What is the purpose of marriage?
Josh and I are leading a few pre-marital counseling sessions with couples from our church. I love meeting with engaged couples, seeing their excitement, remembering my own early hopes for our marriage.
Part of our counseling is reading a book called Sacred Marriage, by Gary Thomas. I highly recommend this book if you’re married, getting married, or even considering it in the future. Gary’s emphasis is more spiritual than practical, but you’ll find endless applications for his principles.
His basic claim is God created marriage primarily to make us holy, not happy.
Wait, what? God doesn’t want us to be happy?
That was my first reaction. After all, we’ve moved past the days when people married for necessity, not love (which is actually not true in all cultures, even today).
But every love song tells us that normal relationships are full of passion. Netflix offers not one, but several genres devoted entirely to romance. Even Christians offer counsel like, “You only marry someone you can’t live without.” Popular culture ranges from hinting at to practically screaming: “You should be happy in your relationship. That is the goal. To live happily ever after.”
We make it sound more “grown-up” than the Cinderella fairy tale ending. But that’s the ideal we’re supposed to be after.
Here’s what Thomas writes in Sacred Marriage:
The first question we should ask ourselves when doing anything is, “Will this be pleasing to Jesus Christ?” The first purpose in marriage—beyond happiness, sexual expression, the bearing of children, companionship, mutual care and provision, or anything else—is to please God.
As I’m reading Gary’s book the second time, I find two major themes.
The First Theme
God’s ultimate purpose in marriage is to make us holy and draw us closer to Him. Whether or not I like it, God did not create humans for their own enjoyment or to enjoy each other. He created them for relationship with Himself.
He saved us entirely by grace, but as we walk in relationship with Him, we continually address our sinful nature and grow in sanctification. Marriage provides arguably the best avenue for that process. More than any other human relationship or situation, marriage reveals our faults, failures, and ugliness, forcing us to deal with them (or hide them, leading to a whole different set of problems).
This process is not always a happy one. Anyone in marriage or a committed relationship knows that we annoy, frustrate, anger, and grieve each other at times. We say the wrong things, do the wrong things, and choose to be selfish or, dare I say, even hateful. My husband knows my sinful nature better than anyone else.
But in this process, our sins are brought into the open. God’s plan for marriage is that we confess those sins and, with His grace and strength, learn to put them off. Our spouse is one of the strongest tools God uses to sanctify us. But that’s not a well-loved concept in a popular culture devoted to romance and happiness.
The Second Theme
When we embrace God’s purpose in marriage, we learn to love unconditionally, and joy follows.
So there is good news. God does not intend marriage to be a loveless grindstone. He simply knows better than us what it takes to make a “happy” marriage. The sanctification process leads to deeper, more fulfilling love. Let me give you a personal example.
I battle with depression. Sometimes I react to that in sin. This past week, I experienced the lowest day I’ve had in several years. The kind of low that tells you there is no hope and you should just pull the covers over your head all day.
You can imagine I was not a fun spouse to be around that day. But Josh loved me so unselfishly. He gave me space, offered practical help, and made sure I knew he was there for me. By day’s end, his steady compassion had worn down the “don’t touch me” walls I tend to build when I’m hurting. I felt some hope revive as he held onto me and let me cry.
His unconditional love helped me face my struggles and sinful response of pushing everyone away. His selfless actions softened my heart and gave me hope in a dark place. He also motivated me to love him better. In the following days, I acted on a renewed commitment to be more selfless in my relationship with him.
The result of this situation was my sanctification; God dealt with sin in my heart. But it also led to Josh and I loving each other more completely, which brought joy into our marriage.
In times like these, if we believe the purpose in marriage is happiness, our marriages will fail. If we hold the ideal that our spouse is there to fulfill us, to bring us joy, we will despair. No one can complete us or fulfill our need for happiness.
But that does not mean we are doomed to unhappy marriages. It means we need to shift our focus. We are in this thing for God to make us holy, more like Him, and in closer communion with Him. And if we embrace that, the results will be deeper love and joy in our marriages.
Any situation that calls me to confront my selfishness has enormous spiritual value…the real purpose of marriage may not be happiness as much as it is holiness. Not that God has anything against happiness, or that happiness and holiness are by nature mutually exclusive, but looking at marriage through the lens of holiness began to put it into an entirely new perspective for me.
…what both of us crave more than anything else is to be intimately close to the God who made us. If that relationship is right, we won’t make such severe demands on our marriage, asking each other, expecting each other, to compensate for spiritual emptiness.
– Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage