What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?

Man + Woman = Confusion?

There are few issues so hotly debated in today’s society as the roles of men and women toward each other and in society. The arguments range all the way from those who maintain that man is created to rule and woman to serve, to those who maintain that there are no significant differences between men and women besides the physical differences required for human reproduction. In other words, we humans are mightily confused about the roles of women and men!

Traditionalists in the largely Christian parts of the world often point to the Bible in support of their view that man is meant to be in charge and woman is meant to serve man. But a look at how men and women were first created tells a slightly different story!

In many ways, the roles of men and women have not changed all that much over the centuries. Yet today, in this era of change, one thing is new: both women and men have far more choice as to what roles they will play and what they will devote their lives to. The grip of church and state on our personal lives has loosened—and this opens up new possibilities for how men and women will relate to one another, and how we will each contribute to society.

How to Get into Trouble

Want to get someone mad? Just publicly say anything definite about the differences between men and women, and someone will get mad! The relationship between women and men and their roles in society has been a touchy subject for well over a century now.

That’s not surprising. Our gender is a core part of who we are. We identify ourselves as male or female, and that colors everything we think, feel, say, and do. If we are confused about our sexual identity, it spreads confusion over our whole life. And when we feel blocked or trapped because of our sex, it can create intense frustration and anger. Why should our whole life be determined by whether we happened to be born male or female?

When it comes to religion, gender roles are an especially loaded issue. It’s one thing if we humans have set up a system in which there are certain expectations of women and different expectations of men. But if our religion says that God has set things up so that women and men are obliged to play certain roles, it takes the struggle over this issue to a whole new level. Many people have rejected Christianity over this very issue.

Can we say anything at all about gender roles from a Christian perspective and not just get people mad?

Let’s give it a try, and see how we do.

Ancient Views of Men and Women

In today’s society, gender roles are in flux. Many women are out in the workforce doing traditionally male jobs. Men are often reluctant to take on traditionally female roles, yet many men find themselves serving as caregivers, or taking orders from female bosses at work.

For many centuries and in many cultures, the roles of men and women were much more distinct. Men were in charge and women served them. Women bore children, cared for them, and did most of their work in and around the household and the neighborhood. Men worked out in the wider world, interacting with the larger society and engaging in its business. Men provided for and protected the households and communities where the women engaged in their duties and raised the children. When the men returned home from their labors and their battles, women took care of their needs.

These roles of men and women toward each other and in society have been consistent enough throughout enough of history that they may seem to have been ordained by God from the beginning.

What does the Bible say about this?

The Bible has had a profound influence on Western views about the roles of men and women. Yet what we find in the first three chapters of Genesis may surprise you. It is true that in the Bible story women soon become subservient to men. But that’s not how it was from the beginning. Let’s take a closer look.

From Genesis 1 to Genesis 3

Many Christians look to the creation of Eve from Adam in Genesis 2 as the story that defines the relationship between men and women. Yet that story is put second, after the initial creation story in Genesis 1, for a reason.

It helps to understand that these early chapters of the Bible were not originally written to be taken as literal accounts of historical events. Instead, like the myths of many cultures, they are stories that speak of the spiritual origins and journeys of humankind using a symbolic language that reads on the surface like primeval history in poetic form.

From a literary perspective, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not originally meant to be read sequentially. Each is a self-contained creation myth telling its own story. These two ancient creation stories were collected from two different oral traditions, written down, and placed one after the other in the Bible. Despite the valiant efforts of Biblical literalists to harmonize the two as if they were two different angles on same story, they simply don’t agree with each other in the overall order in which God created things or in the details of exactly how God created the earth and all the plants, animals, and humans that populate it.

From a symbolic and spiritual perspective, though, the two stories harmonize perfectly. They are like two different verses of the same song. The story of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 represent two different phases of human spiritual and social development, one following after the other.

With this in mind, let’s look at the first three chapters of Genesis with a specific eye to men, women, and their relationship to each other and to God.

Genesis 1: Man and Woman are Created Equal

In Genesis 1, the creation of man and woman comes on day six. It is so compact that it would be easy to pass right over it without noticing the specific meaning contained in it. Here are the words from Genesis 1:26–27:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Did you notice it? When men and women were first created by God, they were created equally in the image of God, and both together were to rule over everything on earth. Men and women were originally created equal.

However, that early stage of equality in which “God saw everything he made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) did not last.

Genesis 2: Woman as a Helper and Partner for Man

In the second creation story, God also creates humankind—though in Genesis 2 the same Hebrew word is sometimes translated as “man” or “humankind” and sometimes as the name “Adam.” If we read these stories as spiritually symbolic rather than as literally descriptive, it all makes sense.

After each day of creation in Genesis 1 God pronounces the things he has made that day “good.” The first thing in the Bible that God says is not good is found in Genesis 2:18: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper for him as his partner.’” This helper, of course, turned out to be Eve, who was created out of a rib taken from Adam while he slept (Genesis 2:21–23). We can gather two points from this story:

  1. In Genesis 2, the original equality of man and woman in Genesis 1 gives way to a situation in which woman is assigned to be a helper and companion to man.
  2. This takes place only after humanity fell away from the original “very good” state that God created us in, into a state in which something was “not good.”

But even this shift toward some inequality in the relationship between man and woman is mild compared to what happens next.

Genesis 3: Woman Ruled by Man

In Genesis 3 things go seriously wrong. You know the story. The serpent tempts Eve. Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gives some to her husband, who also eats. Having disobeyed God’s direct order not to eat from that tree, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden . . . but not before both they and the serpent have received harsh words from God.

What God says to Eve includes these words: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

“Aha!” say the traditionalists. “God did say that man should rule over woman.”

Not exactly. God said that because Eve had disobeyed God by eating from that (symbolic) tree, her husband would rule over her.

In other words, the thousands of years of history in which woman has been ruled by man are a result of humankind willfully disobeying God, and falling away from the kind of life for which God originally created us. In Genesis 1 God created man and woman to be equal. It was when humankind progressed first to things that were not good in Genesis 2, and then to open rebellion against God in Genesis 3, that the sexes fell from their original equality to a state of inequality.

The rest of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, speak to humans who are in that fallen state. Accordingly, much of the Bible treats woman as subservient to man.

A Choice of Roles

Yes, most of the Bible presents rather traditional roles for women and for men. Yet our walk through the first few chapters of Genesis shows that the God of the Bible offers—and even prefers—other possibilities.

What it boils down to in practical terms is that the Bible gives us choices in our roles. Those choices are on a sliding scale from God’s original will right down to what we humans do when we’ve mucked things up pretty badly. Depending on where we fall on that scale, we can use any one of the three general role arrangements presented in the first three chapters of Genesis—and whatever variations on them that we may come up with.

Some people prefer a traditional setup in which men are in charge and women serve them. In this setup men provide and protect while women care for the home, the children, and their husbands. If everyone involved is happy with this arrangement, who’s to say it’s wrong? It can be very satisfying for both the women and the men if both take their responsibilities seriously and there is mutual respect.

Some people prefer a little more equality. Perhaps the woman’s life does revolve around the man’s more than the other way around. She sees herself as his helper and partner. She has a greater role in making joint decisions, and likely works part-time outside the home, adding her part-time pay to her husband’s full-time pay to make up the total family income. This, too, can be satisfying for both the women and the men if there is mutual respect and both take responsibility for their own contributions.

And some people prefer full equality, in which all major decisions are made jointly, the income is more or less equal between the two, and both have their tasks and duties within as well as outside the home. There may still be a division of labor based on the types of things each prefers to do—though that division of labor may sometimes involve a reversal of the usual male and female roles. Whatever tasks each takes on, these will be equally valued, and neither the man nor the woman will be seen as primary. Each will be an equal half of the whole.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that today, especially in the West, instead of the church or state imposing particular roles, both women and men have choices about what roles they wish to take.

Man + Woman = Completeness

The biological and social evidence so far suggests that even when there is no external pressure, women and men will freely choose varying roles in marriage and in society. And even when doing the same jobs, men and women tend to approach things differently. These different approaches often do follow the traditional view of men taking a more intellectual and goal-oriented approach while women take a more emotional and relationship-oriented approach.

Does this mean that men can’t feel and women can’t think? Obviously not. That idea comes from an old, one-dimensional view of men, women, and their relationship to one another. Women excel in colleges and universities, and men can be quite passionate about life and relationships.

Let’s look at it a different way. Physically, women and men have almost all the same body parts, but with subtle differences. In particular, both have heads, hearts, and hands. Both can think, feel, and accomplish things. But the way each thinks, feels, and goes about doing things is different, just as the heads, hearts, and hands of men and women are different.

Yin Yang in red and blue

Yin Yang

Here’s an idea to take home with you: Hidden away within a man is a love and passion that drives him to accomplish his goals, great or small. But he tends to express himself outwardly in cooler, more intellectual and mechanical ways. Meanwhile, the intellect that a man presents outwardly a woman holds inwardly as a wisdom that can give her deep insight into human minds and hearts. But she tends to express herself outwardly in warmer, more emotional and relational ways. Like the ancient symbol of yin and yang, one hides inwardly what the other expresses outwardly.

And also like the yin and yang, we are not complete individually or as a society without the presence and contributions of both male and female. Yes, sometimes man plus woman does equal confusion. But from a deeper perspective, man plus woman equals completeness.

This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Bible Re-Viewed
32 comments on “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
  1. Kim says:

    I agree with many of the things you said. Many commenters say that men and women were EQUAL before the fall. As far as value goes, men and women were equal before the fall and after it. The fall had absolutely no bearing on a man or woman’s worth in the eyes of God. God’s eyes being one thing and men’s eyes being quite another. God established Adam’s headship authority before the fall. Several things illustrate that:
    1. Adam was made first.
    2. Woman came out of man, and not other way around.
    3. Adam was instructed to tend garden (Gen 2:15). Adam named the animals (Gen 2:20). He was given a job and responsibility before he was given a wife.
    4. Adam received instruction directly from God about not eating from tree firsthand (Gen 2:16-17). Eve hadn’t been created at that time.
    5. God gave Adam the authority to name the woman. The woman didn’t name Adam (Gen 2:23).
    6. After sin was committed, God questioned the man rather than the woman. (Gen 3:9)
    7. Sin entered the world through Adam and not Eve. (Rom 5:12)

    I’ve heard so many teachers talk about the fact that man and woman were equal before the fall. However, several things illustrate a very distinct difference in Adam’s sphere of responsibility and authority and Eve’s, and those things were established Pre-Fall. As you mentioned, Eve was created as a Helper for Adam. Helpers submit and/or yield to the needs and plans of another. Teachings that suggest Adam and Eve were equal (equal being a very humanistic word. Bible speaks of oneness more so than equality) Pre-fall fail to acknowledge the very distinct duties and authority that God gave Adam and not Eve before the fall ever came into play. These were not slight differences, but very distinct and demonstrative ones. I do agree with your interpretation of Genesis 3:16.

    Unfortunately, far too many Christian men and women see a wife’s service and submission to her husband as part of her ultimate punishment (curse of Eve) rather than part of God’s original design and divine order for marriage. Unfortunately, that’s why so many men feel justified in abusing their wives, and many wives feel discouraged and believe that God doesn’t love women because He’s only out to punish them for Eve’s transgressions. The way we view the concept of submission (or anything else for that matter) as punishment or original design/ divine order will surely affect how we carry it out. Thanks for your post and time.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. I have responded it to in it a new post titled “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”


    • here and now says:

      “Woman came out of man, and not other way around.”
      Before she came out of man she was……. a portion of the man. This is why it takes the two (male and female) to become one flesh (complete being). Neither ‘gender’ is complete in their own and neither inferior or superior, ( different but equal) Generally speaking, where man is weak woman is strong. Where woman is weak, man is strong.
      When in harmony, the genders compliment each other. Note, compliment, not compete. Men are not women and women are not men. Never have been, never will be regardless of what pop culture or feminism would like you to believe, or try to force in reality.
      Simply put, no matter how hard you try to put the square peg into the round hole, it ain’t gonna happen.
      It’s always fascinating that feminists knee jerk over ‘wives submit’ and never bother to look what was required of the husband. You might be amazed.
      Honestly, feminists get all a flutter over ‘submission’, but incorrectly define it because it suits their purposes to do so and because they simply do not understand what true submission is. It is not weakness and it is not an admission of inferiority..
      It’s an acknowledgement that we are different, yet equal.
      It’s not a power struggle for dominance, it’s team US, one flesh, building each other up, not tearing each other down because of our own insecurities.
      My wife submits to my authority in matters that I am the authority of. Likewise, I submit to her lead where she has the expertise and is clearly the authority.
      True story, she taught me how to dance because she knew how and I did not. It was incredibly difficult for her because she was leading me while trying to teach me how to lead her, without it seeming as though she were leading me, while also trying to do her part.
      I did not feel slighted, or emasculated. I had a real desire to learn because it is something that she enjoys. It was a lot of fun as well.
      Originally, Adam was complete. The Eve (feminine) was taken from him for a worthy companion, ( and how wonderful she can be). Also to procreate the species.
      Woman means Man with womb (womb man).
      God makes the point several times through out the old and new testaments that he is no respecter of persons and that he does not favor, or hold in higher esteem, one (gender) over the other.

      • Lee says:

        Hi here and now,

        Thanks for your comment.

        I agree with you that in God’s eyes, man and woman are different but equal. (And with the French, I say, vive la différence!)

        Unfortunately, we human beings seem to have a very hard time seeing men and women as being equal in our differences.

        That’s why I can’t get all aflutter about feminists—who are, after all, a very diverse group, with a wide range of views about female, male, and the relationship between the two. The fact is, men on their own have not put an end to the pervasive gender inequality and abuse of women that has persisted throughout the world from ancient times right up to the present. This is a wrong that must be righted. And though I often don’t agree with various feminists’ views on the nature of male and female, I fully support the effort to bring about justice for women in our society and throughout the world—an effort that the feminist movement has spearheaded.

        Now about “Woman came out of man” (Kim’s words, not mine), while I think I may agree with what you are saying on the subject, it can easily be read the wrong way.

        Based on the Hebrew words used in Genesis 2, woman did not come out of “man,” but out of “humankind.” There’s enough variation in the way the various Hebrew words for man, woman, and humans in general are used to prevent any truly hard-and-fast conclusions. However, from a spiritual perspective and from a linguistic perspective, there is almost as strong a case to be made that “Adam” or “humankind” was not originally male, but included both genders or was genderless, as that woman was created out of man. This would mean that when Eve was created out of Adam, a humanity that was formerly not specified as to gender was being divided and distinguished into male and female. This, too, cannot be made as a hard-and-fast conclusion from the original Hebrew text. I’m bringing it up more as a cautionary note not to read too much into the traditional idea and interpretation that woman was created out of man.

        For more on these issues of male, female, and the relationship between the two, I invite you to read my article responding to Kim’s comment: “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

        Oh, and the word “woman” is not actually derived from “womb-man.”

        Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Tim says:

    Interesting posts but I should say that one of the best ways to understand the role of man and woman (husband and wife) is to simply look at the relationship and role of our Lord Jesus Christ toward his Church and vice versa. If God used this as an example, it surely has one or two things to tell us as pertaining to how God expects us to play our roles in marriage. We cannot deny that Jesus is the head. We cannot deny that the church must submit to the head who is Jesus and never claim “equality” with him although we are one.

    The church is one with Jesus but must submit and recognise that He is the head.
    Yet we must also not lose sight of Jesus’ genuine love for the church. That loves makes him our servant. Love serves, submission tend to do the same as well.

    So I think we should not shy away from admitting that man is the head. I also feel that when we think like the world we will struggle to accept that woman should submit to the head (husband). Similarly, many men fail to understand that if they should love as God has commanded, they will never demand submission from their wives – Jesus never does.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the marriage of the Lord and the Church is one way to understand the marriage between a man and a woman. But it is not the only way.

      The Bible does talk about the marriage between Christ and the Church. But it also talks about God creating man and woman together, both in the image of God, and giving both of them together rulership over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:27-30). It was only afterwards, when humankind fell away from the ideal situation in which God created them, that inequality entered into human marriages.

      For more on this, see the article:
      Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis

      Further, if we do model our marriages after the marriage between Christ and the church, we must keep in mind, as you say, that the Lord himself did not exercise authority or demand obedience from his disciples. In fact, as you say, he said that he was among them as one who serves. And to show what he meant, he washed their feet–which was the work of servants and the lower classes in ancient Mediterranean societies.

      In short, those “Christian men” who think that they can order their wives around, and that their wives must obey them and wait on them hand and foot, are very far from following the example that Jesus Christ set for us. If these “Christian men” truly want to follow the Lord’s example, they should be getting their wives’ slippers for them and massaging their wives’ tired feet, and not the other way around.

  3. OKRickety says:

    “From a literary perspective, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not originally meant to be read sequentially. Each is a self-contained creation myth telling its own story. These two ancient creation stories were collected from two different oral traditions, written down, and placed one after the other in the Bible.”

    You refer to Genesis 1 and 2 as both myth and story. Believing that the Bible is God’s word, I detest referring to anything in the Bible is “myth”, and find “story” to be less than idea. Both words connote that these accounts (my preferred word) are not truth, but ideas that someone created.

    “What it boils down to in practical terms is that the Bible gives us choices in our roles.”

    I disagree with this idea. It might be a reasonable concept based only on what is found in Genesis, but there is significant teaching in the New Testament telling us about the marriage roles.

    • Lee says:

      Hi OKRickety,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      I am not using “myth” in the popular sense of “something untrue,” but rather in the literary sense of “a story with deeper meaning.” Especially the early chapters of Genesis, I believe, were written in a symbolic style in which the meaning is not in the literal imagery but in the deeper meanings behind the literal imagery. For more on this, please see the article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?” In that article, see especially the section titled, “Where is the Bible’s meaning?” and the example of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

      Viewing the Bible in this way does not make it less the Word of God, but gives it far greater divine and spiritual meaning and power than does the ordinary literalistic view of today’s conservative Christians. Here are two more articles that delve into this further:

      As for story, in the Gospels Jesus makes extensive use of stories, better known as parables, to convey his message. And the Bible as a whole is more a story (about the ancient Israelite people, the life of Jesus, and so on) than a theological treatise. Clearly, storytelling is a powerful way of conveying deeper truths about the human condition and our relationship with God. Otherwise God would not have made such extensive use of storytelling in the Word of God.

      On the other subject you bring up, yes, there is more material in the New Testament about gender roles. But it’s not as cut-and-dried as many Christians seem to think. However, that is a huge subject, to which I can’t possibly do justice in a brief comment. For now I would encourage you to read this follow-up article: “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

  4. Peter says:

    One thing for sure, any responsible man will always love and cherish any woman that is submissive to him as he will not stop to have that feeling of love in him coming out toward his woman. every good woman is so mindful and willing in giving her husband the very support she is able to give been it finance, loving, caring self-concerned about the family.

    Come to think of it, if a woman have no concerned, submissiveness to her husband, she will make the man to get frustrated and definitely grow annoyed.

    Women do all to be submissive, loving caring and supportive to your husband so that you both can contributes resourcefully to the humanity.

    A submissive woman make a loving man.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      However, the idea that a submissive woman makes a loving man is simply not true.

      There are many men who have submissive wives and who treat their wives badly, insult them, abuse them physically and emotionally, and treat them like miserable slaves. And this is an evil in those men. It has nothing to do with whether or not their wives are submissive. In fact, it has nothing to do with their wives it all.

      To say that a woman’s stance toward her husband determines his character is not only utterly false from a spiritual and psychological perspective, but also implies that men have no character or freedom of their own. It says that a man’s character is dependent upon the woman he is with rather than being something he chooses and builds for himself.

      The reality is that God has given each one of us, men and women alike, the freedom to choose whether we will be loving or hateful, good or evil. No one else can make us loving or make us hateful.

      In short, men are responsible for their own loves, beliefs, and actions toward their wives and toward everyone else. And any man who abuses and mistreats his wife will be subject to God’s judgment, no matter what his wife’s character and relationship with him may be.

      A real man does not blame his behavior on his wife or girlfriend. A real man takes responsibility for his own behavior.

      For more on this, please see: “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth”

  5. Man was created in the likeness of God them women was created for man in 1 corinthians 11

    • Lee says:

      Hi Shadrach,

      Yes, the situation after humanity’s initial fall from the perfect state into which God originally created us is reflected in the New Testament as well as in the old. For more on this, please see the follow-up article: “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

      It is not until the New Jerusalem comes that humanity is finally restored to God’s ideal.

  6. Anonymous wife says:

    Hi Lee, I’ve been reading a lot of your articles about men/women/marriage, and I have a question…well, a request for advice, really…

    (By the way, yes, I’m the same anonymous wife who submitted a Spiritual Conundrum about a different but related topic under the name “A wife that is losing her patience”…sorry, I didn’t realize until later how obnoxious that name is and that I should have just gone with “Anonymous wife” to begin with… But I hope it’s OK that I’m asking my question via comment this time… I mean, I don’t need a fancy, formal answer, any ideas off the top of your head would be great…)

    I see from one article about submission, that you don’t believe that wives have to be submissive to their husbands, and from another about the Red Pill MRA’s that you believe that men need to take responsibility for their own character, for their marriages, etc., and I see from this article that we have choices about what roles we want to take on.

    So…my problem is that I don’t know what role would be best for me to take on, with respect to my husband…

    I don’t really want to have the dominant role, I’d prefer equality, but…sometimes I wonder if it would be good for him if I could somehow tactfully require more from him… I’ve been getting an inkling that perhaps I’ve been doing too much…”enabling” might be the word…? I fear I may be making it too easy (and not painful enough? but I don’t really want to cause him pain) for my husband to live the way he’s been living – spending most of his resources on himself instead of the family (time, money, etc.)…

    But on the other hand…I feel terrible just thinking about making things any harder on him, because he’s already had to deal with quite a bit of trauma and misfortune in his life, some fairly recent, and I’ve always wanted to be a blessing to him – I just don’t know anymore, whether the obvious blessings of continuing to give him resources and favor (or not demand more of his resources be contributed to the family), are truly good for him or not, in terms of his long-term character growth…

    Buuuuut back on that other hand, I worry that maybe he really does need those resources for himself worse than the family needs them, since he generally seems to be under a low-to-medium-level depression, and I worry that if I push him farther, he might just leave the family entirely, or something…which I think would be even worse than the current situation, for him and the kids at least. Sometimes it even seems like he could be capable of committing suicide… 😦

    So as you can see, I’m very conflicted!! I’m desperate for some kind of advice or guidance… I don’t want to be overly controlling or demanding or push him toward divorce or anything, but I don’t want to be pushed to it myself, either! I realize it’s not healthy for him to be the kind of person who would push someone to want a divorce, but to be honest – if it weren’t for my determination to make sure not to dominate him, I probably wouldn’t even feel tempted to divorce him, because he scarcely defends himself, and I have to really work at it, to keep from trampling all over him on accident. But if I stopped being so careful, I do fear I might push him to the edge even as I pull myself away from it.

    Sigh… I really just want to respect his human rights and freedom, while defending my own boundaries and human rights as well…but I wonder whether I could do more to support healthy character changes and growth, without crossing over into the territory of coercing him into doing what I want…

    Oh, and I should mention that my husband doesn’t have any of the huge, famous vices, like drug/alcohol addiction, or gambling, or even smoking… He just has these hobbies and collections that his resources tend to go to, apparently to try and make himself feel better in terms of his depression… Any advice you could give me to guide my decisions in these circumstances would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Anonymous wife,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions, as well as your submitted Spiritual Conundrum, which I may refer to here as well. It’s a bit too long, involved, and personal to write a post about anyway.

      First, the best thing would be for you and your husband to find a local marriage counselor who can help you with your situation. There’s only so much I can do in this forum. Plus, if things are going to get better, your husband is going to have to get invested in the effort as well. If he’s willing to go to couples counseling, that shows some acknowledgment that your marriage is in trouble, and some willingness to do something about it. Of course, if it becomes clear that he’s just going through the motions, and has no intention of actually working on the marriage, you might as well stop the counseling because you’re just wasting your money.

      Your marriage is in trouble. Though you say here and in your Conundrum that you want to keep divorce off the table, realistically that might not be possible. If a marriage continues to slide downhill long enough, eventually something’s going to break so badly that it can’t be fixed.

      Further, not that I’m recommending divorce (I’m not in your shoes), but if divorce is off the table as far as you’re concerned, that does put considerable constraints on you in your efforts to turn the relationship around. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as long as the sex keeps coming and divorce is out of the question, many men will simply stick with the status quo, regardless of how dissatisfied their wife might be, and how problematic the relationship is. I would suggest thinking very carefully about whether you are indeed willing to continue in this marriage for the rest of your life, or at least until the children are grown up and out of the house, even if the marriage does not get better, and (more likely) gets gradually worse.

      Having children in the mix does make it much more difficult. However, if a marriage deteriorates badly enough, there does come a time when it is no longer, on balance, a positive thing to “stay married for the children.” It is not good for children to grow up in an atmosphere of tension and conflict between their parents. As much as I hate to say it, sometimes divorce is better for the children. Sometimes it is the only way they will be able to grow up in an atmosphere of peacefulness in the home. But once again, I’m not in your shoes. I can’t make that sort of decision for you. These are just things for you to consider.

      If there is enough common ground between you and your husband that the marriage is salvageable, of course that would be the best outcome. That would depend upon a commitment both from you and from your husband to do the work necessary to salvage the relationship. You can make that commitment for yourself. You cannot make it for your husband. It would have to be a decision he came to himself, out of his own free will.

      While you can’t make that decision for him, you can make it clear to him what you are and are not willing to live with, and what you are and are not willing to do. Once again, weighed into this will be whether you are ultimately willing to end the marriage if it continues to be a source of frustration and pain for you. “Through thick and thin” is a good and admirable commitment. In the end, though, it will depend upon whether you and he have enough common ground to make that work, and whether both of you are willing to make the commitment and do the work to make it work.

      If you believe that if you drew certain lines, this would case him to commit adultery or to divorce you, you have to think about whether those boundaries are important enough to you to take that risk.

      But you do have to draw some sort of boundaries. You can’t let him just walk all over you. Nor is it right for you to pay all the bills and cover all the expenses while he spends all of his money on himself and his hobbies. That is not a partnership, and it’s not a marriage. Eventually you’ll lose patience, and the relationship and the marriage will break down whether you want it to or not.

      As for your husband’s depression, that is something he needs to face and deal with if he doesn’t want his marriage and his life to end out in the toilet. There are counselors, psychiatrists, and therapies available to deal with depression. It’s not easy, but it is possible to face and overcome it. But only if he’s willing to take the steps to do so.

      My belief is that beyond counselors, psychiatrists, and therapies, the best “cure” for depression is to have clear goals in life, and to devote oneself to accomplishing those goals. And not just any old goals, but goals that involve doing something that benefits other people in some way. This can be through job and career, or through volunteering, or through some sort of engagement in the local community. The best way to feel good about oneself is to be doing something good for others on an ongoing basis.

      Oh, and getting regular physical exercise and fresh air makes a big difference in depression, too.

      The reality is that if your husband doesn’t make a decision about his life, and take specific and concrete steps to do something about it, sooner or later he’s going to lose you, and likely the children too, and probably the rest of what he cares about in life. That’s just how things work. Men (and women) who don’t take responsibility for their own life and their own contribution to their relationships and to the wider community will sooner or later lose what they have.

      You also need to make some decisions about what life you are willing to live, and what you are and are not willing to do to keep your marriage together if your husband doesn’t make a decision and a commitment to face his issues and move forward in life. You can’t assume that things are just magically going to get better. If he doesn’t make that decision, they’re going to keep getting worse, not better.

      Are you willing to live with that? At what point does it become more than you can bear?

      You have to be able to live your own life with integrity and purpose, even if he is not willing to do so. You can’t nag or dominate him into changing. You can’t fix him. But you can make your own decision about what you will do with your own time, life, and money. And once you’ve made that decision, you can tell him what you’ve decided. Then he’ll have to make his own decision about what he is and is not willing to do.

      This is all very difficult and risky, I know. But the alternative is a marriage that continues to slide downhill, and that will likely end in divorce anyway.

      I hope this is of some help to you. Once again, I would recommend that you find a local counselor who can give you more specific and ongoing help with your situation.

      Also, don’t avoid learning about ideals of spiritual marriage. If we don’t have some idea of what marriage is meant to be, it’s awfully hard to work toward it. We may or may not achieve it here on earth. But once we give up our high ideals and goals, what’s left of life but to trudge on through the mud until we die?

      • Anonymous wife says:

        Hi Lee, thank you so much for your reply… Yes, we did actually try marriage counseling for a while, and it did help some, but one problem with it was that, as a secular therapist, she did not share a similar enough moral/theological background for me to feel I could trust her completely, whereas you do – I’ve been studying Swedenborgian theology and moral ideals for a couple/few years now, and I feel like it’s a revelation. I’m anxious to find out all the ways my traditional Christian upbringing got it wrong, haha… So with regard to marriage, I read all your articles and positions about submission and roles, in order to try and find out to what extent it would be right, or wrong, for me to take a more dominant or controlling stance in our marriage.

        But in the end, after reading everything, including your last reply, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that it isn’t just a matter of what’s right or wrong, but also, what we can each tolerate living with, and what we’re each willing to do for the children…

        So, thank you for your input… I will go ahead and start reading up on the ideals of spiritual marriage more as the next step. And I think it will be helpful for me, that you seem to have validated (I did interpret this correctly, didn’t I?) that it’s not morally wrong for me to put my foot down about some things, even if I risk the possibility that he might move in a direction of wanting a divorce or temptation toward adultery…as long as that’s a risk I’m willing to take from my end…right?

        Thank you!!
        -Anonymous wife

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          If I were to boil it down to two sentences, here is what I especially wanted to convey to you in my previous reply:

          1. You will have to make some hard decisions about how you are going to live, including setting boundaries about what you will and won’t do in your marriage and family life.
          2. You can’t do that for your husband, nor can you make him change or fix him. That will depend upon his own freely made decisions.

          If your husband decides he wants to make some changes in his life, of course you can support him in that. You can also make it clear to him what you will and won’t put up with, and that may become a factor in his decisions about his own life. But ultimately, his life is in his own hands, as it is for every reasonably functional adult.

          In answer to your concluding question, no, it is not morally wrong for you to put your foot down about some things, especially those that relate to your own beliefs and actions, and to anything your husband says or does to you, or that directly affects you. What you can’t do is tell him what he must do, and what decisions he must make.

          You can make statements in the form of, “If you do/don’t do x, I will/won’t do y.” Even this, however, should not be to coerce him into doing something he doesn’t want to do. Rather, it should be to inform him what your own decisions and boundaries are within the marriage, and what you are and aren’t willing to live with. It should not be a constant stream about minor things, but only to confront serious marriage-threatening issues that are likely, if not corrected, to lead to eventual divorce anyway. You are informing him that if things don’t change, the end result will eventually be divorce, regardless of whether either you or he want that to happen.

          It will then be his decision what to do, but it will be an informed decision in which he knows the consequences of his actions. Then, of course, you must follow through, or he will not believe you or listen to you. It is critical that you become clear of your intentions and boundaries in your own mind first, and that you do not say anything that you don’t actually mean, and aren’t ready to actually do. Men get used to, and quickly learn to ignore, a stream of empty threats from their wives.

          On the other hand, men are often taken completely by surprise when their wives tell them they want a divorce. So if your mindset is, “I don’t want a divorce, but it’s awfully hard not to go that direction given the way things are,” then you’ll be doing him a favor—if an unappreciated one—if you let him know. That way he can do something about it before it’s too late, if he actually does want to stay married to you.

          It’s also important to consider and decide in your own mind whether you think the marriage is ultimately salvageable. Are you attempting to have a good marriage with your husband? Do you believe that is possible? Or do you believe that the two of you are disunited in spirit, and that there never will be the spiritual connection (common values, goals, motives, loves) that constitutes an actual marriage from a spiritual point of view? If you conclude that a real marriage with your husband is possible, that will lead in a whole different direction than if you conclude that there is no inner marriage there. If the latter, you may still not have breakup as an immediate goal, given the family situation. But your effort will be to make the best of an ultimately temporary situation for reasons other than a commitment to eternal marriage with your present husband.

          Marriages with no internal connection and oneness can and sometimes do last to the end of life here on earth. But they do not make it far into the spiritual world. There, only oneness of minds and hearts counts. All legal, social, financial, and family ties that hold spiritually mismatched couples together here on earth are no longer in effect in the spiritual world. If you decide to attempt a “till death do us part” marriage, you’ll have to set your sights considerably lower in this world than if your aim is to have a real, eternal marriage with your husband.

          I should mention that I come from the most liberal of the Swedenborgian denominations. If you get very far into the Swedenborgian literature you may encounter other, more conservative views. And you may encounter some that are more liberal than mine as well. This is just one of the reasons I am saying that you’ll have to make up your own mind about these things. Only you are standing in your shoes.

          If you decide you want to go all-in and read Swedenborg’s book on marriage, at the moment I would say the best translation in print is the one by David Gladish, for which I served as Latin consultant many years ago. You can get the Kindle version very inexpensively on Amazon here, and the paperback version here. Just be aware as you read that it was written and published over two centuries ago, in a considerably different social and cultural context.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          Now to say something about the sexual issue from your submitted Spiritual Conundrum.

          Sex can have two drivers:

          1. biological sexual drives
          2. oneness of mind and heart

          The first one we share with other animals. The second is uniquely human. In the absence of the second, the first will commonly drive people to pair up and have sex with each other. A desire for children is part of that drive. After all, in nature reproduction is the primary, and very nearly the only, reason for sexual intercourse.

          In human beings whose spiritual side has been opened, however, biological drives are not sufficient to sustain interest in sexual union with a partner. For human beings, beyond the common animal drive to mate and reproduce, sexual intercourse is meant to be, and is at best, the physical expression of a spiritual union of two people into one.

          If that spiritual union does not exist, desire for sexual intercourse among women, especially, will commonly follow the biological cycle and wane after the woman feels she has had enough children (which, for some women, is zero children), or after menopause, when she can no longer have children. Men are able to father children right into old age, so men’s biological sexual drives are more likely to continue on into old age. These, of course, are generalizations. We humans are a complex species, and nothing about us is more complex than our sexual nature, drives, and feelings.

          However, for women, especially, it is quite common to have no interest in sex with a partner for whom there is no feeling of closeness or oneness in mind and heart. This can also be true of men; it’s just more common in women. (And contrary to old attitudes, women do also have sexual drives and desires that don’t always depend upon a sense of closeness to a partner.)

          Sexless marriages are usually troubled marriages. But the real problem is not a lack of sex. It is a lack of the sense of connection and oneness that naturally expresses itself in the connection and oneness of physical sexual intimacy.

          In a heterosexual relationship, it is more often the woman than the man who is the gatekeeper of that sense of inner connection and oneness. (This is not necessarily true in marriages in which both partners have a strong and deep shared spiritual life.) The man will figure everything is okay as long as there is a “love life” in the marriage. The woman may feel that the marriage is dead even while going through the motions of a sex life in which, as far as she’s concerned, there is no life. It’s not that men aren’t capable of comprehending this. It’s that they’ll tend not to if they don’t have to.

          In saying this, I’m not advocating that you cut your husband off. This is something you alone can decide. Rather, I am (I hope) putting some context around the situation you describe in your submitted Conundrum in which your husband wants sex daily, whereas you don’t want it at all, and what actually happens is somewhere in the middle. This situation is not likely to get better unless you and he are able to repair your marriage. Failing that, it boils down to the decision you’re already faced with: Do you continue to go through the motions with him in order to keep the marriage together for reasons other than a connection of love with your husband? I’m not saying that is right or that it’s wrong. Rather, I’m saying it’s a decision only you can make, and it’s best to make it with the clearest mind possible.

  7. Anonymous wife says:

    Hi Lee, I do feel like I need more clarity on one point… It’s a short and relatively straightforward question this time…

    Is sex a “conjugal right” and conversely then, a “conjugal duty” for the other person?

    That’s the view I was raised on, and I don’t want to “shirk” any legitimate obligations or violate any human rights, so if it’s an incorrect view, I guess I need to hear that in “so many words” in order to feel that I have clarity on this issue… Or if mostly correct, I need to understand its limitations… Thanks in advance!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Anonymous wife,

      From a traditional Christian perspective, the answer is just as short and relatively straightforward as the question: Yes sex is a conjugal right and duty of married partners toward each other. This is based on this statement by Paul:

      The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:3–5)

      That passage is why you were raised on this view.

      However, even this scripture is not as straightforward as it seems when it is read out of context. Here are the two verses that come right before it:

      Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:1–2)

      And here are the verses that come right after it:

      This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.

      To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:6–9)

      In short, Paul believed it was better to be celibate than married, and that marriage was simply a concession to sexual drives, to keep them in check and contained within a legitimate relationship. This is in line with the general view of sex in biblical times and throughout the Christian era up until very recently: that marriage is a social and legal institution for the purpose of bearing children, carrying on family lineages, forming inter-clan relationships and alliances, and so on. To this day, all of the major branches of traditional Christianity view marriage as an earthly institution that ends at death because it is unspiritual. (The LDS, or Mormon, church does believe in eternal marriage if one is married by the LDS church here on earth.)

      Therefore Paul’s statements on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 must be read in the context of a culture that views marriage as a merely earthly and biological institution. In the context of such a culture and such a view of marriage, yes, husbands and wives do have congugal rights and duties toward each other as spelled out in 1 Corinthians 7:3–5, quoted above. They are not to deny sexual relations to each other except for any set times they may mutually agree upon, after which they are once again to resume sexual relations with each other. This, Paul says, is a “concession” to human sexual passions.

      This provision of conjugal rights and duties continues to be in force for merely external marriages today. Without it, wives and husbands will cut each other off for various reasons, commonly resulting in infidelity, adultery, and divorce.

      The situation is different in marriages that are based on internal rather than external connections. Marriages based, not on legal, social, and financial structures, but on an inner oneness of minds and hearts, are not subject to the old covenant “Law” of marriage that imposes duties and rights, but are under a new covenant based on faith, love, grace, and so on. In other words, internal, spiritual marriages are not driven by external obligations, but by internal loves and connections between the two partners. In such a marriage, sexual intimacy flows, not from obligation and legal requirements, but from an inner oneness that naturally expresses itself in the physical oneness of sexual intercourse.

      In biblical terms, true Christian spiritual marriage is no longer under the Law, but under grace—which is another word for love.

      Boiling this down to a more straightforward answer:

      1. If a marriage is a purely external one, without an inner spiritual connection, then conjugal rights and duties apply to it.
      2. If a marriage is an inner, spiritual one, conjugal rights and duties no longer apply. They are irrelevant because sexual intimacy is a spontaneous expression of the couple’s inner connection of mind and heart. There is no need to enforce conjugal rights in such a marriage, nor would one partner want to impose sex upon the other partner.

      Here are some related articles that go into more detail on the differences in marriage over the ages, providing some of the background for the above points:

      I hope this helps, even if it is not quite as straightforward as you might have liked.

  8. Anonymous wife says:

    Well, I guess we don’t have an inner, spiritual union right now…but I’m trying to figure out whether it’s something I should continue to aspire to, or … well I do hate to give up completely, but it’s hard to see whether there is really any hope…

    I mean, he does say he doesn’t want to “impose” sex on me, and he certainly recognizes that it’s not at all satisfying for either of us when I do it purely out of feeling obligated… So he shares some of these ideals… But the main reason I worry is because our values and what we get joy from are so different…

    In “How do I Love God with my Whole Heart?”, you said:
    “We’re all different. We each feel joy in our own unique way. Real love does not expect others to be happy because they’re just like us and want the same things we do. Real love seeks an understanding of what truly makes the other person happy and what gives them joy, and feeling joy within ourselves when they experience their own unique joys.
    In other words, real love values the differences and uniqueness of the other person, and wants the other person to be happy in their own best self.”

    That’s the kind of love we can and should feel towards lots of people, everyone really – right? But what about in marriage love? Does that still apply? Can we really achieve an inner, spiritual union, just by fully respecting each other’s different joys? Or does there have to be more commonality in terms of what gives each person joy, in order for there to be a true union?

    Last night, I actually asked my husband some questions to try and explore this question of whether there is hope, or how much hope there is, of us ever achieving a spiritual union, and I’m quite worried… What started it was when he found it amusing to joke about the way some Jewish characters were being treated in Schindler’s List…to me, it was horrifying… It’s just an example of the kinds of things that make me worry…

    So I asked him, if he were to imagine what my interior life – spiritual or emotional or whatever he wanted to call it – would look like if described in physical terms, and what his would look like…and he said he would describe mine as white, and his as more gray.

    And I asked whether he liked it there, where he’s at, or whether he would want to come into the lighter area, but just hadn’t been able to yet…and he said he didn’t know. (That’s his answer to a lot of the spiritual, introspective questions I ask him…sigh…)

    I told him that for my part, I would not want to move to where he is at, spiritually, in order to achieve more spiritual closeness…and tried to ask if he could understand why…no clear answer there either, but at least I asserted my position on that point.

    So in terms of being fellow human beings, yeah, I can see the need to respect each other’s preferences and joys, and I can do that…and he can respect mine…but in terms of being united in eternal spiritual marriage, I sense that it’s valid to expect that there can’t be any spiritual closeness unless he decides to move closer to the “light”, because I’m not willing to move towards the darker areas, nor do I think it would be a good or desirable thing, as much as he would probably love it if I were to do that, because he claims to want us to be together forever, even after we die.

    But from what I read in “Marriage in the Resurrection: The Deeper Meaning”, it might not even be possible for us to be united in true spiritual marriage unless we are both in the Light, so it doesn’t seem like his wish would even be possible to grant, am I right?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Anonymous Wife,

      That’s a lot of questions! I’ll attempt to cover at least the main issues I see in your comment.

      Yes, we are to love other people for who they are, and not for how much they are like us. However, in a real, spiritual marriage, this mainly means loving a wife as a woman, and a husband as a man, rather than wanting them to act as if they were our own gender. In a true spiritual marriage, the two share basic loves and motives in life. They are of one mind, and this means especially sharing the same “ruling love” or primary goal and drive in life. For such couples it is not necessary to love their partner despite different goals and outlooks in life because they share the same goals and outlook in life.

      Of course, here on earth this is not always perfectly attained even for couples who do have a real inner connection. Especially here on earth we are moving toward full marriage union, and often have considerable work to do in order to achieve it.

      This is why your husband’s response about you being (inwardly) white and he being gray may or may not be a deal-breaker. The more important question is the one he didn’t answer: Does he want to come into a lighter area?

      We are all “in process” here on earth. We come from dark areas, and from gray areas, and if we are on the spiritual path, we are moving toward the light that is God and heaven. The important thing is not so much where we are right now, as what direction are headed. If we are in a gray area but are headed toward the light, then all is well. But if we are in a gray area and are just staying there, or even moving into darker shades of gray, then that is a real problem.

      As I’ve said in previous responses to you, it sounds to me like your husband has a fundamental choice to make about his life and his spiritual path. If he decides to put in the work to move toward the light, then it is possible that you and he could come into spiritual union with one another if there is at least some basic oneness of mind and heart between you. But if he chooses to stay in the gray, and not make any effort to move toward the white that he sees you as being in, then there will remain an unbridgeable chasm between you that will bring your marriage to an end at some point, whether here on earth or in the afterlife. Of course, it is not a good idea for you to backtrack into the gray.

      In short, if he truly does want the two of you to be together even after you die, he’s got a big decision to make, and a lot of work to do.

      He can’t just say “I don’t know.” That is tantamount to deciding not to walk the spiritual walk with you. In the end, saying “I don’t know” to that big question will lead to his losing you. Once again, you can’t make him make the decision you want him to make. But you can make it clear to him that if he decides to remain in that gray area rather than making the decision and doing the work of moving toward the light, he is choosing not to have you as his wife to eternity. It may sound harsh, but it is the reality.

      Having said that, life is an unfolding and developing thing. The only final deadline is death. It is possible that although he is not making that decision now, he may make it at some point in the future, before his death. In that case there may be some hope for his marriage with you. Then it becomes a matter of how long you are willing to wait for him to move forward with his life. And once again, that is a decision only you can make, because you are the only one standing in your shoes.

      • Anonymous wife says:

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, it validates a lot of what I’ve been thinking/suspecting…

        I hope you don’t mind another question – and let me know if it belongs on a different post – but you said “The only final deadline is death.”

        I’ve seen this sort of statement here and there, on your website, but I don’t quite understand why that would be the case… Elsewhere you assured us that the journey doesn’t have to be completed before death, but that whatever direction we establish in this life, is the direction in which we will continue afterwards… Why would a person’s spiritual direction be unable to change after death, if it is able to change here? What kinds of things can provoke such a change here, that would never happen there, or that wouldn’t work there if they did happen?

        (It’s not actually as irrelevant to this conversation as it might seem though – for one thing, because I’m wondering if there’s anything I could do to help provoke such a change, and for another, I have long suspected that my husband would be able to forgive God for letting his parents die, if he could see them living happily in the spiritual world…and then I would expect he’d be able to open his heart to God’s influence more. I’ve tried explaining how he can be assured that his parents are fine, but so far he doesn’t seem as convinced as I am… So if he can’t find out for sure until after he dies, but by then it’s too late, it seems like a bit of a catch-22…)

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          I’ll respond in two separate comments. First about why death is such a clear deadline:

          Philosophically speaking, there has to be some point at which we’ve made our decision about who we want to be and which way we want to go in life. Otherwise our future would always be uncertain. We could never just relax and enjoy our life. We would always have a fear in the back of our mind that at some future point, we will decide to go bad, and destroy everything we’ve built up. Therefore God mercifully provides a deadline—death—that defines the moment when the decision is made, and we can simply live the life that we have chosen, with no fear of losing it.

          Evangelical Christians have a great debate about “once saved, always saved,” or “eternal security,” which is the idea that once you’ve been saved by Jesus, you can never lose your salvation. This idea is unbiblical and false here on earth, as is clear from Ezekiel 18, among other passages in both the Old and New Testaments. But the debate about it points to the time when our salvation is eternally secure. That is the point of our death.

          Of course, this means that if we do not choose salvation before we die, we can never be saved to all eternity. However, for the people who choose evil over good, that is not as dire a fate as literalist Christians think it is. In fact, there are pleasures in hell. It’s just that those pleasures are inevitably tied to pain. For more on this, see:

          Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

          The reality is, the evil spirits in hell get pleasure from their life and activities there. They choose to be there, even if they also have to bear the painful consequences of their selfish and evil actions. The biblical descriptions of hell as a fiery chasm are metaphorical, not literal.

          Further, if good spirits or angels were to try to convince them to leave hell and go to heaven instead, the evil spirits in hell would only sneer at them and attack them for their naivete. They have the life they want, thank you very much. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said:

          Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)

          Pigs like to wallow in the mud, and they have no interest in pearls, however much we might prefer pearls to mud.

          In short, the deadline of death is a merciful and loving provision of God so that we can finally let down our guard and go on to live the life we love to live, whether that life is good or evil.

          More technically, it is necessary for us to be in a physical body, in the material world, in order to make and “cast” or “fire” our decisions. The physical, material level is the lowest level of reality—the other two being the spiritual level of reality and the divine level of reality, which is God. The physical level of reality is like the skin and bones of our life, which give it structure, boundaries, and fixity. Whatever life we live here, that forms our spiritual skin and bones, which cannot be changed after death because we are no longer living in the physical world.

          To use Swedenborg’s words, we take with us into the spiritual world an “envelope” (Latin: limbus) of “the finest/subtlest things in nature,” which forms the skin or boundary of our eternal spiritual life. That envelope or boundary can no longer be changed because we no longer have access to it when we are living as spirits in the spiritual world.

          But that’s just the mechanics of it, according to Swedenborg. The main point is that death is the point at which the decision we make for ourselves during our lifetime on earth is finalized, so that we can go on to live the life we have chosen without fear of ever having it taken away from us.

          For another angle on this, please go to this article:

          The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation

          Scroll down and start reading at the section heading, “What’s wrong with reincarnation?”

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          Now for where the rubber hits the road: your husband’s situation.

          Yes, it may seem unfair that we don’t have proof of an afterlife, so that there is room for doubt. Many people blame God for this, and justify their lack of faith and lack of willingness to do the hard work on their own life and character by the excuse that “God could tell me plainly if he wanted to, and then I would believe.”

          Jesus addressed this sort of excuse directly in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:

          “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

          “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

          “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

          “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

          “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

          “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

          “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19–31)

          The fact is, God has told us plainly about the afterlife, first in the Bible and in many other ancient sacred texts, and more recently in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and in the testimony of thousands, if not millions, of people who have had near-death experiences. If we choose not to believe the massive amount of testimony and information God has given us about the afterlife, that is our fault, not God’s.

          For more on this, please see (and have your husband read, if he is willing):

          Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?

          There are many articles about the afterlife here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life that give clear and detailed descriptions of the afterlife and what it is like, based on first-person testimony of that afterlife, mostly from Swedenborg, but also from the thousands of near-death experiencers who have told their stories. If your husband wants to know what is happening with his parents, the information is available.

          You can lead that horse to water. It’s up to him whether he drinks. And if he wants to take a full immersion bath in the river, here is the book for him:

          Heaven and Hell, by Emanuel Swedenborg

          Now about the death of his parents, that certainly can be heard to bear. Here is an article that might be helpful to you, and to him:

          What Does it Mean When My Parents Die? Will I See Them Again?

          Your husband can’t just hide behind “I don’t know.” There is plenty of information and inspiration available if he is willing to avail himself of it. And if he’s not, that’s on him. He can’t abdicate responsibility for his own spiritual life. Doing so is a choice in itself—a choice not to have spiritual life.

  9. Anonymous wife says:

    Hi Lee,

    I guess that makes sense…thank you for explaining the mechanics side of it…

    I agree he’s making a choice by saying “I don’t know”, and sometimes the frustration of it is nearly enough to make me say “I give up, trying to discuss things is going nowhere”, and resolve to find some kind of arrangement where we can both stand to live together without any further discussion of romantic/sexual/emotional sorts of things… But he doesn’t want to just be “roommates”, and I don’t want him to move out, because I’m concerned about that phenomenon where children whose parents divorce tend to marry people who are just like the lost parent (whereas growing up with that person and getting sick of that personality style causes them to make sure NOT to marry someone like that).
    He’s not abusive by any stretch of the imagination, and our home is actually pretty peaceful, so there’s really no justification for me to divorce him to make sure the kids don’t grow up with too much conflict…

    So I guess I just have to continue on as I have been…conjugal duties for external marriage and all that… I wish there were someone else that could help with that particular duty, haha… It has occasionally caused me to fantasize about polygamy, haha…and one of those recent comments you wrote about it being unspiritual and physical, but not so much evil, brought that fantasy back up in a way that I almost wonder if there’s any way that could be a kind of last resort instead of divorce… If this is a ledge, can you talk me back from it? Haha…

    • Lee says:

      Hi Anonymous wife,

      You’re welcome. The reality is, it’s just not an easy situation that you’re in. Unfortunately, it’s a situation that is all too common.

      About polygamy, it’s likely that the law where you live has already made that decision for you. See the map at Wikipedia’s page on the legality of polygamy.

      I will say, however, that one of the more controversial parts of Swedenborg’s book on marriage love is where he says that under certain circumstances, while it is not ideal, it is permissible for a married man to have a mistress. That has gotten Swedenborg—and some segments of the Swedenborgian Church—into big trouble over the years! However, it is a very pragmatic teaching in that in some instances, a marriage is unsalvageable, and yet divorce is not possible. This is less true today than it was in Swedenborg’s day. And yet, some married couples have tacitly or explicitly allowed one or the other or both to have an outside lover due to their particular circumstances and the nature of their relationship.

      Am I recommending this?

      Hell, no!

      I doubt that Swedenborg’s conditions for allowing a mistress apply to your marriage. Mostly, I bring it up to recognize that sometimes “desperate times call for desperate measures.” However, I hope your marriage doesn’t become that desperate. And in our day and age, I would generally recommend divorce before infidelity—even controlled and sanctioned infidelity—anyway.

      • Anonymous wife says:

        Haha…that’s so interesting…so pragmatic…

        Well, I’m pretty sure my husband wouldn’t go for amicable polygamy anyway, so I had really just been wanting to get an idea of how bad it would be if I said something to him along the lines of “I don’t want to have sex in the absence of a spiritual connection anymore, so if you’re not willing to work on that, you are free to take care of your sexual drives however else you like, as long as you leave me out of it.” But I don’t know if he would be able to bring himself to do that work, or if he would evaluate the options of adultery or divorce, and just commit suicide instead…and then I would feel like it were my fault for pushing him to that point… I know you already talked about how I just have to make a choice about whether it’s worth that risk to me, so you don’t have to answer that part again…I already know it’s not…

        But I do have a new question that has come up because of all the studying and introspection that I’ve been doing lately… And actually, it can kind of be applied to different relationships too, not just marriage… Basically I’m wondering about that stage in the afterlife where people are no longer allowed to hide their true feelings… Is this something that we should voluntarily try to start earlier in order to have healthier relationships, or do we actually need to (sometimes) exercise that ability here while we can, until it’s time for it to go away?

        I see so many people I know struggling with this, and I generally try to encourage them to tactfully tell the other person whatever is on their heart, as lovingly as possible…but I find that I can almost never bring myself to follow my own advice when it comes to telling my husband how uncomfortable it makes me, when he does certain things to try to express his affection physically… I’ve recently realized that these…squeezing sessions for lack of a better word… are actually more bothersome to me than having to have intercourse itself…

        The main exceptions – the times I can easily bring myself to object – are when he does it too hard and I have the excuse that it’s physically uncomfortable… But I hate to tell him how deeply, emotionally uncomfortable it is the rest of the time, because he’ll feel rejected, and that hurts him in ways that nothing else seems to do. He acts as though he needs that kind of intimacy like he needs air. And I don’t know, maybe he does?? But I feel like if he thinks he is truly getting that kind of intimacy from me, it’s just an illusion, and I hate to let him live in a lie, too, although some people say “Fake it till you make it”, but after this many years, if faking it were going to help me “make it” to that point, it would have happened already…

        I’m struggling to figure out how legitimate, or how wrong and selfish, it would be for me to say something like, “I love you and I care about your well-being, so it’s hard for me to say something so upsetting to you, but I need to tell you the truth about our physical relationship… I don’t feel like we have a strong enough level of internal intimacy for me to be comfortable with this level of physical intimacy. I need you to step back to a more respectful distance, until we can establish a better alignment of our core values and priorities. The problem is not with displays of affection in and of themselves, but (if you still feel any affection to display after me saying this), the types used during a respectful courtship will be better received than the more aggressive displays you’re used to.”

        I already know he would be crushed, but he might get over it, and he might even cooperate with the request, at least for a while… But he might just stay mad at me until I relent and go back to letting him believe what he wants to believe (which he will, without me even saying it, if I physically allow him to go back to his same habits – it wouldn’t be the first time I have implied that I don’t enjoy physical intimacy, but he willfully forgets as soon as he can, and historically, I haven’t had the confidence necessary to maintain my position when that happens).

        So, I know it’s generally best to be honest, but is it possible that in this case my reluctance to express my true feelings is an instinct that’s motivating me to do the right thing for my husband, even though it’s uncomfortable for me? Or is it more likely that I need to do the other uncomfortable thing (for both of us), and speak up, and stand firm in my position, in order to prevent even more discomfort (for both of us??) in the long term?? Would speaking up truly be the right thing for me to do for his sake as well as my own, or am I just looking to justify myself by being too rigid about the principle of honesty??

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          You’re probably getting tired of hearing this, but once again, these are decisions you are going to have to make, based on your own goals and your own sense of the situation. I can’t tell you what to do.

          I would put an emphasis, though, on that word “goals.” What are you trying to accomplish? In the end, that will determine what you say and do in relation to your husband.

          If your goal is to build an actual, spiritual relationship with your husband, then “fake it until you make it” might make sense. In the midst of the faking, you can gradually tell him more of the truth, and put it on him whether he is willing to join you spiritually, and not just physically. If he is, and is willing to do the work, well and good. If not, then he will have to realize sooner or later that this marriage is not an eternal one, and may not even last “until death do you part.”

          If your goal is to make the marriage last until the children grow up and are out of the house and on their own, then it will be more of a “fake it until you break it” situation. You do what’s necessary to keep the relationship together until you feel it’s served its purpose—raising the children. Then your reasons for faking it are over, and your husband will get a rude awakening. This is a very common scenario. And though you may feel bad about it, it’s not as if you haven’t tried to communicate the real situation to your husband . . . but he just isn’t listening.

          If your goal is to stop the emotional pain and discomfort, regardless of the consequences, then it’s the “rip the band-aid off” treatment. Confront him with the truth, and don’t back down. Then it’s up to him how he responds. If worse comes to worst, and he commits suicide, that is something you’ll have to live with, even though it really wouldn’t be your fault. Still, it is always good to consider the possible outcomes, and whether you can live with them, before you make such a major move.

          These are only some of the possible goals you might have, and permutations they might lead to. The main question is, “What do you want to accomplish?” Whatever you decide your goal is for the relationship, that will inform what you do.

          It will also give you some inner peace of mind, even if the situation itself may be anything but comfortable and peaceful.

          For example, if you decide to “fake it until you break it,” you can have the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve made a decision, and you are acting in the way that you believe is best, if not for your husband, then at least for your children. Your husband has to take responsibility for his own life. But your children are in your care, and are your responsibility, until they grow up and become self-responsible adults. It is not wrong to make the decision to sacrifice your own comfort, and even to some extent your sense of personal integrity, in order to provide them with a stable and loving upbringing. But once again, this greatly depends upon the actual situation in the home. And of course, adult children can be blindsided when their parents divorce as well. So it is in no sense a no-brainer.

          I should add that I certainly support your telling your husband when he is making you extremely uncomfortably physically and/or emotionally. If he is doing things that are a real problem for you, he needs to know that, because sooner or later you are going to reach your limit anyway, and rebel. Better to keep things within boundaries that you think you can sustain for as long as you intend to stay in the marriage.

  10. Aruthra says:

    Hey Lee,
    In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, why is Paul against equality? Why can’t be women pastors or leaders of Church? Why are men allowed to have authority over women and not the other way? Is Paul’s view morally and spiritually considerable?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Aruthra,

      Just to get 1 Timothy 2:11–15 in here for the benefit of people reading in, here it is:

      Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

      In response to your question, I don’t think Paul was against equality. It would be more accurate to say that equality between men and women simply wasn’t contemplated in those days, as it is today. It wasn’t a “thing.” It would be more accurate to say that Paul simply accepted, without thinking about it, the inequality between men and women that was a part of that culture, and of just about every other culture on the face of the earth up until very recently.

      For more on this, please see:
      “Wives, submit to your husbands.”

    • Lee says:

      Hi Aruthra,

      To answer your other questions:

      In a society in which women are considered inferior, and men superior, it would be, as Paul said, an inversion of social order for women to have authority over men, and to teach men. This would cause social chaos in that type of society. That’s why Paul spoke out against it.

      However, today’s society is rapidly moving toward equality between men and women. And in a society in which men and women are considered equal legally, socially, and spiritually, there is no problem with women being pastors and teachers, including teaching men. This does not create any social chaos in a society that views men and women as equals.

      As for why men were allowed to have authority over women, and not the other way around, that is a complex question. It goes all the way back to the second half of Genesis 2 in which woman is created out of man (really, out of humankind), and especially to Genesis 3, in which the serpent tempts the woman, and she takes the lead in violating God’s commandment, carrying her husband with her.

      This is a delicate and controversial subject. But you asked the question, so I will do my best to answer it even though my answer will likely anger some people who read it.

      Basically, it has to do with both the symbolism and the nature of women and men in relation to one another.

      To be very clear right from the start, both men and women have an equal capacity to love and to understand things. There are no significant differences in the brain capacity and function of female vs. male brains. Women have shown themselves capable of studying and excelling in all of the subjects men excel in, including the technical ones. And men are capable of great love and affection just as women are. So what I am about to say is not about women’s or men’s capacity to think, or to love, in comparison with one another.

      However, there is a general difference in men and women as to how the heart (love) and head (understanding) work in relation to one another internally. Here is the short version:

      • Men generally lead with the head, putting thoughts and ideas and practical abilities front and center in their lives.
      • Women generally lead with the heart, putting love and people and relationships front and center in their lives.

      Once again, this does not mean that men are smarter than women or that women are more loving than men. Rather, it means that men tend to focus on the head side, and lead with it, whereas women tend to focus on the heart side, and lead with it.

      As a result of this difference in emphasis and approach, women generally symbolize the heart, or love, and men generally symbolize the head, or understanding. (Sometimes this symbolism is reversed, but that’s another subject.)

      Now, here’s the issue:

      When we lead with the heart, it is all well and good as long as the heart is good. But as soon as the heart begins turning toward evil, leading with the heart becomes seriously problematic. The heart wants what it wants, and it will go ahead and do it without restraint. This is as true when the heart is evil as when it’s good.

      Unfortunately, among the early people represented by Adam and Eve, in whom the heart led, the heart began going bad. We see this symbolically in the story of the serpent tempting Eve (the heart), not Adam (the head), and Eve looking at the tree of knowledge of good and evil with longing, and placing it in the center of the Garden of Eden, when God had placed the tree of life in the center (See: “Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?”)

      Symbolically, this represents a time when people’s hearts began turning away from God, and instead toward external sensory input and pleasures (represented by the serpent, or snake, which crawls upon the ground). People started thinking that they could decide what is good and evil based on outward appearances and visual and sensory appeal, rather than based on what God says is good and evil. This is the meaning of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

      When the human heart turned this way, and turned its back on God, humanity quickly became entirely corrupt, as covered in the next few chapters of Genesis leading up to the Flood. That’s because the heart, which had become evil, led, and the head simply went along with whatever the heart led it to do, just as Adam simply went along with what his wife led him to do in eating from the forbidden tree. This led to a situation in which “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

      In order to deal with that situation, God brought about the Flood to wipe out that rampant wickedness, and also commanded Noah to build an ark with floors and rooms, which represents making a separation between the head and the heart. On this, please see:

      Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind

      Short version: Ever since the Flood, we humans have had the ability to want one thing and think another—an ability that we didn’t have before that time period in human spiritual history. Now, our heart can prompt us to do something that isn’t good, and our head can tell us, “No, we’re not going to do that, because it would be wrong and harmful.” This ability is necessary for us to be able to reform ourselves, and be reborn. Without this ability to separate the head from the heart, “every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts would be only evil continually.”

      Symbolically, then, the man, representing the head, or understanding, had to take the lead, and the woman, representing the heart, or love, had to follow. Now instead of just doing what our heart wants to do, we have to discipline ourselves to do what the head says we should rightly do. And this situation has to prevail throughout most of our process of “regeneration,” or spiritual rebirth, until we have reformed our heart, and it once again wants the good things of loving God and loving our neighbor. At that point, but not before, the heart can once again take the lead, as it did in the Garden of Eden.

      This is why symbolically woman had to be subject to man, and not the other way around. And that expressed itself in the near-universal reality of human culture ever since that man was dominant, and woman was submissive to man. The head had to rule the heart.

      Today, I believe that we are finally arriving at a place in human spiritual history that the heart can begin to take the lead again. Saying why I think this is so would take much too long. But it is, I believe, a key element of the Second Coming that the Lord is now making upon our earth in human society. (See: “Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?”)

      This, I believe, is why men and women can now begin to relate to one another as equals, departing from the previous paradigm of man ruling and woman submitting.

      And no, I don’t think this means women will now begin to rule over men, as some men fear. Love, when it is good, does not want to rule, but to be in partnership with truth and understanding. For more on what all of this means for the relationship between men and women, please see these two articles:

      All of this, I believe, is why for thousands of years now, men have been allowed to have authority over women, and not the other way around. Once again, I recognize that this may not sit well with some people. But this is my understanding of the answer to your question. And once again, I believe that we are now moving into an entirely new era of human history in which it is no longer necessary for man to rule over woman.

      As for Paul’s view of the relationship between men and women being morally considerable, I would say that it was quite advanced for its time, but is now largely superseded because the culture has moved forward in the very direction that Paul was pushing it to move. There are still some old-fashioned societies and relationships in which Paul’s advice to men and women will be helpful. But for societies and relationships that have moved beyond the unequal, hierarchical structures of Paul’s day, much of what he said can be adhered to in spirit rather than to the letter. And the spirit of what he said is for us to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:34–35; 15:12).

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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