One of the ironic things about marriage troubles is that the couple that’s having the trouble almost always knows what the answer is. If they’re Christians, both of them will have no trouble relating what the Bible teaches about good marriages, and they will be able to identify where their marriage falls short. The problems come when they try to figure out how to apply God’s perfect solution to their imperfect situation.
Nowhere is this more true than with communication in marriage. All of us know that any good relationship, whether marriage or not, is founded on good communication. If two people aren’t communicating well, their relationship is going to suffer. In just about any bad marriage, the spouses will candidly acknowledge, “Yep; we don’t communicate very well!”
However, admiring the problem doesn’t do any of us much good. We have to look for godly solutions. We have to figure out how to clear away years or even decades of failed attempts at relationship-building to lay a foundation for a stronger relationship tomorrow. This morning, then, let’s examine three Biblical principles that we can use to be a light in our marriages through better communication.
First, we must learn to BE DEVOTED to our spouses. Consider the picture of marriage that appears in Ecclesiastes 9:9. One of the things that strikes me about this passage is how all-encompassing it is. It tells us that we’re supposed to enjoy being with our spouses all the days of our lives. There is simply no way to have a good marriage without spending lots of time with our spouses.
However, not all time spent together is created equal, and at least in my marriage, a lot of the problems here start with me. I don’t know about the other men here, but I have a single-track mind. I live my life in sequence. I start one thing, do it, and move on to the next thing.
This means, then, that if I am sitting on the couch in the evening, and I’m reading a book or looking at something on my laptop, that might look like a great opportunity to have meaningful conversation with my wife who’s sitting six feet away, but it’s not. My mind is on a single track, and she ain’t it. If she tries to talk to me, I will listen for about three seconds, then go back to the thing that I’m focusing on. It’s a disaster!
Instead, we have to know when meaningful conversations with our spouses happen. In my marriage, our best conversations when I’m doing something that involves my body but not my mind. We go for walks together and have great conversations. We run errands together, and it’s the same thing. Even if I’m just loading the dishwasher, I’ll engage for 10 minutes.
Because this kind of communication requires more thought and effort from men, it should be the husband who takes the initiative in having meaningful conversation. I thought Clay’s sermon on intimacy last week was great, and I’m going to co-opt some of his language to explain why this is so. There are exceptions, but I think it’s generally true that women need more preparation for physical intimacy, but men need more preparation for emotional intimacy. We’ve all heard about how men are like microwaves and women are like crock pots, but I think when it comes to engaging conversation, it’s the husband who is like the crock pot. He’s the one who is not going to be able to engage the other spouse in the way they want at the drop of a hat.
In practice, it’s usually the drop-of-the-hat spouse who seeks to have their needs fulfilled, but if you think about it, that’s backwards. Instead, it ought to be the spouse who needs prep time who makes the effort to prepare and then reaches out. The loving wife will get herself ready for physical intimacy with her husband, and the loving husband will set aside time for emotional intimacy with his wife. Men, whatever that time needs to look like in your marriage, I leave to you, but you need to figure it out and make it happen.
Second, we should BE COMPASSIONATE. Peter says as much in 1 Peter 3:8. Even though this verse doesn’t mention marriage, it comes right after a lengthy discussion of marriage, and even if it didn’t, all the Bible’s rules for relationships generally have application to marriage. The point here is simple. Be kind and sympathetic to others.
This is all the more important in our marriages because of the tremendous ability all of us have to wound our spouses. I guarantee that if you look deeply into any troubled marriage, what you will find is two hurting people who are terrified of being hurt again, and so they build up all this emotional armor and lash out at each other in an attempt to protect themselves. Take some mighty macho he-man who whips two alligators every day before breakfast. He’ll never admit it, but he is scared to death of his 100-pound wife’s razor-edged tongue. Every one of us who is married, is married to a fearful, fragile, insecure human being whom we can devastate with a word.
Go gently, brothers and sisters. Go gently.
This starts with listening. A lot of the time, when people complain about lack of communication in their marriages, they mean that their spouses don’t want to talk about what they want to talk about. Brethren, compassionate communication doesn’t start with talking about what we want to talk about. It starts with listening to our spouses talk about what they want to talk about. Demanding that they talk doesn’t work. Giving them our attention when they do want to talk does.
This also means that we will respond to them in a them-centered way, not an us-centered way. Sarcasm, for instance, is self-centered. When we’re looking to be sarcastic, we’re not really listening to our spouses. We’re listening for an opportunity to exalt ourselves at their expense. The problem is, though, that when we hurt our spouses every time they open up, we’re teaching them that we can’t be trusted and that they never should open up. By contrast, the more we reward openness with compassion, the more open they will be.
Finally, we should BE OPEN. Look at Paul’s appeal in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13. Again, this isn’t a marriage-specific passage, but it reveals a truth about all relationships that is particularly significant in marriage. If we want to have good communication in our marriages, it’s not enough for us to listen compassionately to our spouses when they make themselves vulnerable. We have to be willing to be vulnerable too.
Just to be clear, though, “being vulnerable” is not code for “telling my spouse exactly what I think of their awful behavior”. That’s not vulnerability. It’s self-righteousness.
True vulnerability is hard, and it’s especially hard in difficult marriages. Being vulnerable is an act of trust, and how can you trust somebody who’s burned you so many times before? I think the answer is that if you want your marriage to get better, you have to pray a lot, gather your courage, and do it. Maybe you preface it with an appeal for compassion, but there is no way to open yourself up without. . . opening yourself up.
Additionally, I think that being open is especially hard for men. If there is any person on the planet a man wants to impress, it is his wife. We want our wives to see us as tough, competent, in control, and immovable, and the parts of our inward life that don’t fit with those things, we often edit out. I get that. In fact, I am that! However, at the risk of hypocrisy, I will say that I think it’s important for us to try.
As much as the devil delights in anything, he delights in deception. We have it on excellent authority that he is both a liar and the father of them. Indeed, the fruits of his deceitfulness are evident everywhere around us; indeed, even in our own lives. Sin is never good for us, yet he presents it as always good for us. He holds forth good as evil and evil as good. Perhaps most cruelly, he loves to convince unsaved people that they, in fact, have been saved.
In particular, he seeks to persuade people that baptism is unnecessary for salvation, despite abundant Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Here, his preferred strategy is pitting the word against itself. He points to the many passages that say that we are saved by faith, not works, claims that baptism is a work, and demands that we reject the baptism passages in favor of the faith passages.
This argument should make us suspicious, especially when we realize that Paul, one of the great New Testament defenders of the importance of baptism, also insisted that we are saved by faith apart from works. This leaves us with two alternatives. Either Paul is divided against himself, or there is something wrong with the proposition that baptism is a work!
It is, of course, the latter that is true, and nowhere is this more obvious than in his discussion of the spiritual problems in the Antiochene church in Galatians 2. Some men who belonged to “the party of the circumcision” came to Antioch and pressured the Jewish Christians there into shunning their Gentile brethren. The goal of this division was to compel the Gentiles to live like Jews by adopting the regulations of the Law of Moses.
In Galatians 2:16, Paul points out the crucial problem with this behavior. Jewish Christians had become Christians in the first place because they knew they could not justify themselves by observing the works of the Law. Rather than being justified by those Mosaic works, they sought justification through faith in Christ. If those dead works didn’t help the Jews, then why in the world would the Jews want to bind them on the Gentiles?
Every time in Scripture that Paul contrasts faith versus works, this is what he is talking about: justification by faith in Jesus versus justification through works by perfectly keeping the Law of Moses. Every time! He’s not talking about Johann Tetzel and the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church; still less is he talking about baptism. Whenever we stop using “works” in the Pauline sense and define it in a non-Biblical way instead, we’re opening a door for the devil.
In real life, there is no contradiction between baptism and salvation by grace through faith. Baptism doesn’t earn salvation. It’s an expression of faith in Jesus and the Bible’s promise that He will save us when we are baptized. When we do what He has asked, He will keep His pledge every time. When we don’t because we have been deceived into believing that we don’t have to, the devil rejoices.
When captives came to Zion,
Delivered by the Lord,
Then we became like dreamers
To see our own restored.
Our laughter filled our voices;
Our joy imbued each shout;
We hailed the lost returning,
For God had brought them out.
The nations watched with wonder;
They hastened to proclaim
The God who brought salvation,
The greatness of His name.
Now every heart rejoices
And every spirit sings,
For we repeat with gladness,
“The Lord has done great things!”
O Lord, restore our captives
As rain restores the streams,
That those who sow with mourning
May reap their joyful dreams.
They scatter seed in sorrow
And walk their fields in pain,
But they will come rejoicing
And bringing sheaves of grain.
Suggested tune: WEBB
(“Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”)
Of all the spiritual topics in the Bible, there are few that are more difficult to discuss in our society than the subject of submission in marriage. Americans never have been particularly submissive people to begin with, and in the decades since the Sexual Revolution, most traces of an older patriarchal culture have been obliterated. People who accept without batting an eyelash that there are 30 different genders will explode with outrage at the thought that wives ought to submit to their husbands.
In our study of submission, our goal is not to be conformed to the America of 2021. However, neither is it to be conformed to the America of 1950, nor indeed to the worldly ideas of any time and place. Instead, we want to be transformed to become unlike the world and to be conformed to the image of Christ.
In this, our greatest enemy is not our society but ourselves. All of us who are married, husbands and wives alike, know the temptation to put ourselves first instead of our spouses. The selfishness within us is the foe we must defeat. With this in mind, let’s consider what the Bible has to say about submission.
This morning, we’re going to confine ourselves to the discussion of marriage in the latter half of Ephesians 5. However, we’re going to start this study slightly earlier than is usual by considering what the Scriptures reveal about WHO MUST SUBMIT. Paul lays this out in Ephesians 5:18-21. This is one of the places where paying attention to a verse’s immediate context is vital. Yes, women are told to submit to their husbands in the next two verses, but 5:21 makes clear that submission isn’t a woman thing. It’s a Christian thing. All of us are to submit to one another, and that’s emphatically true of both spouses in a marriage!
Indeed, I think it’s appropriate to read v. 21 as a subject heading for everything from 5:22-6:9. Paul is telling spouses, children, parents, servants, and masters what submission looks like in their particular situation. We all are in different positions, but all of us are to share in the mind of Christ.
For that matter, it’s worth paying attention to the context of v. 21 too. “Submitting” is actually the last of three instructions that are given to us in a series, and all of them are expressions of a spiritual state. We are supposed to submit for the same reason that we sing and that we give thanks. All three of those are products of our choice not to be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit, back in v.18. Even though we’re not in Galatians 5 here, it’s completely legitimate to say that submission is a fruit of the Spirit.
With this in mind, let’s pause to notice the complete absence of asterisks in Ephesians 5:21. Nobody’s Bible says, “Submit to one another in the fear of Christ, except when. . .” As long as submission is not literally sinful, we are required to submit. It doesn’t matter if we don’t want to or don’t like it. Either we fear Christ, or we don’t.
After this, Paul begins his series of applications by discussing SUBMISSION FOR WIVES. This appears in Ephesians 5:22-24. The first thing to note here is that Paul is speaking to wives about how they should behave, not to husbands about how their wives should behave. None of us should feel triumphant about how the Scriptures stick it to our spouse. Instead, all of us should feel humbled and ashamed about how the Scriptures stick it to us.
Paul’s instruction to wives to submit is, to say the least, not popular. A lot of Christian women try to opt out of this command by comparing their husbands to Christ, to the inevitable detriment of their husbands. The battle cry is, “As long as he is treating me like this, I don’t have to submit to him!” Brethren, let me tell you straight. The behavior of our spouses has nothing to do with our obligation to obey God. Even if your husband is the most obnoxious, rude, insensitive jerk on the planet, you married the guy, so you have to submit to him! Fundamentally, submission in our marriages is submission to God, and the only way to opt out of the commandment is to opt out of obedience to Him.
When Clay and I were asked to preach this sermon series, the requesters asked for examples of how these principles should play out in real life. When it comes to the submission of the wife to the husband, the number of applications probably is infinite, but there are three in particular I want to point out.
First, being submissive means acknowledging your husband’s right to have the final say. Though the amount will vary from marriage to marriage, I don’t think it’s ungodly for a wife to disagree with her husband. Lauren disagrees with me frequently! Sooner or later, though, every disagreement must be resolved, and it is fundamentally the responsibility of the head of the family to make those decisions.
Second, being submissive means honoring your husband’s decisions, even when you disagree. Submission that passive-aggressively shuts down the argument, then sneaks around doing what it wants, isn’t truly submission at all. Nor, for that matter, is grudgingly offering the minimum amount of cooperation you think you can get away with. Submission must come from the heart.
Third, being submissive means speaking respectfully of your husband to others. The church exalts Christ. It doesn’t go around running Him down behind His back. Gossip is a sin, and gossiping about your husband is doubly a sin.
Finally, let’s consider SUBMISSION FOR HUSBANDS. Paul explores this subject in Ephesians 5:25-33. The first thing I want us to notice here is that this section is much longer than any of the others we’ve studied this morning. Apparently, the Holy Spirit thought the husbands of the church in Ephesus needed much more persuasion than the wives did!
Second, as with the instructions of the previous few verses, these verses provide a command for husbands with no exceptions. The wife is to submit to her husband, no matter what. The husband is to serve his wife with self-sacrificing love, no matter what. Even if her behavior is utterly horrible, that does not change our obligation one little bit! Christ gave Himself for us, so we must give ourselves for our wives.
It’s interesting, though, that in the second half of this context, Paul drastically changes his rhetorical tack. The first part is an appeal to selflessness—be like Christ! The second part, though, is an appeal to selfishness—care for your wife, because you’re really caring for yourself.
Brothers, truer words were never written! Yes, we can put ourselves first in our marriages. Yes, we can trample all over our wives. However, if we do, the price that we will pay will be far higher than we can possibly imagine. The fruit of our bad behavior will embitter our entire lives.
As I did for wives, I want to close with three concrete examples of what submission for husbands looks like. The first of these is that we must make every decision for our wives’ benefit and happiness. As we do this, we must remember that the best guide to our wives’ benefit and happiness is. . . our wives. Beware of constantly rejecting what she wants and telling yourself it’s for her own good!
Second, take the suffering in your marriage upon yourself. Christ suffered for the church, not vice versa. If someone in your marriage is going to be inconvenienced or hurt by a decision that you make, make sure it’s you every time.
Last, be the one to offer reconciliation. Every marriage, no matter how good, will have problems in it because all of us are imperfect people. When Wife is in the kitchen, mad, thin-lipped, not talking, and Husband is sitting in the recliner in the den, mad, thin-lipped, not talking, who should be the one to reach out? Who should be the first to swallow their pride a little bit, to apologize, to acknowledge wrongdoing rather than finding fault? The Biblical answer here is clear. Christ was the first to reach out to us, so husbands should be the first to reach out to their wives.
Humility is everybody’s favorite virtue. . . for everybody else. Everywhere we go, we are struck by how highly everyone else thinks of their own thoughts and conclusions. My elders are stuck in the past, but they’re so sure of themselves that they don’t realize it! My friend thinks they’ve got it all figured out, and they keep on telling me how I need to do my business! My spouse thinks they’re God’s gift to marriage! And so on.
Of course, something else is lurking underneath all this, and it becomes clearer once we focus on our solution to all these perceived problems. How can the elders become savvier? By listening to me. How can my friend become less overbearing? By acknowledging that I understand things better than they do. How can my spouse stop being so arrogant? By admitting that I am the truly wonderful partner in the marriage.
That reveals a pride problem, all right. However, it’s probably not the pride problem that we think it is. If we are honest, to our lists of all those we think are arrogant, we probably should add our own.
Really, that’s just as well. We’re not called to make anybody else be humble, so whatever pride problems they have aren’t our problems anyway. We’re called to humble ourselves. In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter is quite clear. Humility is an outfit that all of us are expected to put on.
This means first of all not being quite so certain of ourselves. The fate of the congregation probably does not hinge on the elders doing things our way. Our friends probably will not end up dead in a ditch if they don’t listen to us. Our vision for our marriages probably is not the only godly way for them to be.
Second, we need to engage in some soul-searching. Why is it that it is sooo important to me to get my way in everything? Sometimes, the answer is that we’re simply that confident. More often, though, it is that we aren’t. The words and actions of others bother us because they make us doubt ourselves even more, and we want them to stop so we can feel better about ourselves.
Just as God calls on us to rein in our pride, so too He helps us to conquer our fears. As Peter observes just a chapter earlier, if we are devoted to what is good, who will harm us? Indeed, who can harm us? Not the people who ignore us. Not the people who call our judgment into question. Our security is not based on ourselves. It is based on Christ.
Once we recognize that, rather than sweating everything, we don’t have to sweat anything. No one can diminish us; no one can tarnish the eternal glory that soon will be ours. When we have put on the gentle and quiet spirit of 1 Peter 3:4, it doesn’t matter what storms rage outside because Christ is inside.