Have you ever seen someone get married and you are absolutely certain that it’s not out of love for the other person? Maybe the woman wants access to her husband’s wealth or lifestyle and marriage is the way she can get it. Or maybe the man wants access to his wife’s fame or reputation and marriage is the way to get it. (Or, as often seems to be the case, access to her much younger body.) Either way, there is something grotesque about a marriage that is transactional, a marriage that is founded on getting instead of giving. It cheapens marriage when a spouse doesn’t really want the other person, but simply what the person can do for him or her.
You do not need to be a scholar of the New Testament to know that the Apostle Paul repeated a number of metaphors and illustrations in his explanations of the Christian life and faith. Among his favorites was the picture of a race. Paul understood the Christian to be a kind of athlete and the Christian life to be a kind of competition. It is not the kind of competition in which runners compete against one another to be the sole victor, but the kind in which individuals run together, helping and assisting one another, knowing that all those who cross the finish line are declared winners. These runners do not battle one another, but rather battle the world, the flesh, and the devil, all of which attempt to slow them, hinder them, or cause them to drop out altogether.
Key to this illustration are the goal and the prize. In Philippians 3 Paul explains how he continues to run this race despite serious obstacles. Knowing that he has not yet reached the goal—which is either death or the return of Jesus Christ—and that he can never relax his pace until he has crossed that finish line, he says “I press on toward the goal for the prize.” In a running race that prize is a trophy or medal—or in Paul’s day a wreath or crown. But Paul has something better in mind, something far more precious and motivating. It is something he has written about just a few verses earlier. In verse 8 he says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” In Paul’s mind, the great prize is Jesus Christ!
There are many benefits that will be Paul’s when he reaches his goal and is with Christ. Of course he wants to be relieved of all the burdens of his mind, and the sorrows of his soul, and the pains of his body, and the sins of his heart. All of these factors burden and grieve him and being relieved of them is a wonderful benefit that will come with the end of life on this earth and the beginning of the life to come. Yet if Paul could be relieved of all that, but not have Christ, he would be inconsolable. The prize he longs for is not the benefits of Christ or the gifts of Christ; it’s Christ himself.
And this is where I find myself often needing to pause and think. Is my deepest longing for Christ? Can I honestly say that I long for him? Or do I actually long for the benefits that come with him? I want to have a body that is completely whole again, I want to see my loved ones again, I want to have a soul that will never sin again. Of course I do! But if I could have all this without Christ, would I take it? And as I ponder the glory of wholeness and sinlessness and wonderful reunions, do I ponder the even greater glory of meeting Christ, of knowing Christ, and of being with Christ?
I know I would cheapen my relationship with Aileen if I appreciated the benefits of marriage and the good things she does for me more than I appreciated her. And in the same way, I know I cheapen my relationship with Christ if I long for all the good and glorious benefits that come with being united to him even if I could do without him. And so I ask myself: What is it that I really long for? And I ask you: What is it you really long for? Both of us would do well to look to Paul as a mentor, Paul whose deepest and most ultimately longing was for Christ himself.