Not Going to War
My wife and I spent the first year off of war. Yeah, you read that right, war. No, I'm not talking about marital conflict. I'm talking about taking up arms and defending your country. That's what Israelite men did their first year of marriage; they didn't go to war:
"If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married" (Deut. 24:5)
In light of this text and others (Gen. 2:24; Ecc. 4:6; Eph. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:7), I recommend following the principle of taking a "year off" of various vocational and social responsibilities in order to pursue the happiness of your spouse. Lodged between verses dealing with divorce and finances, Deut. 24:5 offers a principle that, if applied, can help establish good, spouse-honoring patterns for marriage.
It should go without saying that the command in Deut. 24:5 is no longer binding for new covenant Christians; we are neither under the Law, nor obligated for war. However, the wisdom of a husband taking a year off of what would otherwise occupy most of his time, in order to devote it to the happiness of his wife, seems undeniable.
No doubt wives will readily agree.
This command was issued in a culture where women worked at home and husbands worked outside the home and for the nation. It was the husband who went to war and was regularly exposed to "extra duties." Today, it's sometimes the other way around. Whether it's the husband, wife or both who spend a lot of time away from the home and are prone to take on additional responsibilities, the wisdom of Deut. 24:5 is still relevant.
Before explaining how we might apply such a radical principle, a word of warning. I'm leery whenever I recommend this principle because there's a tendency to focus on the first half of the verse without corresponding emphasis on the second half — all year off and no happiness for the spouse.
Alternatively, couples can be easily lured into isolation from others and society. If we aren't careful, this principle can become a license for selfishness or be legalized into a mark of the "super-spiritual." Only by looking to Christ for our significance can we bypass fleeting happiness and passing praise.
A Happy Spouse
Cutting back during the first year shouldn't be reduced to legalism or license, but should serve as a unique contribution to the happiness of your spouse. In Deuteronomy, the word for happiness means "to cause to rejoice or to gladden." The idea is that we commit ourselves to the deepest joy of our spouse. This might include such things as making a special effort to give gifts, go on dates, enjoy romantic nights and take regular afternoon walks.
We cannot, however, satisfy our spouse's eternal capacity for joy. Only God can do that. Therefore, the ultimate way to pursue the joy of your spouse should be through encouraging him or her to know and enjoy all that God is for them in Jesus. This can be fostered through conversation, prayer, shared reading and reflection, joint worship and ministry, and spiritual retreat.
Bear in mind that these kinds of practices will differ in frequency and depth depending on the couple. Don't set the bar too high for spiritual intimacy the first year; you're just getting started.
Pursuing your spouse's greatest joy will also include silent sacrifice, putting their needs before your own. Paying for a plane ticket to let your wife go home to see her family or giving your husband a weekend to go to a conference with the guys are ways of serving one another by inconveniencing yourself.
My Year Off
So how did my wife and I put this principle into practice? I applied the war/duty category to the most demanding areas of my life — work, school and ministry. For others it may be career-related responsibilities or social commitments. Remember, the reason for taking time off is to focus on the happiness of your spouse, so it makes sense to cut out the things that would draw you away from intentionally seeking your spouse's happiness.
I took a job that wasn't very demanding, for example, requiring only 40 hours a week. I didn't travel much. As for hobbies and church related activities, I chose to spend less time reading and in ministry. Sure, we still read and ministered, but we often chose to do so with one another. We were both discipling others, for example, but did so together. Our disciples would come over to the house at the same time, but met in different rooms. This freed up more time in the day for one another.
We were careful not to over-commit ourselves to things that would distract us from developing our relationship during that first year. As a result, I didn't focus on seminars or apply to seminaries. I backed away from some ministry duties and encouraged others to take on those responsibilities. All in all we tried to spend a lot of time together.
The Blessed Inefficiencies of Love
In addition to making time to intentionally know and enjoy your spouse, there are some additional benefits to embracing the "year off" principle. Suspending a year of extra responsibilities can serve as a helpful corrective to our culture's spiritually and maritally corrosive orientation to time.
Time isn't money and efficiency isn't the highest virtue — love is — and love can be very inefficient. A few weeks ago we got a babysitter and took an entire weekend to ourselves. This weekend occurred just before I left for an overseas trip on Sunday night. I returned on Friday to preach my first Easter sermon. Over the next two weeks I had to finalize a master's thesis, fly to Texas for an interview, defend my thesis and prepare another sermon. Oh, and there was my other part-time job.
I could have really used that weekend away to work on my thesis or sermon. From a productive standpoint it was a pretty inefficient weekend. But efficiency isn't my highest virtue. Well, at least I strive for it not to be.
In choosing to take that time off, my wife and I had one of the most intimate, fun, and insightful times we've had in a while. By taking a step back from vocational and social responsibilities at work, church, and/or school, we were able to spend more time knowing and loving one another. In turn, that led to a greater relational intimacy and understanding, which fueled our marriage for the future.
Looking back, Robie and I are extremely glad I didn't go to war. Although we could have parceled things out better, we had a blast. From Saturday breakfasts to awkward devotional times, it was a wonderfully inefficient time. One that was, from a Kingdom perspective, a very beneficial and love-laden year.