If your marriage is brand new, bookmark this for later, because you may not relate to this now, but one day the words I share here will comfort you.
The rose-colored lens through which you once viewed your spouse still holds a truth. Those endearing qualities which once wooed you to them still exist in some form, but so does sin— in them and in you.
When the propelling force of romance fades, the hostile reality of conflicting natures imposes the marital foreground. Rather suddenly we become aware of our great need for a secondary motivation for living in harmony with a person who is perpendicular to us in every way.
If we want to preserve our marriage from the drowning weight of sin, we cannot look to the recoiled feelings of romance as a buoy; we need the resuscitating breath of Christ’s love.
The Fulfillment Trap
Is your marriage exhausting?
Do you have silent, cyclical thoughts about the frustration your spouse causes you?
Are you unhappy with who your spouse has become and you feel trapped?
Is there an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that your marriage will never be the “Godly, Biblical example” of a harmonious, happy marriage?
At one time, my answer to all of those questions was YES. Do you know what changed? God spoke to my heart and said:
Stop. Let go. He will never measure up. He will never make you happy. I didn’t plan it that way. You need to learn my purpose for marriage.
I needed divine perspective. Gary Thomas, in his excellent and timeless book Sacred Marriage, agrees:
“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?”
Happiness, as Gary Thomas puts it, is “illusory,” and “if we find that the same kinds of challenges face every marriage, we might assume God designed a purpose in this challenge that transcends [it]”. What is it? Holiness formed in you, by modeling Christ’s covenant love, which brings supreme glory to God.
When I finally released my marriage from the choke-hold of happiness, there was, all at once, a free flowing air of surrender. I was revived by the truth that God has a much better use for my marriage than I do.
Our Perfectly Imperfect Example
Ephesians 5 addresses husbands and wives individually about their role in marriage, but Paul offers only one model and one goal: to reflect the relationship between Christ and His people, the church.
That might sound idealistic, but if you think the description in Ephesians is meant to convey a blissful, sin-free relationship model, I would suggest you re-read your Old Testament.
The remarkable thing about God’s covenant love is that it is a love like no other! It isn’t performance-centric, it’s promise-centric. God’s faithful pursuit, care, and ultimate sacrifice for His people had absolutely nothing to do with their goodness or merit. The honeymoon phase (if there ever was one) was long gone, yet God pursued Israel with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3), to show Himself faithful to His promise.
This is the example we have!
I can love my husband with a spirit-sourced love, not defined by His deservingness or my momentary feelings, but fueled by my covenant with him, modeled after the God who pursues me faithfully despite my rebellion.
Our compelling example goes way beyond happiness.
“If I believe the primary purpose of marriage is to model God’s love for his church, I will enter this relationship and maintain it with an entirely new motivation.”Gary Thomas
In our pursuit of Christian living, we have a daily opportunity to follow the example of our Savior:
“He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised.”2 Corinthians 5:15
As I practice loving my spouse, I am living for Jesus, especially in the moments when loving feels more like death.
So Marriage Is Supposed to Be Miserable?
Lifelong misery is not God’s intention for you in marriage. God wants happiness for us as much as we do— in fact, he wants it more.
“Happiness and holiness are [not] contradictory. On the contrary, I believe we’ll live the happiest, most joy-filled lives when we walk in obedience.”Gary Thomas
So what do you do with your current state of unhappiness? Thomas answers this question well:
“The mature response [to marital dissatisfaction] is not to leave a sinner (our spouse); it’s to change a sinner (ourselves).”
This is difficult, and if you are anything like me, “but” is the first word that comes to your mind, because my nature is to see the speck in my spouse’s eye before I remove the log from mine.
If I am going to love my spouse with the covenant love of Christ, drawing happiness from holiness, no longer can I critique my spouse’s life based on how it fails to fulfill me.
“I have to crucify the urge that measures every action and decision around what is best for me.”Gary Thomas
Is that urge familiar to you too? When my own happiness is my metric, I (wrongly) feel justified in my seething irritation at how clueless and hurtful my spouse is being in their neglect to think of me, my desires, and my needs.
“Contempt is born when we fixate on our spouse’s weaknesses… If you want to find them, without a doubt you will. If you want to obsess about them, they’ll grow — but you won’t!”Gary Thomas
Here, (uncomfortably) is our opportunity for refinement. I am not advising you to ignore your spouse’s weaknesses; no one can live long in that fiction. Gary Thomas agrees, and suggests an unexpected alternative:
“So often today sorrow is something that is to be avoided at all costs. Sorrow is the enemy, the persecutor, the fearful emotion. If there is sorrow in our marriage, we must leave our marriage, for how could anyone suggest I remain in an unhappy marriage? While few of us would (or even should) have the courage to willingly choose sorrow, when we find ourselves in it, if we quieted our souls— if we learned to float in sorrow rather than thrash about like a drowning emotional victim—we might find…that it can be used to set us free.”
I’ve experienced the emotional thrashing that Thomas speaks of here; it is consuming, and it is miserable. When the Lord quieted my soul, I could hear Him release me from the burden of fighting my spouse’s sin. It simply wasn’t my job. I needed to surrender the difficult mess that I so desperately wanted to fix (in all the wrong ways) and allow God to refine me through the brokenness.
When we allow the difficult parts of marriage to propel us toward holiness, we will no longer see our spouse’s shortcomings as a hurdle to our happiness.
If we let it, our spouse’s weakness can be a honing device, helping us better identify opportunities to grow in love, while entrusting the business of their transformation to God.
[God may lead you to speak to your spouse in love, and use you in their transformation, but let your primary business be your own sin’s mortification, for that is by far the surer path to their conviction]
We can rejoice in the opportunity to bear with the weakness of our spouse because of the promise held out for us:
“We suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him…the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”Romans 8:17b-18
The glory to come is the ultimate happiness. We can look forward with full expectations that will not be disappointed, if we hold unswervingly to the hope we profess (Heb 10:23)!
United For the Goal of Christian Maturity
As my husband and I journey by faith through our eleventh year of marriage, I thank God for how he has sustained our commitment and transformed our relationship.
If I’m being honest, the messy and ugly moments sometimes feel like they have outweighed the sweet ones. But God’s continued faithfulness gives me hope that when we are 50 we will look back and discover a harvest of righteousness.
Circumstantial happiness changes with the tide, but the happiness that grows through costly love—love that forms in us the image of Jesus—is a lasting happiness that transcends circumstances.
When two imperfect people cling desperately to the transforming wisdom of the gospel, they produce a lasting marriage characterized by genuine love and deep joy.
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