Both secular and Christian marriage counselors are increasingly concluding that the leading cause of our divorce epidemic is not problems with finances or sex. or even "incompatibility." It's neglect. Couples are breaking up for what they've failed to do right more than for what they've done wrong. Paul's comment about the cause-and-effect principle of sin certainly rings true in the arena of human relationships: "A man's harvest in life will depend entirely on what he sows" (Gal. 6:7, Phillips). The arresting truth here is that "sowing" implies a future harvest. By sowing neglect now, we have nothing to reap later.
Many couples, blinded by the illusion of unity created by the task of raising children, find that after their kids are grown they are strangers to each other. They have no harvest because they neglected to sow years earlier.
This is compounded by the fact that while a man's need for intimacy seems to be strongest at this time in his life, his wife's major personal need at this point is for significance and self-worth. If the husband has neglected her need for intimacy in the early years when they were greatest, it is doubtful that he will be interested in meeting her need for significance now. The resulting conflict of needs and wants may lead to infidelity or divorce in the absence of the common task of child rearing, which once held the couple together.
What can the concerned Christian husband do? In the New Testament we find clear and profound commands directed to the Christian husband and to the Christian male who aspires to marriage.
First of all, a husband's love is to be sacrificial. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy" (Eph. 5:25, 26).* This means that our love for our wives is to be costly and active. It's not a token—not just a paycheck or a new car. It's not really even an emotion! Agape love, the love this verse speaks of, is not a feeling. It's an active, costly service to our wives. It means laying our personal goals at the feet of the priority of loving her, meeting her needs, and helping her become what God wants her to be.
Jesus laid down His life for the church. That's the husband's charge, and just as Jesus' love for His church is not dependent upon what He sees in its members, so we are to love our wives simply because they are our wives—not because they are always lovable and beautiful, but because we are commanded to lay down our lives for them. This command is not for "committed" husbands only. It is God's charge to any married man who names the name of Christ.
How can a husband fulfill this command? By regularly laying aside his own personal desires to meet his wife's immediate and long-term needs. When our second child arrived, our firstborn was about 2 1/2. I was in my first year of teaching school, and this addition to our family brought extra demands upon the time I had for designing and preparing my curriculum. But my wife's needs were accelerating too. Finally one evening she said, "I need to get away from these kids, or I'm going to snap! I'm going out alone for breakfast tomorrow." I'd like to boast that this was my idea, flowering from my sensitive, godly character, but I had been oblivious to her need.
She went out that next morning for food and refreshment while I fed on feelings of bitterness and hostility. It's my day off, I stewed. Why should I be baby-sitting? All in all, it was a long morning! When Jill appeared in the doorway two hours later, the glow on her face—the obvious fruit of this brief excursion—melted when confronted with the sour countenance of her husband.
We persisted in the new routine, but my inner struggle continued for about three more weeks before I began to be convicted by this passage in Ephesians. Slowly a sense of joy grew, and the times alone with my two boys became a highlight of my week, not to mention the ministry of refreshment these breaks brought my wife.
More than that, I think her self-esteem was nourished by the fact that her husband really cared enough for her to "give up" two or three hours for her every week. When I look at the insignificance of this sacrifice, I am embarrassed at the self-centered egoism that encased my first response to her suggestion. Three years and two more children later, Jill still goes out for breakfast on one of my weekly days off. And I've grown some too: Now I baby-sit four children, dust the house, do two loads of laundry, and clean both bathrooms while she's gone!
These special mornings are a tradition now. It's my boys' "morning with Dad." The opportunities for loving and teaching them during these times are priceless. But even though my convictions in this area are pretty well settled, I still struggle periodically.
I'll never forget a recent occasion when a friend caught me in rubber gloves while I was cleaning the upstairs toilet. He was on his way to a local fitness center for a two-hour workout. His passing comment—"You make a good house keeper"—rooted itself in my heart and festered like an open sore. Soon I was engaged in a mental debate about my masculinity and freedom. Was Jill running this home? Was I doing what should be "women's work"?
Again Ephesians 5:25 came to mind, and I was assured that if there ever lived a man who was masculinity's epitome, it was Jesus—and He gave Himself up for His bride.
Learning to listen
A husband's love should also be sensitive. "Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them" (Col. 3:19). A husband's love is not to be loud, demanding, or abrasive.
I was an analytical chemist for more than five years. My job required me to discover answers to problems quickly, logically, and efficiently. That's a tremendous asset if you're a chemist, but it can be an awesome liability for a Christian husband. When my wife was ready to sell the kids to the gypsies or put the dog in the food processor, the "answer man" was on the spot with a smorgasbord of solutions to her problem! Time management, scheduling, prioritizing—you name it, I had just what she needed.
With one exception—sensitivity. Jill needed an ear, not a mouth.
Probably no area in our marriage has been so difficult for me as that of learning simply to listen to my wife. At every level our schools offer courses in speech, but no one teaches us how to listen. The more my wife resisted my sage counsel, the more vocal I became, until my earnest desires to help deteriorated into a crushing harshness. James's admonition that we be "quick to listen, slow to speak" (James 1:19) certainly applies to men. Howard Hendricks calls our malady as men an "omniscience complex." We think we know more than women, are more logical, more competent, and on and on. So we are quick to speak and slow to hear. Harshness is often the result.
A husband's love is to be sensitive. It should deal with the wife at the level of her feelings. I now call my wife at least once each day just to find out how she is. It's like a pressure valve for her, and it also keeps our worlds from becoming polarized.
I also fight the "call of the sirens" that lures me to the couch when I walk through the door each night. I walk to wherever Jill is, give her a cordial kiss, and talk with her about the events of her day. Helping set the table or getting the beverages ready serves to make dinner a pleasant time to talk, even with four children. We also have a "tea time" immediately after supper; we dismiss the boys, and then Jill and I can talk more.
Learning to listen to my wife is as hard for me as pushing a chain, but I'm committed to being sensitive in obedience to Colossians 3:19.
Finally, a husband's love should be considerate. "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers" (1 Peter 3:7). The words be considerate translate a prepositional phrase that literally means "according to knowledge." It speaks of insight, a studious awareness of who your wife is and what is involved in the marriage relationship.
Getting to know your wife—taking an avid interest in who she is and in how God made her unique—is the single greatest method of building or repairing self-esteem. But doing this requires creativity, and I have about as much creativity as a snowbank!
I'm learning, however, that creativity is contagious. Once I start trying to be considerate and thoughtful, God is faithful to show me new areas where I can serve my wife. One morning as I was folding a load of laundry I suddenly realized that all of my underwear and socks were inside out, just the way they had landed in the laundry basket when dirty. It took considerable time and hassle to reverse them all. I purposed from that day on that I would make sure they were right-side out before they went into that basket!
Another inconsideration at which I am a "professional" is cluttering up our home. With little difficulty you could reconstruct my evening's activities by the "landmarks" I leave: lunch bucket by the door, shoes by the couch, socks in the den, mail by the chair. They all add up to work for someone. My wife likes to have the house straightened before bed each night so that when she arises for her devotions the next morning she isn't greeted by a load of housework. I'm making an effort now to support her spiritual life by reducing that load each night.
When Jill was pregnant with our twins she was confined to bed for ten weeks, two of which she spent in the hospital. During that time I learned volumes about her daily tasks as a mother and homemaker. I vividly remember a near nervous breakdown one morning when the pancakes, eggs, and toast were all done at the same time! With blue smoke
billowing out of the toaster, my sons' chorus of "I'm hungry" did not have the same effect on me as Handel's Messiah!
The one thing that has ministered most to my wife is our weekly date. For eight years I have taken her out each week, alone. We established this tradition long before we had children. We were faithful to this weekly adventure even while in seminary, when money was scarce to nonexistent. (In those days, stopping at a deli for a little extra
after supper at home ministered to us just as much as going out for a delicious meal.)
Now we usually go out to eat, and then for a walk. We share our hearts the most during these times, laughing and some times crying, praying and planning. It's an indispensable cure for the exhaustion and defeat that "life in the fast lane" with four preschool children produces.
I've learned through my mistakes that most of us men believe two myths about taking our wives out. One is that they have to go to some really nice place. I've found that Jill enjoys a place with an atmosphere conducive to talking much more than a place that leaves the prices off the menu.
The other myth is that going to dinner with another couple or going to some program constitutes a "date." I've discovered that my wife wants to be with me—to talk to me, see me, interact with me. Programs and friends are great for social events, but they don't develop intimacy in marriage. If you're going to take your wife out, make it count. Being considerate, in the final analysis, requires a thoughtful assessment of what will minister to her the most.
The passage in 1 Peter also speaks of the married couple as "joint heirs of the grace of life" (R.S.V.). That's really the proper perspective. It's a partnership, a joint effort to convince the watching world that in Jesus Christ marriage is the most mutually exciting and fulfilling adventure on earth.
The charge to believing husbands—to love their wives sacrificially, sensitively, and considerately—is no easy task. Scripture says that the children of the homemaker will "rise up and call her blessed" (Prov. 31:28, R.S.V.). But I don't believe this will happen unless they continually find those words on the lips and in the actions of their father.