Marriage As Unjust Suffering


See also: Mixed Marriages

Written by:  John M. Frame

1 Peter 3:1-7

This sermon has a bit of a history. I first preached something like it back in 1973 or so when a friend asked me to preach at his wedding ceremony. Now in those days and for many days thereafter I was a bachelor, and to tell you the truth I had the reputation of being a bit cynical about the marriage institution, a bit inclined to sarcasm when others were weepingly sentimental. I did teach about marriage and the family in my ethics course at seminary, like John Murray and Norman Shepherd before me who also taught the course as bachelors. But I was never the guy that you would call on to gush about the joys of Christian marriage. So when my friend asked me to preach for his wedding, I couldn’t preach a typical wedding sermon extolling the bliss of the married state. Since I had no personal experience of that bliss, and since I had been known even to mock the traditional pious talk about marriage, I knew that if I preached a traditional wedding sermon, people wouldn’t buy it. My sermon would have to have at least a bit of irony about it. On the other hand, I couldn’t very easily debunk the marriage institution and still preach a scriptural sermon. So I settled on I Peter 3, and the theme, “Marriage as Unjust Suffering.”

About ten years later I preached a similar sermon in this church. For some peculiar reason Dick wanted me to preach during Marriage and Family Month; I think it had something to do with the budget. By then my reputation as a crusty, cynical old bachelor had increased tenfold; so out came the file on I Peter 3 again.

Well, the punch line is that three years ago I got married! And now Dick has asked me to go back again to see if I can still preach that sermon. Is marriage really unjust suffering? And if it is, do I have the guts to preach that with my wife in the congregation? And if I do, how am I going to repay Dick Kaufmann for putting me in this embarrassing position? Stay tuned for some answers to these questions.

First, I do still believe that marriage can be a form of unjust suffering, because it says so in the Bible. (I said it can be, my dear, not that it always is.) The Bible, of course, has a very positive view of marriage, but it is also realistic. It recognizes that in a sinful world there are a lot of problems in marriage. So while it says many positive things about marriage, it says some negative things as well. Once, indeed, Jesus told his disciples, in effect, “You’re not allowed to get divorced, so some of you shouldn’t get married at all.” In this sinful world there is a downside to marriage, and we ought to ask if we can accept that downside before we presume to make a lifetime commitment.

And so the apostle Peter speaks of some situations in which marriage involves “unjust suffering.” I would like to look at Peter’s words with you this morning.

Peter wrote his first letter to Christians who were enduring various kinds of suffering. Chapter one, verse 6: “In [your salvation] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” I say “various kinds” of suffering. Some were being persecuted for the sake of Jesus Christ (4:14); others, it seems, were just facing a lot of plain old frustrations, some of which may have been their own fault (2:20; 4:15). In either case, they were doubtless under temptation to grumble, complain, pity themselves, perhaps even to lose confidence in Christ and his promises.

In this situation, Peter writes to encourage and challenge them with the vision of Jesus Christ. If anyone ever endured wrongful suffering, unjust suffering, certainly it was Jesus Christ. Here was a man perfectly just: Peter calls him a lamb without blemish, without spot (1:19), in the language of the Old Testament sacrifices. But though he was perfectly righteous, he endured incredible sufferings and torments at the hands of wicked men (2:22ff.). Yet even then, Peter says, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they insulted him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

And Jesus not only endured suffering; he laid down his life — and laid it down voluntarily, dying in our place, for our sins. You see, we all have sinned against God and therefore against Jesus. We have all hated him, dishonored him, reviled him; we are all guilty. And Jesus not only accepted willingly the force of our murderous hatred, but he died to save us from that hatred, from the wrath of God against that hatred: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (2:24).

Because he has healed us, we can live as he did. We are Jesus’ people, a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (2:9). Like him, we can live in the midst of persecution and tribulation without reviling, without threatening, without anxious fear, but patiently, calmly, quietly, even so as to win over our persecutors! Praise God, we can live and suffer like Jesus Christ!

Now, in the middle of chapter 2, Peter starts talking about suffering in different kinds of situations. First, he speaks of suffering under the government. Peter knows that governments can give Christians a hard time; but that is no excuse to disobey the law. “Submit yourselves, for the Lord’s sake,” he says, “to every authority instituted among men.” By being good citizens, says Peter, you will bring shame to your persecutors.

Then in 2:18-25 he talks about persecution in the master/slave relationship. That is an especially hard situation, and it was common in Peter’s day. More Christians were slaves than masters, and they were subject to all kinds of cruelty. Peter knows that a Christian slave might be tempted to fight back, to rebel. But no, he says, be in subjection to them, even if they are wicked and cruel. And work hard: it is better to suffer unjustly than to suffer for your own faults. We must, he says, be willing to suffer wrongfully, for that is the way of Christ.

You see Peter’s theme: persecution and wrongful suffering, as citizens, as slaves, and even in marriage —that’s his next application, in chapter 3. Think of it! Marriage as persecution! Marriage as wrongful suffering! What a wonderful theme for a cynical old bachelor! Here, truly, is a scriptural account of the downside of marriage!

Downside, yes; but to be honest with the passage, I must say that there is an upside here, even here. Because there is something glorious about the suffering here. The suffering is for something wonderful. And, you know, sometimes you have to risk suffering to find something really precious. Some things are really worth the suffering. Think of the suffering Jesus endured for his bride the church! Is earthly marriage one of those things that is worth the suffering? Let’s look at the passage:

“Wives, in the same way [just like citizens and slaves] be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without talk by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (3:1-7).

The first six verses are addressed to wives with non-Christian husbands. That creates a bit of a problem for the preacher, because most of us are not in that situation. We wonder, what can we learn about a marriage of two Christians from these verses? Well, we can learn quite a lot. The teaching that the wife should be obedient to her husband, subject to him, is true for all marriages. That point is especially vivid here. In our passage, a woman has a husband who isn’t a Christian, who hates Christianity, who indeed hates Jesus Christ. (The language of verse one suggests that he has heard the gospel, knows about Christ, but has turned away from the Lord.) He is disobedient to the word and to Christ, yet his Christian wife must be obedient to him, yes (as the context implies) even when she is suffering wrongfully. If that is so even amid the unjust suffering of a mixed marriage, how much more is obedience necessary in a marriage of two Christians?

But let’s avoid a misunderstanding here. Does this mean that a Christian wife is to be a mousy, spineless little girl, a mindless creature who never makes any plans of her own, never has any ideas, never uses her talents? Is she to have no sense of personal worth? Is she never to take responsibility but to shift the responsibility entirely to her husband?

Far from it! The Christian wife in this passage definitely has a mind of her own, plans of her own, purposes of her own, and therefore a great sense of personal responsibility. Look at her! She is out to win her husband to Christ! She is out to melt this cold, cruel man into a tender, kind disciple of the Lord Jesus. She has a mind of her own! This isn’t his idea, it’s hers. She is out to win him, even though he doesn’t want to be won.

To do this, she is going to have to preach the gospel to him. A woman preacher? Not exactly. For the passage says she witnesses to him not in word, certainly not by nagging, but in a much harder way: by her life, by her example. She will win him simply by letting him watch her, by letting him be amazed at her purity, holiness, her fear of God. What a job she has taken on! Every detail of her life must reflect the love, obedience, quietness, meekness of Jesus Christ. The language of verse 2 suggests that he is watching her up close. Well, when you’re married, that’s how it is; you get watched up close! But under that microscopic scrutiny, she passes all the tests. She amazes him; she makes him want what she has. Now if this husband is converted, the Holy Spirit does it, not the wife; the wife’s witness is only the Spirit’s tool. But the tool is important. Just as the spirit works through sermons, he works through the life of this woman to bring this man to trust in Christ.

She doesn’t win him over just by looking beautiful (verse 3). Of course the text doesn’t say that she’s ugly either. But she lets him know that other things are more important to her than hair and jewels and clothes. She knows more about fixing her spirit than about fixing her face. Instead of looking at herself in the mirror, she looks at herself in the figurative mirror of Scripture and finds there the holy women like Sarah who obeyed their husbands quietly and meekly, and who (Peter keeps bringing in this idea) endured danger without fear.

Submission, yes. But mousy? Dull? Far from it. This is a woman that would fascinate any man who took the trouble to get to know her — even perhaps a cynical old bachelor. This is a woman with plans, strategy, cleverness, skill. This woman is not a fearful person. Who said that women have to be fearful? She is, rather, a person of great strength, a calm in the storm. In short, she is not only submissive, but responsible. Her obedience to her husband is like the obedience of the church to Christ, or the obedience of Christ himself to his heavenly Father, an obedience which engages all her gifts, her creativity, her thought.

And so, my sisters in Christ, you have much to contribute to your marriages. Every gift and talent of your heart, mind and soul — all can be put to full use in the marriage relationship to honor God, and to bring to your husbands blessings that they do not expect!

Now, men, look at verse seven, which tells us to dwell with our wives according to knowledge. That’s an interesting phrase. We usually say (from Eph. 5) that the husband’s duty is love. But here it says “knowledge.” Well, knowledge and love are closely related in scripture: to “know” a person often means to “befriend” that person, and more. But let’s focus on “knowledge” today, since that emphasis is often overlooked in discussions of Christian marriage.

A Christian love involves knowledge, understanding. When Jesus loved us and suffered for us, he lived with us, experiencing all our sorrows, pains, temptations. He knew us so well — and still does. He knew our hearts, their blackness, uncleanness, rebellion — yet he still loved us, gave his life for us.

Christian love is always like that: knowledge with understanding. To love your wife really, you must know her, understand her. You must live with her, so you know how she feels, know her weaknesses, strengths, ideas, gifts. How else will you be able to help her? And how can you love if you don’t help?

You are to rule, but Christian rule is not simply laying down the law, ignoring your wife’s thoughts or concerns. Christian rule is a rule in love and therefore a rule in knowledge or understanding. Without knowledge, love is distorted. We men, I’m afraid, often have the tendency to reduce love to its sexual dimension. We need, perhaps, to think of marriage less in terms of love and more in terms of understanding.

Let’s move on: What do you find when you try to understand? Well, you find out that your wife is a “weaker partner.” I think that simply refers to the physical differences between the sexes, differences which cannot be erased by any liberation movement. Women are, in obvious physical ways, weaker than men are, and that means they need help. Yes, it’s not unbiblical for a man to help with the housework — if he’s competent to do so. (My wife says I’m not competent.) But even if you’re not competent, there will be lots of opportunities for you to lend her a hand. I know I need to be more sensitive to those situations.

But that’s not all you discover when you try to understand your wife. You come to understand that she needs help, since in some ways she is not equal to you. But you also discover that she is equal to you in a very important way: she is an “heir with you of the gracious gift of life.” So far as God’s saving grace is concerned, we have equal privileges. In the New Covenant, men and women worship together, they both receive the sign of the covenant. And in heaven there will be no more marrying or giving in marriage; for like the angels we will be equally glorious before God’s throne.

When you dwell with your wife according to knowledge, you discover that in that frail body is a glorious child of God. To be unkind to her, to treat her wrongly, is to fail to honor that great work of God’s grace in her. And that, Peter says, will hinder your own relation to God, so that your prayers will be hindered. Dishonor God’s image in your wife, and you dishonor God himself.

But when a man and a woman obey God’s commands here, their marriage can be something really special. Even during my days as a cynical old bachelor, this passage led me, in spite of myself, to gush a bit over the institution of marriage– at least over its potential! There really is something wonderful here. Yes, it teaches that marriage can be unjust suffering, and, in this sinful world, I reckon that there is some unjust suffering in every marriage. But if we respond rightly to unjust suffering, even that can be glorious. Peter tells us in the second chapter that we are called by God to such suffering, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:19-21). And in the third chapter, he says, “But even if you suffer for the right, you are blessed” (3:14).

Today, when injustice occurs, our first instinct is often to demand our rights. And when there is injustice in marriage, often the first instinct is to demand justice or seek divorce (something God hates! Mal. 2:16) if that justice doesn’t come. Scripture doesn’t tell us to ignore injustice — in marriage or anywhere else. But we are not to battle injustice with the weapons of the world. A gentle spirit, a godly example, patient reasoning from the word of God, a sincere effort to love and understand your spouse: these things do more to ensure justice than any demand, demonstration or divorce, even when God’s methods may mean we have to endure suffering longer than we might like.

When we follow the steps of Jesus in this way, a marriage can be something glorious. Just think of how the ancient pagans would have been amazed at such a marriage. A wife, joyfully obedient, though not stupid! who accomplishes great things through quiet, patient, obedient living. A husband who actually seeks to understand his wife, helps her bear burdens, shares with her his relation to God. This in itself could be enough to make a pagan want to become a Christian. For Christ, and Christ alone, can empower you to live that way. He alone can fill you with that kind of love and understanding.