My friend has a new boyfriend. It’s very new; she’s cautiously excited. A few weeks ago we went to dinner and she told me about him. In the next breath she asked me something that’s clearly been bothering her as she considers her future:
Is marriage really as bad as married people in the church talk about it being? I hear so much about the difficulty of marriage but no one ever tells me about the good. I don’t want to get married if it’s torture. I might be better off the way I am. Are you . . . happy?
Yes, I told her. Extremely happily married. And guess what? That can be holy, too.
Holy misery in marriage?
A few weeks later she sent me an article debunking our “dangerous fairytale aspirations” for marriage, describing marriage as a battlefield for which we need a “wartime mentality.” We all have a romance story playing in our head of what married life will be like, but eventually we’ll discover this fantasy world doesn’t match reality.
The writer isn't wrong. Marriage, the author insists, isn’t the fulfillment of a romantic fantasy, but a battle that begins with our vows and leads us to God. But her tone has perhaps become a bit too pervasive in the church; it’s miserable, unhelpful and unhappy. And it’s enough so to make a single girl scared of marriage.
Why do we sometimes build expectations that the self-sacrificial mysteries of marriage must make us unhappy to make us more like Jesus? And where does that leave those to whom God has given happiness and ease in marriage—or in life for that matter? Are the happy and less afflicted believers less holy than those who suffer?
Holy happiness in marriage (and God).
The marriage-is-war emphasis rightly argues that marriage isn’t fundamentally about our personal fulfillment. It’s about imaging Jesus and the church as we multiply image-bearers (Eph 5:22-33; Gen 1:28). But is some finite form of happiness found in the gifts of marriage? Absolutely (see Song of Solomon).
When the church overemphasizes the trials and hardships that characterize some marriages, we can unintentionally project the idea that a difficult marriage is somehow a holier marriage. And if difficulty and suffering are the primary things we talk about in relation to holiness, it can begin to seem as if our holiness is measured by our misery. The problem is, the perfectly holy God into whose image we are being transformed is happy (Jer 32:41; Jn 15:11; 1 Tim 1:11). Christ and his bride are a happy union (Jn 3:29). Christians need to present a more balanced view of marriage and the God who designed it to represent his own gospel.
We need to be careful not to go beyond the text of scripture about marriage.
One of the issues I had with the marriage-is-war article was that the picture painted with such certainty did not reflect my marriage. When we talk about marriage we need to guard against over-generalizing what it’s like in ways that go beyond what scripture says.
The Bible never calls marriage a war, because all marriages aren’t characterized by war. It’s not helpful to write a prescriptive piece on marriage that’s not based on scripture because every marriage is unique. When we talk about marriage, while there is no sin uncommon to man (1 Cor 10:13), we need to remember that marriages are made up of unique image-bearers from a vast Creator. Any definitive expectation for marriage should come from God’s Word, not our own experiences.
We need to trust God in the marriages he does (or doesn’t) give us. All are his business, happy or hard, to make us more complete in him.
My friend’s future marriage might in fact cause her to suffer, but the formative discipline of the Lord through her trials is nothing to fear (Heb 12:5-11). It’s also nothing to anticipate based on comparing her life to another believer.
A difficult marriage might be doing a particular work of sanctification in a friend’s life that my different marriage is not doing in mine. The testimony of God’s faithfulness through her difficult marriage is worth sharing to make much of Jesus. But when we share—and listen to others share—about what God is doing in any part of our lives, we should remember that the Spirit of God is working out the counsel of his will in each of our lives in specific ways. And that specific, personal work is his grace to each of us, not a law we should transfer onto one another by comparison (2 Cor 10:12).
No matter our circumstance—single or married, happy or miserable—we can trust that God is sanctifying believers completely, because he is faithful to do it (1 Thes 5:24-25).
Read part 2, Dying to Self in Marriage.
Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.