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Volume 16, Issue 5: Husbandry

Three Barriers

Douglas Wilson

Scripture speaks of foolish women who are always learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth. Some people never learn because they never take the trouble to learn. Others never learn because they are always learning. But stuffing the facts into your head is a good way to avoid doing. And when a husband avoids doing, he is actually avoiding scriptural learning. James tells us that the man who hears without doing is the man who deceives himself. He thinks he makes progress when he is making none at all.

There are three basic reasons why men do not learn how to live with their wives, as St. Peter says, "with understanding." And these barriers to learning are there even if the husband in question is listening to sermons on the subject, reading books or articles, or going on romantic-get-away conference cruises.
The first is the problem of discontent. The author of Hebrews tells us that marriage is honored among all, and the bed undefiled (Heb. 13:4-5). In the same breath, he tells us to be content with what we have, and I do not believe he is changing the subject. Contentment lies right at the heart of good marriages. Any who have worked in pastoral counseling can tell you that discontented husbands and wives are among the most unteachable people on earth.
It is important therefore for us to begin with this basic lesson. All of us must thank God for our condition and estate. "Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:20). Giving thanks for all things is one of the prerequisites for understanding anything that St. Paul says in the following verses about marriage between a man and a woman, between Christ and the Church. Discontent creates an optical illusion for the person whose marriage is not going to improve. He believes that the problem lies with his wife, and if only she would change, then everything would be better. But she did change, three years ago, and he didn't notice.
A second barrier to true marital knowledge is the problem of grace and law. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life. St. Paul is not telling us to avoid literacy as a threat to our souls. The problem is not with writing, or reading, but with the hermeneutic that is brought to bear—and there are only two. There is the hermeneutic of faith and gratitude, and there is the hermeneutic of law.
Now the problem with "practical" teaching on marriage is that a certain kind of person hears the counsel given as though it is raw law. The biblical pattern of obedience to the loveliness of the law has it flow out of gratitude for grace already bestowed. But instead, the legal cart is placed before the gracious horse. And when this happens, to expand the metaphor, the higher the standards for traditional or biblical marriage, the heavier and more overladen the cart. In short, higher standards will result in less ability to live what is taught.
A third hindrance is to regard the teaching of Scripture as something that other people ought to be paying more attention to. The husband knows what verses his wife ought to be heeding, and if we were to ask her, she would probably be able to point out the passages that he is neglecting. In short, we neglect the fundamental biblical perspective on Christian living when it comes to marriage.
In other words, a man needs to remember that his wife is his neighbor. All of us are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. The responsibility all of us have as Christians to put the interests of the other person first is a universal responsibility. And this means a godly Christian man is of necessity going to be a godly Christian husband. But when it comes to marriage, far too many Christians believe they have the right to be rude, thoughtless, tacky, bitter, demanding, or angry—as though marital closeness eradicated all responsibility to live as a civil human being. How many times have husbands and wives been in the middle of angry and spiteful words, heaping resentment on one another, only to have the phone ring, and one of them picks it up with the chirrup back in the voice? "Hello?" In other words, if the caller is a casual acquaintance calling about a car for sale, he will get far better treatment than the wife does. What sort of sense does that make?
Many marriages are in a bad way because of simmering discontent, or because the marriage is "under the law," or because the assumption is made that good marriages can be separated from a basic godly demeanor. And as long as any of these three barriers are there, the words of life for marriage will just bounce off the husband—like a ping pong ball off the forehead of a bronze statue.

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