Has anyone else noticed this debate going on about the purpose of marriage? Is marriage supposed to make you happy? Or make you holy?
Granted, our culture promotes happiness as the end-all-be-all of life. We are told to pursue happiness, follow our dreams, arrange our lives to avoid pain and increase pleasure, to esteem ourselves and make daily choices that will bring joy.
Too often, people consider happiness the ultimate goal and even get married with the idea that this intense love will make them happy. Then life happens. Marriage challenges appear. Conflict occurs. “This isn’t what I signed up for! I’m not happy!” And sometimes spouses walk away from a marriage that could have lasted, if only they were willing to work toward mutual benefit rather than demand personal happiness.
The answer many preachers, marriage educators, and down-here-in-the-masses Christians have given is the saying: “Marriage isn’t meant to make you happy, but to make you holy.” They point to such verses as Ephesians 5:31-32 (“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.”) and Proverbs 27:17 (“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”). This is the premise of the excellent book Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas.
But like other juxtaposed concepts, I have this nagging feeling that we have set up a false dichotomy. Like the answer shouldn’t be one or the other (holy or happy), but simply YES. Take, for instance, these examples of when you knew the answer was not either/or but yes:
Nature or nurture? Yes.
Do I look thinner in this dress or this one? Yes.
Tastes great or less filling? Yes.
Chocolate syrup or whipped cream? Yes.
Moreover, these two possibilities don’t encompass everything. For instance, it’s a peeve of mine that psychology discusses nature and nurture ad infinitum without ever giving a passing nod to free will. (Which is especially foolish since counseling and treatment have some free will involved in them.) Two opposites do not explain all of the layers of some ideas.
Marriage need not be only about holiness or happiness, although it is about both of those. Let’s take a look at some scriptures that give some idea of the purposes of marriage.
Genesis 2:18: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'” Adam and Eve were to be partners in life, working together and supporting one another.
Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor . . . Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?” We can accomplish more than another person than we can alone, and it helps to have that someone be a spouse with whom you can keep warm at the end of the day.
Romans 16:3: “Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus.” Looking for a biblical marriage to emulate? Try Priscilla and Aquila who worked together in ministry, teaching and opening their home to others. Many married couples pool their talents and resources to reach out to others for Christ.
Genesis 1:27-28a: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.'” This is the first command God gives a married couple: Go have kids. Of course, not every marriage will produce children, but marriages as a whole are the way that God has chosen to give us offspring and fill the earth.
Malachi 2:15: “Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.” Our children are a mission field in our midst: People whom we can convert to the Lord through care and instruction. I have known married couples who conceived or adopted children with this very thought in mind — to increase the number of godly people in the world.
Ephesians 5:25-27: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” This is a beautiful picture of love, that our husbands would care not only about our bodies and hearts, but our very souls.
1 Corinthians 7:14: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” This scripture is a little confusing, right? What exactly is meant by “sanctified”? But clearly, a Christian wife has influence on her husband and can help him to become holy.
Proverbs 5:18: “Let your fountain be blessed, and take pleasure in the wife of your youth.” This verse is followed by the one all husbands like to memorize: “She is a loving deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts satisfy you always. May you always be captivated by her love.” But yeah, it’s about enjoying your spouse. Feeling good and happy and excited about being with them. God wants you to experience pleasure in marriage.
Song of Songs 1:2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth — for your love is more delightful than wine.” If it was all about holy, why is there kissing? What does kissing accomplish? It just makes us feel good.
There’s nothing wrong about wanting to take pleasure in your marriage. Indeed, when Jacob worked for seven years for Rachel — “but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” — he didn’t finish his time and say, “Now give me my wife, so I can get to working on this holy thing.” (Not that anyone says that, but you get the point.) He was pretty focused on his enjoyment of her: “Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.'” (Genesis 29:20-21.)
Writing about sexuality, I am convinced that God is in favor of us getting some happy in our marriage. Of course, happiness is certainly not just through sex. We enjoy our spending time with our spouse, laughing with them, sharing experiences, and more.
Isaiah 54:5: “For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name — the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.” Just awed by that image.
Ephesians 5:31-32: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Our marriages reflect Jesus’ relationship with His church.
Revelation 19:7: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” Get ready! Our bridegroom is coming.
Ultimately, the relationship of husband and wife provides a testimony to ourselves and the world of what the relationship of God to His people is like. His love for us mirrors the pursuit and passion of a loving marriage. He commits to and delights in us. When others ask what God is like, we can honestly say, “Like the most loving husband you can imagine.” People get that. They can fathom what that’s like, even if they haven’t experienced it themselves.
Hopefully, however, we do experience what God desires us to have in marriage. And yes, it includes holiness and happiness, but other things as well. God also designed marriage to be the crucial institution for the rest of community life. It is a pillar, if you will, for the structure of society.
What do you think the purpose of marriage is? Is there one goal that stands out to you above others? What do you think about the holy vs. happy debate?