanses her from past defilements, purges every wrinkle, and renders her without blemish (Eph. 5:26–27). As a husband soon discovers, what improves his wife is not his correctives or criticisms, but self-giving love. As Lewis simply put it, “He does not find, but makes her, lovely.” Far from an onerous duty, then, self-emptying love redounds to a husband’s benefit: “He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28). 

The love of Christ is a powerful agent of change, especially in our marriages. It transforms marital unions from glory to glory. And the husband, in dependence on God, is chiefly responsible for saturating the marriage with Christ’s love. What an extraordinary thing is a godly husband—a channel of cruciform love not only to his wife, but together through their marriage, to the entire world. 


Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible (Crossway, 2015). 

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