You report that self-described “born-again Christians” have a higher rate of divorce than nonbelievers. Why do you think this is?

One reason is that these statistics don’t include people who have lived together but not gotten married (and thus don’t get a divorce when they break up). Some guy may have had five failed live-in relationships, yet be able to answer honestly that he has never experienced divorce.

But secondly, I’ve found that many Christians have even more expectations than non-Christians over what they expect to get out of their marriage, thus creating a very fertile breeding ground for disappointment. Over the years, a sort of mythical “ideal evangelical husband” profile has become accepted as the norm, which very few men can live up to. It all comes down to what you hope to “get” from your marriage: an opportunity to love, serve, learn, and grow in the grace of Jesus Christ, or to have your selfish fantasies fulfilled. If your desire is to grow in grace and in the understanding of who God is, marriage will never disappoint you, for marriage provides this opportunity like nothing else. If your desires are selfish, no marriage will ever fully satisfy you.

The apostle Paul said: “It is good for a man not to marry.” (1 Cor. 7:1) Was he implying that singlehood is better than marriage?

It’s very likely that Paul is here quoting a phrase offered by the Corinthians, which he responds to with the words, “But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” (1 Cor. 7:2) Regardless of what position one takes on this passage exegetically, most would agree on two truths: there is no question that God calls some to live as celibates, fully concentrating on service to God’s Kingdom, but (and this is the second truth) the vast majority of us are not called to perpetual singleness.

The important thing is not marriage or singleness, but rather faithfulness in whatever life situation we are in. Each station in life has its advantages as well as its challenges. I put it this way: if your goal is simply to serve Christ, by all means consider singleness, because marriage takes a lot of time. But if your goal is to become more like Christ, by all means consider marriage, which I jokingly refer to (with some seriousness) as a “sanctification machine.”

What are some of the spiritual benefits — and challenges — of marriage?

Marriage teaches us-as naturally selfish people-how to serve; it calls us to move toward another even when we don’t feel like it (an essential quality for any Christian minister, by the way); it teaches us how to forgive, respect others, and how difficulty can be the seedbed for spiritual growth. Marriage also exposes our sin and reveals our true character.

Why shouldn’t a person expect total fulfillment from his or her spouse?

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Our culture idolizes romantic relationships, which has spawned expectations that are virtually impossible to fulfill. As much as I love my wife, I can never be God to her, and she can’t be God to me; if I expect her to fill the “God-shaped hole” in my heart, she’ll fall short every time.

This goes back to a question that frames my book: What if God designed marriage to make us holy even more than to make us happy? It’s not that I believe holiness and happiness are mutually exclusive (in fact, I believe the opposite). But when I value marriage for how it reveals God to me in new ways, as well as for how it exposes my sin and teaches me to love and serve, I can appreciate it on newer and deeper levels. Ultimately, this will (ironically) make me even happier. Jesus framed it this way: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.”

Of course God wants us to have meaningful and even fulfilling marriages. But to be happy, we have to keep our priorities in order, which, for a Christian, means to seek God’s Kingdom first; to grow in character second; and to enjoy life, third. Happiness is a by-product of a life well lived; it is never achieved as an end in itself.

What is the best advice a pastor can give to a couple seeking to marry?

First, I’d ask them why they are getting married and what they hope to get out of marriage. I have found that very few Christian couples have connected their faith with how it will affect their attitude toward marriage.

For instance, during one seminar I clearly laid out how Scripture presents marriage as a place to learn how to serve. Biblical marriage is the epitome of selflessness, calling us to offer ourselves, quite literally, as a martyr on someone else’s behalf (see Eph. 5, for starters). I then asked this group of committed Christians, “How many of you married for the first time with this mindset, that you were offering yourself as a servant?” Not a single hand was raised.

Marriage can increase our faith and develop our character, provided we cherish it for this reason. If we load it down with false expectations and selfish fantasies, our marriages will ultimately be bitter disappointments. We shouldn’t expect out of marriage any more-or less-than what God’s word prescribes.

Copyright © 2005 by Zondervan Church Source, used with permission.

Gary Thomas is a writer and the founder and director of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality, a ministry that integrates Scripture, church history, and Christian classics. His books include Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, The Glorious Pursuit, and Seeking the Face of God. He has written for every major Christian magazine, with eighty-five published articles. He teaches a course on spiritual formation at Western Seminary and is one of the contributors to the Spiritual Formation Bible. He lives with his wife and children in Bellingham, WA.