I was preaching at a wedding recently and was deeply challenged by my own sermon. Thankfully, by God’s grace, this happens on a regular basis! As I exhorted those who were husbands in the congregation to love their wives I realised that I didn’t do this anywhere near enough myself.

It’s not that I’d become violent or mean—although I do still need to grow in gentleness, self-control and patience—but I was convicted by God’s Spirit that I was not loving my wife as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:25). I was taking her for granted and I wasn’t really caring for her as I would my own body (Eph. 5:28).

I later realised after I made some initial steps of repentance, that this had been affecting my own fellowship with God. Prayer had become something of a “burden”, the LORD had felt distant, and I wasn’t experiencing the Spirit’s power in my life. The words of the apostle Peter were especially pertinent at this point:

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

All of which is say, love for one’s wife is more important than any form of spiritual success or wider influence in Christian ministry. Because if I fail at this then, as a minister of the Gospel it really undermines everything else I do. As John MacArthur states:

The true spirituality of a church leader is not measured best by how well he leads a deacons’ or elders’ meeting, by the way he participates in Sunday school, or by the way he speaks from the pulpit—but by the way he treats his wife and children at home when no one else is around. Nowhere is our relationship to God better tested than in our relationship to our family. The man who plays the part of a spiritual shepherd in church but who lacks love and care in his home is guilty of spiritual fraud.[1]

In this regard, there are a couple of verses in Scripture which have ‘haunted’ me over the years. One of them is where the apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And the other is in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “…I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” In other words, there is something about marriage that should be of first importance. Because if I fail to love my wife and children then I have not faithfully served Christ.

Is your wife a ministry ‘widow’?

The danger is that our wives and children can become ministry “widows” or “orphans”. We can sacrifice their spiritual well-being on the altar of our own spiritual service. And even worse, we can justify our selfish—nay, idolatrous—behaviour because of the Gospel. The words of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Pharisees are especially apt at this point where he rebuked them for their failure to honour their parents by being overzealous (yes, there is such a thing) in their ‘devotion’ to God.

“…why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and anyone who curse his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God, he is not to ‘honour his father with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; Their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Matthew 15:3-9

At my daughter’s wedding a few years ago, she made a farewell speech because a couple of days later my wife and I were moving interstate to take up a new ministry position. And one of the main things she thanked me for as her dad and pastor was that I was always home for dinner and available for her after school. I was truly humbled, because it just seemed so ‘lowly’. But it was my time—and not so much my theological knowledge or homiletical giftedness—which she valued the most.

A Timeless Warning

One of my favourite authors is A.W. Tozer. His The Pursuit of God is a must read. It was one of those books which proverbially “changed my life”. But then I came across this piece of biographical information which broke my heart. Lyle Dorset published a biography entitled, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer. And as Sean Michael Lucas wrote in a subsequent blog:

Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer’s character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: “I have never been happier in my life,” Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, “Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me” (160).

Tim Challies made a similar observation:

During the 1930s Tozer read voraciously, and he also developed a magnificent obsession to be in Christ’s presence- just to worship Him and to be with Him.” Yet he was a man who was emotionally and spiritually distant from his own wife. “By early 1928 the Tozers had a routine. Aiden found his fulfillment in reading, preparing sermons, preaching, and weaving travel into his demanding and exciting schedule, while Ada learned to cope. She dutifully washed, ironed, cooked, and cared for the little ones, and developed the art of shoving her pain deep down inside. Most of the time she pretended there was no hurt, but when it erupted, she usually blamed herself for not being godly enough to conquer her longing for intimacy from an emotionally aloof husband.”

But for the grace of God there go I.  It was a time when it wasn’t expected for men to be emotionally engaged with his wife and children. And I don’t know where Tozer’s wife was at spiritually either.[2] But that said, if I’m loving my wife as Christ loved the church, then surely there has been an intimacy and focus which results in our spouse’s happiness.

Stop thinking like you’re still single

When we were newly married, my wife had to often remind me to stop thinking like a single person. And to my shame, she was right! Leaving and cleaving to my beloved bride was one of the greatest transitions in my life. It was like running a three-legged race where you have to consciously be in sync. The apostle Paul addresses the ‘cost’ of marriage like this:

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the LORD’s affairs—how he can please the LORD. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of the world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the LORD’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the LORD in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. (1 Cor. 7:32-34)

There is profound sense in which when you are married you not only have to die to self (considering how you can please your spouse) but that you also don’t have the same undivided opportunity to serve the LORD. It’s not that marriage is ungodly or not glorifying to God. Indeed, as an older pastor once said to me, “Be careful who you marry, because she will either double your ministry or halve it.” But that said, being married doesn’t have the same opportunities or flexibility for service as being single does. Anyone who is married will immediately understand what this means.

The challenge is to love our wives more than our ministry. Sometimes this will mean making difficult decisions which might even upset our wives because we’re putting God first (2 Sam. 6:14-22). But there are other times where putting God first means we curtail the extent which we’re involved for the sake of our wife’s well-being (Deut. 24:5).

There is always hope!

The enduring challenge which remains as husbands though, is to love. And to love our wives just as Christ did the church. That is one of the greatest responsibilities a man could ever seek by God’s grace to fulfill. But the word of encouragement we all need to hear is that there is always hope. This is because, no matter how hard our marriages might be, God’s Spirit is powerfully at work. To transform us into the image of Christ and to demonstrate love and forgiveness.

Marriage is hard. It is, at the same time, one of the great blessings and most difficult responsibilities to fulfil. But the thing that gives us strength to persevere and especially not give up hope is the knowledge that it is God who is supernaturally at work in the hearts of believers making them one.

This is also why we must guard ourselves in our spirits so that we continually recommit ourselves to loving our wives (Mal. 2:15). Each day is a new beginning. And each morning we should expect a fresh outpouring of grace (Lam. 3:22-23). Because God is so merciful and forgiving. And His Spirit is powerfully at work.

–  Mark Powell

[1] John MacArthur, Ephesians (Moody, 1986), 298.

[2] John Piper makes the helpful qualification, ‘We would need to be as penetrating in our analysis of her [Tozer’s wife] spiritual condition as we are of A. W. Tozer’s. Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them. Was David’s zeal for the Lord imbalanced because his wife Michal despised him for it? Was Job’s devotion to the Lord inordinate because his wife urged him to curse God and die? Would Gomer be a reliable witness to Hosea’s devotion? I know nothing about Tozer’s wife. She may have been far more godly than he. Or maybe not. It would be helpful to know’.