I have had, for probably twelve years or so, a lingering dissatisfaction with Paul’s words in his Ephesian epistle about the way a man should love his wife. In chapter five, Paul writes the following on the topic:
“Husbands: love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
It’s not that I’d taken issue with Paul’s stance on husbands loving their wives, or that I thought Christ’s love for His Church was a poor example of doing so, or that I had any problem with any principle concerning marriage in the text whatsoever. Frankly, I just couldn’t relate to the analogy: “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.”
In my early teens—twelve, thirteen, somewhere in there—I was obviously not married and had no immediate plans to become so, but I was (as all middle school boys are) completely insecure, and (as I’m sure at least some middle school boys are) particularly insecure about my body. I’m not sure exactly when I began feeling so concerned over my ‘image’ (which I’ll define as: other people’s perspective of one’s physical self), but I can tell you that, over the course of my middle and high school career, I had a literal litany of all the things I disliked about my body. Some of these ‘cherished mistakes’ in my list were probably spawned by other people’s comments (intentional or not), but most of them, I believe, originated in me. I regularly and readily recited this list to myself and (at times) to others during deeply intense periods of self-loathing.
It could very well have been simply that I had not yet had a girlfriend at that point in my life, but regardless, I had the distinct and self-insurmountable impression not only that I was ‘ugly’ and thus undesirable, but that there was something (a multitude of things) wrong—very, very wrong—with my body.
Uncoincidentally, alongside the formation of this negative self-perception, it was also true that, in medical terms, there were (perhaps not a multitude, but) a handful of things ‘wrong’ with my body. I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV at home, age seven or eight, then sitting up to stretch my back only to feel the excruciating crunching of vertebrae that would be diagnosed as kyphosis of the spine by fifth grade. I remember sobbing into my mom’s lap in my pediatrician’s office when a urine sample revealed that I almost definitely had type 1 diabetes, then spending that day and the rest of my weekend peeing in a plastic jug to check for ketones, being woken up by nurses every three hours who pricked my fingers to analyze my blood, and learning about why my pancreas, instead of continuing to produce insulin naturally on its own, decided that it would be better for me to have to draw a synthetic version from a vial into a syringe and administer it to myself through subcutaneous injections four-to-five times a day every day for the rest of my life; I went home Sunday night—my only full night’s sleep that weekend—and woke up early Monday morning for my first day of seventh grade, having to answer the question “So what did you do this summer?” with “I got diabetes” on the bus ride to class. Then there was the ‘tumor scare’ later that year when the x-rays and CAT scans on the lump on my left clavicle turned out to be a result of bone fusion in my ribs from the kyphosis. Then the periodic flare-ups of sesamoiditis, and so on.
Now as you can imagine, I had a difficult time digesting Paul’s assertion that “no one ever hated his own flesh,” because I certainly felt that I hated mine, and what’s more felt that I was entitled to. Although my depression and self-hatred seemed to lessen, so did the effort I took in caring for my body. In high school I flaunted my diseases as something to be known by, my nickname in most circles being ‘Diabetic’ or ‘Diabetes,’ but my hemoglobin A1c levels rose to almost thirteen percent. (A healthy person’s A1c averages 5%, and a diabetic person taking good care of themselves should be below 7.) I knew on the surface of my mind that I would regret this self-destructive lifestyle, even summoned the thought of a future wife and kids mourning my premature death, but I just couldn’t convince myself to care for my own body.
Fast-forward to the present: I have been married now for almost six months, and—uncoincidentally—God has been using my marriage to teach me about my own body.
I’m not sure how, but I think God has been using the principle that Paul lays out in Ephesians 5 on me—but in reverse. Rather than showing me how to love my wife by the way I love my body, I believe that my love for my wife has caused me (perhaps for the first time) to love my body. In some ways it may simply be because I love loving Steffeny and want to continue doing so for as long as I can, so obviously I need to keep myself alive longer in order to do that. But I think it might be something deeper than that.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This verse is found in the context of “conjugal rights” (wink), and while context is important, there’s a principle of marriage here that affects more than just sex: becoming ‘one flesh’ with someone gives you mutual authority over each other’s bodies because you actually share the same body. When God first fashioned Woman from Man’s own rib, Adam was moved to say, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He loved her because she was him. This is the “profound mystery” which Paul refers to as a symbol for Christ’s oneness with His Church: we all are members of His body.
Since marrying Steffeny, God has begun to unearth emotions I’ve buried concerning my body and opened up doors of physical healing. I’ve started giving my insulin on a regular basis and am trying to work in regular checking of my blood sugar; my most recent A1c test (the first I’ve had in a few years) rendered a significantly-improved 8.5%; and, though I haven’t done a thing for my back condition since diagnosis, just last week I began going to physical therapy to strengthen areas of weakness and stretch out areas of stiffness.
The symbolic parallel to marriage is also uncoincidental: being strengthened in my weakness and stretched when I am resistant. Though in some ways great change has already happened with little effort, there is also pain and difficulty and work which I’m sometimes unwilling to put in. But I’m encouraged by my wife’s love for me and my love for her, and I think I’m starting to believe Paul’s words, that “he who loves his wife loves himself.”