As Carrie and I approach our 25th anniversary, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about marriage so far. In my three previous articles, I’ve talked about the myth of the soul mate, the issue inside each of us that sabotages our marriages, and how understanding your spouse can make all the difference.
I had a friend who was single well into his late thirties. One day, an older man in our church said, “Son, you should get married! No man deserves to be happy his entire life!” We all laughed, because 1) The room was full of men, and 2) everyone knew the man speaking had been happily married for over fifty years, so it was truly a joke, not a comment spoken out of bitterness. The idea that marriage and happiness are mutually exclusive is a familiar comic trope (“Take my wife…please!” Rimshot!). But in the years since, I’ve known too many people stuck in unhappy marriages to find it funny anymore. It’s soul-crushing to wake up day after day, realizing you are yoked to a relationship that sucks the happiness from your life. Often, you live with it, assuming this is how everyone’s marriage is. But sometimes, you see a seemingly happy couple together, or you get a flash of memory to the days when you still had hope for your marriage, and the pain is intense. You can’t help thinking, “I’d be so much happier if I weren’t married anymore.”
Despite what you’ve been told, marrying a Christian and being active in your faith actually DOES make your marriage stronger, and divorce less likely. But it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be happy. Truth is, if you are a Christian who wants a happy marriage, I believe the first step is to realize that marriage was never designed to make you happy. That’s a confusing sentence, I know. You can read it again, but it probably won’t make any more sense the second time. So let me explain what I mean.
According to Genesis, the first marriage came about because God looked at the first man and said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him (Gen 2:18). By the way, that term “helper” doesn’t imply any inferiority on the part of women, or that women exist to serve men (as a man, if that were what it meant, I’d be happy to tell you so!). The Hebrew term “helper” is most often used in the Old Testament to describe God Himself, after all (see Psalm 54:4 for an example). So how did God plan for men and women to help each other? Why did God create marriage in the first place?
I like the answer in Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage. The book is built around a single question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” Early in his book, Thomas tells of a conversation with his brother, who was single. Thomas told him, “If you want to become more like Jesus, I can’t imagine any better thing to do than to get married. Being married forces you to face some character issues you’d never have to face otherwise.” So Thomas would say (and I now believe) marriage “helps” us by exposing the changes we still need to make in order to be the people God created us to be. Of all the marriage books I’ve ever read, Sacred Marriage may be the most important, specifically because it’s not about how to be happier. It helps us see our marriage through God’s eyes, and realize what He is trying to accomplish in our relationship. Let me give you an example of why this is so important.
Early in my marriage to Carrie, my anger was one of the big sources of our conflict. I had never really thought of myself as being an angry person. In fact, I was quite proud of my own patient nature; I hadn’t been in a fistfight since I was twelve, and I was pretty good at putting up with difficult people, letting hurtful comments roll off my back. Of course, I did lose my temper at times, and my philosophy was that anger was like pressure in a valve; it needed to be released as harmlessly as possible. So I would occasionally flip out, scream and yell, throw things around, and be over it. In many ways, that’s how our culture teaches men to handle anger: Note how a baseball manager behaves when he disagrees with a call on the field, for instance. That was fine…until I got married. My wife is a gentle soul, and doesn’t want to be around a person who acts like a raving lunatic. Of course, my moments of “pressure release” always happened at home, when my defenses were down and I didn’t have to be on my best behavior. She hadn’t really seen this side of me before marriage. So a particular scenario would play out in our relationship: Something would set me off (the lawnmower wouldn’t start, or my wife would do or say something I found irritating) and I would blow my fuse. I would be over it in a few moments, and ready to move on. She would be angry at my outburst, and her method of handling anger was quite different from mine. Rather than screaming at me or throwing things, she would simply want to get away from me until she had gotten over it. This baffled me. Why didn’t she let me express my anger once in a while? And why did it take her so long to get over being mad at me, when I was able to move on much more quickly? I would ask her these questions. Somehow the implication that my way of handling anger was better than hers didn’t expedite reconciliation (shocking, I know). I would apologize, but that seemed more like a manipulation on my part than a sincere regretting of my actions. I would then get angry with her for not accepting my apology. And the cycle would continue. Rinse and repeat…that was the story of much of our early marriage.
Finally, it dawned on me. Maybe I DO have a problem with anger. Maybe there is a more mature way to deal with my frustrations. I began to notice how many Scriptures talk about patience, including James 1:19-20, Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. For man’s anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. And Proverbs 29:11, Fools give full vent to their anger; but a wise man calmly holds it back. I also spent time around Christian men who were gentle and patient with their wives in situations that would have set me off. I began to think my philosophy on expressing anger was all wrong. I started to pray that God would teach me patience (I know people say never to ask God for that, but they are wrong. It was one of the best prayers I ever prayed). I started to consciously choose patience instead of anger in situations where I wanted to yell, wanted to throw things, wanted my wife to know just how angry I was. Guess what happened? Nothing. The pressure didn’t build inside me to a bursting point. I didn’t develop intestinal ulcers. Instead, I would hold my peace, and a few minutes later, I would realize how small and petty that source of irritation really was. Psychologists would perhaps say that I had re-conditioned my thinking. I had trained myself to react differently. But it wasn’t me; it was the Holy Spirit, who used my marriage to show me a part of my character that I would never have dealt with otherwise.
Of course, my battle against anger wasn’t over; there were more tests, especially once we began to have children. But I now knew that was a battle worth fighting, and I knew with His help, it was a battle I could win. The point is that God and my marriage teamed up to change my character in a way I will always thank Him for. Let me say this a different way: In the early days of my marriage, I prayed often that God would make us happier, would bring peace to our relationship. I expected Him to simply make the conflict between us go away. But instead, He used the conflict between us to show me how I needed to change (I assume He did the same for her). I actually thank God now for those miserable days in our early twenties when we filled our small apartment with the toxic waste of our own immaturity, because without that, I never would have confronted my own sinfulness.
Eventually, Thomas’ book helped me see this as the purpose of marriage. He didn’t give me a wife just to make me happy; He gave me a wife so I could be holy (a word that means “set apart” for Him; the person He created me to be, a person who shows the world His glory). That means that tough times in our relationship are just as beneficial to me as the happy times, because it’s through those struggles that I was forced to confront the parts of me that I wanted to ignore. Here’s another way to say it: If God had revealed to me in some other way that I had a problem with anger–for instance, through a male friend taking me aside, or an employer sending me to anger management classes–I would not have taken it seriously. I hate to admit this, but I probably wouldn’t have dealt with my anger simply because God wanted me to. But when I realized my marriage would happier if I did, it increased my motivation to do God’s will. I would be making both God and my wife glad. That’s what I mean when I say my marriage and God teamed up to change me. They continue to double-team me to this day, and I am grateful.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that, if you are in a desperately unhappy marriage, God is the cause of your unhappiness. He wasn’t the cause of our fighting; our sin was. I am certainly not saying you should ever put up with abuse in your marriage (or any other relationship) in the hopes it will strengthen your character, or because you “deserve” it. That’s a lie straight from the pit of Hell. If you read the Scriptures that talk about marriage, it’s clear God meant that relationship to be a source of joy, comfort, and protection for us. He also meant it to be a profound picture of Divine love (but that’s for another article). My point is that loving another human being is the hardest thing we will ever do. It exposes our selfishness and our other many flaws. That’s more true in marriage than any other human relationship. If your marriage isn’t as happy as you think it should be, you’re right…but the answer isn’t to highlight all the ways you wish that parasite on the other side of the bed would change. The answer is to ask yourself, “What am I contributing to our unhappiness?” Let marriage do its work of exposing the parts of yourself that you’ve always ignored or rationalized away. Confront your sin in all its ugliness, and and ask Him to help you become the person your spouse needs. Dedicate yourself to that task.
What if you began to grow so much in Christ, you were able to truly love this imperfect person you married, overlooking his or her flaws? What if the struggles of married life were far outweighed by the consistent joy and sense of purpose you felt each day? What if your spouse saw the change in you, and eventually decided to join you there? Marriage is a sacred thing, not just because God created it; not just because most people get married in a church; but because God can use it to change human lives. Give Him that chance.