Pillar Journal

The Cultivation of Friendship in Marriage

We should strive in our marriages to say of each other what Christ’s bride says of Him in Song of Songs 5:16, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend.”

Cultivation is rooted in farm work. Seed is sown, and tender plants spring up. They cannot flourish if they are not cultivated. Cultivation is rewarding work, for it results in an abundant harvest, when God gives the increase. But it is hard work. Nobody wakes up one morning and is pleasantly surprised to discover that, without any effort on his part, a field of ripe corn has appeared on his property.

Likewise, cultivating friendship in marriage is hard work—yet most rewarding. Many people in our culture think that love is something you fall into and then somehow fall out of. That might be true of passing emotions, but true friendship relies on cultivation: uprooting bad attitudes, planting daily seeds of love towards one another, pulling out weeds and eliminating pests that threaten to choke the relationship, watering the tender plants with daily prayer, and then taking time to reap a harvest of love and enjoyment in each other’s company.

We must resist the laziness and ingratitude that often creep into marriage. Before you were married, didn’t you invest a lot in each other? You couldn’t wait to be together, and you made time for each other. You sent each other notes and talked often on the phone together. You paid each other compliments, brought each other gifts, showed each other affection, and shared each other’s daily joys and trials. If you stop doing such things after you marry, what will happen to your friendship? The tender plant of friendship will languish and die away. Friendship does not persist, deepen, and grow automatically.

We should strive in our marriages to say of each other what Christ’s bride says of Him in Song of Songs 5:16, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend.” We must work to build true Christian fellowship with our spouses. The Greek word translated fellowship in the New Testament actually means sharing or communing with each other: sharing each other’s joys, bearing each other’s burdens, and being involved in each other’s lives. Fellowship is one of the goals of the gospel. First John 1:3 says, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” The same gospel should increase our love for each other as husband and wife, and our longing to have fellowship with each other.

Let us explore several aspects of cultivating friendship in marriage under the theme of sharing.

1. Cultivate Friendship by Sharing Yourselves

The Lord describes His closeness with His people in terms of friendship. Exodus 33:11 says, “And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” God is a Spirit (John 4:24), so this verse does not refer to physical closeness or seeing any physical form or face of God. It refers to an immediacy of spirit to spirit. God sent messages to His other prophets in dreams and visions, but spoke His Word directly to Moses (Num. 12:6–8). In the new covenant, this kind of spiritual intimacy is extended to true believers who yearn to walk with God (Eph. 2:18; 3:12). God compares this closeness to what friends should be to each other: “as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Jesus also called His disciples “friends” because He shared His mind and heart with them (John 15:15), and commands us to love each other as He loved us (John 13:34; Eph. 5:2).

A woman once told me that when her husband was gone for four or five hours, she would ask him, “Where were you? What did you do?” He said, “I don’t ask you what you did today, do I? Don’t ask me what I did today.” A man who treats his wife that way has a servant in his house, not a friend. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) wrote this about marriage:

It is a mercy to have a faithful friend, that loveth you entirely, and is as true to you as yourself, to whom you may open your mind and communicate your affairs, and who would be ready to strengthen you, and divide the cares of your affairs and family with you, and help you to bear your burdens, and comfort you in your sorrows, and be the daily companion of your life, and partaker of your joys and sorrows.1Richard Baxter, The Christian Directory, 2.1, dir. 9, in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 4:30.

When you marry, the Lord says you enter into a covenant of companionship. Malachi 2:14 says, “the wife of thy youth” is “thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.” You promise to walk together all the way through the pilgrimage of life. One couple I know uses the five Ts to remember what companionship is: giving each other time, thought, talk, tenderness, and touch.

There is no substitute for spending time together. Friendship cannot be warmed up by thirty seconds in the microwave. So much today is instant; friendship is not. It costs something. It costs you yourself, your commitment, and your vulnerability. There are no rush orders in friendship. It must be baked slowly, gently, and continually if we want the flavor we are looking for.

One aspect of sharing your minds and hearts is discussing major decisions together and waiting until you have unity before moving ahead. Any decision that significantly affects your time or money, or that involves a major change for your family’s life, home, work, or church, should be made only after talking together about it, praying together, and coming to a point of unity. Although the husband is the head of the household, a godly man should not—with rare exceptions— lead his family against his godly wife’s desires. As William Gouge (1575–1653) said, “Though the man be as the head, yet is the woman as the heart.”2William Gouge, Building a Godly Home: Volume 2, A Holy Vision for Marriage, ed. Scott Brown and Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 98. Listen to her thoughts and feelings on a regular basis so that she knows she is an important part of your life.

2. Cultivate Friendship by Sharing Your Faith

The deepest fellowship is spiritual fellowship, in which you share your life with a dear friend in the presence of the living God. It is remarkable how few Christians actually enjoy spiritual fellowship with their spouses. I’m not talking about having family devotions, though that is a crucial spiritual discipline. I’m talking about sharing your faith with each other.

Obviously that assumes that you both have a living faith in Christ. Paul warns us in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?” Spiritual fellowship is impossible unless Christ lives in both people in a marriage. For this reason Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:39 that if a woman’s husband dies, “she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

If you are a Christian who is single, do not enter a romantic relationship with a person who does not love the Lord Jesus Christ and is not walking with God. Don’t settle for someone who goes to church but has a questionable profession of faith. The minimum standard for dating or courtship should be a faith that is producing good works through love.

If you are a Christian and are married to an unconverted person who is willing to live with you, do not leave your spouse (1 Cor. 7:12–13). But do not try to nag your spouse into the kingdom! Be the best husband or wife that you can possibly be so that you might win your spouse’s heart with your godly conduct (1 Peter 3:1–2). Similarly, if your spouse professes to be saved but resists talking about spiritual things, give yourself to private prayer and serve your spouse with true love.

But if you are both Christians, then share your spiritual experiences. Share your spiritual concerns, frustrations and triumphs, your pilgrimage and your progress. Talk about how the Lord is working in your life by His Word and Spirit.

Most importantly, share your faith as a couple by praying together. I realize that praying out loud can be intimidating for some Christians, and we should be patient with each other in this. But there is nothing like spending time each day as a couple, offering thanksgiving together for the day’s blessings and petitioning God for the grace you need. Moreover, don’t put off prayer if your spouse asks you to pray together at some point during the day when you don’t normally pray together. Men, put down the book, set aside your tools, turn away from the screen, and pray. Women, turn off the stove, put down your phone, and pray. Baxter said, “It is a mercy to have so near a friend to be a helper to your soul.”3Baxter, Christian Directory, 2.1, dir. 9, in Works, 4:30.

3. Cultivate Friendship by Sharing Your Trust

The traditional wedding vow includes the phrase, “I plight thee my troth,” which means “I pledge my trustworthiness and fidelity to you.” We need more “troth” in our marriages. Proverbs 18:24 says, “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” Cultivate with your spouse a commitment that is more intimate and enduring than blood relations. Super-glue your hearts together in an unbreakable bond.

Don’t be a fair-weather friend. Proverbs 19:6 says, “Every man is a friend to him that giveth gifts.” Before you married, you probably lavished gifts and attention on each other. But will you keep your troth when the fervor of first romance wears off? Let your spouse know through consistent faithfulness that you can be relied upon in good times and bad. Wives, don’t be resentful if your husband’s job takes him away from you more than you like. Husbands, don’t be disappointed if your wife isn’t as slim and cheerful as she was before having three children. Don’t give way to such resentments. Love each other with loyalty, and your trust will deepen.

Trustworthiness nurtures trust. Trust develops over time as your relationship matures. You trust each other more and more as you learn to feel comfortable and confident with each other. Both of you should refrain from flirting with members of the opposite sex and should offer no reason for suspicion. Over time you should be drawn together in a deeper sense of troth, which binds you in friendship. You will feel comfortable when you see each other. That is what happens in a good marriage.

So whatever you can do to cultivate mutual openness and confidence to build a sense of trust will build your friendship. Let me warn you here against things that tear down trust. First is lack of discretion and confidentiality. Proverbs 17:9 says, “He that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” You should also be slow to believe rumors that you hear about each other. Rumors are very divisive, even if they have no basis in fact. “A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends” (Prov. 16:28). I’m not suggesting that you ignore any signs that your spouse may be involved in a sinful behavior; there are times when a wayward spouse must be confronted, if need be, with the help of your pastor. But realize that you can’t take seriously all that you hear, especially when it is contrary to what you know about a person’s character.

Proverbs 31:11–12 says of a virtuous woman, “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.” Strive to be worthy of the trust that every man should place in his wife, every wife in her husband.

4. Cultivate Friendship by Sharing Your Joy

A sour and negative disposition discourages people and relationships. A sense of humor, smiles, warmth, and optimism are important ways to encourage each other. So develop a joyful spirit. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (Prov. 17:22). Laughing together is a sweet way to refresh your spirits and draw closer together.

Your children and your own human foibles should provide plenty of material for humor. Of course, God, sin, heaven, and hell are not laughing matters; we must never respond to the truths of God with levity. But there is much in life that we should not take so seriously. Learn to laugh at situations that are not inherently weighty. It’s a way of saying, “The Lord is with us despite our idiosyncrasies.” Cultivate joy that does not depend on physical circumstances. “Be of good cheer” (Matt. 9:2; 14:27). Proverbs 15:15–16 says, “All the days of the afflicted are evil: but he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast. Better is little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” If you have each other’s love and fear the Lord, you can feast on inward joys even if you have nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for supper.

Learn how to please your spouse. We read in 1 Corinthians 7:33– 34, “But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife,” and “she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” Pleasing someone (without compromising your faith) is a mark of friendship. Baxter wrote, “When husband and wife take pleasure in each other, it uniteth them in duty, it helpeth them with ease to do their work, and bear their burdens; and is not the least part of the comfort of the married state.”4Baxter, Christian Directory, 2.7, dir. 4, in Works, 4:122.

Don’t be so super-spiritual that earthly things don’t matter. Wesley said that cleanliness is next to godliness, and he was not far off the mark.5John Wesley, “On Dress,” in The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, ed. John Emory (New York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1840), 2:259. Personal hygiene is a must when two people live in close proximity. Grooming and dress are also important. Find out what your husband or wife likes, and do it. Baxter said, “Avoid therefore all things that may represent you unpleasant or unlovely to each other…. [W]hatever is loathsome in body or mind, must be shunned as temptations which would hinder you from that love, and pleasure, and content, which husband and wife should have in one another.”6Baxter, Christian Directory, 2.7, dir. 4, in Works, 4:122. When my wife and I first married, I thought I was a careful driver, but my wife saw it differently. What to me seemed a safe distance between my car and the one ahead to her seemed dangerously near. I had to be willing to sacrifice my ideas about driving in order to make her feel safer in the car with me.

Sharing your joys also means sharing activities that you both enjoy and that glorify God. Look for areas of common interest and invest in them. If your spouse enjoys something that is not your favorite activity, learn to enjoy it, or learn to enjoy your spouse’s enjoyment. The more your lives overlap, the closer your friendship will become.

5. Cultivate Friendship by Sharing Your Sexuality

Marriage is unique among human relationships because in it God blesses a “one flesh” bond of sexual intimacy. The Bible calls us to enjoy sex with our spouses. Proverbs 5:18–19 commands the husband to “rejoice with the wife of thy youth,” and adds, “let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.”

This may surprise you. Too often we view sex much like what someone might say about a piece of double chocolate cake: “It’s so good, it must be sinful.” Nurturing sexual intimacy with your spouse requires seeing sex in the perspective that God created all things very good. Paul warned in 1 Timothy 4:1–5 against “doctrines of devils” that forbid people to marry, for, Paul said, all that God created should be received with thankfulness and “sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”

Sexual love in marriage is like fire in a fireplace. If the fire breaks through the boundaries of the fireplace and ignites other parts of the house, it can destroy your property, kill your family, and end your life. Likewise, sex outside of its God-ordained boundaries destroys and kills. What the world considers sexual freedom is really death. “Whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul” (Prov. 6:32). But we would not want to harbor such a fear of fire that we could never again enjoy the dancing flames in a fireplace. A blazing hearth is warm and beautiful. Likewise, sex within marriage is a warm and beautiful way to be close to the one you love.

We must reject the remnants of medieval tradition that cling like barnacles to our view of Christian sexuality. The Reformed and Puritan tradition has a healthy, God-glorifying, marriage-honoring perspective on sexual intimacy in marriage. Matthew Henry (1662–1714) wrote of being “always ravished with the love of a faithful virtuous wife.”7Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 3:671 [Prov. 5:15–23]. In biblical thinking, passion and purity go together.

The doctrine of creation also reminds us that sex is not just about passions and hormones, but two people relating to each other in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Our gender and sexuality are dimensions of an entire person created in God’s image. Human sexuality is the coming together of two people, male and female, who were made for each other; and both were made to serve God. The best sex springs from a relationship in which we honor each other throughout life.

Scripture furthermore implies that sex thrives in an environment of personal communication. Men and women were made in the image of God as a result of communication among the three persons of the Godhead, who agreed to the proposal, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26). Gary Chapman writes, “Sexual intimacy is the result of a relationship, and relationship is fostered by communication…. If we do not have time to talk, then we don’t have time for sex.”8Gary Chapman, Covenant Marriage (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 190.

However, that does not mean that married couples can delay having a sexual relationship for a year until they develop better communication. God commands you to make love regularly with your spouse if it is physically possible. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:3, “Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.” The Greek words translated “due benevolence” communicate the idea of a debt of love.9Greek την οφειλομενην ευνοιαν. Some Greek manuscripts omit “benevolence” but retain “duty.” William Gouge wrote, “As it is called ‘benevolence’ because it must be performed with good will and delight, willingly, readily and cheerfully; so it is said to be ‘due’ because it is a debt which the wife owes to her husband, and he to her.”10Gouge, Building a Godly Home, 2:44.

It is God’s will that married couples regularly have sexual relations, physical and medical conditions permitting, out of love for each other. This does not mean that one spouse has the right to demand sex every night regardless of how tired the other spouse is. Nor must a spouse demand a certain kind of sexual activity if the other is uncomfortable with it. We should reject our culture’s obsessions with increasingly bizarre forms of sex that seem to make sex an end in itself. However, even with these caveats, husband and wife are to live as one flesh.

I understand that our sexuality has been corrupted and complicated since the fall of mankind into sin and misery. Yet the grace of Jesus Christ has the power to progressively heal us from our sins and comfort us in our wounds. I spend more than forty pages in my book, Friends and Lovers, talking about how biblical truth applied through Spirit-worked faith can lead to greater sexual freedom and joy in marriage.11Joel R. Beeke, Friends and Lovers: Cultivating Companionship and Intimacy in Marriage (Adelphi, Md.: Cruciform Press, 2012), 45–88.

My point here is that God has given us sexual intimacy as a means to enhance the overall intimacy of our marriages. As Gouge said, making love serves a three-fold purpose: to guard us from immorality, to produce children, and “for linking the affections of the married couple more firmly together.”12Gouge, Building a Godly Home, 2:44. Make love as best friends. Forget about the rest of the world, and stop obsessing with how you look or how you perform. Just love each other. As Gary Thomas says, “Give what you have.”13Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 218.

Excerpt of
Volume 9, Number 1 • January 2017
By Joel Beeke