Throughout the nine months of our engagement, Lisa and I made many plans, as any engaged couple does. We talked about missions, family, serving God—you name it. It was an intense time, and we often prayed, “Lord, wherever you want to take us, however you want to use us, we’re all yours.”
Of course, we made the assumption that whatever God would want us to do would be thrilling, exciting, fulfilling, and dramatic.
Enter “real life.”
We spent our first few months of marriage living in a tiny home, offered to us rent-free by a family friend. I left for work two days after we got back, and Lisa was stranded in a small community, out in the middle of nowhere, and she began to cry.
It was a sunny day, so she called me at work and asked if I could come home early so we could drive to a lake. I thought she was crazy. “I can’t leave work just because the weather’s nice!” I protested. “Besides, I just started this job!”
“Well what’s the use of getting married if I see you less now than when we were engaged?” she complained.
What’s the use, indeed?
Fast-forward ten years. We had three small children, two of them in diapers, and even though we were in ministry, life still wasn’t “exciting.” We were barely making it financially, snuggled into a town house, and about to enter our Friday-night ritual—laundry and a rented movie.
“What do you want to watch?” I asked Lisa as I gathered my keys and headed out the door.
“Oh, how about a nice romantic comedy?” Lisa answered.
I cringed. The last three videos we had watched together had been romantic comedies. If I had to watch another impossibly beautiful couple “meet cute” under extremely improbable circumstances, fall in love, get in a fight, and then spend sixty minutes falling back in love again, I thought I’d lose it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t do it. I have to see at least one building blow up and one car crash. If I can find something that has a little romance to add to that, I’ll see what I can do.”
I took three steps out the door, then thought to myself, “When did, ‘Please, God, change the world through us’ suddenly become, ‘Should we watch Arnold Schwarzenegger or Julia Roberts?’ ” I didn’t remember any flashing neon signs that pointed in that direction, but somehow, somewhere, it had happened.
I remembered the intensity of the night on which we had become engaged; the joyful getting to know each other on our honeymoon, filling out a preliminary application for a mission organization, bringing our first child home—but now, ten years later, we had “evolved” into spending Friday nights watching other people fall in love according to the machinations of a Hollywood script.
That night I didn’t have any answers for the ordinariness of marriage, but taking an honest look at my situation definitely shook me awake. What was this thing called marriage? Was there no more purpose to it than this?
Perhaps God wanted us to embrace what Paul wrote about to Timothy: “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:2) We wanted exciting drama, but what if God wanted redeemed people, faithful in their anonymity and their tiny townhome? Living in such close quarters, our marriage was indeed giving us an opportunity to embrace the potential to grow in godliness and holiness to such an extent that I even began to ask the question that became the subtitle for Sacred Marriage: “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 taught that it is not possible for a man to be happy who is not also pursuing holiness. Think about it: 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 who is caught in the sticky compulsion of an insatiable lust or unceasing materialism? The glutton may enjoy his food, but he does not enjoy his condition.
So I’m 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 ever-pleasant feelings) is too often the end game 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.
Sacred Marriage looks and points beyond marriage. Spiritual growth is the main theme; marriage is simply the context. 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 for a family difficult, 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 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 it’s possible to reclaim marriage as one of the most selfless states a Christian can enter: a setting full of opportunities to foster spiritual growth and service to God.
You’ve probably already realized that there was a purpose for your marriage that went beyond happiness. You might not have chosen the word “holiness” to express it, but you understood there was a transcendent truth beyond the superficial romance depicted in popular culture.
Far from assaulting our happiness, pursuing the biblical holiness of a quiet and godly life in marriage enhances it by giving us a new appreciation for the person with whom we walk this journey. When you realize something is “sacred,” far from making it boring, it gives birth to a new awe, a new reverence, a take-your-breath away realization that something you’ve perhaps taken for granted is far more profound, far more powerful, far more life-giving and life-transforming than perhaps you’ve ever realized.
I love marriage, and I love my marriage. I love the fun parts, the easy parts, 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.
What you want from your marriage has a huge impact on your satisfaction within marriage. If you want to grow in holiness, marriage is one of the best, most fulfilling places to be.