One of the kindest words God has ever spoken to me is the word “no.”
One of God’s most effective tools to preserve my freedom and keep me out of spiritual slavery is when God says, “Don’t.”
Spoken by a supremely loving, all-wise, heavenly father who wants me to enjoy the abundant life, “no” and “don’t” are loving words, merciful words, and grace-filled words.
The great evangelist John Wesley explained why when he said no one is truly happy who is not pursuing holy. Think about it: have you ever met a truly happy addict? He may have moments of pleasure, but those illicit moments usher in much more misery, long-term. Addiction is an excruciating exercise in frustration, where you increasingly give ever more of yourself to get less and less pleasure until you don’t even like yourself very much anymore.
Have you ever known a happy man whose anger is out of control? Isn’t he miserable, destroying his closest relationships and pushing out any real chance of true intimacy and joy?
Have you ever known a woman who is negative or materialistic to be happy? Isn’t she always frustrated, disappointed, cursing under her breath, never getting to that happy place of contentment where she can breathe a sigh of satisfaction and truly rest in “enough?”
Holy leads us to happy. Holy protects happy. But pursuing happy for its own sake is to risk making unholy choices, which in the end undercuts our happiness.
A culture largely removed from a serious pursuit of God doesn’t even understand that pursuing happiness first is in one sense settling for less. Happiness is wonderful, but a life based on God’s presence, glory, and love is more wonderful still. The good news is, we don’t have to choose! We can advance beyond happiness to the God-centered life we are meant to live.
This is why singles seeking a partner and married people who already have a partner need to rethink their priorities about what they want out of marriage. If you’re pursuing what will make you happy at the expense of holy, you’re more likely to miss happy. If you pursue holiness, you’re far more likely to arrive at a happy marriage. Find a life partner who inspires you toward Christ-likeness and you’ll find the person who is most likely to make you happy.
A Holy Marriage
When my book Sacred Marriage came out with the provocative subtitle, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” I was asked where this line came from. Let’s take a journey to see how Scripture addresses marriage, looking at what it says and doesn’t say, to arrive at the conclusion that our first concern should be to pursue holiness.
First, let’s look at the creation of marriage. Man and woman are called together to fulfill the purpose for which God created them—to be fruitful, to fill the earth, and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). These purposes point toward a holy life—raising kids who love God, and responsibly using our talents to serve God and join with him in building and ruling this world—far more than they support the modern notion that marriage is all about individual, self-absorbed happiness. From the very start, marriage is described as a mission more than it is described as a matinee.
In the New Testament, one of Paul’s clearest recommendations for Christians to consider marriage is for the purpose of overcoming sexual temptation: “Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2). Paul is directly saying that one of the purposes of marriage is for the sake of living a holy life, in particular, overcoming sexual temptation. “If they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9).
Elsewhere, when Paul talks about the nature of marriage to the Ephesians, he also showcases holiness. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Paul says that we should base the marriage relationship on the relationship that Christ had with the church—a relationship in which Jesus seeks the church’s holiness. So too we love each other by encouraging growth in holiness.
Peter also connects marriage and holiness when he warns men that if they fail to treat their wives with respect and as co-heirs in Christ, their prayer lives will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). Holiness within marriage is essential for us to maintain an active prayer life. Once again, this points toward holiness, not happiness. You can pray all you want in an unhappy marriage; but prayer will be blocked solid if you’re in an unholy marriage.
The writer of Hebrews also seems to point toward holiness in marriage. In 12:14, we’re told, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord.” While not directly addressing marriage here, the writer is clearly addressing relationships, emphasizing the role of holiness as a goal in relating to others. He doesn’t say make every effort to be happy.
Most telling of all are the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus tells us to seek first, above all else, as our top priority, “the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” He doesn’t tell us to seek first happiness, an intimate marriage, a fulfilling vocation, financial success or even physical health. Our first concern when we wake up every day should be God’s agenda, not our own, and seeking to grow in righteousness—dying to the things that offend him, embracing the life and virtues of Christ that honor him.
The Bible clearly doesn’t tell us to pursue happiness with the same force it tells us to pursue righteousness, character, holiness, and integrity. There is one exception, of course. In Deuteronomy 24:5 a young man is told to take a year off after getting married so that he can “stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married.”
The verse in Deuteronomy clues us into the fact that perhaps God calls us to holiness because (at least in part) he wants us to be happy. He is not “anti-happiness.” Rather than pit holiness and happiness against each other, we need to understand how they support each other. In moments of decision, however, it’s clear from the biblical record that God values our obedience and character more than any emotional disposition.
Making a Wise Choice
What does this mean if you’re single? How does it impact the way you date, who you date, and who you choose to marry?
Proverbs 31:30 warns single men “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.” More than you care about what a woman looks like, incline your heart to a woman who fears God. Beauty is a wonderful thing and not to be taken for granted, but it is not the supreme thing. Date a woman who will offend you before she offends God, so that she challenges you to also pursue a holy life.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog,you probably want to be the kind of man or woman God wants you to be. Doesn’t it make good sense to date someone who will help you be that kind of person, instead of someone who may tempt you to become a different kind of person and do something you’ll eventually regret?
On one of the occasions when I refused to do a wedding, it was partly because the woman told me and my wife that she’d like to be just like her mother, whom she respected and adored. Yet her fiancé despised her mother in a condescending way. We urged her to put her romantic feelings aside and ask herself, “Why do I want to marry someone who despises the kind of person I want to become?”
If the best life is found by seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, shouldn’t our most intimate relationship be with a person who shares the same end and is determined to help us on our journey?
There’s yet another aspect to this. The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). Good deeds will be greatly rewarded in heaven (2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:9; Matt. 25:21). If you marry a believer who inspires you to live a life of service and righteousness, your eternity will be different. Good deeds don’t get us into heaven, but they certainly seem to impact the color of our life there.
So, marrying for holiness will, I believe, not only give you a happier life on earth but also a more rewarding life in heaven. It’s not wrong to want to marry a beautiful woman, and/or a man you enjoy spending time with. Those are good desires. Just don’t compromise on the faith part. Marry for holiness and you’re far more likely to arrive at happiness. Marry for happiness apart from reverence for God and his ways, and you’ll likely find that you’ve built your future happiness on soap bubbles and sand.
Trust Jesus. He knows what he’s talking about and he wants the best for you. The very best is to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. Those loving, wise words should be the driving force in your pursuit of marriage.
And if you’re already married, while conflict resolution, communication skills, and sexual intimacy all have their place in rebuilding a struggling marriage, why not double down on your mutual pursuit of holiness? It’s what God designed you to experience, and it’s what, in the end, will foster and preserve the happiest of marriages. Jesus tells us that if we seek first His kingdom and righteousness, “all these things will be given to you as well.”
Singles, for more of this, check out The Sacred Search.