Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife.” Read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to learn how to cherish your wife by leaving and cleaving.
Table of Contents
- Leaving and Cleaving Means Keeping the Marriage in the Marriage
- Seeking Godly Counsel Is the Exception When Talking Bad About Your Spouse
- Let Not Man Separate What God Has Joined Together
- How to Cherish Your Wife by Making Her Supreme
A newly married young woman had an argument with her husband. Because she had a good relationship with her father, in the midst of her hurt and anger, she went to see him. She knew her father would affirm how wonderful she was, and how wrong her husband had been.
When she arrived, the father opened the door, looked at his daughter, knew she was upset, invited her in immediately, and asked her what was wrong. After a few pleasantries, the daughter began divulging details about the argument she just had with her husband. The father gently rebuked her and suggested she return home. He explained, “Your husband is now the most important man in your life. You two will have problems, and you can’t come back to me when that happens. You must learn to work things out together. I love you and I’m all for the best for your marriage, which is why I’m giving you this counsel.”
Scripture agrees with the father’s response. Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The term leaving and cleaving comes from this verse. We know it portrays God’s divine plan for marriage because it was instituted at creation and brought forward into the New Testament by Jesus and Paul (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7; Ephesians 5:31).
Leaving and Cleaving Means Keeping the Marriage in the Marriage
When Paul commanded “a man [to] leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Ephesians 5:31), he was, in effect, encouraging couples to keep the marriage between the husband and wife. Married individuals should cling to their spouses instead of anyone else, including their parents. When couples experience conflict, as all couples will, they should work things out together instead of running to others. The father in the story above understood an important truth about marriage: under most circumstances, problems should remain between the husband and wife.
In fact, in-laws can end up contributing to marriage problems, especially with newlyweds who aren’t used to being separated from their parents. But this scenario isn’t limited to parents. When couples experience conflict, frequently they are tempted to go to friends or coworkers to criticize their spouse and talk about how badly they have been treated. The reason they want to do this is that they expect those close to them to take their side in the dispute. Some wives turn to their girlfriends. Some husbands talk to their guy friends. While parents are the only ones mentioned in Ephesians 5:31, we can extend this principle to say that if we shouldn’t complain to our parents about our spouse, we shouldn’t complain to anyone else either.
The dangers here should be obvious. Pouring out our anger merely stokes it. This will make us feel justified in responding poorly to our spouse, feed our belief that we deserve better treatment than we are receiving, and discourage us from seeking forgiveness for our fault in the conflict. We’ll be filled with pride instead of humility, which will make an already-strained relationship worse.
An even worse scenario is when the offended party shares the grievances with someone of the opposite sex. The result will be:
- A married woman thinking, I wish my husband listened to me the way he listens to me. I bet he would never treat me the way my husband treats me.
- A married man thinking, I bet she would show me more respect than my wife shows me. She would appreciate me and all my hard work.
Complaining about your spouse to someone of the opposite sex is detrimental to your marriage and can easily become the first step toward gossip and— even worse—a sinful relationship.
Seeking Godly Counsel Is the Exception When Talking Bad About Your Spouse
Before I go any further, I want to bring up this important point: In cases of abuse, I am not suggesting that people cannot go to their parents or others for help. We’ll discuss abuse in more detail later. For now, let’s discuss the other major exception to the rule of not going outside the marriage, and that’s when husbands and wives need godly counsel. Couples who are having problems commonly make one of two mistakes:
- They do not want to admit they are having problems and thus pretend everything is okay. They want to believe the problems will go away on their own. Pride causes them to keep their struggles a secret. As a result, they do not get help, and their marriage worsens. This is one time the marriage should not stay in the marriage. When a couple is truly unable to resolve their marital problems, they should seek spiritually mature help outside the relationship. They must put their relationship ahead of their pride.
- They act as though they are seeking godly counsel when, in fact, they are only looking for the opportunity to disparage or gossip about their spouse. People who do this say, “I’m having problems in my marriage and would like some advice.” They then proceed to list everything bad their spouse has ever done without any intent of receiving counsel. Nor do they take any responsibility for their part in the dispute. They do not acknowledge any of their own weaknesses or failures. They never say, “I know I shouldn’t have done this. It was sinful. What do you think I should have done differently? How could I be a better spouse?” These people are not looking for godly advice. They are just looking for an opportunity to complain or slander.
Unfortunately, those who want to bad-mouth their spouses will not have much trouble finding someone who will listen. Some people are all too eager to hear the denigrating information that should remain private.
If you want good and helpful counsel, do not seek out friends who are more concerned about maintaining your friendship than helping your marriage. Many of these “friends”—who usually end up hearing only half of the story—will poison a husband or wife against the spouse. In doing so, they will worsen the situation or even encourage sin against God. Typical responses from such people sound like:
- “I can’t believe your wife did that. She’s gone way too far. You should be mad!”
- “Your husband doesn’t know what he has in you. You don’t have to put up with that. You deserve so much better than him.”
Instead of speaking to people who will provide biased or faulty counsel, go to spiritually mature individuals and be willing to receive criticism and hear what you need to do to bring about change. Seek out trustworthy, godly friends who love you and care about your marriage. Pursue counsel that sounds like this:
- “You shouldn’t have responded that way. You need to go back and ask for forgiveness.”
- “Scripture commands you to love your wife. I’m sorry she did that to you, but you need to think about what Christ wants you to do.”
- “God says you should respect your husband. He shouldn’t have done that, but you need to stop talking to him like he’s a child.”
If you take the marriage outside the marriage, look for people who have the wisdom and willingness to offer hard truths such as these. These are the ones who will give you the counsel necessary to help strengthen your marriage, and most importantly, your relationship with the Lord.
Let Not Man Separate What God Has Joined Together
Genesis 2:24 is instructive about the permanence of marriage. Again, Jesus remains the standard for husbands. In John 10:28, He said this regarding His bride, the church: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” In the same way that Jesus is committed to preventing His bride from being taken away from Him, husbands should be committed to preventing their bride from being taken away from them.
Weddings are wonderful events where God divinely joins two separate individuals into one flesh. The Greek term translated “joined” is proskollao, and it means “to glue upon.” When a husband and wife are married, two people are glued together to create one whole, hence the words “they shall become one flesh.”
A marriage should never come apart. The fact God designed for husband and wife to have a one-flesh relationship reveals why divorce is so terrible. When asked about divorce, Jesus quoted God’s original command in Genesis 2:24, adding an even stronger injunction: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). Divorce tears apart what God Himself created.
For a married couple to divorce is like ripping apart two pieces of metal that have been welded—or joined—together. The result will never be a nice split. Both pieces of metal will be damaged and take some of the other piece with them. When I say this, I am not trying to condemn those who have already gone through a divorce (and the vast majority of people who have experienced the tragedy of divorce would confirm what I am saying here about the damage divorce causes). Rather, I want to urge married couples never to consider divorce as an option. My hope is to spare families, especially those with children, the deep heartache divorce brings. My experience has been that most people who have been through a divorce are among the first to encourage pastors to preach strongly against it. They want to see others avoid the grief they have suffered.
More importantly, how does God feel about people destroying what He has joined together? He hates it: “Let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence” (Malachi 2:15-16). These strong words equate divorce with violence. Why is that? Because divorce is the tearing apart of one flesh into two. God’s hatred of divorce conveys two responsibilities to professing Christians:
- No matter how difficult it might be—and it is tough when we see people struggling in their marriage—believers have a responsibility to encourage others to stay married. While separation should be supported under certain circumstances, including abuse, divorce should always be discouraged. When God says that He hates something, how can we as believers think of supporting it? Christians have the responsibility to help “what God has joined together” to stay together.
- Christians should not use the word divorce in relation to their own marriages. Once this word is spoken, even if it is forgiven, it is often not forgotten. My wife and I counseled a couple who could not trust each other because both had used the d word. Each was convinced the other said it first, but that didn’t matter because both had said it. Neither could forget what the other had threatened, leaving husband and wife with little confidence in the other’s commitment to their union.
How to Cherish Your Wife by Making Her Supreme
When Scripture says, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Ephesians 5:31), it isn’t encouraging husbands to cut their mother and father out of the couple’s lives. But it is a profound command that should challenge husbands to examine their priorities. A man’s wife should be more important to him than his parents. To appreciate the significance of the command, we need some familiarity with the marriage customs of Jesus’s and Paul’s day.
A Jewish betrothal (or engagement period) typically lasted one full year. During that time, the groom’s main responsibility was preparing a place for himself and his bride. He would then return at an unexpected day and hour for his bride and take her to be with him at the place he prepared. For those acquainted with Jesus’s own promise to His future bride in John 14:1-3, this should sound familiar:
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
Where is the place Jesus is preparing for His bride, the church? His Father’s house. Similarly, a Jewish groom would prepare a place for himself and his bride on his father’s property. The newly established residence might even be an addition to his father’s residence. This kept the newly married couple under the groom’s parents’ authority.
With this custom in mind, when Jesus and Paul quoted Genesis 2:24 that “a man should leave his father and mother,” their words could not have sounded more radical to the culture of the day. Even though a man’s father and mother have been the most important earthly figures in his life up until his wedding day, he is commanded to leave them to be joined to his new bride. Because a husband is to leave his parents for the sake of his wife, he should be willing to forsake anything (except for Christ) for her. Second to a husband’s relationship with Christ, his wife must be the supreme person in his life. A wife should never feel threatened by anyone or anything. A husband should have no earthly relationship that competes with his union with his bride.
A Wife’s Perception Is Her Reality
When wives feel like they are in second place, it’s not usually because of another woman. More often, women feel like their husbands have put an activity or hobby first. It could be sports, television, cars, poker night, alcohol, friends, work, video games, education, and even children. Yes, a husband’s relationship with his wife should be supreme even above his relationships with his children. I love my children more than I can express in words, but I still let them know— and more importantly, let Katie know—that I love Katie the most. The kids have asked me, “Who do you love the most?” I tell them, “That’s easy. Mommy!”
Note the emphasis here is on how a wife feels. A husband might insist, “My wife is the supreme priority in my life. She is more important to me than anything else.” But the wife might not feel that way. A wife’s perception is her reality. It’s not about what the husband thinks, but about how the wife feels.
A few years ago I attended a friend’s softball game and watched him make the game-winning hit. As we talked after the game, I could tell something was bothering him. He began to criticize his wife: “She doesn’t support me. I hate that she never comes to my games. I won the game, but when I go home to tell her about it, she won’t even care.”
At first I thought he was right: Why wasn’t she there cheering for him? As his wife, she should be his biggest supporter! Then it occurred to me that while he’s playing, she’s at home taking care of their children. If she’s anything like Katie (and most other wives), after her husband is gone at work all day, she probably wants him to spend time with his family and help her with the kids. She may even hope that he will give her a break because she’s been so busy with the children. This same friend also played basketball regularly on other evenings during the year. I began to wonder if his wife was having trouble respecting a man in his forties spending more time with his teammates than he does with her.
Am I saying there’s anything wrong with a grown man playing in a local sports league? No, but I am saying there’s something wrong with him making his wife feel like she’s second place to a sports league.
Hobbies Are Okay for Husbands, But…
I will be quick to admit that I have not always been successful in this area. Let me share a personal story from early in my marriage that still embarrasses me, and I would much rather not write about this in a book. The experience is humbling, but through it I learned a lot, and I hope it might be instructive for you too.
Back when I was an elementary school teacher, I tried to teach summer school as often as possible for the extra income. One summer the opportunity was not available, and I came up with the terrible idea to play World of Warcraft, an online video game. I quickly found myself addicted.
At one point, I remember Katie expressing surprise at what I was doing. She was not angry or threatening, but I could tell she was disappointed and losing respect for me.
Then something life-changing happened. Our first child, Rhea, was born in July. About one week later, Katie had a breakdown. It was difficult for her to see me like this as her husband, but it was even worse for her because I was now a father. She said she was afraid for our future and how my gaming addiction would affect our kids.
I repented, and by God’s grace, I immediately stopped playing. I thought it would be difficult to quit, but it was actually easy. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I no longer felt like a slave, and the condemnation and shame I had felt were gone. There was peace in my relationship with the Lord, and I could pray and read the Word again without terrible conviction about my misplaced priorities. Katie told me she was proud of me and that she was now able to respect me again.
Repent If You Make Your Wife Feel Like Second Place
Husband, let me address you directly. I share this in the hope that if you have something in your life that has become a misplaced priority that you cannot imagine getting rid of, you, too, might be given confidence to humble yourself before the Lord. Repent this very minute. Do not put it off. If you do this, you can experience the same freedom from bondage I enjoyed and regain your wife’s respect. The conviction that constantly plagues your relationship with Christ will be gone too.
There is a world of difference between addictions and hobbies. Hobbies are okay. Addictions are not. I am not suggesting that a husband must categorically give up all hobbies he enjoys, but he must give up anything that has become an addiction and hinders him from fulfilling his responsibilities as a husband and father.
Consider this example: One husband might love restoring an old car, and he spends only a few hours per month doing so. His wife doesn’t mind, so for him it’s a hobby that doesn’t cause any problems in his relationship with his wife, children, or the Lord. Another husband spends every spare hour with his car. He is obsessed with it. His wife has grown tired of this. She tries not to walk past the garage because she doesn’t want to see the car. She resents her husband because the car gets so much of his time and attention, and the two of them can’t talk about it without fighting. For him, the car is an addiction.
A husband can’t claim that just because the Bible doesn’t forbid something that it’s okay for him to do it. For example, I know two wives who felt like they were in second place to their husbands’ water skiing and horses. Because the Bible doesn’t forbid water skiing or horses, the husbands felt like they weren’t doing anything wrong. While it’s true the Bible doesn’t forbid their hobbies, it does forbid making a wife feel like she is in second place. The problem isn’t with the hobby, but the husband’s relationship to it. The hobby isn’t the sin; the sin is letting a hobby push the wife into second place.
A husband must pray, examine himself, develop discernment, and ask his wife what steps he needs to take to ensure she stays supreme. He needs to keep checking in with her to see how she’s feeling about what he’s doing. He might even need to make himself accountable to a mature fellow believer. With God’s help, hopefully he can turn an addiction back into a legitimate hobby. If he can’t, then it must be removed from his life completely.
Be Ruthless with Addictions
Sometimes a wife becomes second place to something that shouldn’t be completely removed from her husband’s life. For example, if a husband puts in too many hours at work, he should cut back on his hours, or perhaps even find a new job rather than stop working completely. If a husband is overly involved in his church, he needs to serve in moderation versus abandoning the church completely.
In some situations this sort of balance is reasonable, but what about when a husband has a hobby that he’s unable to engage in moderately? In other words, when his hobby has become an addiction? When a husband’s actions have demonstrated that he has an unhealthy relationship to a hobby and he can’t engage in it in a balanced or moderate way, then it has become a sin that must be completely removed from his life—elimination versus moderation.
Jesus described the necessary severity: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you” (Matthew 5:29-30; see also 18:8-9). Jesus didn’t expect us to do this literally. He often used figurative language, in the form of hyperbole, to make a point. In this case, He described the ruthlessness with which we should deal with sin—in this case, the sin being that of making the hobby a greater priority than the marriage relationship. If we struggle with a certain temptation, we should completely remove (cut or pluck) it out of our lives. Show it no mercy. If we have demonstrated that we can’t stop a hobby from becoming an addiction, then we won’t be able to keep that hobby in our life without our wife continuing to feel like she is in second place.
Too often in counseling, I have witnessed a wife’s pain associated with what her husband is doing. He will say, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll get my priorities in order and keep things in balance. From now on I will do this in moderation.” The husband will start off well. His wife will be happy for a few weeks. But slowly, whatever made her feel like second place will creep back into his life as an addiction, reclaiming that position of supremacy. The husband might as well have said, because at least it would be honest, “Things are going to change superficially for a few weeks. But before long, things will be right back to the way they were before. And you’ll be feeling even worse because you’ll see me fail again, increasing your confidence that things will never change.” The solution is for the husband to get the addiction out of his life and put his wife in her rightful place.
What is the reward when a husband obeys God’s command to make his wife his greatest priority, second only to God Himself? The husband will enjoy the blessings of a prosperous and harmonious marriage, and a happy and contented wife who respects him. If they have children, he will gain their respect too. They all will appreciate the sacrifice he has made for his family.
An Important Note for Wives
If you see your husband give up something so you can be the supreme relationship in his life, be sure to encourage him. Show him respect. Communicate how much you appreciate the sacrifice he made. Let him know that you are aware that few husbands love their wives and the Lord enough to do what he is doing.
The Greatest “Leaving and Cleaving”
God wants “a man [to] leave father and mother and be joined to his wife.” Jesus wants something similar from His bride, the church. In Matthew 10:37, He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” We are to leave father and mother—and everything else for that matter—for Christ!
This is the most important “leaving and cleaving” we do in marriage because when we place Christ, our Bridegroom and Head, first in our lives, we are strengthening our relationship with our spouse. Only in loving Christ and committing ourselves to Him can we become the husbands and wives God calls us to be.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”1 Having a deep and sincere love for Christ is the best way to have a deep and sincere love for our spouse.