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This is how the people in the church thought about Tom and Kate, the “Ken and Barbie” in their local congregation. They courted each other during high school and college. Their first kiss for either of them was on their wedding day. They are beautiful, successful, and saved.
They host a small group in their home. One of the members, Bob, silently wishes his wife could be like Kate. Bob’s wife rarely attends, and the group has wondered if she is a Christian. She committed adultery a few years back, and while they reconciled after a short separation, their marriage is far from thriving.
Joanne, also a member of the small group, is secretly envious, wishing her husband was like Tom. Her husband is a good man but is not the spiritual leader of their home. He keeps busy with work and has little time for her. She feels alone.
All of the couples enjoy sitting under Tom’s shepherding while learning about biblical marriage. They all thought Tom and Kate had figured out marriage, which is why they were shocked when Tom announced they were going to counseling.
The group collectively thought, “How could this be? If Tom and Kate are struggling in their marriage, where is the hope for the rest of us?”
In order to accurately understand the institution of marriage, we need to go back to the beginning, as seen in Genesis 2 and 3. We all know sin entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. In Genesis 3:7-10, we read how the loss of God’s covering led to personal and relational conflict.
As descendants of Adam, we all experience the same thing. Our hearts are bent away from God. Every person brings the curse into their marriage which leads to many hurts and disappointments.
However, to have a complete understanding of how the fall impacts marriage, we need to think about the judgments God spoke against Adam and Eve. Most of these judgments we accept as part of living in a fallen world.
Women experience pain when bearing children. All work is toilsome. And we will die. Being regenerated does not change these consequences. In addition to these judgments, the Lord told Eve she would have a hard time submitting to her husband. He said,
Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you (Genesis 3:16 ).
What does this mean? To help us understand this judgment, we must first understand the meaning of desire. Some suggest this is a sexual or relational desire. This cannot be true since God already gave them the command to be fruitful and multiply before the fall (Genesis 1:28).
This same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 4:7. God tells Cain that sin desires him. Sin wants to control him. Sin wants to dominate him. Sin wants to take over his life. With this insight, we can conclude the woman has the same desire for her husband that sin has for Cain–a desire to control and to have her way.
Enmity is put between the wife and her husband. Whatever she wishes, whatever she desires, is subject to his will. She won’t always get what she wants. She won’t always have what she desires. She’s going to have to bear the sorrow of unfulfillment.
She’s going to have desires and dreams and ambitions that aren’t going to be fulfilled because her husband does not have a perfect love for her, does not have a perfect understanding of her, or even might say an imperfect understanding of her.
And he’s going to rule her in ways that lack compassion and sympathy. This is how it is in the world. – John MacArthur
This universal dynamic is in every marriage. In a mysterious way (Deuteronomy 29:29), God placed this experience in our hearts (Proverbs 4:23), resulting in marital conflict.
Man’s fleshly fallen leadership has led to great suffering and sorrow for women throughout history. Men have used and abused women and treated them unkindly, un-faithfully, and indifferently.
They have demonstrated little compassion while expecting everything out of them but giving them little in return. Despite awareness in these areas, the exploitation of women continues in society.
The emancipation of women is an illusion. A woman cannot free herself. She is not the equal of the man. Only before God is she equal.
Although there was an original divinely planned subordination for the woman, this was to be a blessing for her. The man was to be her head in the sense that he loved her with a love in which no sin was mixed.
Instead of the mild and tender love of Eden, the husband would now domineer over his rebellious wife. In many parts of the world the role of the woman has been reduced to that of virtual slavery. – E. J. Young
It is no wonder the divorce rates are greater than fifty percent and why the feminist movement is appealing. Whether you are Christian, non-Christian, married, living together, well-prepared, or just winging it, God’s judgment for sin will lead to relational discord.
The gospel is about restoration. We know our hope lies in the life and work of Christ. Yet despite this truth, why do many Christian couples struggle—even couples like Tom and Kate?
As Christians, we are quick to turn to Ephesians, where women are called to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). Unfortunately, we think these commands are the answers, not realizing they are only by-products of the solution.
The solution to resolving marital discord can be found a few verses before—be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18)! This verse provides the context for the instructions that follow to wives, husbands, children, slaves, and masters.
The word used for filled does not denote a static filling as a glass filled with water, but a dynamic filling, similar to how a ship’s sails are filled with wind.
This can serve as a good illustration for us all. We are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), but the new creature must rely on power external to ourselves (John 15:5) in order to perform well for God and to others.
The mind map below organizes these truths. It is only through the gospel and our cooperation with the Spirit that we can have a biblical marriage. If we do, the curse is softened, and a wife is able to submit to her husband, and a husband is able to biblically lead his wife.
On the upper right side of the diagram, you can see how our flesh can dominate when a Christian quenches or grieves the Spirit. For a fuller explanation of how the Spirit and God’s grace works in the life of the believer, please see Rick’s Mind Mapping Christian Maturity.
A heart captured by the gospel will be motivated to continually adjust the sails in proportion to participating in the various means of grace God provides to be mature.
While we don’t know what is going on behind closed doors with Tom and Kate, we know the common tendencies that produce conflict in marriage—rebellion from the wife and poor leadership from the husband.
If they are not walking in the Spirit, Tom’s leadership will drift anywhere from being too harsh to too absent. Kate’s submission will turn to rebellion, ranging from full-blown disobedience to quiet withdrawal.
Tom and Kate had a great marriage resume. There were no entanglements from past relationships, no past sin in their sex life, and no shame from poor choices as teenagers. This left them vulnerable to a common mistake mature Christians can make—approaching marriage through self-reliance.
They were trusting in themselves and not in their daily need for the Holy Spirit to deliver God’s grace to overcome their natural desires. This is an example of how an unguarded strength can result in marital weakness.
Every marriage must anticipate the Lord’s curse to be part of their marriage. All Christians are undergoing the process of sanctification, and thus, the partners will be wrestling with their flesh.
Instead of trusting in their pedigree, Tom and Kate need to continually adjust their sails to walk in the Spirit while not gratifying the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Bob, who wishes his wife was like Kate, will need to think through how the Lord’s curse has affected him and his leadership approach to his wife. Though he has received the Spirit (John 7:39) and is free from the power of sin, he continues to live in a body of death (Romans 7:24). This means his flesh will battle with the Spirit (Galatians 5:17), and if he faces this battle on his own, his flesh will win.
Moving forward, Bob needs to humbly admit his need and seek the Spirit’s help. It will be difficult because this kind of request goes against his nature. It may also not seem fair since his wife is rebelling, plus there is no guarantee she will respond to his humble leadership.
The better he grasps what can be gained through the gospel, his heart will desire to reflect Christ’s love (Romans 5:8). He will be motivated to put to death his fleshly nature and look for ways to serve and love her more effectively (Ephesians 5:26).
His focus needs to be on Christ (Hebrews 12:2) as he cooperates with the Spirit to receive the grace to respond in love. He also needs to recognize how this dynamic plays out in his wife.
If she is not saved or not participating in the various means of grace needed to mature her, then her flesh will win. Teaching her Ephesians 5:22 may prick her conscience, but it will not give her the power to obey.
Joanne’s husband, while a Christian, appears to be leading her in a self-reliant, flesh-empowered manner. Compared to the world, Tom is doing well, but without the Spirit, he will be unable to love his wife and family in a way that will protect and purify. He will not receive the grace he needs to serve them after a busy day. He will not be able to minister to his family’s spiritual needs.
Joanne will need to address her heart too. She is not immune to fleshly tendencies. She needs to recognize her craving to have her own way. She needs to examine her actions to see if she is trying to take control through deceptive manipulations.
Marital conflict is present in all marriages. The good news for Christians is we have access to the Spirit to reverse our problems. The bad news is our self-reliant desires can lead us away from the enabling Spirit of God.
This is one of the key schemes of the enemy (2 Corinthians 2:11). He uses the world to entice our flesh. If we are not constantly tending the sails, we will allow our flesh to dominate, and enmity will re-enter our marriages.
If you want to learn how to begin working on your marriage, then I recommend you take the first step by learning how to walk in the Spirit. You can do this by reading Rick’s article on walking in the Spirit.
In addition, you will need to read Mind Mapping Christian Maturity to gain insight into the process of growing in Christ. These resources can radically alter your marriage. Let them serve you.