This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
The following passage is taken from Richard Baxter’s “sub-directions for maintaining conjugal love”:
- Choose one at first that is truly amiable, especially in the virtues of the mind.
- Marry not till you are sure that you can love entirely. Be not drawn for sordid ends, to join with one that you have but ordinary affections for.
- Be not too hasty, but know beforehand, all the imperfections, which may tempt you after wards to loathing. But if these duties have been sinfully neglected, yet
- Remember that justice commandeth you to love one that hath, as it were, forsaken all the world for you, and is contented to be the companion of your labours and sufferings, and be an equal sharer in all conditions with you, and that must be your companion until death. It is worse than barbarous inhumanity to entice such a one into a bond of love, and society with you, and then to say, you cannot love her. This was by perfidiousness to draw her into a snare to her undoing. What comfort can she have in her converse with you, and care, and labour, and necessary sufferings, if you deny her conjugal love ? Especially, if she deny not love to you, the inhumanity is the greater.
- Remember that women are ordinarily affectionate, passionate creatures, and as they love much themselves, so they expect much love from you. And when you joined yourself to such a nature, you obliged yourself to answerable duty: and if love cause not love, it is ungrateful and unjust contempt.
- Remember that you are under God’s command ; and to deny conjugal love to your wives, is to deny a duty which God hath urgently imposed on you. Obedience therefore should command your love.
- Remember that you are relatively, as it were, one flesh; you have drawn her to forsake father and mother, to cleave to you; you are conjoined for procreation of such children as must bear the image and nature of you both; your possessions and interests are in a manner the same. And therefore such nearness should command affection; they that are as yourselves, should be most easily loved as yourselves.
- Take more notice of the good, that is in your wives, than of the evil. Let not the observation of their faults make you forget or overlook their virtues. Love is kindled by the sight of love or goodness.
- Make not infirmities to seem odious faults, but excuse them as far as lawfully you may, by considering the frailty of the sex, and of their tempers, and considering also your own infirmities, and how much your wives must bear with you.
- Stir up that most in them into exercise which is best, and stir not up that which is evil; and then the good will most appear, and the evil will be as buried, and you will more easily maintain your love. There is some uncleanness in the best on earth ; and if you will be daily stirring in the filth, no wonder if you have the annoyance ; and for that you may thank yourselves : draw out the fragrancy of that which is good and delectable in them, and do not by your own imprudence or peevishness stir up the worst, and then you shall find that even your faulty wives will appear more amiable to you.
- Overcome them with love; and then whatever they are in themselves, they will be loving to you, and consequently lovely. Love will cause love, as fire kindleth fire. A good husband is the best means to make a good and loving wife. Make them not froward by your froward carriage, and then say, we cannot love them.
- Give them examples of amiableness in yourselves; set them the pattern of a prudent, lowly, loving, meek, self-denying, patient, harmless, holy, heavenly life. Try this a while, and see whether it will not shame them from their faults, and make them walk more amiably themselves.
Weekly Reflections on Baxter’s Passage
Monday: Read 1 Peter 3:7
Peter says that husbands are to dwell with their wives in understanding. How do Baxter’s words above help us to understand what this looks like in practice?
Tuesday: Read Proverbs 10:12 & 17:9 & 19:11
These proverbs all tells us to seek love by covering over offences and overlooking transgressions. What does Baxter say which relates to this injunction? How many of the marriage problems do you suppose would not even exist if husbands and wives could learn to cover over offences and “excuse them as far as lawfully you may”?
Wednesday: Read Romans 12:21
Although it is important to overlook the faults of one’s spouse, there are some faults that need to be dealt with and corrected. What advice does Baxter give in #12 about this, and how does it relate to this passage?
Thursday: Read Proverbs 5:19
Here the Lord commands husbands to be attracted to their wives, even as Baxter does in #6 above. This may strike as odd those who are accustomed to thinking of attraction as being fixed, as something that one either possesses or does not possesses towards another person. However, Baxter’s sub-directions for maintaining conjugal love (particularly #8 and #10) show that this assumption is false. Following the teaching of scripture, Baxter shows that there are specific things that husbands can both do and refrain from doing which will increase marital affection. If his advice is followed, can it help to increase the type of sexual attraction commanded in this verse?
Friday: Read 1 Corinthians 13
Often those who are part of a difficult marriage believe that things can only improve if the other person first changes. Do Paul’s words in this chapter undermine such a notion?
Saturday: Read Galatians 5:16-26
If you are married, these words of Paul are your marching orders. Every day, whilst interacting with your spouse, you will have numerous opportunities to put into practice the fruit of the spirit and to resist the works of the flesh. If you are single, there is no better preparation for marriage than learning to walk in the fruit of the spirit when interacting with those you come in contact with, particularly difficult people.
Sunday: Read Ephesians 5:22-33
Throughout this passage Paul continually returns to the relationship between Christ and the church as the paradigm for the relationship between husband and wife. What obligations does this paradigm create for husbands, according to Paul? What obligations does this paradigm create for wives, according to Paul? How does this relate to Baxter’s seventh point?
Lesson for This Week
During his time as a pastor in the town of Kidderminster, the English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) ministered to hundreds of townspeople, taking an interest in the particularities of their lives and offering practical help for the problems they were facing. His advice to husbands and wives no doubt grew out of these counselling sessions. But it also grew out of his own experience of marriage to Margaret, a high strung woman 26-years his junior. In his article ‘Richard & Margaret: difficult man + difficult woman = model marriage’, J. William Black shared how both Richard and Margaret had their share of problems, yet their marriage blossomed through their love for each other. Yet as both Baxter and the Bible remind us, the love between a husband and wife doesn’t just ‘happen.’ It has to be diligently pursued, protected and maintained.