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.