Read: Eph. 4:31–32
You might find strange that the biblical text doesn’t seem to relate specifically about marriage at all. Paul is giving the church general instructions, but he doesn’t say anything specifically at this point about the family or marriage, which is what I’m preaching about. So, what does this passage have to do with marriage?
I was led to think down this path by something Don Broesamle said during our ordination installation a few weeks ago. He pointed out that the requirements for the deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13) are requirements for every Christian — they aren’t some super-requirements for the diaconal elite that other Christians can dismiss. The deacons must be dignified, not devious, not greedy, and so on, but the Bible doesn’t teach that these requirements just apply to deacons. Why did the Holy Spirit list these then? Because he wanted to highlight these requirements as ones especially relevant for deacons.
But this fact led me think down other paths. What about the requirements in marriage? Are there unusual, unique requirements that don’t apply to our other relationships? As I got to thinking about that, it occurred to me that, with rare exception, the requirements for marriage are the requirements for Christians in general. For example, the husband is called to lay down his life for his wife, and Jesus laid down his life for the church (Eph. 5:25). What an ultimate sacrifice. But the fact is, John tells us that we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in the faith, not just husbands for their wives (1 Jn. 3:16). So, the call for the husband to sacrifice his life for his wife isn’t unique to marriage. And the same is true of most of the other biblical requirements in marriage. Of course, marriage may seem to be unique relationship like no other, but Paul says that even the union of marriage is like the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:31–32).
Where am I going with this? I want to say that being a good spouse in marriage is nothing more or less than being a good Christian. There are no superhuman requirements. There are no obscure “keys.” We sometimes hear sermons or Christian books with topics like, “Secrets to a Happy Marriage.” But there are no “secrets.” Godly marriages aren’t just for some initiated elite. Every marriage here today can be a happy, godly marriage, and it can be happy and godly because to be a good spouse just requires that you be a good Christian, a faithful follower of Jesus. Ans everybody can do that.
This is why I say that Christian marriage is plain and simple. I didn’t say “easy,” but I did say “plain” and “simple.” Godly, successful marriages are available to every Christian marriage.
Requirements for All Christians
I’ve chosen Ephesians 4:31–32 to start with because the Christian virtues mentioned in these verses — that is, virtues all Christians should manifest — create not just a successful Christian but also a successful Christian marriage.
We’re required as Christians to be kind to one another. The word translated kind means “mild, pleasant (as opposed to harsh, hard, sharp, bitter).” We know what it means to be harsh, hard, sharp, bitter, don’t we? We all have the capacity to use our words to hurt the ones we’re closest to, and we do this because we know they care the most. That is, we abuse their love for us.
Gordon Livingston once said that a relationship is always under the control of the one who cares the least. Think hard about that. The one who cares the least (in a marriage, for example) can get his or her way because he knows that the other person cares so much for the least caring one that he greatly wants to please him and her. That’s why the Bible demands we prefer others before ourselves (Rom. 12:10): Our goal should be pleasing one another, not ourselves, including — especially — in our marriages.
Therefore, as Christians, we’re required not be harsh, hard, sharp, and bitter. Don’t say, “That’s my personality.” It’s not our personality; it’s sin. God didn’t make us naturally to be harsh and hard and bitter. We had to learn to be that way via our sinful nature.
Remember that being kind is required of all Christians in how we treat one another. And if it’s true of all Christians, it’s certainly true in a marriage. It’s truly remarkable — and reprehensible — how kindly we can treat other people while simultaneously being unkind to our wife or husband. Let’s say you’re in the middle of saying unkind, harsh words to your spouse and somebody comes to the door, and you immediately change your demeanor and treat them with kindness.
All of us have done this, but there is nonetheless something fundamentally twisted about this inconsistency. If we can be treat a neighbor or a friend more kindly than we treat our husband or wife, we have missed (at that point) what it means to be a Christian.
Our words are powerful. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Pr. 18:21).
To treat your spouse kindly means speaking with mildness and restraint and concern. When situations get hard — and I assure you they will get hard — it means working hardest to be mild and caring. In fact, the harder situations become, the harder we should work to be kind to our wife or husband.
Would you like to know why kindness cultivates and protects a marriage? Because when we have the person closest to us in the world constantly — not intermittently but constantly — treating us with tenderness and mildness, they’re saying by their actions that we have great worth and value. Now, the Bible assures us that we’re created in God’s image, but we need that fact reinforced to us in flesh, blood and bones right in front of us. When the one we live with, the one we’ve made a lifelong covenant with, treat us with kindness, he or she is saying, “You’re made in God’s image, and you’re of great value and worth to me, and I care about how you feel and about your happiness and joy and security.”
When we are “harsh, hard, sharp, and bitter,” on the other hand, we’re saying, “Your feelings and happiness are not valuable enough for me to care about. I don’t care enough to work hard to guarantee that you know by my words and actions that I know you’re made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with kindness.”
If there’s anywhere that we should treat our fellow Christians kindly, it’s in our marriage.
Then Paul goes on to exhort the church that they should be tenderhearted toward one another. Tenderhearted means “having strong bowels; compassionate.” “Strong bowels”? That sounds disgusting. But we need to understand that to the Jews, the bowels were considered the deepest expression of our emotions. John talks about the “bowels of compassion” (1 Jn. 3:17). The Jews didn’t believe that emotions were superficial. They believed that they grew out of the inmost part of our being. They believed that our emotions were a part of us that governed our entire life.
And the chief emotion in the “bowels” is compassion. Compassion is an emotion of great sympathy with someone who is suffering or who is enduring great trial. You may have heard that a song by Joni Erickson Tada, the famous Christian quadriplegic, was nominated for an Academy Award (before the Academy disqualified it). She was paralyzed as a very young woman, and she’s devoted her life to serving other people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We think of her disability and we have deep compassion.
But that compassion that we should have for all Christians who are suffering should be especially manifest toward our spouse. That one we’re closest to, whom we’ve committed ourselves to, “til death do us part.” That person you live with needs your compassion more than anyone.
Now our culture’s attitude is often, “Life’s hard. Suck it up.” I don’t happen to find that attitude in the Bible, at least not as a way we’re supposed to respond to our brothers and sisters, and certainly not our spouse. No, the biblical way is compassion. That means sympathizing, putting yourself in the place of your spouse. This means a husband’s tenderheartedness for his wife’s pains of childbirth. It means a wife’s compassion for her husband’s hectic, pressure-cooker day at work. It means sympathy for our spouse when he or she has failed, or is ailing, or just can’t seem to go, or is emotionally depleted.
You’ve heard perhaps the old adage, “Don’t criticize somebody else until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Well, you get compassion by mentally putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes. This is a trait that we have to cultivate; it doesn’t generally come naturally. We naturally care about ourselves and our comfort rather than anybody else (Eph. 5:29). But when we husbands develop the habit of thinking about how it feels when our wife can’t seem to go on emotionally and physically, it’s easy to be compassionate and comfort her. When you wives look beyond the manly exterior of your husband and realize that we often feel exhausted and insecure and unsuccessful and pressured, then you’ll be able easily to know and show compassion. That’s not just being a good spouse. That’s being a good Christian.
Finally, Paul requires the church to forgive one another. This assumes that we’re going to say and do things that hurt each other. Paul is a realist. He knows that we’re sinners. He knows that we’ll all say and do things in the church that injure one another. Therefore, he knows that we’ll have to spend a lot of time forgiving one another. And if this is true in the church with our brothers and sisters, imagine how true it is with the brother or sister we live with, with whom we made a lifelong covenant, with whom we’ve produced children. Certainly, the need to forgive is greater in marriage than anywhere.
And Paul ties this need to forgive right with the Gospel. “forgiv[e] one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (v. 32c). That makes it easy to forgive. If God in Jesus could forgive us our mountain of sins, we can find it in ourselves to forgiver much small molehills of sins committed by our spouse. To be a Christian means to forgive one another in the church — and in our marriages — just as God forgave us for Jesus’ sake.
Refusing to forgive is a tragic sin. What makes it so bad isn’t just the ingratitude — God forgave us but we refuse to forgive others (Lk. 7:36–50). It’s more than that. If we allow that unforgiving spirit to fester, if we don’t repent and turn away from it, it turns putrefying, and its stench afflicts our entire lives. Everything we do is blighted by it. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve met people whose entire lives slowly turn bitter because they refuse to forgive a parent or an employer or a friend or a pastor — or a spouse. Our refusing to forgive when someone repents and asks for our forgiveness gradually changes us into bitter, resentful people. When that happens, we can’t be good Christians. What that happens, we no longer are in touch with the Gospel, which is about forgiveness.
So, in our marriages, let’s be quick to forgive. Be quick to offer forgiveness. Be quick to think about how God so freely forgave all of sins, and it’ll be easy to forgive the comparatively smaller sins our spouses commit against us.
Note what I’ve said today: being a good spouse really is simply being a good Christian in a marriage. It’s following Jesus in the life of the person to whom we’re married. This isn’t some special, secret virtue reserved for the spiritual elite. It means (for example) being kind, compassionate and forgiving.
If we live a faithful Christian life with our wife or husband, if both spouses do this, there’s no way we’ll experience anything else than a strong Christian marriage.