In the last post we looked at Samuel Willard’s discussion of the first of the “mutual duties” husbands and wives owe to each other in the context of his exposition of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 64, which he calls “conjugal love.” In today’s post, he proceeds to the next of these shared duties, which flows naturally from that first duty of love.
This one is really, really important, and really, really hard–though not (or so I’ve heard) impossible. Willard says:
2. A Special Care and Tenderness one of another. And this follows from the Love now mentioned, and is indeed the end and use of it: And in this they ought with an holy emulation, to strive which shall outstrip the other. They are to be Helps one to another, and this Helpfulness is equally incumbent on them; and there are many things wherein they are to express this Helpfulness of theirs, which I shall not distinctly insist on. There is a study and care, to please one the other which belongs to them in common: Hence that in I Cor. 7. 33, 34. They should, so far as may be without sinning against God, endeavour to give each other Content, that they may fortify and preserve Amity and Sweetness in their whole Conversation; remembring that by Marriage they are made inseparable, and cannot without Sin, at least on one side, be put asunder, or depart one from the other. Hence they ought to study each others Tempers, and prudently accommodate themselves thereunto, so as not to irritate the Corruption that is in them; to bear with each others Infirmities, Natural or Sinful, considering themselves as the frail Children of fallen Adam; and making the Allowances which they stand in need of having made to them: To chuse the fittest Seasons to Reprove each other, for things which their Love and Duty calls for; and use the greatest meekness in the application of them: Such was that of Abigail to her Churlish Nabal, I Sam. 25. 36, 37. They should be careful of each others Health: And carry to one another with greatest Tenderness in Time of Sickness, expressing a very peculiar Compassion. They are to be very tender of each others Reputation; not only to bear, but also to cover and not discover any thing, which may render them a reproach to others; and this either by silence when it may be kept secret, or by the best and most candid Interpretation, when it cannot otherwise be hidden. 1
Spouses, Willard says, owe care and tenderness to each other, and should strive to outdo each other in showing them. They should try to please each other, making it a special object of study. Willard draws here on 1 Cor. 7, and so he keeps this duty subordinate to one’s duty to God–but that is the only limit he recognizes to this duty (that is, he countenances none of the fleshly excuses we so often try to plead in our defense for not meeting this obligation, e.g. my needs, my desires, my fulfillment, etc.). The goal is contentment, friendship or “peaceful harmony,” and sweetness in “conversation,” which means here not only the ways in which they talk to each other, but their whole mode or manner of living together. Why? Because they have already been made one by the marriage covenant and each needs to body forth that oneness in practice and ease the way for they other party to do so. Only by the sin of at least one party can that bond be broken, and so husband and wife need to strive to manifest and preserve that bond.
This requires attention and accommodation toward one another, and that for two reasons: first, because of remaining corruption and sin. When you put two people together who have abiding sin against which they must war for the rest of their lives, guess what happens? They sin. We should be aware of it, and make a special effort not to “irritate” the other’s corruption, the sinful tendencies that vary to some extent from person to person. But we have “natural” infirmities as well, by which he means a sort of generic weakness that is a result of the Fall. The children of Adam are not just sinful; they are also “frail.” Think of the well know line from the hymn: “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” We ought to attend to those weaknesses, too, and bear with them. We should also observe the Golden Rule: “…making the Allowances which they stand in need of having made to them.” The best way in which to accomplish this accommodation is a matter of prudence–and, one might add, prayer.
That does not mean, however, that there is no occasion for mutual correction and admonition, for sometimes “Love and Duty calls for” these things. But it does mean that engaging in correction and admonition is a matter of wisdom, both as to time (“the fittest Seasons”) and to manner (with “the greatest meekness”), even as the Lord Jesus blesses the meek. The biblical exemplum he uses is Abigail and Nabal.
Finally, this mutual care is to be manifested in the way in which husbands and wives care for each other when ill, and in the way in which they are zealous to maintain one another’s good name. They are to make it a particular goal to preserve the honor of the other party. This means not only enduring something that may render one’s spouse a reproach, but even to cover it when it is lawful and proper to do so. Willard does not mean “cover up” in a bad, conspiratorial sense: he means, “Don’t be a gossip, and don’t try to make each other look bad in front of others.” In very many instances, your business is not anybody else’s business and ought not to be made so. When silence cannot be maintained, we should observe charity, and construe touchy matters in the best way possible in front of others; this is simply the outworking of trying to think well of others.’
In the next post, we will look to how husbands and wives are to be helps in each other’s spiritual lives.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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