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What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More than to Make Us Happy
By Gary L. Thomas
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Gary L. Thomas
All rights reserved.
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE IN THE WORLD
A Call to Holiness More Than Happiness
By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you'll become happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher. Socrates
I'm going to cut him open.
Historians aren't sure who the first physician was who followed through on this thought, but the practice revolutionized medicine. The willingness to cut into a corpse, peel back the skin, pull a scalp off a skull, cut through the bone, and actually remove, examine, and chart the organs that lay within was a crucial first step in finding out how the human body really works.
For thousands of years, physicians had speculated on what went on inside a human body, but there was a reluctance and even an abhorrence to actually dissect a cadaver. Some men refrained out of religious conviction; others just couldn't get over the eeriness of cutting away a human rib cage. While an occasional brave soul ventured inside a dead body, it wasn't until the Renaissance period (roughly the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries) that European doctors routinely started to cut people open.
And when they did, former misconceptions collapsed. In the sixteenth century, Andreas Vesalius was granted a ready supply of criminals' corpses, allowing him to definitively contradict assumptions about the human anatomy that had been unquestioned for a thousand years or more. Vesalius's anatomical charts became invaluable, but he couldn't have drawn the charts unless he was first willing to make the cuts.
I want to do a similar thing in this book — with a spiritual twist. We're going to cut open numerous marriages, dissect them, find out what's really going on, and then explore how we can gain spiritual meaning, depth, and growth from the challenges that lie within. We're not after simple answers — three steps to more intimate communication, six steps to a more exciting love life — because this isn't a book that seeks to tell you how to have a happier marriage. This is a book that looks at how we can use the challenges, joys, struggles, and celebrations of marriage to draw closer to God and to grow in Christian character.
We're after what Francis de Sales wrote about in the seventeenth century. Because de Sales was a gifted spiritual director, people often corresponded with him about their spiritual concerns. One woman wrote in great distress, torn because she wanted to get married while a friend was encouraging her to remain single, insisting it would be "more holy" for her to care for her father and then devote herself as a celibate to God after her father died.
De Sales put the troubled young woman at ease, telling her that, far from being a compromise, in one sense, marriage might be the toughest ministry she could ever undertake. "The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other," he wrote. "It is a perpetual exercise of mortification ... In spite of the bitter nature of its juice, you may be able to draw and make the honey of a holy life."
Notice that de Sales talks about the occasionally "bitter nature" of marriage's "juice." To spiritually benefit from marriage, we have to be honest. We have to look at our disappointments, own up to our ugly attitudes, and confront our selfishness. We also have to rid ourselves of the notion that the difficulties of marriage can be overcome if we simply pray harder or learn a few simple principles. Most of us have discovered that these "simple steps" work only on a superficial level. Why is this? Because 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? What if, as de Sales hints, we are to accept the "bitter juice" because out of it we may learn to draw the resources we need with which to make "the honey of a holy life"?
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 once boldly proclaimed that it is not possible for a man to be happy who is not also holy, and the way he explains it makes much sense. 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 while caught in the sticky compulsion of an insatiable lust or incessant materialism? The glutton may enjoy his food, but he does not enjoy his condition.
So we're 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 endgame 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.
This is a book that 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 difficult for a family, 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 in 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 my desire is to reclaim marriage as one of the most selfless states a Christian can enter. This book sees marriage the way medieval writers saw the monastery: as a setting full of opportunities to foster spiritual growth and service to God.
You've probably already realized 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. We're going to explore that purpose. We're going to cut open many marriages, find out where the commitment rubs, explore where the poisoned attitudes hide, search out where we are forced to confront our weakness and sin, and learn how to grow through the process.
We'll also look at what Scripture, church history, and the Christian classics can tell us. You'll find that the classics are amazingly relevant and that the past influences the present far more than many people think.
The ultimate purpose of this book is not to make you love your spouse more — although I think that will happen along the way; it's to equip you to love your God more and to help you reflect the character of his Son more precisely. At the very least, you'll have a new appreciation for the person with whom you have embarked on this journey.
I also pray it will help you to love your marriage more, appreciate your marriage more, and inspire you to become even more engaged in your relationship with your spouse. When you realize something is "sacred," far from making it boring, it gives birth to a new reverence, a take-your-breath-away realization that something you may have been taking for granted is far more profound, far more life-giving and life-transforming, than you may ever have realized.
I love marriage, and I love my marriage. I love the fun parts, the easy parts, and 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.
"Sacred" isn't my brand; it's my way of life. And applying it to my marriage has transformed every one of my days. I believe it can do the same for you.CHAPTER 2
How Marriage Points Us to True Fulfillment
Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.
W. H. Auden
While holiness as a goal of marriage may sound like a radically different view of marriage, the very concept of "romantic love," which is celebrated in movies, songs, and novels, was virtually unknown to the ancients. There were exceptions — one need merely read Song of Songs, for instance — but taken as a whole, the concept that marriage should involve passion and fulfillment and excitement is a relatively recent development on the scale of human history, making its popular entry toward the end of the eleventh century.
This is not to suggest that romance itself or the desire for more romance is necessarily bad; after all, God created the romantic component of our brain chemistry, and good marriages work hard to preserve a sense of romance. But the idea that a marriage can survive on romance alone, or that romantic feelings are more important than any other consideration when choosing a spouse, has wrecked many a marital ship.
Romanticism received a major boost by means of the eighteenth-century Romantic poets — Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake — followed by their successors in literature, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. These poets passionately argued that it was a crime against oneself to marry for any reason other than "love" (which was defined largely by feeling and emotion), and the lives of many of them were parodies of irresponsibility and tragedy.
For example, one of the writers who embraced this romantic notion with fervor was the sensuous novelist D. H. Lawrence, whose motto was "With should and ought I shall have nothing to do!" Lawrence fell in love with Frieda Weekley, a married woman, and sought to woo Frieda away from her husband, as his "love" demanded he do. As part of his less-than-noble designs, Lawrence sent Frieda a note, proclaiming that she was the most wonderful woman in all of England.
Being married with three children and having already suffered a couple of affairs, Mrs. Weekley saw through Lawrence's emotion and coolly replied that it was obvious to her he had not met many Englishwomen.
In her startling and insightful essay on marriage written in the 1940s (titled, interestingly enough, "The Necessary Enemy"), twentieth-century writer Katherine Anne Porter bemoaned how "Romantic Love crept into the marriage bed, very stealthily, by centuries, bringing its absurd notions about love as eternal springtime and marriage as a personal adventure meant to provide personal happiness." The reality of the human condition is such that, according to Porter (and I agree), we must "salvage our fragments of happiness" out of life's inevitable sufferings.
Porter carefully explores the heights and depths of marriage, making the following observations about a young bride:
This very contemporary young woman finds herself facing the oldest and ugliest dilemma of marriage. She is dismayed, horrified, full of guilt and forebodings because she is finding out little by little that she is capable of hating her husband, whom she loves faithfully. She can hate him at times as fiercely and mysteriously, indeed in terribly much the same way, as often she hated her parents, her brothers and sisters, whom she loves, when she was a child ... She thought she had outgrown all this, but here it was again, an element in her own nature she could not control, or feared she could not. She would have to hide from her husband, if she could, the same spot in her feelings she had hidden from her parents, and for the same no doubt disreputable, selfish reason: she wants to keep his love.
With only a romantic view of marriage to fall back on, Porter warns, a young woman may lose her "peace of mind. She is afraid her marriage is going to fail because ... at times she feels a painful hostility toward her husband, and cannot admit its reality because such an admission would damage in her own eyes her view of what love should be."
Romantic love has no elasticity to it. It can never be stretched; it simply shatters. Mature love, the kind demanded of a good marriage, must stretch, as the sinful human condition is such that all of us bear conflicting emotions. "Her hatred is real as her love is real," Porter explains of the young wife. This is the reality of the human heart, the inevitability of two sinful people pledging to live together, with all their faults, for the rest of their lives.
A wedding calls us to our highest and best — in fact, to almost impossible — ideals. It's the way we want to live. But marriage reminds us of the daily reality of living as sinful human beings in a radically broken world. We aspire after love but far too often descend into hate and apathy.
Any mature, spiritually sensitive view of marriage must be built on the foundation of mature love rather than romanticism. But this immediately casts us into a countercultural pursuit.
In his classic work The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis satirically ridicules our culture's obsession with romanticism. The demon Screwtape, a mentor to the demon Wormwood, gloats:
Humans who have not the gift of [sexual abstinence] can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves "in love," and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.
I think most of us who have been married for any substantial length of time realize that the romantic roller coaster of courtship eventually evens out to the terrain of a Midwest interstate — long, flat stretches with an occasional overpass. When this happens, couples respond in different ways. Many will end their relationship and try to re-create the passionate romance with someone else. Other couples will descend into a sort of marital guerrilla warfare as each partner blames the other for personal dissatisfaction or lack of excitement. Some couples decide to simply "get along." Still others may opt to pursue a deeper meaning, a spiritual truth hidden in the enforced intimacy of the marital situation.
Excerpted from Sacred Marriage by Gary L. Thomas. Copyright © 2015 Gary L. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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