The Art of Living and Loving: Lessons from Proverbs
By Dr. Richard Winter
Director of the Covenant Seminary Counseling Program and Professor of Practical Theology
Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker or heard the U2 song lyric: “A woman needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle!” I do not know where this saying originated, but I wonder if it was penned by someone who was badly hurt in marriage and is now cynical and angry. Marriage has been compared to a beleaguered city with all those on the outside wanting to get in and all those on the inside wanting to get out. It is easy to become cynical when you look at the state of marriage in our world, but the Bible provides us with a very different picture of marriage.
Christians believe we are not merely the end products of time and chance. Rather, we believe we were creat- ed by a personal God with purpose and design. God has not left us to our own devices regarding the subject of marriage but has given us clear instructions in the Bible. While the Bible is often caricatured as old-fash- ioned, chauvinistic and patriarchal, the book of Proverbs presents us with a very high view of women and marriage. Proverbs describes four things that a wife is and, by implication, it expects quite a lot of the hus- band too.
A Friend and a Partner
Proverbs 2:17 describes a wife as a friend and partner. Distinct contrast to the surrounding culture which would have seen a wife as a child-bearer and chattel goods. The same Hebrew word translated “partner” in the NIV is used in Psalm 55 to describe “my companion, my closest friend with whom I enjoy sweet fellow- ship.”
These words echo the creation account in Genesis. The animals were not satisfactory companions for Adam, and Genesis 2:18 says, “It is not good for man to be alone…I will make a helper suitable for him.” A woman is a helper to share in the task of caring for God’s world. She is not a subordinate or slave. The word “helper” here is the same word used to describe God as our helper. Eve was created from Adam’s rib, the symbolism of which is beautifully expressed by the well-known Bible commentator Matthew Henry: Eve was “Not made out of his head to rule him, nor out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected and near his heart to be beloved.”
The woman and the man are made for each other. It is a wonderful moment in the creation account when Adam sees Eve for the first time and he perhaps sings and shouts-even dances: “At last! Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23).
A Good GIFT
Proverbs 18:22 speaks of the wife as a good gift from the Lord: “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” Proverbs 19:14 tells us: “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.”
The first thing this gift brings us is much pleasure. It is important that we cultivate thankfulness in our lives for the pleasures of our marriage. God also uses marriage for something else-a second purpose which may bring much pain! Marriage works in the life of a Christian like a slow-release medicine. God desires that every believer would be continually changed to look more like the image of God dwelling in them. The longer we are married the more clearly we see the closely interwoven nature of the dignity and depravity, of the beauty and the brokenness, that make up the person we have married. As this reality comes out in your life and your spouse’s life, each spouse is driven to a deeper understanding of what Christ has done for him or her on the cross, and for the need of Christ’s daily grace.
Both in times of ease and in times of conflict, we need to remind ourselves that our spouse is a gift. We are given to each other as a means of growth, change and sanctification. God desires that the dignity and glory of who we are, as made in the image of our Creator, should be seen more fully, while the depravity of who we are as rebels against God should be seen less and less.
Proverbs 12:4a says, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown”- she brings him honor and joy. But 12:4b provides a contrast: “but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones”- she brings rottenness at the core; she corrodes his strength and tears everything down. A husband can tear his wife down too, and Proverbs does not fail to offer men practical rebukes: “A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly” (Prov. 14:29). In marriage, we either bring dignity and delight to each other, or we degrade and destroy each other. This is the central idea behind being “a crown” to your spouse.
The Christian life is a battle. As marriage partners, we may choose to make it a battle with each other, or we may choose the better way-together we may battle against all the things in the world around and within that would destroy our relationships-a battle, as the Bible says, against the world, the flesh and the devil. Too often couples end up spending all their energy fighting each other. The agony of Paradise Lost is painfully expressed by Milton as he describes Adam and Eve at the end of that momentous day when they disobeyed God in the garden of Eden: “Thus they in mutual accusation spent their fruitless hours, but neither self con- demning. And of their vain contest appeared no end.”
Most couples have experienced a time in their marriage when it has felt like an endless contest of mutual accusation and self-defense with swords drawn against each other. Our goal must be to stand back to back and side by side against the world, “intimate allies,” as counselor and author Dan Allender puts it, rather than intimidating enemies.
A Very Precious Jewel
Proverbs 31:10 tells us, “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” Now this is certainly someone to be prized and protected. Again, the book of Proverbs paints a picture of this wife of noble character-a femme formidable. Every wife may not be a top-notch administrator, tradeswoman, craftswoman, businesswoman, philanthropist, wife to her husband and mother to her children all rolled into one, but we are to treasure the noble characteristics in our wives. They are jewels to be delighted in and taken care of.
Delighting in Your Wife
Proverbs describes the wife as a companion, gift, crown and precious jewel. And the husband is exhorted to delight in this gift: “…rejoice with the wife of your youth…may you ever be captivated by her love” (Prov. 5:18-19). Are you enjoying companionship and the sexual relationship in your marriage? Proverbs 5 and the Song of Solomon have some wonderfully erotic descriptions of the God-given joys of sex in marriage. Research has shown that many middle-aged couples who have been faithful and committed to each other through the years of raising young children find a wonderful renaissance in their relationship and sexual enjoyment in the later years. If we are willing to work through the dark and painful times without giving up on each other, marriage, in an extraordinary way, goes on getting better.
Against so high a view of marriage, infidelity and adultery are presented in Proverbs as something profoundly destructive, destroying reputations and families. Sadly, infidelity has become very accepted in our culture, almost normal. But if we ignore the Maker’s instructions, we and our children pay a terrible price. Divorced people fare considerably less well on just about every measure of physical and mental health. But we do not need a scientific study to tell us this, we can simply look at the results of shattered families and relationships all around us.
Breaking the Vows
Built into one of the warnings against unfaithfulness is a very important phrase: “the wife who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God” (Prov. 2:17). To the husband is writ- ten: “you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant” (Mal. 2:14).
We have made a covenant before God in our marriage vows. God has made a covenant of lifelong faithful- ness with us. As we have been loved by God, so we are to love. As we have been forgiven by God, so we are to forgive. As Christ gave Himself sacrificially for us, so we are to give sacrificially to each other
A successful marriage will not occur when each spouse is seeking to get what he or she wants from the rela- tionship. We must follow Christ’s model of sacrificial love in our marriage by seeking to give more than we want to get.
Wisdom in Context
The end of Proverbs gives us the context for all this wisdom on marriage. “The fear of the Lord is the begin- ning of wisdom” (Prov. 31:30b). We can possess many nuggets of knowledge about marriage, but true wisdom comes from understanding that our lives are not simply lived before things that we can see, taste, touch and hear. Rather, our lives are lived before the invisible but personal God.
Christians who live in this reality need not despair or become cynical about the covenant of marriage. We have the opportunity to rejoice in the friendship, the gift, the crown and the jewel of marriage.
This article originally appeared in Covenant magazine, the magazine of Covenant Theological Seminary. Reprint permission is available upon request by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.