July 22, 2007

The Wise Person’s Relationships: Spouse
Proverbs 18:22; Matthew 19:3-6

During my recent trip to Venezuela, I read Trevor Corson’s captivating book entitled The Secret Life of Lobsters. Lobsters, I learned, are not only delicious, but fascinating. They are fiercely independent, beat up on their peers like heartless teenagers, possess intricate homing devices, and live in communities wrought with class distinctions similar to our own. The larger and more powerful lobsters control the prestigious neighborhoods, while the weaker lobsters find housing out on the fringes.

Nothing about lobsters, however, intrigued me more than their mating practices. Lobsters, I discovered, follow a certain protocol when selecting a mate. After winning out over his competitors, the dominant male waits at home for female suitors to come calling. When the lucky female finally arrives at the dominant male’s dwelling, she seduces him in the most unusual fashion—she urinates in his face! Her urine is a love potion of sorts, capable of enticing and subduing even the most stubborn of males. But the effects of her potion don’t last very long, and neither do lobster marriages. Within a few weeks, the female takes her fertilized eggs, leaves her now irritable husband and never returns. And before she is even out of sight, another female arrives, seduces the same dominant male in precisely the same way—she urinates in his face—and the cycle repeats itself. And what about the other males? They simply wait on the sideline, licking their wounds, and hope against the odds that one of the females will eventually notice them, too.

Lobsters, apparently, either never read the book of Proverbs or they fail to take it seriously. Proverbs, after all, presents a significantly different picture of male and female relationships, and a very different picture of marriage. According to Proverbs, healthy marriages are central to a healthy and stable community. It is not surprising, then, that the writers of this book offer some good, old-fashioned advice—not rigid, specific rules—on how people who long to live in accordance with God’s rhythm in the world ought to view the relationship between husbands and wives.

A wise spouse, first of all, is a grateful spouse. Proverbs offers two reasons why. A wise spouse is grateful, for one thing, because a good spouse is a gift from the Lord himself. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord” (18:22). 19:14 captures a similar sentiment: “House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.” Such words speak to both the single and married alike. For the single, finding a mate can be difficult and complex in this disconnected world of ours, perhaps even more so than for lobsters who at least have urine to squirt around. So, we utilize Internet dating services, publish adds in the newspaper, and develop other strategies to help us find a mate. There is nothing wrong, of course, with actively seeking a mate in healthy ways. Even African beetles tap their abdomens against the hard ground to attract their mates from miles away. But finding a mate, Proverbs assures us, is not totally up to us. Single people need not panic or do desperate things to find a spouse. A good spouse is ultimately a gift from God, but so is the grace that he gives to those who, for the short-term or the long-term, remain single.

For the married, these words continually call us back to the foundational truth that our spouses have been given to us by God. Already in the opening chapters of Genesis, God looked at the male and saw that it wasn’t good for him to be alone. So he took a rib from his side and formed a woman for him. We’re not married because we are good-looking, powerful or rich, nor are our spouses pieces of property to be done with whatever we wish. They are gifts, gifts to be cherished and cared for.

And a wise spouse is grateful, furthermore, because a good spouse is a crown of glory. “A good wife,” Proverbs 12:4 suggests, “is the crown of her husband,…” A crown is a symbol of position, stability, and importance. A crown is the sign of royalty. It carries with it a sense of pride and dignity. And so it is with a good spouse. After 30 years of marriage, my identity remains so deeply affected by my relationship with Deb that I can scarcely describe it. When I hear of good things that she is involved in and people she is ministering to, my shoulders straighten up. And when she walks in the room, I still want everyone to notice her. I still want everyone to know that she is my wife. Deb is a crown on my head, and I am grateful to God for her.

A wise spouse, secondly, is a faithful spouse. In the same way that we worship God alone—we are to have no other gods before him—so, too, do we share our deepest sexual longings with our spouse alone. Listen to these moving instructions from Proverbs 5:15-21:
Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone, and not for sharing with strangers.
Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
For human ways are under the eyes of the Lord, and he examines all their paths.
It struck me as I sat with this passage that the writer speaks both in terms of actions and attitudes. “Don’t drink from other cisterns,” he simply states, assuming that sexual activities with someone other than your spouse is incompatible with a life of wisdom. But notice as well the strong emphasis here on affect—pleasure. “Rejoice,” he writes. “Be intoxicated”—infatuated!—with the wife of your youth.

I can’t help but think that the two—our actions and attitudes—are profoundly interconnected here, particularly in this sexually charged culture of ours. I’ve come to recognize quite clearly in recent years that faithfulness to one’s spouse involves both act and thought. We can, in other words, be unfaithful to our spouses by engaging in “emotional” or “imaginary” affairs. By fantasizing about other people and filling our minds with the various images made available to us through films, magazines, and TV shows—not to mention advertisements!—we subtly run the risk of shifting our desires away from our spouses and onto other people. How can our spouses, and how can we, measure up to the made-up images floating all around us? A wise spouse is a faithful spouse, in deed and thought.

And a wise spouse, finally, is a loving spouse. Proverbs 3:21-23 lists four traumatic situations that cause the entire earth to tremble and break up. The third of these focuses on an unloved woman who apparently is in conflict with her husband. Perhaps the situation envisioned here is one in which the husband has more than one wife, and one of them is clearly favored over the other. Recall for just a moment the trials that Leah went through because her husband, Jacob, clearly preferred his other wife, Rachel. But this verse need not refer to such a situation alone.

The picture here is in general of a woman who is or has been “hated”—that is, neglected, abandoned or taken for granted. A woman who has been replaced by someone or something else in the heart of her husband. A woman who no longer enjoys her husband’s affections, if in fact she ever did. And what happens when a spouse—wife or husband—finds themselves on the outside looking in is, according to Proverbs, chaotic. Chaotic, not only on the marriage and the family, but on the community as a whole. It is,
after all, a terrible thing to feel unwanted, uncared for, and unloved.

I saw a vivid example of just this thing when I walked into my office after being away for several days. I have a Peace Lily in there that thrives on attention. It drinks more water in a day than the average person does! But after days of neglect, the lily was a pitiful site, leaves drooping, just a shell of its former self. After I watered it, it began to come back to life.

And so it is with many marriages that have gone sour. Days, weeks, months and years of neglect leave a spouse wilted and lifeless. Years of competing for one’s affections, years of playing second fiddle to someone or something else. Wise people don’t neglect their spouses. Instead, they water them. Water them with love, special moments, cards and notes. Why, years after the great magician, Harry Houdini, died, his wife was still finding love notes tucked away in old shoes and towels. And wise people water their spouses with kindness and acts of service—helping around the house, washing dirty diapers. Forget for a moment about being the head of the house and who does what. We are to love our spouses in the same way that Christ loves the church—enough to wash her feet. A wise spouse, Proverbs makes clear, is a loving spouse.

Lobsters, as I’ve said, pay little if any attention to Proverbs, and their marriages show it. Unfortunately, many marriages among humans these days do not look much better. There is much for us to learn in these old pages. A wise spouse is grateful. A wise spouse is faithful. And, like God, a wise spouse is loving. Can you imagine the extent to which even our relationships could be transformed if we took such simple instructions more seriously?