How to Have an Increasingly Happy Marriage
One of my favorite teachers of Scripture is in the midst of a series on what makes us happy. Near the beginning of one sermon he (correctly, in my view) challenged those Christians who say, “What if God wants you to be holy instead of happy?” Since the subtitle of Sacred Marriage is “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” it’s difficult not to take notice–and don’t think my wife didn’t, when she heard it.
The subtitle of Sacred Marriage has launched numerous blog debates, which I haven’t participated in, and one national conference debate, in which I did participate.
There’s a big difference between “What if God wants you to be holy instead of happy?” and “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” I clear this up in the revised edition of Sacred Marriage, but let me make it clear here.
I’ve never believed 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 to God. John Wesley boldly proclaimed that it is not possible for a man to be happy who is not also holy, and who can argue otherwise. Have you ever met an addict of any kind who was truly “happy?” Who can be “happy” while filled with anger, rage, and malice? Why do even rock stars have to abuse so many liquids and substances to escape reality if their reality is so fulfilling? 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 incessant materialism?
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 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 or self-indulgence.
And, in fact, most of the misery in marriage is born in sin. Almost all the people who write to me do so because their spouse is misbehaving. If two people will earnestly pursue holiness, I believe their happiness will increase immeasurably.
I first wrote Sacred Marriage when Lisa and I had been married for 14 years. We’ve now been married for 31. I’m glad I wrote the book when I did, because if I wrote on marriage for the first time now, it would be a different book. Lisa and I are in a different place. And here’s why: I believe both of us have grown to be a little more like Christ. I had much further to grow than Lisa ever will, but just a slight increase in spiritual growth can pay huge dividends in marital happiness.
Younger couples obsess over whether they are falling “out of love.” In terms of infatuation, you can’t fight that any more than you can fight aging. It’s going to happen. Be more concerned about falling out of repentance. If you will keep a tender heart toward God and your spouse, receive conviction, and repent when sin is exposed, your marriage will become happier and happier. You will be more content in your marriage at year thirty than year three.
I realize it takes two: if your spouse isn’t repenting, you will face much misery accordingly. But the fruit of the Spirit is so strong that if you can unilaterally pursue more gentleness, kindness, courage, faithfulness, and self-control to the marriage, and add less temper, selfishness, lust, bitterness, and pride, your marriage will still be better and more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
The spiritual secret is this: pursuing holiness is the surest path to happiness. That’s why my subtitle puts the emphasis on the one over the other. By pursuing first things first, you get both.