At a marriage seminar a few years ago that Chris and I attended, the speaker told us that in marriage it’s never helpful to “read each others mail.” Meaning, God has given men and women different roles and duties and it’s not helpful if the men focus on what the women should be doing and the women focus on what the men should be doing. Furthermore, if one spouse is not performing their duty, that never negates the obligation of the other spouse to be faithful in their duty before God.
I was reminded of this phrase after reading and hearing the way that many people responded negatively to a post on a blog. A pastor was making remarks concerning the Ted Haggart scandal and one of the remarks went something like this: “Pastors’ wives should take care that they do not let themselves go physically because of how their husband’s calling requires him to be faithful. (In other words, he’ll lose his job if he ever cheats on her.) But they should try to stay attractive and exciting to keep their husband from temptation.” [This is not meant to be an exact quote but only to capture the gist.] There were many negative comments concerning this line so I want to give a woman’s perspective about why a statement like this can be offensive and apply the statement to the above principle. I actually agree with his statement, but think it needed a lot more explanation.
First: A Woman’s Perspective
When we hear that we should not “let ourselves go” in order to protect our husbands from temptation, we immediately interpret that as follows: “The moment you cease to be Vogue-magazine material, your husband will be prone to temptation.” I know this is likely nothing like what the author of the blog meant, but a man needs to understand how a woman’s mind works. We see the magazine covers in the supermarket, we see the size-zero women in the movies, and we already fear that our husbands can’t help but view us as second-rate. I would go so far as to say that whenever a man makes a comment as such, because of our looks-obsessed culture, it must be followed by a caveat explaining exactly what he means. Otherwise the female imagination is left with: “I must look like Nicole Kidman or else.”
The second thing that must accompany a statement like his is a reaffirmation of a man’s duty before God to his wife. A woman reads his statement and immediately thinks: “The pastor is saying that if I do not maintain an awesome, alluring body my husband is absolved of his duty to be faithful.” I can be almost certain that his pastor believes nothing of this sort, nor do any Bible-believing men. But that is still what a woman hears. So what is also needed after the pastor’s statement is an affirmation that no matter what a woman does, her husband is absolutely accountable before God to be faithful until death (except marital unfaithfulness). She can be grossly overweight, she can refuse him sex, she can never take a shower and be slothful, and none of these things nullify his commitment to her before God. When I asked once about why a believing husband had divorced his wife, I was told by a believer that the wife “had problems,” for instance, they had not had sex in over ten years. I think what I was supposed to believe is that in God’s eyes marriage has some kind of an expiration date and that when you cross the ten year mark, God absolves you of your duty. However, when Malachi condemns men for dealing treacherously with the wives of their youth, it does not say: “She stayed attractive in her older years, she kept you excited, and you still left her. How could you do it?” It simply condemns them for abandoning the wife of their youth when she was no longer youthful.
At this point I think it is helpful to refer back to the “Don’t read each other’s mail” concept. [It’s not that we are unaware of each others duty or that a man can never exhort a woman in her duty, it’s only that it’s unhelpful if women are focusing on men’s duties and men on women’s.] If a man is going to refer to a woman’s duty, he needs to do it in a way that shows he understands his duty is not dependent on her performance. This is especially true in the above case because scripture is so much more emphatic about the importance of faithfulness in marriage no matter what. I can’t think of many passages in scripture that exhort women to not let themselves go. I can think of many telling us to seek inner beauty, but not necessarily outward beauty.
The Woman’s Duty
Having said all of that, I do think there is a place for exhorting women to do their part in protecting their husband from temptation. This does not mean that if she doesn’t do her part and he is unfaithful, he is not sinning. It only means that we should love our Christian brother enough to do everything in our power to keep temptation as far from him as we can. Rather than focusing on the physical and “not letting ourselves go,” I think it’s more helpful to focus on what makes a husband want to be at home and glad that he married her. In such an environment, the sin is not enticing to him. The truth about the Bible is that it speaks so accurately about the human heart. What it says about men and women is true even for people who aren’t believers. A man may never have read a verse in the Bible, yet the principles about the marriage relationship will hold every bit as true with him and his wife as it will with believers. So even an unbelieving man who married his wife in lust because of her attractiveness, can be kept faithful after her youthfulness has faded by the Biblical principles for true beauty. When the husband praises his adored wife in Proverbs 31, does it say, “Many women have attractive bodies, but yours is the most attractive of them all?” How absurd. He says that many women have done virtuously but your virtue has exceeded them all (paraphrase). The mail that is written to women is that, in the end, it is our virtue that will protect our husbands from temptation, not our dress size.
I stated earlier that a woman can be grossly slothful and refuse her husband sex and the man is still accountable before God to be faithful. That is true but that is the man’s mail. It’s not helpful if women dwell on that. Our mail is that we are sinning if we are slothful and gluttonous, if we disobey the Bible where it says we should not deprive our husbands of their marital rights, and if we make a home environment that makes other relationships look attractive to our husbands. That’s what our focus should be on. We also must cultivate a quiet and gentle spirit that is worth far more than outer beauty. Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting (don’t we know that!) but a women who fears the Lord is greatly to be praised.
My conscience requires me to say that I am no poster child for the above exhortation but my hope is that right thinking will lead to right behavior. (Neither am I a literal poster child either which is why I need to get that virtue stuff figured out!)
In a culture which permits divorce for any and every reason (as the pharisee's did), the importance of unconditional faithfulness can not be overstated, especially in the context of discussing a women's role in helping her husband stay faithful.