Love the Stranger

A friend of mine, who is the pastor of a house church, recently told me that some of the young couples in his church were getting divorced. I was sad to hear this because divorce is always a tragedy, but it’s all the more discouraging when the church is very small. Most of the members of the church are former Muslims who grew up in Central Asia. The pastor told me that he believes the problem is that the men have not been Christians very long. They carry with them into their Christian marriages many of the assumptions they grew up with in Muslim Central Asia, where women are seen as little more than slaves. As new Christians, these young men have not learned to love and respect women as real persons. They do not know how to exist in the freedom of the gospel in relationship with their wives. I’m sure he is right.

Regrettably, divorce is also very common among Christians who were raised in Christian homes and who live in traditionally Christian countries. And here the problem is not Islam, but something else.

In his book A Community of Character, Stanley Hauerwas writes about the destructiveness of the belief that marriage is for the purpose of self-fulfillment. He writes “The assumption is that there is someone right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person… fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being what it is, means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem morally is learning how to love and care for this stranger to whom you find yourself married.” A Community of Character, by Stanley Hauerwas, Notre Dame Press, 1981, p. 172.

When Hauerwas wrote “the primary moral problem is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married,” he was writing out of deep personal experience. Almost 30 years later in his autobiography, Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir, Hauerwas recounts how in 1981, while his professional life as a theologian and writer was blossoming, his wife Anne was sliding ever more frequently downward into psychotic breaks with reality. She became convinced that she would leave him to marry one of the Catholic priests who was his friend and colleague at the University of Notre Dame. The priest entertained no such thoughts. Hauerwas remained faithful to his wife. He raised his son alone. After more than 20 years of marriage, his wife left them, attempted to kill herself, and died soon thereafter.

What Hauerwas writes also resonates with what another Christian ethicist, Lewis Smedes alluded to when he wrote “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of the five has been me.” Christianity Today, January 21, 1983, pp. 16-19. We change. We change in ways that neither we nor our spouse can anticipate.

To say that the primary moral problem is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married is consistent also with the commandments we find in scripture.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church…He who loves his wife, loves himself.” Ephesians 5:25, 28

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:18

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34

“But I say to you, Love your enemies..” Matthew 5:44

Husbands and wives are close neighbors, but they can become estranged, and more often than they would like to admit, they do. But do they need to get divorced because they have become estranged? They do not.

The language of scripture resonates and overlaps on itself here in a remarkable way. “He who loves his wife, loves himself.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love the stranger who sojourns with you as yourself.”

In marriage, we learn to receive another person as a gift from God. That person does not meet all the requirements of our fairy tale fantasy. We stand under a commandment given by the living God. It becomes our duty to love one another, to love the spouse, who at times seems to be a stranger, and can sometimes even appear to be our enemy. We can do this, because our brother and friend, Jesus, died for us, rose for us, and left us a commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” John 13:34

Donald Marsden

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