As a woman was getting her hair fixed, she listened to the conversation between her beautician and the 19-year-old beautician in the next booth. The younger woman was trying to decide if she should marry her boyfriend, who was contemplating getting a tattoo with her name. The older beautician cautioned her by saying, “Marriage is one thing, but a tattoo is permanent!” (Reader’s Digest [4/99], p. 129.)
There’s the modern mindset for you—we see tattoos as more permanent than marriage! As I said last week, our culture has gone through a major shift over the past 30 years, where divorce is now fairly commonplace, even in Christian circles. If we want our marriages to last for life and be glorifying to Him, as God’s Word commands, then we need to develop God’s perspective on marriage, that He hates divorce and that marriage is a lifelong covenant before Him. We explored those matters last week. This week I want to focus on another principle from our text:
To avoid divorce, cultivate your relationship with your wife.
As I observed last week, our text is addressed to the men, and so I am addressing the men. The Bible does not allow men to be passive in the realm of marriage and family. Chuck Swindoll once was talking with a Christian counselor friend. Chuck asked him, “What is the number one problem you face in counseling?” Without hesitating, the counselor shot back, “Passive males.”
I don’t know if it’s because men feel intimidated in the area of relationships or what. Many men just want peace in their homes, and they think that by yielding to whatever their wives want, they will gain peace. So they avoid dealing with problems. They fall into what Douglas Wilson calls “the nice guy syndrome” (Reforming Marriage [Canon Press], pp. 77-85). They let the home run on auto-pilot, assuming that their wives have it all under control. But they abdicate loving leadership in their marriages and with their children. Their wives grow increasingly frustrated and angry. But the husbands don’t get it. They think, “I work long hours to bring home a good paycheck. I go along with whatever she wants. Why is she upset with me? Why can’t I just have some peace and quiet when I come home from a long day’s work?”
If you leave today with only one thought, men, it should be: your marriage requires deliberate cultivation. As someone has said, “Even if marriages are made in heaven, man has to be responsible for the maintenance” (John Graham, Reader’s Digest [11/79], p. 157).
You don’t walk by a house with a beautiful flower garden and a lush, manicured lawn, and think, “They’re sure lucky to have that kind of yard. I wish my yard would automatically look like that!” A beautiful yard requires deliberate cultivation and effort, not just when you put it in, but also over the long haul. Weeds and bugs take over if you let them. I’ve been battling a fungus in our yard for years, and if I let it go, it spreads. It takes constant work and attention. Your marriage is the same way: it requires constant cultivation and attention. As the spiritual leader in your home, God holds you accountable for cultivating your marriage relationship. Part of the responsibility of leaders is to deal with problems, not to be passive.
Remember, your aim in obeying God in this matter is not so that you will have a happy, peaceful marriage, although God usually gives that blessing when we obey Him. Your aim should be to please and glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). Our text reveals four ways that a husband needs to cultivate his relationship with his wife:
I emphasized this last week, but it bears repeating because the world is constantly chipping away at this biblical idea of covenant commitment in marriage. One way the enemy worms his way into Christian marriages is when a husband allows rivalry to develop in the marriage. Many Christian marriages are a battleground for the war between the sexes. She has a bad attitude toward men and he rolls his eyes and thinks, “Women! Who can understand them?” Their marriage becomes a football field with husband and wife on opposite sides, and the scoreboard tells you who is winning.
Early on in a marriage the husband needs to emphasize to his wife, “We’re on the same team. I am for you and you are for me. God has put us together to complement one another and build one another in Christ. Let’s solve our problems from this perspective.” Especially when a couple has a misunderstanding or disagreement, it is important verbally to reaffirm mutual covenant commitment. The husband, as the head of the wife, should give her the security of saying, “I love you and my aim is to present you holy and blameless before Christ (Eph. 5:25-27). Now, let’s talk about what is wrong.”
“She is your companion” (2:14). The Hebrew root word has the idea of being knit or joined together, thus pointing to a close relationship (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, & Bruce Waltke [Moody Press], 1:260). As I said last week, when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, in perfect fellowship with God, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and He created Eve for Adam. Men, your wife should be your best friend on earth.
Friends spend time together. They talk about everything from the superficial to the significant. They share their deepest feelings and hopes and fears. Friends listen to one another and draw out their thoughts (Prov. 20:5). Friends just like being together, even if they aren’t talking. Friends accept one another, while at the same time they have a commitment to help each other grow in Christ.
Friends enjoy doing things together and find separation painful, not pleasant. Although I have to do it occasionally, I dislike going to a conference or on a trip without Marla. I do not enjoy having fun without Marla as much as if she is with me. Someone said, “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years” (Simone Signoret, Reader’s Digest [12/87], p. 45). I would argue that it is both chains and threads: the chain of covenant commitment, and the threads of doing things together.
Years ago, when our children were toddlers, I was meeting weekly with some young men that I was seeking to disciple. One day one of these men excitedly told me about a fishing trip to Mexico that he had planned and asked if I would like to go. As he described things, I couldn’t quite picture how the accommodations would be adequate for Marla and the kids. So I asked, “Where will our wives and children stay?” He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “This is just for the guys!” I looked back at him like he was crazy and said, “I would not enjoy myself if Marla and the kids couldn’t come!”
I’m not condemning guys who like to go do things just with the guys. There is freedom in Christ to do that. But for me, Marla is my best friend, and I prefer having her along. And when the kids were still at home, we both liked having them with us. Even when we used to get away for a couple of days without the kids, we would get to the motel, look at each other, and both of us would say, “I miss the kids!” We just like being together.
I cannot give you chapter and verse on this, in that the biblical culture is far removed from our modern culture, but for our family, our annual vacations have been the highlight of our years together. We’ve never spent a lot of money on our vacations, which is why we took up camping. It’s relatively cheap and we avoided the high cost of restaurants by cooking our meals on our camp stove. But the memories that we have of enjoying God’s beautiful creation together bind us together. I am amazed when I learn that some Christian families seldom, if ever, take vacations together!
But it doesn’t have to wait for a vacation. Marla and I often take a hike together. We also like to take a picnic dinner and go to a beautiful spot to watch the sunset. The idea is to spend time together. However you do it, cultivate companionship with your wife!
I think that Malachi chooses the phrase, “the wife of your youth” (2:15) to appeal to the hearts of these insensitive husbands, who were trading in their older wives for younger models. They were familiar with the Scriptures, and immediately would have thought about Proverbs 5:18-19. Solomon is exhorting his son to avoid adultery and to be faithful to his wife: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated always with her love.” If that kind of graphic language embarrasses you, may I say, you need to become more biblical in your thinking, because God saw fit to put such language in His Word!
Romantic love and sexual attraction in marriage change and deepen over time. That is inevitable as our bodies age and as we go through life’s joys and trials together. The initial phase of romantic love is pretty much spontaneous, which is why we call it falling in love. You don’t have to do much to fall, except to slip and let gravity take over.
But romantic love over the long haul in marriage is not spontaneous. It requires deliberate attention and cultivation. By saying, “the wife of your youth,” Malachi encourages you to think back to the early days when you fell in love with your wife. Think about the many years and memories that you have built together. Appreciate the qualities that attracted you to your wife. Figure out ways to express your love and appreciation to her. That includes telling her, verbally, that you love her.
I heard about a wife who complained to a marriage counselor that her husband never told her that he loved her. He snapped, “I told her that 25 years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind!” Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it, guys! When you were courting your wife, you put some effort and creativity into letting her know that she was special to you. Do the same thing now!
Solomon commands the husband to rejoice in the wife of his youth (Prov. 5:18). Rejoicing is an emotional response. You may ask, “How can God command an emotion? We can’t conjure up emotions, can we?” But the fact is, God commands all sorts of emotions! “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). True joy is an emotion. “Hate evil, you who love the Lord” (Ps. 97:10). Hatred is a strong emotion. “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise” (Ps. 100:4). True thankfulness and praise are matters of the heart, not just mouthing words. So God commands us to have certain emotions, which means that we can cultivate them if we lack them.
Some men may be thinking, “How do you rejoice in the wife of your youth when all you feel now is anger and bitterness when you think about her?” Again, the Bible commands us to control our thoughts (Phil. 4:8). Some thoughts are evil and need to be put off, whereas other thoughts are righteous and need to be put on (Eph. 4:31-5:2). If your wife is behaving in ungodly ways toward you, you can respond in an ungodly or in a godly manner. Passively retreating from her anger to buy peace, while harboring bitterness in your heart, is not a godly response. Scripture specifically forbids returning evil deed for evil deed or insult for insult (1 Pet. 3:9).
You can determine to deal with her wrong behavior in a biblical manner. When you begin acting in godly ways, controlling your thoughts and seeking to build your wife in Christ, your emotions will eventually follow your thoughts and actions. When you pray faithfully for your wife and deliberately cultivate commitment, companionship, and romance in your marriage, you will begin gradually, but surely, to feel joy towards the wife of your youth.
There is a fourth area that we must cultivate in our marriages:
As I explained last week, “cover your garment with wrong [or, violence]” (2:16) refers to the Hebrew custom of a man showing his intention to marry a woman by draping his outer garment around her shoulders. It pictured the protective care and provision that he was promising her as his wife. To divorce your wife is to yank off that protective covering and leave her exposed and vulnerable to evil forces that would seek to harm her. In New Testament terms, the husband is the head of the wife, and part of that role requires him tenderly to nourish, cherish, and protect her as he does his own body (Eph. 5:28-29).
As Douglas Wilson points out in Reforming Marriage (pp. 23-26), the Bible does not command husbands to be the head of their wives, or say that they ought to be the head. Rather, it states it as an inescapable fact. Husbands may be faithful, diligent, effective leaders in their marriages, or they may be passive, inattentive, and ineffective leaders. But the Bible states that the very nature of the marriage relationship involves the headship of the husband.
Both the fall of the human race into sin and the modern feminist movement have brought mass confusion and imbalance into Christian marriages about this matter of the headship of husbands. I have seen some men who think that the model for being the head is that of a drill sergeant in boot camp. He uses his authority to bark orders and he expects the wife and kids to obey.
I once asked a man whose marriage was in trouble what his understanding of headship was. He replied, “If I tell my wife and kids to paint the house black, they grab a brush and paint it black!” It is not surprising that his marriage subsequently broke up! He knew nothing about tenderly nurturing and protecting his wife. His idea of headship was that it is a privilege for him to use for his own purposes. The biblical idea is that headship is a responsibility before God to be exercised for the edification of those under that protective covering. The Bible forbids lording it over those under your leadership (1 Pet. 5:1-2).
On the other hand, many Christian husbands have abdicated leadership in their homes, often (in their minds) to buy some peace. He wouldn’t dare attempt to lead his wife, because he tried that once and met with stiff resistance. He wouldn’t think of confronting his wife’s sin, because she would really make things difficult at home if he did that! So he contents himself with the thought that he brings home the paycheck and he lets her dominate their relationship and have free reign in running the household. All he asks is for a little peace and quiet after a hard day’s work. If his wife asks for his opinion, he says, “Whatever you want, dear.” He can’t understand why she is so frustrated with him, since he’s such a nice guy! The reason she’s frustrated is that he is not fulfilling his God-given role to lead her and the family in the ways of God.
Both Douglas Wilson’s Reforming Marriage and Stuart Scott’s The Exemplary Husband [Focus Publishing] have excellent sections on biblical leadership in the home. Wilson gives some specific steps on how to turn from passivity to godly leadership in your marriage (pp. 77-85) Scott has two chapters on leadership (pp. 117-142) and another helpful chapter on helping your wife deal with her sin (pp. 205-226). There is a wealth of far more material in these sources than I can develop here. I wish that every Christian husband would read these chapters often and prayerfully, and humbly before God take responsibility for godly leadership in their homes. I have seen marriages break up and others degenerate into unhappy battlegrounds because husbands were not diligent in this important biblical responsibility.
Scott develops the idea of the exemplary husband as a shepherd-leader (pp. 120-129). He points out that we are not kings, but lowly under-shepherds, doing the bidding of the Chief Shepherd. Any authority that we exercise must be to accomplish God’s purpose and to care for and build up our wives. He develops eleven qualities of a shepherd, which I only have time to list here, with a brief comment. Each husband should think about how to apply these in his own marriage.
Josephine Lowman wrote (Reader’s Digest [date unknown]):
Building a good marriage and building a good log fire are similar in many ways. You build a fire with paper and kindling, and all at once it goes up in a brilliantly burning blaze. Then the primary blaze burns down and you wonder if the fire will fizzle out and leave you in the dark. You blow on it and fan it for all you are worth. Sometimes smoke billows out and almost chokes you, but if the materials are good and if you invest enough energy and interest in maintaining it, soon the big solid logs catch, and your fire takes on new qualities.
Husbands, our responsibility before God is to keep the fire burning in our marriages. Untended fires soon die down to a heap of coals and then ashes. You have to feed them continually to keep them burning.
Or, to use the gardening metaphor, you have to cultivate constantly or the weeds and bugs take over. Are you constantly cultivating commitment to your marriage covenant; companionship with your wife; romance with the wife of your youth; and, tender responsibility toward the one “under your garment” of protection? If you have not been diligent, God allows U-turns. Pick up one of the books I mentioned and begin this week to cultivate your relationship with your wife!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation