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Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?

Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?

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by Gary Thomas

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Happy is good. Holy is better.

Your marriage is more than a sacred covenant with another person. It is a spiritual discipline designed to help you know God better, trust him more fully, and love him more deeply. What if God’s primary intent for your marriage isn’t to make you happy . . . but holy?

Sacred Marriage doesn't just offer techniques


Happy is good. Holy is better.

Your marriage is more than a sacred covenant with another person. It is a spiritual discipline designed to help you know God better, trust him more fully, and love him more deeply. What if God’s primary intent for your marriage isn’t to make you happy . . . but holy?

Sacred Marriage doesn't just offer techniques to make a marriage happier. It does contain practical tools, but what married Christians most need is help in becoming holier husbands and wives. Sacred Marriage offers that help with insights from Scripture, church history, time tested wisdom from Christian classics, and examples from today's marriages.

Sacred Marriage reveals how marriage trains us to love God and others well, how it exposes sin and makes us more aware of God's presence, how good marriages foster good prayer, how married sex feeds the spiritual life, and more.

The revised edition of Sacred Marriage takes into account the ways men's and women's roles have expanded since the book was first written. It has been streamlined to be a faster read without losing the depth that so many readers have valued.

Sacred Marriage uncovers the mystery of God’s overarching purpose. This book may very well alter profoundly the contours of your marriage. It will most certainly change you. Because whether it is delightful or difficult, your marriage can become a doorway to a closer walk with God, and to a spiritual integrity that, like salt, seasons the world around you with the savor of Christ.

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Sacred Marriage

What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More than to Make Us Happy

By Gary L. Thomas


Copyright © 2015 Gary L. Thomas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-33737-9



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.



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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of several books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Pure Pleasure, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith.

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Sacred Marriage 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 60 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My marriage had been dying a long painful death and I didn't even know it. When a friend of mine, who God used to open my eyes and heart, gave me this book, I learned that when I pointed a finger at what my husband had done and was doing, I was pointing 3 at myself. I learned, slowly and painfully that I was at fault as well. I was not the wife God required me to be and the partner my husband needed. There were times I had to put the book down because the truth was killing me,yet it has helped me realize that we can only change ourselves when we truly see what we are and we must stand back, develop a close relationship with our Father and let him work his wonders on our spouses....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended to my fiance by her professors at college. Since I am in the military and have little time for pre-marital counseling we decided to read and discuss this book together as an attempt to make up for that loss. To give the reader a more accurate view of how this book affected me I will let you know a little about myself. I tend to be a very Type "A" kind of guy, who very readily falls into being a male chauvinist. I always believed that a man should love his wife as Christ loved the Church but for some reason, what that truly meant just never sunk in. After reading Sacred Marriage I definitely feel as though I am more aware of how to truly love my wife. I have a long way to go but this book has definitely helped with my understanding of scripture and how to apply it to my life. I have and will continue to recommend this book to every christian (single or married) that I meet. I hope it makes its way into every Christian home and finds open hearts willing and ready to repent. -in Him
MichelleSutton More than 1 year ago
My women's group used this book to guide discussions on a weekly basis for about six months. The group contained women with kids, without kids, single, divorce, remarried, widowed, and with traditional marriages. Everyone got something out of the discussions that took place despite their current situation. The author uses a lot of examples to try to get points across. Some are better than others, but all were helpful in getting the discussion going. The one chapter we lingered on the longest was the chapter on sex in marriage. This book speaks plainly about a lot of issues that people deal with in marital relationships. The only weakness I can see is that in a marriage where the wife is a Christian and the husband is abusive or hostile towards Chrisitianity, the advice given could be more harmful than helpful - especially the one on serving. As long as the two people in marriage are relatively equal in regards to their care and concern for each other, the advice given should help their marriages tremendously. Overall, this was a fabulous attempt to conquer difficult subjects. No one can write something that will fit all situations, so this author did a great job reaching the majority of his readers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had owned Sacred Marriage and read it before, but I misplaced my copy. After buying it again, I led our Family Life department at church in a seminar about the book. I find Gary Thomas's views challenging, but I think he's on to something. This book is not easy to read, but if you stick it out, I believe that you will learn a lot.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading Sacred Marriage helped me process and accept things in my 39-year old marriage that I should have processed years ago. Thomas has a deep, Biblical and practical perspective. I gave a copy to my pastor and my son. Don't miss this book, no matter how many years you've been married.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What I love most about this book is how the author reflects a real love for women. He treats them with respect and endeavors to understand or at the very least empathize with them. As a Christian in a difficult, but happy marriage, (husband is very ill) it was the uplifting and supportive guidance I needed at the right time. The author brings your focus from ones self to God's greater purpose of marriage if you allow it to be. Though convicting at times, it is not confrontational. It is a loving testament of someone who has spent a great deal of time reflecting on his own marriage, warts and all, and the study of what is written of marriage (past and present). It has help me to put my marriage in a healthy perspective that has forever changed me, for the better in my humble opinion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gary Thomas provides the reader with an awesome opportunity to view one's marriage against the standard of what the Bible says that marriage is based: holiness and servanthood before God first - there is natural flow into our marriages. I've read this book twice, each time with additional notes and comments, virtually on every page. If we understand what Gary Thomas say about loving God, you cannot help but love your spouse. Each is intertwined.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautiful combination of how-to advice with spiritual underpinnings. Nicely written, very thought-provoking. The author knows what he is talking about. Dr. Paul Coleman, author of 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Intimacy'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thomas gets to the true heart of marital issues with a great balance of scripture, 'real people' examples, honesty, humor, and an invitation to your own soul-searching. You will get as much from this book as you are willing to apply. We have an extensive personal library of books on Christian marriage, and this work outshines them all -- by far! An added bonus? It's brilliantly written and a joy to read. My highest recommendation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MontyGM More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have read on marriage.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a must-read for married and engaged couples...and those considering marriage. Gary Thomas is an outstanding writer, both in his writing style and his content. He's real, as well, sharing illustrations from his own life. This book will challenge the way you think about marriage and relationships. Counter to our culture, his compelling message is that marriage is about being (and becoming) the 'right' person rather than looking for or expecting to be married to the 'right' person.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although short it is a beautiful, and strong message. Highly reccommend to everyone!!
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This is a great book. This was recommended to us by a couple who was administering our premarital counseling. To say this book is a great book is an understatement. His writing style is a little hard to follow at first. This book contains so much useful information for those seeking to get married, single individuals and those who have been married for years. It helped me to really analyze who I am and how I can love and serve my spouse more.
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EDJEGCMA More than 1 year ago
We are using this in our small group and it is great to be able to access it electronically on my Nook or my Droid 2.