Of all the things I hear from those in marriage counseling, the sentiment of “I deserve to be happy” comes up more than any other. A statement, by the way, that is humanly appealing but runs counter everything a holy God intends for our marriages. Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Marriage, challenges our thinking with the following:
To spiritually benefit from marriage, we have to be honest. We have to look at our disappointments, own up to our ugly attitudes, and confront our selfishness. We also have to rid ourselves of the notion that the difficulties of marriage can be overcome if we simply pray harder or learn a few simple principles. Most of us have discovered that these “simple steps” work only on a superficial level. Why is this? Because there’s a deeper question that needs to be addressed beyond how we can “improve” our marriage: What if God didn’t design marriage to be “easier”? What if God had an end in mind that went beyond our happiness, our comfort, and our desire to be infatuated and happy, as if the world were a perfect place? What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?
This isn’t to suggest that happiness and holiness are contradictory. On the contrary, I believe we’ll live the happiest, most joy-filled lives when we walk in obedience. John Wesley once boldly proclaimed that it is not possible for a man to be happy who is not also holy, and the way he explains it makes much sense. Who can be truly “happy” while filled with anger, rage, and malice? Who can be happy while nursing resentment or envy? Who can be honestly happy while caught in the sticky compulsion of an insatiable lust or incessant materialism? The glutton may enjoy his food, but he does not enjoy his condition. So we’re not anti-happiness; that would be silly. The problem I’m trying to address is that a “happy marriage” (defined romantically and in terms of pleasant feelings) is too often the endgame of most marriage books (even Christian marriage books). This is a false promise. You won’t find happiness at the end of a road named selfishness.
Just as celibates use abstinence and religious hermits use isolation, so we can use marriage for the same purpose — to grow in our service, obedience, character, pursuit, and love of God. For centuries, Christian spirituality was virtually synonymous with celibate spirituality; that is, even married people thought we had to become like monks and nuns to grow in the Lord. We’d have to do the same spiritual exercises, best performed by single people (long periods of prayer that don’t allow for child rearing or marital discussion, seasons of fasting that make preparing meals difficult for a family, times of quiet meditation that seem impossible when kids of any age are in the house), rather than seeing how God could use our marriages to help us grow in character, in prayer, in worship, and in service. Rather than develop a spirituality in which marriage serves our pursuit of holiness, the church focused on how closely married people could mimic “single spirituality” without neglecting their family. The family thus became an obstacle to overcome rather than a platform to spiritual growth.
The reason the marriage relationship is often seen as a selfish one is because our motivations for marrying often are selfish. But my desire is to reclaim marriage as one of the most selfless states a Christian can enter. (We must see) marriage the way medieval writers saw the monastery: as a setting full of opportunities to foster spiritual growth and service to God.
I love marriage, and I love my marriage. I love the fun parts, the easy parts, and the pleasurable parts, but also the difficult parts — the parts that frustrate me but help me understand myself and my spouse on a deeper level; the parts that are painful but that crucify the aspects of me that I hate; the parts that force me to my knees and teach me that I need to learn to love with God’s love instead of just trying harder. Marriage has led me to deeper levels of understanding, more pronounced worship, and a sense of fellowship that I never knew existed.
Paul, in his summary of marital purpose, aligns with Gary’s premise for and portrait of marriage:
Ep 5:25-27 “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
Thomas, Gary L.. Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? . Zondervan. Kindle Edition.