At first blush marriage hardly seems like preparation for Christian persecution except as a matter of jest. The disciplines required to kneel in holy witness before an ISIS executioner on a sandy beach hardly seem related to the disciplines required to kneel at a church altar and enter into the kind of matrimony that yields only to death.
But this may be because we do not fully understand either Christian martyrdom or Christian marriage, and thus we may not ultimately know how to be successful in God’s terms at either.
In the case of Christian marriage, it is given to us by God not for our satisfaction but for our sanctification. Marriage that satisfies but does not sanctify is not of the Lord; marriage that insists on the former in order to make the latter bearable isn’t either.
If this thought disappoints, it may be because we don’t fully understand sanctification either. Or, more accurately, we simply don’t enjoy it. Satisfaction is much more, well, natively satisfying to us, whereas we anticipate sanctification tasting like water being poured into the wine at a wedding feast.
That anticipation is not without grounds, since sanctification is a kind of divine drilling operation. It is at times profoundly unsatisfying because by definition it digs intentionally and unceremoniously beneath the only form of love that comes naturally to us, namely that rooted in our personal satisfaction.
But there is a reason for this digging beneath. Ultimately, sanctification in marriage allows us to tap into a source of love for spouse previously unknown and inaccessible to us, one much more abundant and far less seasonal than the superficial and easily depleted springs that bog about our psyches. The result of marriage-fostered sanctification is that love is enabled to flow out of us like living water, surprisingly independent of how much flows into us as a product of surface conditions. This is in contrast to our pre-sanctification state in which love must continually be pumped into us before some tithe of it can be siphoned back out.
Marriage sanctification, in other words, frees us from our spouse having to be the source of the love upon which we draw to love them in return. More and better love becomes resident in our marriages than either we or our spouse is capable of generating on our own. We are set free to vulnerably yet without reserve pass on the love for spouse that God gives–love that is patient, kind, not self-seeking, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering.
Most interestingly, in giving it, we receive it as well: Divine love flows outward, yet it refreshes and renews the lover who loves in this way. This is the characteristic of divine love that differentiates it so fundamentally from its human counterpart. Human love is exhausted when it is poured out and not replenished by an equivalent pouring in. But divine love is fundamentally different. Contrary to popular understanding, it is not simply another exhaustible source of love that must be constantly replenished by us through, for example, Bible reading and prayer. These disciplines heighten our awareness of it, but they do not generate it. Divine love is its own replenishment–a river that refreshes the banks through which it flows, as it flows. Divine love begets love. It exhausts hatred, but not itself nor the one through whom it flows.
In marriage, divine love is sometimes though not always conveyed to us from or through our spouse. Sometimes it comes to us through the very act of our loving our spouse. In this way no Christian marriage is a loveless one for the Christian who loves, even if the spouse offers little or nothing in return. But, cautions the Apostle Paul, do not have low expectations for the one who is loved divinely. Just as receiving divine love sanctifies us (it is the only thing that can), it can likewise have a sanctifying effect on the one we love. Perfect love, even imperfectly received, can cast out a surprising amount of fear.
And so begins to appear the bridge between loving our spouse and loving our enemy. If in loving our spouse we become attuned to a source of love that begets itself anew in the act of loving, then gradually we come to recognize that the love we offer to any other need no longer be conditioned upon–and no longer sullied by–whatever they do or don’t do in response. In fact, we begin to recognize that it is in the act of loving that we are refreshed by divine love.
Far from the (peculiar and distorted) picture of martyrdom as Christian-against-the-world-standing-strong-for-his-beliefs, the centrality of enemy love in the Christian faith reminds us that if the martyr has not love for the persecutor, then even should he give his body to be burned, it profits him nothing. Paradoxically, we are renewed by loving our enemy, not destroyed. As with Jesus, the resurrection validates the cross; it does not reverse it. Moreover, it reveals the cross as the glory and the wisdom of God.
We do not prepare for martyrdom by protecting our theological convictions from those who would seek to compromise them. We prepare for martyrdom by loving our spouse and our friends differently–with a love rooted in sanctifying, not just satisfying, lover and beloved.