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Hands Off Your Marriage


*Selected Scriptures
February 26, 2017
Sean Higgins

Marriage: A Mess Worth Making
Session One


Or, Why You Are Probably the Problem


As the first speaker I want to introduce a couple things before tackling my theme.

First, the title of the seminar: Marriage: A Mess Worth Making. Our church doctrinal statement defines marriage by the Bible: one man and one woman in a life-long covenant with each other. Marriage is heterosexual, monogamous, permanent, and God-ordained, all of which is revealed in Genesis 1-2. Marriage is God’s idea, His institution, and it has His blessing. So-called homosexual marriage is a mess that is not worth it, and no-fault divorce law has not actually made it painless to walk away from the mess.

Marriage is a mess because of Genesis 3. Sin separated Adam and Eve, and part of the punishment God gave them included difficulty in life together and between one another (see Genesis 3:16). Two sinners living in such close proximity will see sparks and stings and sorrows. It will happen even between couples who are actively being sanctified by God’s Spirit.

But it is worth choosing to make this commitment. It is profitable for each individual and for bringing more individuals into the world. It is profitable for showing the world what God is like as His image-bearers. It is profitable for revealing something about the relationship between Jesus and His Bride, the Church. It is profitable as a way to glorify God, honoring Him through thankfulness for such a divine gift. He blesses marriage, and husbands and wives taste it.

The institution of marriage is a mess in our culture and there are levels of mess in marriages among us. Every marriage has some mess, but, by grace, it can be cleaned up. That said, only those willing to do the work (and endure some pain) truly see the profit. Our goal with this seminar is to discuss some ways to clean up the mess and to give some worthy reasons for cleaning.

Second, the talks proceed by a loose order. I’m going to focus on the individual spouses who make a marriage. Dave will focus on spouses as a couple, and Jonathan will focus on how the couple affect a broader circle than just the couple. Jim will challenge all of us to want to be better; he’s batting clean-up with a call to action. I’m batting lead-off so I can steal all their thunder.

Third, a note on the recommended resources at the back of your booklet. You will notice it’s a short list and that on the short list the name Wilson is mentioned a few times. For my part I really do wish that I could recommend a variety of authors. But I went back and looked at the Man Pants session on being Christian Husbands Who Serve, and the elders actually printed on the handout:

Stay away from the psycho-babble of Christian radio, conferences, and most books on the subject of marriage.

Many of the marriage resources are sentimental sausage, chicken soup for spouses. Many of those resources are not necessarily any worse than just making you think about marriage in an entirely wrong way. The Wilsons, for better or for worse, wed marriage and family with theology and principles and incarnational joy that isn’t common. If this was a seminar on eschatology then the Wilson clan might only get a dishonorable mention. But this is in their wheelhouse. There perhaps are better exegetes, there are not many better marriage and family mechanics.

So then, to my topic: Hands Off Your Marriage. I was the last one to decide on a direction for my talk, and likewise my title was the last to be made to fit the others, so “Hands off” may be not quite right, but I think I can explain it.

One of the first and weightiest principles of marriage I ever considered was based on an observation about the household responsibilities in Ephesians 5 which are also visible in Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22–24, ESV)

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. (Ephesians 5:25–33, ESV)

Here is Paul’s two-verse edition to the Colossians.

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:18–19, ESV)

Both the husband and wife receive commands. Both also receive clarifications. Neither, however, receive any conditions based on the other person’s character or obedience to his/her command.

Husbands, you must love your wife, dying to bring life to her, regardless if your wife is:

  • lovely
  • thankful
  • submissive

Should a man choose the least-lovely-to-him woman to be his bride? No. But is her initial loveliness or her maintained/unfading loveliness a condition for his ongoing obedience? No. In fact, for him to really be like Jesus, he must love her when she is truly unlovely.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8, ESV)

God’s love is so great that He loves His enemies out of rebellion and hostility into loveliness and fellowship. Jesus sacrificed because He loved us first. He loved…and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her because she is not yet sanctified. She is not yet in splendor or without blemish, but she will be by His love. We respond to His love, He does not love us because we responded.

The costly love of a husband must be start with the subject rather than object, it must be based on what comes from his heart and not based on what he finds in her heart. The husband answers to God for his obedience whether or not she responds positively, quickly, or reciprocally. Holy Spirit enabled love, which is the context for these household commands (Ephesians 5:15-21), depends on the root of love not the recipient.

Does your wife appreciate your hard work for the family? Does she speak well about you? Does she speak well to you? Does she attend to the priorities you’ve expressed, follow your lead, and cheerfully submit when you make a tough decision (assuming you are in fact communicating and leading)? If I am talking to the husband about these issues then the answer to all of those questions is the same: Who cares?! None of them, not even one, qualify you for an exception due to marital hardship. If she is cold to you, or even opposes you, you are responsible to obey God, to act like Christ, to love your wife, to nourish and cherish her.

Will a godly husband care about his wife’s obedience to God’s commands for her? Of course he will. According to Ephesians 5 he is responsible to be presenting her blameless and blemish-less. That is part of the husband’s responsibilities. But, and this is a hard word, are you, husband, obeying? If only we could grasp the incongruity of admonishing our wives to get out of the rain while we are splashing about in mud puddles. She may in fact have a splinter in her eye. Did it come from the log in your eye?

Men, this is not the same thing as being a push-over. In love you will need to speak the truth. You will undoubtedly need to correct her thinking or confront her complaining or withstand her desire to rule over you. But you will do this because you love her not because you can only love her if she stops behaving badly. You will do this because she is an “heir with you of the grace of life” not because she has earned her justification with God or you (1 Peter 3:7). It is easy to be weak and to let her wallow in sin because you’d rather wait and see if she’ll become lovely at some point.

As Doug Wilson has written, love bestows loveliness. That is the heart of the gospel in three words.

Wives, note that the command to you likewise has nothing to do with your husband’s:

  • respectability
  • thankfulness
  • leadership ability, wisdom, sacrifice, maturity, kindness, tone, romantic inclinations, time at home, etc.

The barrage of “If only he would…If only he was…If only he…” cannot be supported by the Scriptures. In fact, the Scriptures argue “If only you…”

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1–6, ESV)

Submission is divinely powerful and attractive. Submission may be used to bring about salvation and obedience and therefore, respectability. Too many Christian wives want to win the world’s way, by force or manipulation or disobedience. They will respond when there is something worth responding to. That’s not what Sarah’s story was.

Of course husbands have the example of Christ to love the unlovely; Christ died for sinners. Wives don’t have an example of respecting a jerk because Jesus has always been not a jerk but instead perfect in His sacrifice and wisdom and righteousness and love. But that’s why wives get a different argument. Husbands, “love your wives, as Christ loved the church”; wives, “submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.” You are not imitating Jesus, you are submitting to Jesus as you submit to your husband. Because it’s all God’s idea, it will work out well for both of you.

Respect is not a barrage of strained flatteries, though it should include purposeful thanks. Sometimes respect means raising your expectations and then letting the weight fall on your husband. Find ways to give him a pat on the back, and make sure you let family burdens sit on his back. If it’s his deal, it’s not respect to act as if it’s your deal.

Respect bestows respectability, and you have no excuses for disobedience based on your husband’s lack of qualifications as you perceive them. Wives, you’re commanded to submit in everything whether your man is a stud or a dud.

The imperatives in Ephesians 5 have nothing to do with the other person other than to identify him or her. This is a truth I knew and a truth I talked about before getting married. What I didn’t know is how easy it would be to rationalize .

It is often the case that misery loves marriage, and two insecure and/or discontent people find each other and have union in their grievances until the other person becomes their primary grievance. You can prepare to be a better spouse by obeying whatever commands apply in every opportunity you have, especially the ones that aren’t easy. Daughters, listen to your dads; sons, seek to honor your mom. That’s a great start.

What happens if neither husband or wife will obey? It will be a chronic mess of pestiferous poison. This couple chooses, they do not fall into, a vicious cycle of negative reactivity. He is unkind, she is cold, so he is more unkind. She is whiny-bossy, he withdraws, so she gets more whiny—bossy. He’s waiting for her, she’s waiting for him, and they are in a holding pattern except for the increasing bitterness or becoming satisfied with no feelings or interest in the relationship at all.

Marriages like this will orbit the planets of anxiety, reactivity, sabotage, and emotional terrorism unless someone stops claiming to be the victim.

Someone must get up the nerve and go first and hold it. It’s easy to get psyched up to respond to the initial pushback; you’d been preparing for that one. You are patient as planned…for all of five minutes. But then the patience formula didn’t work so she/he outlasted your superficial obedience. You were temporarily trying to obey because you thought it would work, not because you knew it was right. It will work by grace, but grace is also teaching you and increasing your steadfastness.

In his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman wrote:

[L]eaders [must] focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others. (13)

To get out of the cycle of flames there must be:

someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about…someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence…someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. (14)

Most spouses do not need a seminar to get their marriage out of gridlock, they need courage. They need enough pluck to “take the first step and maintain the stamina to follow through in the face of predicable resistance” (33).

I think the husband ought to go first. The man should decide that he is done responding negatively to her negative responses. He is called to be like Jesus, and Jesus did not wait for us to draw near to Him. He came, He gave, He endures. Man up. Stop effeminate fussiness with your fussy wife. You are showing her how to handle something she doesn’t like. (Also, you are showing your kids how to handle it, but I’ll let Jonathan talk about the ripple effects.)

And don’t be discouraged, ladies. Though not ideal for you to go first, by God’s grace you can change the relationship if you start obeying, but it won’t work if you’re working to get him to obey. That is what Peter said: “even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word.” It’s not impossible because God honors obedience.

If this is going well, if the husband is loving his wife and the wife is respecting her husband, it may not be obvious that the wife is not totally lovely or that the husband is not totally respectable. That’s part of the glory of it.

Consider starting with confession and repentance and seeking forgiveness. It’s why our corporate practice, better labeled as our corporate discipline, of humbling ourselves before God in weekly confession of sin is so important. I admit that I sinned. I do not blame the environment or another person. It isn’t that our spouse is glorious like God so that we must be humble before him/her, it’s that we realize we ourselves are not great. We don’t have sinless resume from which to cast stones.

Be humble. Be obedient. Be patient. Be hopeful.

Do not manipulate.

The word manipulate is a derivative of the Latin word for “hand,” manus. To manipulate is to work something into a desired shape with one’s hands. Manipulation is appropriate with pottery, it is the worst with your marriage. Hands off your marriage means stop trying to handle or control your spouse into some position, and definitely stop trying to steer your spouse into some position before you’re willing to obey. Stop withholding love until there is lovely behavior, attitude, tone, gifts, and service. Stop withholding respect until there is proof, full satisfaction, and the meeting all of your expectations.

Stop being so insecure. Stop being so easily offended. Stop tyrannizing your spouse with oversensitivity. Don’t make everything so personal. Grow up. Don’t act as if your feelings are someone else’s responsibility. Get some self-control, against anger or “hurt.” “Self-control is a wall, a bulwark, and you should want walls like Babylon had, where four chariots could drive abreast around the top of them” (Themes in Proverbs: Self-Control). Prepare to be okay with pain for a while, especially if it is pain caused by your failure and foolishness. Establishing new patterns takes time. Plan on it.

You may need outside help. There are homes where husbands are dangerous and where wives are unapologetic for their disrespect or unfaithfulness. Seek counsel. But don’t do that instead of obeying yourself, do that as you yourself are obeying. The elders are willing to help. Just know that rarely are the problems one-sided (hence why most of counseling requires having everyone in the same room at the same time). Telling both spouses to repent doesn’t mean that your sin is making the other person sin, or even that your sin is as bad as the other person’s sin. Yet you need to stop committing your sin, so says God without conditions. Don’t seek personal comfort without seeking personal maturity.

Conclusion

Thankfully we are justified by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. We are not justified by our obedience, let alone by happy marriages. But the justified will want to be sanctified, and that includes a desire for sanctified marriages.

I (hate to) love the introduction in Wilson’s For a Glory and a Covering.

The word of the Lord is this: If we are discontent in our marriages, we are not capable of learning anything fundamental about marriage, and the more we refuse to learn, the more we think we know, because we have all kinds of “stories.” The irony is that today so much material on marriage is actually used (whether the authors or seminar speakers intense this or not) to inflame discontent: “Lord, here am I. Change him.” And if someone calls us on our own discontent, we will display that unteachable spirit mentioned earlier: “The Scripture doesn’t apply here”; “He doesn’t know my situation.” But God does know your situation, and He is the one who inspired St. Paul to introduce his teachings on marriage by saying that we should give thanks for all things. (xiii)

God doesn’t bless dealing with another person’s sin first. For the sake of your marriage don’t manipulate your marriage. Maybe you aren’t the biggest problem in your marriage, but don’t shirk the blame for your problems. Stop pushing, manipulating. Be godly. Be like Christ, submit as to the Lord. Be the right spouse. Work on adorning the gospel and being attractive in obedience. Trust God. Don’t act like Jesus in Revelation riding His white horse with flaming hair and a sword at His side, act like Jesus in the Gospels riding an donkey to His sacrifice of love in obedience to God.


Other resources: