Even though a man’s father and mother have been the most important earthly relationship in his life up to his wedding day, a husband is commanded to “leave” them to be joined to his new bride. This means if a husband is to leave his parents for the sake of his wife, there is nothing he should not be willing to forsake for her. Second to a husband’s relationship with Christ, his wife must be the supreme relationship in his life:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.Ephesians 5:31
This is a profound command that should deeply challenge husbands. It communicates a truth about the wife’s importance in a man’s life. She should never feel threatened by anyone or anything. A husband should have no earthly relationship that is more important than his relationship with his bride.
When Wives Feel Like Second Place
It is not usually because of another woman. More often women feel like second place to some activity or hobby that takes priority in their husbands’ lives. 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 relationship with his children.
I love my children more than I can express in words, but I still try to let them know—and more importantly, let Katie know—that I love Mommy the most. For me, this means when I come home from work, I try to kiss and hug Katie before I kiss and hug my kids. I try to make sure Katie never feels as though she is competing with our children.
A Wife’s Perception Is Her Reality
A husband might insist: “My wife is the supreme relationship in my life. She is more important than anything else.” But the wife might not feel that way. A wife’s perception is her reality. It is not about what the husband says or even thinks but about what the wife feels.
I will be the first to admit that I have not always been successful in this area. Let me share a personal story from early in my marriage that I still hate thinking of, much less writing about publicly. It is humbling, but through it I learned a lot, and I hope it might be instructive for you too.
I was an elementary school teacher at the time, and I always tried to teach summer school. One summer the opportunity was not available and I came up with the terrible idea to play World of Warcraft, an online video game. Pretty quickly I 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 when I was a father. She said she was afraid for our future and how this 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 very easy. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I no longer felt like a slave, and the strong condemnation and shame were gone. There was peace in my relationship with the Lord, and I could pray and read the Word again without terrible conviction. Katie told me she was proud of me and that it was easy to respect me again.
For a better understanding of what it looks like for husbands to make their wives supreme, watch the second message I deliver at Marriage God’s Way Conferences…
What About Husbands’ Hobbies?
I am not suggesting that husbands must categorically give up all hobbies they enjoy. For example, one husband might love restoring old cars, but does it only a few hours per month. His wife does not mind, so for him it is not a problem. Another husband spends every spare hour with his car. He is obsessed with it. His wife hates it. She resents him because of it. They cannot even talk about it without fighting. For him the car is a problem.
Too often in counseling, I have witnessed a wife’s pain associated with some area of her husband’s life. The husband says: “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll get my priorities in order. I’ll make sure things are in balance. I’ll make sure to do this in moderation.” The husband will start off well. His wife will be happy for a few weeks. But slowly, whatever made the wife feel like second place will creep back into the husband’s life, reclaiming that position of supremacy.
The Husband’s Needed Ruthlessness
What is the solution? The solution is for the husband to remove the threat from his life completely. Put his wife in her rightful place. Make her the supreme relationship in his life. Jesus put it this way:
“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, 18:8–9
We have to be ruthless with sin. If something in a husband’s life is making his wife feel as though she is second place, then it is sin and he must take immediate action to remove it.
The Husband’s Blessed Reward
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 blessing of a prosperous and harmonious marriage and a happy and contented wife. He will enjoy having his wife’s respect, and if there are children, he will gain their respect, too. A husband can enjoy a wife who has witnessed his sacrifice and can appreciate what he was willing to do for her and his family.
A Direct Exhortation for Husbands
Gentlemen, I share this in the hope and prayer that, if you are reading these words and have something in your life 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 I experienced from bondage, shame, and losing your wife’s respect. The conviction that constantly plagues your relationship with Christ will be gone too.
An Important Note for Wives
If you see your husband give something up 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 is making for you and your family. Let him know that you are aware that few husbands love their wives and the Lord enough to do what he is doing.
The Jewish Betrothal
A Jewish betrothal typically lasted one full year. During that time, the groom’s main responsibility was to prepare a place for himself and his bride. He would then return at some unexpected time 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 should all 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.John 14:1-3
Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for His bride, the church. Where is that place? His Father’s house. A Jewish groom would prepare a place for himself and his bride on his father’s property. The newly established residence might even be attached to the father’s house. This kept the newly married couple under the groom’s parents’ authority.
With this custom in mind, Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5 that a man should leave his father and mother could not have sounded more radical to the culture of the day. But Paul was not saying something new. He was, in fact, quoting Genesis 2:24, one of the earliest verses in Scripture. Paul was reiterating the divine plan for marriage to reestablish what God had instituted at creation.
How Does God View Husbands Divorcing Their Wives?
Weddings are wonderful events because God divinely joins two separate individuals into one flesh. The Greek word for “joined” is proskollao, and it means “to glue upon.” When a husband and wife are married, two separate halves are glued together creating one whole.
Paul’s point in Ephesians 5:31 is that marriage should never be broken or come apart. The one-flesh relationship God creates 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; Mark 10:9
Divorce tears apart what God Himself created.
How does God feel about people destroying what He has joined together? He hates it:
And 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 are strong words that equate divorce with violence. And 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 difficult when we see people struggling in their marriage—believers have a responsibility to encourage others to stay married. While separation can and should be supported under certain circumstances, divorce should always be discouraged. When God says that He hates something, how can believers think of supporting it? Christians have the responsibility to help “what God has joined together” to stay together.
- Christians cannot use the word “divorce” in 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 did not really matter because each had said it. Neither could forget what the other threatened, leaving husband and wife with little confidence in the other’s commitment.
A divorce is like taking two pieces of metal that have been welded—or joined—together and ripping them apart. It is never going to be a nice split. Both pieces of metal are going to be damaged, and take some of the other piece with them. I am not trying to condemn those who have experienced a divorce (and the vast majority of people who have experienced the tragedy of divorce would confirm what I am saying here), but I am trying to encourage married couples never to consider divorce as an option.
My hope is to spare families, especially those with children, the heartache divorce brings. My experience has been that most who have been through a divorce are the first to encourage pastors to preach more strongly against it. They want to see others avoid the same grief they have suffered.
The Greatest “Leaving and Cleaving”
The command in Ephesians 5:31 to “leave and cleave” is not encouraging children to cut their mother and father out of their lives. The phrase is referring to priorities. Both husbands and wives must make sure their spouses are more important than even their parents. This is what Jesus also wants from His bride, the church. He said:
“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.”Matthew 10:37a
The most important “leaving and cleaving” we do in marriage is leaving the world and cleaving to Christ. When we place our own Bridegroom and Head first in our lives, we are actually strengthening our marriages because only in loving Christ and committing ourselves to Him can we become the husbands and wives God’s Word commands us to be.
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.”C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950–1963 (HarperOne, 2007), p. 1952.
Having a deep and sincere love for Christ is the best way to have a deep and sincere love for our spouses.
The verse instructs husbands on the permanence of marriage and, Jesus sets the standard. He said regarding His future bride, the church:
“And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.”John 10:28
Discussion Questions for Couples:
- Are there any relationships, interests, or hobbies you need to “leave” so you can better “cleave” to Christ? If the answer is yes, repent, and discuss the actions you will take.
How can you and your spouse focus on cleaving together to Christ?
- What takes place between two individuals—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—on their wedding day?
- What takes place between married couples—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—when they divorce?
- What two responsibilities do Christians have when it comes to divorce?
- If you have ever mentioned the “D” word to your spouse:
- Confess your sin.
- Ask for forgiveness.
Discussion Questions for Husbands:
- Second only to Christ, is your wife the supreme relationship in your life? Why or why not?
- Do you need to remove anything from your life so your wife does not feel like second place? If the answer is yes, explain the actions you will take to help her feel like she is your greatest priority after God.
Discussion Questions for Wives:
- Second only to Christ, do you feel you are the supreme relationship in your husband’s life? Why or why not?
- Does anything need to be removed from your husband’s life so you don’t feel like second place? If the answer is yes, explain the actions you would like him to take so you can feel differently.
- Wife: How has your husband committed to making changes to please you? Discuss what you will do to communicate your appreciation for the sacrifice(s) he’s making.