“By all means marry,” Socrates urged. “If you get a good [spouse], you’ll become happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” Were it not for an annulment, it wouldn’t be too long before Darva Conger — the woman who married a millionaire she had never met on national television — could start sending out resumes to the most prestigious liberal art schools in the nation.

Last February’s show, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, was centuries in the making. Our modern obsession with romanticism — and a view of marriage that is dependent first and foremost on a storm of emotion and romantic feeling — was virtually unheard of to the ancients. There were exceptions, to be sure, but the belief that marriage could provide the bulk of our personal fulfillment and emotional satisfaction is a relatively recent phenomenon, making its first headway into our collective culture around the end of the eleventh century and getting a big boost from Shakespeare several centuries later. Such thinking was aided and abetted by the literary period known as romanticism, and hit its nadir on February 15th when Darva Conger married a man she didn’t even know.

As Christians, we naturally expect that our view of marriage might be different, but how? This is a question Christians have been asking for centuries. Four hundred years ago, a young woman wrote in great distress to a gifted spiritual director named Francis de Sales. This woman was torn because she very much wanted to get married, but a friend was telling her that marriage would be a spiritual compromise.

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. When two sinners live under one roof — even two saved sinners — some occasionally “bitter” juice is going to come out of the mix. We 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. This is 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?

A New Perspective

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I’m not suggesting that God has anything against happiness, or that happiness and holiness are mutually exclusive, but looking at marriage through the lens of holiness began to put marriage into a new perspective for me. I began to treasure it not just for the moments of happiness it brought into my life, but also for how it reveals my selfishness, teaches me to be a servant, helps me learn how to forgive, and generally acts as a “sanctification machine” to gradually shape me into the image of Jesus Christ.

The real transforming work of marriage is the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week commitment it calls us to. This is the crucible that grinds and shapes us into the character of Christ. Instead of getting up at 3 a.m. to begin prayer in a monastery, the question becomes, who will wake up when the baby’s diaper needs changed? Will we act like servants toward each other, or will we bury our spouse with our expectations?

The irony is, once I began thinking of marriage as being created for holiness even more than happiness, I became happier in my marriage than I’d ever been! Once I died to the expectations that no human relationship could ever possibly fulfill, and redirected my focus and spiritual hunger on the God who created me, I began cherishing my wife in a new way.

This irony shouldn’t have surprised me. Jesus said, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33) The problem with many marriages today is that couples seek happiness first and holiness second, and miss both in the process. Jesus says to get our priorities straight. If we pursue God and holiness, the other things we want will follow along — but they must never become the primary focus.

What are you hoping to get out of your marriage? Are you trying to blame your spouse (or your singleness) for a lack of spiritual intimacy that only God can truly fulfill? If the answer is yes, perhaps you need to do the same attitude check I went through, and ask yourself honestly, “Am I seeking God’s kingdom first, and happiness second?” When we put first things first, God has a wonderful way of taking care of the rest.

Copyright © 2002 Gary Thomas. Used with Permission

Gary Thomas is the author of Sacred Marriage. He lives with his wife Lisa and three children in Bellingham, WA. Read more from Gary at GaryThomas.com