Planting Hedges in Marriage — Part Two
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Planting Hedges in Marriage — Part Two

Ephesians 5:22–33  (ID: 1892)

The greatest joy we will experience in marriage is found when we learn to put our partner first. When we value the happiness of our spouse over our own happiness, we will begin to understand the meaning of true, sacrificial love. Alistair Begg teaches us several ways that will help us show love and appreciation for our husband or wife.

Series Containing This Sermon

We Two Are One

A Study on God’s Plan for Marriage Selected Scriptures Series ID: 21401

Sermon Transcript: Print

As I’ve mentioned on each of these evenings, I’m doing this a little differently from the way in which I approach other things. Because of the way in which this material has been engendered, there’s an inevitability about that. I am not, in doing this, seeking to establish a new kind of pattern—I regard it as something of an aberration—nor am I seeking to pay scant reference to the biblical principles and text which underpin, I believe, without exception, the points that are being made here.

And so, I need you to see it as something of a challenge to you to go home and to ground in your own way, as a result of your own study, many of these principles. And if you determine through your own study that they are not, in actual fact, biblical principles, then you are to feel very free to discard them. But I believe that we are building a foundation which is solid in its biblical framework.

I thought I might begin this evening by quoting from a letter that I received from out of state, in October, towards the end of October. It is signed but is actually anonymous, apart from the first name. And it came as a result of the radio program, as will be apparent from the letter. It simply reads:


Two years ago this month, I discovered my wife of sixteen years had been involved in two separate long-term affairs and was now involved in yet another. Sparing you all the typical details, I was devastated, I was angry, and yes, I was the last to know. To add to an already unbelievable situation, my wife and I had three daughters, ages four to eleven. In addition, I was the worship leader and an elder in our local church. This last affair involved a man in our fellowship—not an uncommon story, I know.

The uncommon part of this story is that two years later, my wife and I are still together, healing wounds and cherishing our girls, now four of them. The most amazing thing happened during these two years. While I had more advice from more friends, parents, church friends, my pastor, and best friend, God still managed to reveal his advice. It was: “Love and forgive, honor me, and know that through it all, regardless of the outcome, I, God, will be there.”

That’s where TFL comes in. Every morning, while driving to work, my radio invariably ended up on [the station in the city in which he lives] during your program. While I had to get used to the accent, the messages were crystal clear.

I take that as a definite encouragement as time goes by.

It never failed: when I was at my lowest, your words seemed to speak directly to my heart. When others told me to leave her and that no man could live with such betrayal, you brought forth words on Hosea and forgiveness. And while friends talked of new starts, you spoke of covenant and long-suffering.

Bottom-line, Alistair: I just want to say thanks. My friends and family threw me a lifeline of hope and support, but I wanted to let you know that through it all, you seemed to be the thread of truth, revealing many things in the Word and always striking that chord of renewal and refreshing. Thanks.

And it’s either “Jim” or “Tim.” I can’t tell.

But I wanted to read that, because it’s possible for us, in pondering these issues and in confronting so much of the chaos that is around us, possible for us to begin to believe that the only way out is to throw in the towel, to chuck it, to believe that there really is no hope, no possibility for restoration and for forgiveness and for renewal, when in point of fact, the Bible says the absolute opposite of all of that.

The Hedge of Sacrifice

And it is from that framework that we were looking last time at these various hedges, as we put it—hedges of protection which we want to have in our lives, in order that we might be saved from the potential of shipwreck. And we came, at the end of our time last time, to this whole matter of sacrifice, which we said we would come back to, leaving it by my paltry endeavor to make use of baseball as a useful analogy. Since no one has actually corrected me, I will take this either as an indication of the accuracy of my statement or as an indication of the graciousness of the congregation, unwilling to thwart me in my early attempts to make use of such material. But I suggested that I had found out that in bunting the ball in baseball, it was the case that a base runner might be enabled to advance while the batter is put out. Now, I don’t think it has to happen that the bunter always has to be out, but there are times when there is called for, I believe, a sacrifice play, and the person bunts in order to advance another and recognizes that their walk will be quick back to the dugout.

And we concluded there last week, suggesting that this provides a somewhat helpful picture within the framework of marriage, insofar as the greatest joys in marriage, as outlined here in Ephesians 5, are really to be found when partners are learning to put their spouses first, when husbands and wives are giving up themselves for the well-being of their partners. And that kind of self-sacrifice on the part of the husband demands servant leadership and on the part of the wife demands submission to her husband.

Now, this is all very well, except for the fact that we face a major roadblock in trying to fulfill this obligation. And the major roadblock is, frankly, selfishness—just plain, old-fashioned selfishness. Our sinful natures fight against the patterns of Ephesians 5, fight against the fact that God, in his Word, knows best and speaks clearly. And the challenge of being obedient to God’s Word is further enhanced by the fact that many of us have lived much of our life, especially in the last twenty-five years or so, invaded by psychological theory which has suggested the reverse of what the Bible teaches. Many of us have been brought up to believe the pagan notion that looking out for number one is an essential tenet of life: it is the key to psychological stability, to mental wholeness, if you like; it is the key to success in business and in other arenas; and it certainly is absolutely vital when an individual is planning to engage in marriage.

The greatest joys in marriage are really to be found when partners are learning to put their spouses first.

Interestingly, Paul describes what is offered increasingly as a cure in our generation— Paul describes that very thing as a disease. And when he describes, for example, in 2 Timothy 3 the conditions that will prevail in seasons of great declension throughout the history of the church, he begins by pointing out that in these times and in these periods, men and women “will be lovers of themselves.”[1] And it will be, he says, this dreadful self-preoccupation which will become the precursor of all kinds of chaotic activities which are then outlined in the following verses at the beginning of 2 Timothy 3.

And so it is that a preoccupation with self-esteem and self-love are largely nothing more than a gloss for the issue of selfishness. And so it is that as we begin to meet with young couples who have been schooled in self-assertion, who have grown up being constantly told that they are “somebody,” that they are their “own person,” it is increasingly difficult to bring such individuals to a biblical understanding of the nature of marriage. Such individuals come with the expectation that the husband and wife must each live as their own person, and joint endeavors are entered upon not on the basis of biblical principal but on the basis of compromise, so that the key to success in marriage is not in discovering God-given roles, but the key to success in marriage is learning how to be a compromiser—learning how to apply the contemporary psychological notions of win-win dynamics, if you like.

Now, what, again, is offered as a recipe for success the Bible says is a recipe for failure. Because self-centered individuals who have had this reinforced at home—and sadly, in many cases, also at church—who live absolutely committed to putting themselves first are going to have an unbelievably difficult job in applying the principles which are here before us.

And this dreadful preoccupation is sadly reinforced from pulpits all across the world on the basis of a mistaken understanding of Matthew 22:37 and following. And you may just care to turn to it. Matthew 22:34, the silenced Sadducees and the Pharisees got together, and they decided they would test Jesus with a question.[2] And in Matthew 22:36 they said, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Now, interestingly, in this little passage, people tell us there are three commands. Now, I want you to follow along with me carefully and see if you think there are three. “Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.’” So that’s one. “‘And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands.’”

Well, it would seem just from a cursory reading that there are two commands, and it is obviously perfectly clear that Jesus saw that there were two commands. That’s why he says, “This is the first, and this is the second,” and he actually doesn’t happen to mention anything about a third. And yet contemporary perspective is that there is a third command here—that it is inherent somehow in it—and that is the command to love ourselves. Not so! The assumption which underpins the command to love our neighbor is that we already love ourselves. That’s why we wash. That’s why we clothe. That’s why we brush our hair. That’s why we care for ourselves. That’s what Paul is saying in Ephesians 5.[3] Nobody violates their own body unless somehow or another they’re losing their mind. But anybody who is sensible and just living life cares for themselves. They have a necessary and rightful sense of love for the fact that God has made them in his image and has given them the privileges of life, etc. Now, says Jesus, it is that same approach which is then to be applied in a self-giving way, in an otherly dimension, in the love of my neighbor.

And so it is that the language of sacrifice is absolutely foundational to Christian living and to every expression of Christian living. And yet the language of sacrifice is so much, now, simply a part of missionary biographies, many of which are largely unread. If you want to read about a life of sacrifice as being foundational to Christian living and effectiveness, then apart from the Bible, you really need to go and buy old missionary biographies. Because it would seem that there and only there did these people understand this.

And it is interesting, when I go and speak at Christian colleges, that the poor missionaries who come to the colleges and set up their little stalls and their charts and their diagrams and offer their videos and their tapes and their books are usually given some place in the student rec center next to a ping-pong table, a billiard table, and a huge, large-screen TV. And largely, the student body passes them by as an anachronism, saying, “I don’t know what these people are doing here.” And they’re here to talk about the nature of giving your life away, giving up your small ambitions, giving yourself unreservedly to Christ, giving yourself in such a way that a healthy self-image will be discovered not along the road of self-preoccupation but along the road of self-forgetfulness.

Those who are tempted to pursue a good self-image will always be destined to disappointment, while those who will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness[4] will discover that, as a by-product, they will not entertain exaggerated ideas of themselves, but they will gain a sane estimate of who they are and what they are under God. And therefore, they won’t think that they are the fantastic, most wonderful husband that ever walked the streets or the most adorable bundle that could ever have had the designation “wife,” but they will have a sane estimate of themselves, and they will know that they’re full of foibles and risks and quirks and all kinds of things that, unless sacrificed, will become the very rocks upon which this relationship must inevitably founder.

Now, loved ones, this is radical in our contemporary environment. Howard Hendricks, writing on it, has a wonderfully purple passage in one of his books. And I quote him:

Many people are in love only with themselves. The smallest package in all the world is the person who is all wrapped up with himself. But in true love, a person thinks more of the happiness of others than he does of himself.

If a young man can come into marriage with his paramount passion in life to completely satisfy his wife, and if the girl can come into marriage with her sole, exclusive purpose the satisfaction of her husband, and both are sold out to satisfying Jesus Christ, then you have the ingredients for an ideal Christian marriage.

And, of course, if you take the antithetical statements, then you have the ingredients for absolute chaos.

Now, it is surely obvious from even a cursory reflection upon the marriage vows that they demand a level of self-renunciation which is staggering in its implications. And therefore, that must be applied on a daily basis. And the question that needs to be faced by each of us is “When is the last time that an action on my part was most obviously an expression of sacrifice for the well-being of my wife?” And remember, I told you last Sunday night, probably taking the garbage out does not qualify. Because it is unlikely that our wives are standing at the kitchen window, looking at us going down the driveway, stirred by our great act of self-giving. And if you are, you should probably come and talk to me, lady.

The language of sacrifice is absolutely foundational to Christian living.

Now, it may be that that is so. But for our wives, the fact that we put down an obviously large file of potential homework that would be a distraction in order to listen carefully to her describe the events of the afternoon that were important and pressing to her may well be seen as far more sacrificial than the things that we’ve determined are our little sacrifices. It’s worth thinking about. It’s an important hedge.

The Hedge of Imagination

Let me deal with another one. I want to call it imagination. Imagination. Before stating what I mean by this, I want to make it very clear what is not being said. When the catechism asks the question “What does the seventh commandment teach us?” part of the answer it provides us is follows: “Since both our body and soul are a temple of the Holy Spirit, it is his will that we keep both pure and holy. Therefore, he forbids all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires, and whatever may excite another person to them.”[5] And it’s talking about this matter of adultery.

Now, what possible application does this have? Well, the issue here is imagination. The catechism clearly addresses and negates the contemporary nonsense which is increasingly prevalent, which addresses the idea of images and pictures—particularly physical or sexual imagery—as being a basis, as a means, to marital harmony. And newspapers and magazines combine with the television talk shows to say again and again and again, with unrelentless emphasis, that such things are both normal and harmless.

The Bible says that such things are a clear violation of biblical teaching. If you pardon me, the kind of Ruth Westheimer approach—or whatever the lady’s name is—to the issues, especially where the emphasis falls here, is not just amoral; it is actually immoral. And what it encourages is a form of voyeurism which actually reduces one’s spouse to what is simply nothing more than a mechanism for fulfillment of lustful thoughts. And when Job, for example, declared, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl,”[6] he not only committed himself to righteousness, but he left us an example that we should follow in his steps—not only in relationship to someone who is other than our spouse but also in relationship to our spouses themselves!

Now, in using the word imagination as an important hedge to be dealt with, I’m not referring simply to this but also to the totality of marriage. And I want just to spend a moment to debunk the idea that righteousness is a synonym for boring; that righteousness is a synonym for boring; that holiness equals boring; that the right way of doing things is, if you like, the most lousy way of doing things. Because that is the lie which is constantly foisted upon those who would seek to uphold any kind of biblical standard. And so it is that if there is going to be success and growth and effectiveness within marriage, there needs to be about our marriages a creativity that is daring and is occasionally extravagant. Now, we daren’t overstate this. But in seeking to avoid overstating it, we don’t want to fall foul of the opposite extreme and somehow or another embrace a rather dull approach to it all.

Why do I mention this? Well, simply because from observation over the last twenty-two years, both in watching and in careful listening, I have concluded that there are many marriages which are, frankly, dull. Dull! Really dull! And while routine in and of itself needn’t be equated with boredom, it certainly is possible to fall into the trap of going through certain motions, activities, again and again to the point of disinterest and disenchantment.

I think I am, honestly, as I grow older, interested in change for change’s sake. I know people say, “We don’t believe in change for change’s sake.” I’ve never really thought out why we don’t. But if I’m honest in assessing who I am and what I am, I think I believe in change for change’s sake. I like changing stuff. I like it when I come down the stairs and the couch is the wrong way round. It doesn’t phase me. I like it. (I don’t expect my wife to applaud in my sermons. That was not my wife, believe me. That’ll be a very special day!)

See, there needs to be a dynamism about growth. There’s always a dynamic about growth. Is it really maturity—is it maturity—which keeps us from stopping in the course of our day to buy a card, the way we used to do when we were college students, and grab a cup of coffee, and sit down, and just write on the card to our wives or to our husbands, to tell them just how appreciative we are of their friendship, just how much we enjoyed our recent trip, just how glad we were when all the kids went to the football game the other night?

You see, I don’t think we can excuse the absence of that on the grounds of maturity. And I keep bumping up against these men who tell me, “You know, we’re beyond that stuff. We moved beyond that some time ago. It’s a deeper thing for us now.” Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Then I talk to their wives; they haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. The fact is that laziness and taking our partner for granted often squeezes out the kind of creativity that marked our courtship.

Now, I’m not referring for a moment to superficial expressions of imagination that are often promoted by self-interest or by guilt—the kind of bizarre stuff you read about in books, really stupid things. I’m just talking about little things that keep the home fires burning. Because when the other factors are in place—the carefulness and the devotion, etc.—then these little things have a part to play. Where the other aspects are not there—meaningful communication, devotion, you know, the commitment to the whole shooting match—then let’s not kid ourselves that, you know, twenty minutes with a card in a coffee shop is going to fix the problem, because it sure isn’t.

But it never ceases to cause me some of the deepest pain of all, in pastoral ministry, when I have to sit and listen to a wife tell me how when her husband took a lover, he all of a sudden became Mr. Imagination. And they will always say to me, “Where did he get this stuff from? How come it was always an intrusion to meet for lunch when I suggested it, and now it’s not a problem? How come I was always a fifth wheel in a business trip, and now she’s on all the business trips? How come he never imagined bringing these gestures of fondness to me, and now, as I go through his things, I find little notes, and little courtesies, and all sorts of bits and pieces? Where in the world did he get this phenomenal imagination?”

And the fact of the matter is that it is rooted in selfishness, and it is rooted in sin. And sometimes, I have to say to the wife, as I seek to help both she and he to come to repentance and faith as, with others, I try and help them put the train back on the tracks, “It’s not uncommon for the wife to have had a real blind spot in relationship to this as well, and actually to have been devoid of much meaningful imagination on her own part.”

So, if variety is the spice of life—at least one of the spices of life—then let’s make an honest attempt to keep our marriages interesting. Determine to break out of monotonous routines. It’s only when you get out of the rut, incidentally, that you will see how deep the rut was. And if marital failure is brought about by countless little decisions, made daily, which erode the relationship, then surely we can anticipate a measure of success by being content with small gains over a long period of time. It’d probably take most of us twenty-five years to see the benefits of companionship, persistence, communication, and creativity.

But isn’t that what everybody told us—the older people told us—about compound interest? They said, “A little bit, over a long period of time, will multiply and compound. And you’ll be surprised one day. Just do what I’m telling you,” they say. And you can’t begin to imagine, if you will just do as they say and put that small amount of money away and allow it to build. You’re surprised: “Goodness gracious, they were right! Twenty-five years later, it did what they said!” And the same is true in marriage. Learn to listen to the older folks. Listen to those… Find them! You’ll see them around. They hold hands when they walk to the car. They don’t need to write a book for you. You just watch them. They’re here. I see them. I watch you walk to the car! I watched many of you walk to the car this morning as I did my little research project. And all of you are going, “Oh, I wonder if we held hands going to the car.” It doesn’t matter whether you did or whether you didn’t. But a number of you did, and I saw you. And I said, “That’s good. I like that!” And I saw the ones where the husband was two steps out in front, and the wife caught him up and caught his arm and pulled him back, and the others where he had to move his coat to get it on the other side so he could get a hold of her, so that they could walk together.

Hey, life goes by real fast, doesn’t it? I’m voting down dull, boring marriages. I just want you to know that. There is no reason for a Christian marriage to stink as a result of a sad lack of imagination on the part of those whom God has given the powers and wisdom and love and truth that are contained in the Bible. We don’t need to go anywhere else.

From Planting Hedges to Pulling Weeds

Okay? Still here?

I’d like to change the analogy. I’m going to do one, and then one, I’m changing the picture from planting hedges to pulling weeds. And I have a number of weeds that we will pull over time. I have a weed called “unbroken ties.” You know, it has to do… In fact, let me give you a great quote here. I’ll just give you this fabulous quote. I thought this was the best thing I’d ever read on this. You know the old chestnut about your in-laws and stuff, and interfering, and coming over for Thanksgiving, and who’s going to whose house for Christmas, and all that boloney, and all those major, you know, things? The best thing to do is move an ocean away from at least one side of the family.

But one of the weeds that can so easily infect a marriage is the undue interference of the in-laws, or “in-loves,” or whatever you want to call them. And I came across this wonderful illustration from a book called The Other Woman in Your Marriage by Norman Wright. And he quotes:

I’ll never forget the wedding of one of my best college friends, John Engstrom, years ago. Actually it wasn’t the wedding itself that impressed me as much as something that happened at the rehearsal dinner. Mrs. Engstrom, John’s mom, was seated at the front table with John, his bride, and the bride’s parents. At a particular time at the dinner, Mrs. Engstrom stood up and pulled out a beautifully wrapped box. She unwrapped it, and with great ceremony displayed one of her favorite old aprons. Holding the apron high for everyone to see, she reached into her purse and brought out a big pair of scissors. With a flourish, she snipped off the apron strings and handed them to John’s bride-to-be.

“Never again,” she said, “will I have the same place in John Engstrom’s life. You are now the woman in his life.”

It was a moment of formal releasing, in front of many witnesses. And the most significant witnesses of all were a young bride and groom. It was a profound moment… but a joyful one, too. [And] there was a feeling of rightness … about it all.[7]

I just thought you’d like that quote. Don’t know if you do or not, but anyway…

How about I try and do two? Two weeds.

The Weed of Taking Each Other for Granted

Weed number one: taking each other for granted. There’s nothing brilliant about this. The Bible says that husbands are to live in consideration with their wives; wives are to see that they love their husbands.[8]

Let me just read this. It makes it easier: “Oh, Carl loves doing the dishes, don’t you, Carl?” Actually, you have to say this with an Australian accent: “Oh, Carl loves doing the dishes, don’t you, Carl? G’day, mate!”

I was a guest of a family in Australia, and we had just finished our meal. In the absence of a dishwasher—a machine, that is—I volunteered to help with the project. In denying my offer, the young wife assured me that it would be all taken care of by Carl, her husband. Playfully, I inquired just how it was that she was so sure that her husband loved doing the dishes—hence her question across the dining room table: “Oh, you love doing the dishes, don’t you, Carl?”

Neither she nor I was prepared for the response and the underlying sense of bitterness which accompanied it. “No!” said Carl, in front of the guest from America, his mother and father, his brother-in-law, and all his kids. “No!” said Carl, “I don’t enjoy doing the dishes.” He then went on to explain that the reason for his constant endeavor in this regard ever since they had been married (some twelve years) was on account of his frustration with his wife’s untidy approach to the kitchen. By this time, I was just sliding slowly down, going, “Man, it’s a long way back from Australia.”

Her assumption was all wrong. He’d never addressed the matter in a constructive fashion, and I, it turned out, had just poked my unfortunate nose into a hornet’s nest. I then found myself, for the remainder of my stay, trying to help this young couple pull some fairly large-sized weeds from their marital garden.

It was interesting. It was just a tiny thing. It was a passing comment: “Can I help you with the dishes?” “Oh, don’t worry about the dishes. Carl loves doing the dishes. Don’t you love doing the dishes, Carl?” The answer was “No, I hate doing the dishes. And I’ve hated doing the dishes for the last twelve years. And the only reason I do the dishes is ’cause it’s the only way I can get the kitchen tidied up the way I like it.” And suddenly, we were into it. And it was dreadful.

Now, not every situation is as serious as that. But every one of us as couples needs to make sure that we prevent the growth of this ugly weed—that husbands, realistically, we need to learn what it means to live in consideration with our wives. And part of this surely means that the passing of time and familiarity with things doesn’t allow us to be deadened to the sense of wonder and awe that we have the immense privilege of waking up each morning next to this woman who is an express gift of God for our lives. God in his perfect wisdom has provided for us in this way. Even in the bad days, that remains the case. And it is consequently possible for us to neglect the expressions of appreciation which are also necessary and need to be done with frequency, and we neglect to do them because we say to ourselves, “But they’re just doing what they’re expected to do. It’s not deserving of special mention.”

Now, you can go home and test yourself on this—and it’s not a nice test, I can assure you, because I’ve tried it in preparation. How often do I use the words, “Thank you,” “I appreciate you,” “I can’t do without you”? How long has it been since I complimented my spouse for some aspect of her character other than her appearance? When is the last time I sent a special card or flowers or came home early so that she might have some time on her own, free from her own responsibilities?

Sadly, it’s really too bad that we assume that intermittent bursts of guilt may be assuaged by little bursts of appreciation. But the fact is, again, in learning from others, it would appear that it is not so much the big things in life which convey this—although we don’t want to miss birthdays and anniversaries, that’s not a good idea—but it is in the casual routine of apparently inconsequential events that we make it clear that we’re not taking our spouses for granted.

In the ’60s, somebody sang the song that went,

Those little things that you do
Make me glad that I’m in love with you:
The way you walk, the way you hold my hand
The way you talk and make me understand.
You know I love those little things that you do.[9]

It’s in the little things. It’s the little things.

You go and sit with a family in the loss of a loved one, especially in the loss of a mother or a father, and you listen as the children begin to articulate some of the immediate and early reflections upon the life of the one who has just gone. And in those encounters, just listen carefully, and you will find out the kind of man and kind of father, kind of husband that guy was. It won’t be necessarily in the funeral, when everybody’s had a chance to clean it up and spruce it up and say it right. It will be in those unguarded moments that you will find out what they’re really like. And it will be in those unguarded moments that people will discover for themselves what you and I are really like in relationship to our responsibilities tonight.

Got to pull the weeds, you see.

I got a great illustration of this in my files. I may have shared it with some of you before, but I love it so much. Came out of Wally Pepin’s marriage for all those years, before he recently remarried. And just a matter of days before his wife passed away, they had gone on a trip down to the Mohican State Park. I remember when I came here, he used to always tell me, “You know, you’ve gotta go down to the Mohican State Park. That is a beautiful place, lovely in the autumn. Take your wife to the Mohican State Park.” Well, I still haven’t been to the Mohican State Park. But I’m reminded of it as I refer to it now.

But in response to this trip, he received this little note. It reads as follows:

Dear Wally,

I want to say thank you for a wonderful time away. The beauty of the mountains and the golf courses were superb. The time with you was wonderful. You are my beloved husband as well as a fun companion and friend. Thank you for the beautiful little box with stationery in it. This is a sheet from it. I love the dainty design of it and the pretty color. The Lord gave me the very best when he gave me you. I love you more now than the day we were married. All my love is yours.

And what I find most stirring about that is not so much the content as the context. Because it’s not a note from a young wife in an early blush of marital excitement. This is written by a lady in her seventies who by this time had been married to this man for forty-nine years. I can pretty well guarantee that in the course of those forty-nine years, they must have written enough letters to one another and notes so as to be able to wallpaper their house.

The Weed of Comparison

Let me just mention, as I did last time, the next weed to which we’ll come and give you one illustration of it. A real ugly weed that interferes with the progress that is essential in a kind of Ephesians 5 marriage is what we might refer to as the comparison trap. The comparison trap. It’s a beauty, and it’s often very subtle. You know, for example, the wife said, “I saw Jerry down at the tennis courts.” Brief pause. “Now there’s someone who has managed to keep a waistline.” Okay? Doesn’t come out and say, “You know what? You couldn’t buckle your belt if you tried, Henry.” No, no: “I saw Jerry down at the courts. There’s someone who managed to keep a waistline.” And so the husband instinctively sucks in his gut, tries not to buckle under the routine comparison of his belt size to every scrawny, malnourished character on whom his wife happens to set her gaze. And it’s often worse for the ladies, you know. I’ve had so many girls tell me about this.

And I got a great illustration of it that came from somebody, again, out of state. I’d made reference in something that I was saying to the importance of delighting ourselves in the wife of our youth[10]—not delighting ourselves because our wife looks like a youth but delighting ourselves and rejoicing in the wife of your youth—so as not to get into the trap of comparing our spouses unfavorably with others at the level of intellect, or status, or buying power, or business acumen, or whatever it might be. And I had this letter:

Dear Mr. Begg,

While listening to your reference to Solomon’s instruction to enjoy the wife of one’s youth, I remembered an incident which I thought you might like.

The night my husband and I met, I wore the kind of skintight, bright-purple jumpsuit which only looks good on someone as young and slender as I was then. Shortly after giving birth to our eldest daughter, I felt enormous, old, and depressed. Tearfully, I told my husband, “Inside, I’m still the girl in the purple jumpsuit, but outside, I feel like a whale.”

My husband launched a secret mission to buy me a new purple jumpsuit. I had given the old one to the Salvation Army in a fit of closet cleaning. As purple jumpsuits were not exactly in season that year, he had to go to seven different stores, explaining persistently to each puzzled clerk that yes, it had to be a jumpsuit, and yes, it had to be purple. Finally, he found one—one size fits all—and presented it to me with a card I cherish, which read: “Sweetheart, you’ll always be the girl in the purple jumpsuit to me.”

I hope you’re encouraged to hear what a joy a loving, godly husband can be.

And I was encouraged. And I hope you are encouraged. And I firmly believe that as our culture increasingly disintegrates at the level of the family and marital fidelity, that one of the great bridges into the postmodern mind is going to come—and don’t misunderstand me when I say this—is going to come not as a result of our ability to articulate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which ability we need to possess and which articulation we need to give; but one of the great bridges of opportunity is not going to come as a result of that, but it’s going to come as a result of husbands and wives living in such a way that even at the level of adequacy, it will prove to be so strikingly different from what is representative in our culture that people will literally be banging down the door of your house to find out what is the key to doing what you do. And in that moment you will tell them about Jesus. And then they’ll say, “But I thought that Jesus was just another man?” And you’ll say, “Oh no, have you ever considered the evidence for the resurrection?” And they’ll say, “Oh, no.” And then you’ll tell them of that. But the door opener increasingly is going to be husbands and wives who are prepared, as an expression of self-sacrifice, first to the Lord Jesus and then to one another, to live radically different lives to the glory of his name.

Let us pause and pray together:

Our God and our Father, we thank you tonight that your Word is intensely practical. We thank you for the straightforward words of Paul and for the clarity with which Jesus spoke. And we thank you for the examples around us, here in our own church family, of those who by your grace have weathered the storms, made it through the valleys, battled, in many cases, to new frontiers and new days. May their tribe increase. We know we’re not perfect. We know we haven’t got it absolutely right. But we pray that we might bring our regrets and our failures, our imperfections and our inconsistencies, to the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and, laying down our burdens, may go forward in the power of the Holy Spirit to live as lights in a dark place.

We thank you that there is tremendous encouragement in your Word, tremendous encouragement from being united in Christ, enjoying the fellowship of the Spirit of God. And we pray that we might draw deep from these wells as we face this week and as we face all of our tomorrows. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] 2 Timothy 3:2 (NIV 1984).

[2] See Matthew 22:34–35.

[3] See Ephesians 5:29.

[4] See Matthew 6:33.

[5] Heidelberg Catechism, Qs. 108–109.

[6] Job 31:1 (NIV 1984).

[7] H. Norman Wright, The Other Woman in Your Marriage: Understanding a Mother’s Impact on Her Son and How It Affects His Marriage (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1994), 138.

[8] See 1 Peter 3:7.

[9] Bobby Goldsboro, “Little Things” (1964). Lyrics lightly altered.

[10] See Proverbs 5:18.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.