A few years ago, a friend shared with me the sacrificial love her husband had shown her early in their marriage as they encountered the effects of her sexual abuse as a child on their own sexual relationship in marriage. Her husband is a very physical, masculine pastor (I shouldn’t have to note that but do to pre-empt anyone who would write him off as less than a man). She had been sexually abused as a child and subsequently experienced fear and tension in sex with her husband their first year of marriage. Her husband talked with an older, wise counselor who encouraged him to love her unconditionally without pressure to have sex, building up a relationship with her that made her feel safe until she was ready to initiate in sex. She told me she didn’t even realize that he had stopped asking for sex, but several months later, it dawned on her, and when she asked him, he told her the counsel he had received and what he was trying to do. He hadn’t put pressure on her or put out the vibe that she was disappointing him sexually that entire time. It worked, and they eventually resumed a healthy sex life. It ministered great grace to her heart to see her husband’s sacrificial love for her and his willingness to lay down his longings because he didn’t want her to feel exploited by him as she did by her abuser. That story reminds me much of Ephesians 5’s exhortations of sacrificial love for husbands toward their wives.
That husband endured a hard thing. It is not easy to love someone with such sacrifice. Actually, it would be more precise to say it is simply not easy to love someone. The term love when used as it is defined in I Corinthians 13 automatically implies sacrifice. We often qualify the term love with the adjective self-sacrificial. But when Paul (and Jesus) use the term, the self-sacrifice is understood. It’s part of the definition. “Love suffers long ….”
The love to which Paul calls husbands in Ephesians 5 is this kind of love. It’s not a manipulative kind of love. It’s a sacrificial love. I recognize well the difference because my husband loves me this way. It’s not so much big gifts, though I do like those. Gift-wrapped presents aren’t really sacrifices, per se. He’s being thoughtful in a low-level sense when he buys me a gift I like along with a sweet card. There’s a deeper, bigger sacrificial aspect of his love that I am coming to respect and value with maturity. I could give examples, but they would likely ring hollow because his expressions of that love towards me depend in many ways on ME. Authentic, biblical love towards you requires an understanding of you.
I Peter 3:7 ESV Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
If you wonder what the “likewise” refers to, Peter says this in the previous chapter.
I Peter 2 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
In I Peter 3:7, Peter is basically saying to husbands to continue in the example of Christ. The specific practical application he gives to husbands of Christlikeness is living with their wives in an understanding way. He uses several key words. First, there’s understanding. It’s sometimes translated knowledge. It means understanding who she is, what makes her unique. It’s not what the husband WANTS her to be, but who she is herself. That’s why my practical examples of what this looks like in our home are irrelevant. So what if my husband is willing to take a week off work so I can go study whales? The larger question is what are your own wife’s giftings and burdens (for the occasional man who reads this blog)? What is important to her? What would help her flourish? For what does she deeply long? Nourishing the soul is of much greater value than symbolic gestures.
Second, Peter says to show her honor, which could also mean respect according to D. A. Carson. We often talk about Paul’s command for wives to respect their husbands. Respect is my husband’s love language, and I value Paul’s instructions to wives on the subject. Yet husbands too are called to respect/honor their wives. I gave this illustration on the blog and in my book when I wrote on wives respecting their husbands. An education professor during my undergraduate studies told of a junior high math teacher who, on the first day of class, mistook her students’ locker numbers for their IQ’s. For the entire school year, she treated the students as if they were only as smart as their locker numbers indicated. Sure enough, at the end of the year, they had consistently lived either up or down to her expectations. I know without a doubt that my husband’s respect for me and honor of me has affected me similarly.
Peter says that the woman’s position as the weaker vessel is crucial to this need for respect. Does he mean physical weakness? I don’t think so. It seems he’s referring to her role in marriage. If a wife willingly embraces submission to her husband, it puts her in a weaker, more vulnerable position in the home. Hence Peter’s serious warning—so your prayers, husbands, will not be hindered! She is a fellow heir of the grace of life deserving of your honor and respect because of all God says over her in Christ.
Wives, if you don’t feel this kind of love from your husband, you can still love him this way. Maybe you don’t feel loved by him at all. Or maybe the love he thinks he’s demonstrating seems to you more manipulative than sacrificial. Christ’s love for us is the gift that enables our love for Him and others. And your love can be a conduit of God’s grace to your husband. The commands of love and respect flow both ways, but each requires that someone start first.
Luke 6:31 Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Beautiful well thought-out post…I rejoice in how God is teaching my husband of nearly 25 years to love me as Jesus loves the church…
my husband went through abuse as a child, so we deal with some similar issues as stated above. seven years in, i feel that God has stuck with us and led us to the present, where we respect and love each other gently. thank goodness.
As we have come out of the fog of “gospel amnesia” and have returned to the glory of the gospel we have seen a tremendous growth in our marriage in this area. I am learning true submission and respect and LOVING it, and my husband has been amazing in his sacrificial love and respect for me.
Well said, Wendy.
Luma, the EFCA sessions to which you pointed me were very beneficial in preparing this post. Thanks!
I've been a Christian wife with an unbelieving husband for over 40 years (God saved me after 10 years of marriage)and it's often bugged me that I have to love and respect my verbally abusive husband, even when he says he hates everything I believe in, let alone love me like Christ loves the church. But God has loved me, comforted me, guided me through His Word and after years of my being obedient to God ( and my husband with love and respect) where God has taught me things I did not know; e.g. look at what your husband does and not what he says to you, to see his true feelings; manage your own emotions not those of your husband; be gratefull for your husband's strengths and pray for help with your own weaknesses; get the love and comfort you need from Me and not your husband. We went through a really difficult time last year when, guided by God, I had to put firm boundaries in place about my husband's verbal behaviour towards me. He didn't like it but because I have been firm and consistant since then, recently my husband began treating me with the love and respect that I've longed for. Praise God! And even if this phase doesn't last, I shall still praise God in Jesus Name
The woman's position as the weaker vessel goes back to Gen 3:16 IMO and the fact that she IS SUBJECT to her husband IN EVERYTHING (Eph 5:24). Look at the submission verbs in 1 Peter, Eph 5, and Titus 2 http://concordances.org/greek/strongs_5293.htm The passive voice is accurate IMO and IME. Her husband has gravitational pull and a great deal of power depending on how he uses it. The husband you spoke of in the first few paragraphs used his power to build up, to nourish and cherish. (Not all do)
Also, look at the greek word that the NIV translates “respect” in Eph 5:33. It is quite different than what Peter tells husbands to have for their wives in 1 Peter 3:7. A wife having “phobeo” makes sense in light of his gravitational power.
IOW, I don't think Peter (or Paul) are referring to a woman's “role in marriage” when they speak of a wife being subject. I think they are reminding their audience of a wife's unique vulnerability in marriage.
Again, the husband in your illustration handled his wife's vulnerabilities in a sensitive Christlike manner. Not all do, and if he doesn't, 1 Peter 3:7 promises hindered prayers.
“your love can be a conduit of God's grace to your husband.” -Wendy
JFTR, my demonstration of love for my husband had to move away from soft compliant Sapphira-like enabling to tough love that looked more like Abigail's love for Nabal and Jesus' love for the Pharisees (see Matt 23).
Some of us have husbands with very deep unresolved issues- being ezer for them is challenging! But God equips! 🙂
Anonymous, I'm glad you drew firm boundaries with your husband's verbal abuse!
Wendy, I've moved from a complementarian point of view to an egalitarian one and don't agree with you on some points, but please, please, please continue to write on the subject. You are doing complementarianism a great favor. People need to read your observations and thoughts and they need to read them often. Thanks for posts like this one.
I meant to say that I've found your blogs very helpful since I “discovered” them last year. Also a book you recommended, “Sacred Influence” by Gary Thomas. God definitely guided me when I made my stand against the verbal abuse I had been putting up with for years but then I went into shock and wondered why I hadn't put a stop to it before. But God kept saying it was the right time and also He revealed the true source of the problem in my husband, so I could put the correct boundaries in place. Your recent book review about marriage was very revealing too, as it described a man just like my husband, but my husband is not a Christian. Often I think things would be different if my husband shared my faith, but obviously Christian marriages have just the same problems or worse. I live in England and your blogs are so encouraging. Thank you.