People generally know that a life-long marriage is good; but everyone agrees that marriage takes commitment and work. Writing in the London Times on July 18, 2012, Janice Turner commented: Marriage is gruelingly hard, astonishing, a feat of endurance.

So what advice does the New Testament offer on the subject of love and marriage? It’s worth exploring words that today are simply dismissed. In Colossians 3:18-19 Paul the Apostle writes: Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Husbands love your wives and do not treat them harshly.

In too many cultures women have been exploited and treated as chattels – especially by their husbands. In contrast, a striking feature about Jesus of Nazareth is that he treated women with courtesy and respect.

Furthermore, we can note that Paul himself wrote that there is no division between men and women – both are equal before God. In Galatians 3:28 he writes: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Consistently the Bible affirms the equality and dignity of womanhood alongside men.

The qualifying words to wives, as is fitting in the Lord, point to a deeper truth about the marriage relationship that is found in the nature of God who is one, yet three persons. Furthermore, the three persons of the Trinity are identical in being: each of the three is wholly and fully God. No one person of the Trinity has a higher or lesser status than the others.

That said, each of the three is different from the other. For example, God the Son chose to draw into himself human nature – something that is not true for God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Furthermore there is an order of movement (Greek: taxis) between the three Persons. This is not about rank or hierarchy, but about the way they operate with respect to one another. The Father sends the Son; the Son does not send the Father. Furthermore, the Son’s actions are voluntary: he delights in doing the Father’s will. This doesn’t mean that there is no conversation before a decision is made. The way Genesis 1:26 speaks of the creation of men and women, “Let us make humankind in our image…” points to a pre-cosmic conversation.

A clearer understanding of the Trinity helps us to appreciate the richness of Paul’s words about the ‘order’ of a marriage relationship. Indeed we begin to see how tightly wrought are Paul’s words to wives and husbands, and to husbands and wives in Colossians 3:18 and 19. The two commands must be taken together.

He is therefore not saying that wives are to submit to abuse or be marital doormats – people who take what is handed out to them and who speak only when spoken to. He is not saying that wives are to be weak or to see themselves as inferior. Jesus was not weak when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father,… not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). In contemporary English, deference captures the essence of Paul’s, submit.

Yes, this is counter to our culture’s thinking and practice. But notice that Paul’s tougher word is to husbands: Husbands love your wives and do not treat them harshly.

Having enjoined wives to show deference to their husbands, Paul does not say, ‘and men, you rule’. Husbands are not told to control their wives let alone exercise dominion over them. They are told to love. And here again, our Western world has been led astray.

Our one English word love is used to translate four Greek words – one of them being eros, from which we get our word ‘erotic’. It is a word associated with intense emotional feeling. Yet neither Paul nor the New Testament uses this word to speak of marriage. Rather, we find a very different word — agape. There are no rapturous, mystical experiences associated with it. It is the same word the New Testament uses to speak of God’s costly sacrificial love for us.

Eros is a word of self-gratification – a demanding, craving love, a love that demands a lover. Agape is a word of self-forgetfulness. It is a generous, altruistic sacrificial love, more interested in the welfare of the one who is loved. Eros wants to take. Agape wants to serve.

When Paul speaks of a husband’s love in Colossians 3:19, he is writing of a love that is committed to serving the very best interests of the loved one. This doesn’t mean he’s called on to serve his wife’s selfish whims but rather her deepest needs.

When we have a better understanding of God our lives and relationships are enriched. How much are we dependent on God’s written self-revelation for our better appreciation of him and his ways. And, fallen human beings that we are, how much we need to ask for his grace of forgiveness and strength joyfully to follow his commands.