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When Paul calls men to love their wives and not become embittered, he is not simply calling them to do “loving things”  (Colossians 3:19). That is, sadly, often the default. The husband will think that what matters is that he does the things that look like loving behavior. But that won’t do.

When talking about love in broad terms in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul notes that it is possible to do loving things (like meeting the needs of the poor) and not have love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). In writing to the Romans, Paul spoke of the love we are to have for one another saying it must be unhypocritical–from the heart–and an expression of genuine devotion to one another (Romans 12:9-10). In speaking of his own love for other Christians in writing to the Philippians, Paul states that he feels Christ’s very affections for these believers–using a word that speaks of warm, heart-felt feelings (Philippians 1:7-8).

The love we are to have for others in general must be more than doing loving things, it must be sincere and an expression of true devotion, and it should be an outflow of genuine feelings. If this is the case, then how much more should a husband’s love be feeling-rich, heartfelt, affection that is so much more than just “doing nice things”?

The call to husbands is not merely a call to do loving things. It is, at its core, a call to have the heart stirred in a particular way, to feel for one’s wife a real Christ-like affection (Ephesians 5:25). After all, Jesus does not love his people with a merely dutiful, “do the right thing regardless of where the heart is” kind of detached serving. Jesus has rich affection-laden love for us.

But that raises a huge question. If it is true that this is a call to feel the right feeling for one’s wife (and not merely do “loving things”), can Jesus command us to feel certain feelings? He can’t command feelings . . . can he?

What we see in Scripture suggests that Jesus can and does, in fact, command our feelings. His followers are told to not be afraid (Matthew 14:27; 17:7; 28:10; Mark 5:36; Luke 8:50). Jesus’ disciples are called to rejoice (Matthew 5:12; Luke 10:20). Some are told to live in peace (Luke 7:50; 8:48). Apparently, Jesus can command our affections, our feelings, seeing as all of these commands (among others) clearly have an emotive, affective component.

When Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb (John 11:43), he called him to do something that he could not do apart from Jesus’ command. With the command came the power to create the life that did not exist in the dead body of Lazarus.

Jesus, through the Scriptures, commands husbands to love their wives, even if these men do not feel it is in them to love their wives with an emotion-rich, genuinely devoted affection for their wives. And with this command–if husbands are willing to give heed to the call–comes all the power needed for a transformation of the heart that will result in them being able to love their wives as Jesus intends.

Husbands, let us listen for his voice. And when we hear, let us step out of the tomb of our own emotional deadness and love our wives!

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There are a variety of things that I appreciate about how the Spirit led Paul to counsel and encourage followers of Jesus. Paul provides clear and practical advice. He writes about what we really deal with (even if there are times when I wish that he had given us a few more details!). He offers his counsel based on Gospel-truth. He doesn’t call us to become something that we are not, but invites followers of Jesus to live out what they are, in Christ. Also, his instructions for life come to us in ways that we can respond to, act on. He doesn’t set me up for failure by calling me to live in a certain way, but anchoring my ability to live that way on the response or reactions of others. I can live the way Paul describes, in the power of the Spirit.

After reflecting on life in Christ in general terms with the Colossians, Paul turns attention to some specifics. He addresses family relationships. In previous posts we looked at what he says to wives. We now turn attention to the husbands.

Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them. (Colossians 3:19)

When Paul issues such a call, he is obviously calling for something that doesn’t always just naturally happen. If that were the case, it would not be necessary for Paul to say anything. (Notice, there are no commands in Paul’s letters to eat regularly, keep on breathing, laugh when someone tells a truly funny story, and the like. We already do all of that stuff!)

When Paul tells husbands to “love your wives” the truth must be that husbands don’t just naturally fall into a full and appropriate “loving” of their wives. Paul’s language points to more than simply “feel kindly toward” one’s wife; the word for love used here speaks of a genuine passion (think “all in,” not necessarily “passion” in the way popular culture pictures it).

Now in other passages of Paul, he unpacks certain facets of this love. Here he touches on just one thing. Love you wife “and do not be embittered against” her. This suggests something about how Paul understands the struggle husbands face in loving their wives.

“Embittered” is a relatively rare word in the New Testament. One fascinating snapshot of this word is found in Acts 8. When the Gospel comes to Samaria, a local popular religious leader ends up losing some of his status. When the apostles come to the area and there is a breaking out of the Spirit’s manifest presence, this religious leader wants in on that. Simon is his name and he is struggling with what is happening in and around him that he can’t take credit for, get in on. And the apostles identify his problem as being stuck in “the gall of bitterness” (Acts 8:23).

Simon is apparently tasting or wrestling with some kind of combination of jealousy, rivalry, and resentment. He clearly doesn’t like what is happening around him that he can’t take responsibility or credit for. He isn’t happy with the success others are experiencing that doesn’t make him look good. And that provokes him to a subtle competitive animosity.

Using this word, Paul says that husbands should stop (his language suggests they need to stop something they are already often doing) allowing themselves to be stirred to such feelings (his language indicating that it is the husbands who are becoming embittered rather than the wives who are causing them to be embittered).

Well, that’s a lot to unpack in one post. Sufficient to say, Paul’s call is for husbands to genuinely love their wives and to abandon the “I’m not sure I like what you are doing so I am just going to be a little antagonistic” attitude that often arises in their own hearts.

From time to time a wife or girl friend will ask that special man in her life, “How does this look on me?” Sometimes the question really is rooted in a desire for an assessment of the fit, the color, the style. But sometimes (or so it seems to me), such a question is more about her feelings about herself than about a judgment call about a particular fashion item. So, men tend to wrestle with just how best to answer that question. And Paul does just that in his letter to the Colossians.

Paul address what looks good on wives in his letter to the Colossians. Having looked at his call in previous posts, there is just one more little piece to attend to. Paul wrote:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Colossians 3:18)

This call to “be subject” (or “be in submission”) is more about the wife’s attitude than it is merely about her external behavior. (You’ll have to look to the earlier posts to unpack what the “submission” idea is all about.) And Paul says that this submissive demeanor “is fitting in the Lord.” In other words, submission “looks good” on wives.

“Fitting” speaks of what is appropriate. Like jeans that are not too tight or a dress that drapes in a complimentary way, submission fits wife-life well. And Paul says that this is fitting for wives “in the Lord.”

How are we to understand that? Still drawing on the “dressed for life” imagery, perhaps we could say that submission is appropriate for wives seeking to live in their lives in Jesus. Like an evening gown is the appropriate dress for that formal night out or a shorts outfit is the fitting dress for day at the tennis club, submission “fits.”

Earlier in the chapter, Paul wrote about what looks good on all followers of Jesus seeking to live out this life of faith. He explained what we should “take off” and what we should “put on,” drawing on the getting dressed metaphor. Here, he has offered a simple “fashion tip” for wives.

Wives, in living out your lives in relationship with your husband, wear submission. In your life in Jesus, it looks stunning on you!

When Paul writes to the Colossians about how they are to live out their Christ-likeness in daily life (in chapter 3), he begins by providing some broad outlines of that kind of life. He then turns his attention to a few particular relationships–specifically, he mentions spousal relationships, parent-child relationships, and slave and master relationships. He is not saying all that he can or might about these relationships. He is giving one small slice of what a “putting on Christ” kind of life looks like in each of these particular situations.

The first relationship he specifically mentions is a wife’s responsibility “in the Lord.”

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Colossians 3:18)

In previous posts, we saw that a wife’s submission is that disposition of heart  1) where she affirms God has placed her in this relationship with her husband and that relationship must be honored, 2) where she willingly communicates openly and honestly about issues that pertain to the relationship because she recognizes God has so arranged things in her life, and 3) where she does not withhold honor nor respond in bitterness when the way things play out under God’s designed order is not what might be hoped for. Submission really is about living well in one’s relationship with God who is ordering and orchestrating our lives.

In multiple conversations over a number of years with many couples, it seems to me that there is a common stumbling point in the way wives often try to live into this call. It’s something of a common case study. Typically, the conversation goes something like this:

Wife: Well, I really didn’t think what my husband wanted was a good idea.

Me: Did you share that with him? Did you tell him what you were thinking? What you felt the Lord was saying to you?

Wife: No, of course not. That wouldn’t have done any good. It seemed like he had already made up his mind.

Me: What did you do then?

Wife: Well, I just did what he said to do. He told me . . . I did what he wanted. I was submissive.

Me: You were? You were submissive?

Wife: Yes! After all, I did just what he said to do. And it turned out bad. I just knew it would.

Me: But all you did was obey. You heard and you did–that’s obedience. But you didn’t really lean into the relationship and bring yourself into the dynamic of life together—that would be submissive. You held back what you were thinking, what you felt the Lord might be telling you. You didn’t offer that to your husband. And to the degree that you held back such things, to that degree you were not submissive. You substituted doing the external thing–being obedient–for doing the necessary internal thing–being submissive.

Sometimes submission will look like obedience; but they are not the same thing. Sometimes submission will be lived into even when the behavior is disobedient; they are not always contradictory (as we saw in an earlier post about Peter and the governing authorities in Jerusalem).

Perhaps the we could frame this conversation by highlighting a question that is beneath all of this discussion:

Wives, will you be “all in” in your relationship with your husband because you are trusting that God knew what he was doing in placing this particular man in your life as your husband?

There are some words in our day and age that suffer from “bad press.” The way the word is often conceptualized renders it unpleasant, uninviting, unacceptable.

“Meek” seems to be one such word. It isn’t often that meekness is held up as a noble and wonderful virtue. It’s commonly equated with being a pushover, being milquetoast. But such is not the case, if we really unpack what that word means biblically. Meekness isn’t a bad word; it’s a wonderful word. Jesus says it characterizes him (see Matthew 11:28-29 where the word is used, sometimes translated “gentle”).

Another word that can leave people with apprehension (particularly wives) is “submission” (or “being subject to”). The way some have pushed against the word, suggests they picture it as demeaning. To be submissive is even sometimes presented as bordering on unhealthy co-dependency.

Nevertheless, Paul is clear in the call he extends to wives in talking about how Christian character is lived out in relationships:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Colossians 3:18)

Be subject to, be in submission to; different English renderings of the same word. This is part of how wives, dressed in the clothing of Colossians 3:12-17, live like Christ in their relationship with their husbands. And this is not a bad word, not a bad thing. The same word used here describes Jesus’ relationship to the Father in 1 Corinthians 15:27-28. It must be a good thing, a great thing, a Christ-like thing to live in appropriate submission.

It’s a big subject–and seemingly a challenging subject for some. We’ll explore what submission is–and is not–in future posts. But to make sense of this call to wives to be submissive to their husbands has to start with this simple thought: submission isn’t a bad thing, it is a Christ-like quality.

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