Holy or Happy? What’s the Purpose of Marriage?

Debate

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.

Support.

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.

Children.

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.

Holiness.

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.

Happiness.

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.

Witness.

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?

22 thoughts on “Holy or Happy? What’s the Purpose of Marriage?

  1. happywife

    You’re exactly right J. I do think that we should pursue “happiness” in our marriages, both for ourselves and our spouse, but keeping in mind that when the trials come, God will use those trials to refine us (holiness). To seek only happiness breeds selfishness, while always quoting “marriage is meant to make me holy, not happy” seems to be a bit of a martyr mentality. My marriage has seen many years of happiness, with some years of “holiness-building” sprinkled in. In fact, we’re just coming out of a huge “holiness” building season that I know has been a huge growth for both of us, but we are both ready for a nice season of “happiness.” I truly believe God wants to bless couples with a happy marriage, and that should be a goal.

    1. happywife

      I would like to add that in light of the fact that simply quoting “holiness” is not seeing marriage for all that God has intended, it was that very quote “Marriage is meant to make you holy, not happy” that got me through a very dark period in my marriage. I was not happy. I was hurt,angry, felt deceived, trapped, you name it. If I could have left and supported myself, I just might have done that. Every day I told myself that God was going to use this season to mold me into the woman he wanted me to be. He was shaping me into the wife that He wanted me to be. That was really all I had to hold on to. God wanted me to take my eyes off of my husband’s shortcomings and focus on HIM who could carry me through and meet my every need. HE wanted to be my delight and my joy. I really think that is the sentiment behind the quote, not that we should never desire happiness in our marriages.

      1. Destiny

        I am feeling what you went through right now.If i could support myself i could have left.As i was reading your comment i was like “Oh my God this is me right now”Its not easy but i know i will pull through.The Lord has been with me through worse and i know He will see me through this one again.

  2. Cherishing My Days

    Amen to all! I think people lose sight that a marriage is not all about “me me me!” And “you just don’t make me happy anymore”. We are such a selfish society! 🙁 BUT I don’t agree with the new movement that dismisses happiness in marriage, as if that’s some worldly goal. It CAN be both holy AND happy–and I think that’s what God desires for us.

  3. Nylse

    I think this thought of yours sums it up succinctly – Two opposites do not explain all of the layers of some ideas.

    I think holy vs happy debate took hold when so many seemed to be in it for the wrong selfish reasons. Happiness is somewhat selfish, holiness isn’t (though this may be fodder for another post).

    In becoming holy we become happy – the two are intertwined not mutually exclusive.

    1. Anonymous

      Amen. Happiness and holiness are not at all mutually exclusive. Choosing to be happy in the marriage you have is counter cultural, and if to be holy is to be “set apart,” then happiness in marriage IS holiness.

  4. Lindsay Harold

    This post is good. There are many reasons for marriage, including holiness and happiness. It’s not one or the other.

    However, what people often forget is that you can’t find lasting happiness by seeking it for its own sake. Seeking happiness directly will find you selfishly seeking only your own pleasure all the time and it will be illusive because we weren’t made to be selfish and to seek only our own pleasure. And anytime anyone or anything gets in the way of what we want (which is going to happen sooner or later) we get unhappy in a hurry. In such a scenario, we are constantly at the mercy of the people around us and the things that happen to us which prevent us from getting our selfish desires.

    In contrast, real, lasting happiness is a by-product of living for something worthwhile. In a marriage, real happiness comes from seeking to please God and to please your spouse. Both are worthy goals that satisfy our inner need to work towards something worthwhile and larger than ourselves. And it lasts because it isn’t dependent on what happens to us.

  5. Greg

    If my theology is correct, the primary purpose of marriage is indeed to act as a symbol of Christ and the church; but like you noted, it’s many things rolled into one. And judging by the attempts to denigrate and redefine it, marriage has tremendous purpose and ramifications throughout society.

    It seems to me from numerous testimonies that the only valid debates are whether or not you are loving God and your spouse like God loves you (and as you vowed to do) and how that is practically honored when the nasty curve balls of life fly your way. If that’s the focus of each spouse, then the holy vs. happy debate is moot. I personally don’t know of anyone who proposed to their wife because they wanted to be holier (as the Marx Bros song goes: “Everyone says ‘I love you'”) 🙂 but it’s definitely another way the fruits of the Spirit are evidenced (Galatians 5:22).

    (And a hearty “Amen!” to your statement: “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.” Worthy of its own post!)

  6. Gary

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this!! Can’t tell you how tired I get of hearing pseudo-spiritual things like this from our church leaders and Christians in general. Too often in an attempt to avoid one extreme we ignorantly lend ourselves to another and miss out on so much that God has to offer, including in the abundantly joyful experience of marriage. I know that’s not how everyone would describe it, but according to the Song of Songs, that’s undeniably how it should be. I think it is very sad so many Christians have come to a place where they just can’t conceive of God wanting them to take great and genuine pleasure in anything, like God created desires to frustrate rather than fulfill them. Unfortunately, so many leaders accomplish little more than cultivating guilt and a pleasurephobia in the areas of sex and marriage to their audience, treating desires as something to be minimized and overcome rather than embraced and liberally enjoyed in the context of marriage. A lot of “Christian” clichés sound more like gnostic or buddhist philosophy than anything I’ve seen in any Bible I’ve read.

    As you said, marriage is about both, and much more! And if marriage is supposed to represent the relationship between Christ and His church, I can only imagine how insulting that must be to Him to say happiness is not part of the package deal.

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  8. Paul Byerly

    YES!

    You did a great job on this, with an excellent list of scriptures to back up what you said.

    My theory is that SOME of those who say marriage is to make you holy, not happy, are unhappy marriages and their words are just sour grapes. “I’m not happy in my marriage, so you should not be” or “If I’m not happy, we are not meant to be happy” or even “If you are happy in your marriage you are not in God’s will.”

    Has God used my marriage to grow me up, and to make me more holy? YES – more than anything else in my life! However, He has also used it to bring me great blessing, pleasure, enjoyment, contentment, and happiness.

  9. Charity C.

    Hi J. This comment is not really a response to this current post but just me in general seeking your advice. I recently found your blog and have thoroughly enjoyed reading everything. I find you refreshingly honest and hilarious. I have been reading some of your articles on being a HD spouse and how to deal with the problems that can occur from being sexually unsatisfied. I am the wife and crave sex much more than my husband. We will be married four years tomorrow. In the beginning of our marriage for about a year or so we would have sex multiple times a day. Eventually we slowed down some to about 4-6 times in a week. Now my husband can go without sex for a whole week and act as if everything is fine and dandy while I’m over here angry, hurt, frustrated and confused. When I first noticed how little he pursued me in the bedroom I asked him why to which he never gave me a straight answer. Sometimes he would say it was because of work, other times he was tired and sometimes he would get upset with me. At first I felt very confused and wondered if there was something wrong with me. I mean after always hearing how much men love sex and here I am wanting it more often than my husband. I thought I was some sort of sex freak and that it was wrong for me to feel this way. Then my confusion turned to hurt, anger and resentment. I thought to myself how many men out there would love to have a wife like me, who loves sex. I mean what single man wouldn’t consider that his dream girl! I now feel hopeless. When I try to come on to him by kissing or touching, he playfully says ‘You better stop that’ or he’ll try to shrug me off to which I now know means he is saying no nicely, but if I keep persisting it will turn into a straight up stop and get away from me. If his penis was to get hard in the process then he’s like ‘Now look at what you’ve done’ as if I have committed some offense. Now I have gotten to the point to where I don’t even pursue him anymore, because I hate the rejection. I feel like one day he is going to regret this, but I know I’m not the one to tell him that. It would really feel wonderful to feel like a woman again. I have wondered about him seeking medical advice to see if he has low testosterone or something, but then I fear that if they give him something he might end up so sexually driven that he may go lusting after every woman he passes by. I don’t know how to address this situation without him shutting me down. Please if you don’t mind, give me some advice. Thank you for your time and for what you do here for people like me. Take care and God bless you and your family.

    1. J

      Hi, Charity. I hear the pain in your story. Please know that you are not alone. Unfortunately, wives with higher drives than their husbands often feel like they are weird and no one understands them, but this scenario occurs in perhaps 20-25% of marriages (we’re not sure exactly, of course). And you are perfectly healthy and normal to desire sex with your husband.

      I’m a reality girl, so here’s the scoop as I see it: First, you can’t make your spouse change, so ultimately when a spouse changes, it’s their decision, not yours. Second, you can encourage an atmosphere for change by letting him know that you want to talk about it, that you’re there for him no matter what the reason is, and that you consider sexuality a shared issue (his problem is your problem, and vice versa). There are a number of reasons why your husband could have lost interest, only one of them being low T, but a medical exam is a good place to start. If he is continually rejecting you as you describe, you may also want to see a counselor. If he will not go with you, consider going alone. Some churches provide on-site counseling or will refer you to reasonably-priced Christian-based therapy.

      Given the scenario you describe, my sense is that something has really shifted for him, and that finding out what that is would go a long way toward knowing how to resolve it. But as I said, ultimately he has make that decision. I am saying a prayer for you both.

  10. Anonymous

    J,

    Let me first say love your blog and your writing style; you have a great perspective and you really do deal with these issues in a holy and humorous way that’s truly refreshing.

    I don’t see any way to send comments directly to you, so I figured I’d post this here. Any chance you could tackle a post on sex during her period? It seems to me there’s a lot of misinformation out there that could use some clearing up. I’m personally of the opinion that husbands could do a lot towards building up their wives’ self-image if they didn’t treat this completely normal monthly occurrence as something gross or untouchable, but I’d be curious as to your perspective.

    And if you really want to earn that “Oh no she didn’t!” shirt, you could even tackle cunnilingus during her period! Hah!

    1. J

      Ha! How did you know I’m actually wearing that shirt today? 🙂

      I’ve written about sex and periods. You can find the post here: Sexual Intimacy & Your Period: Tips for Wives. As to cunnilingus during a period… :S

      By the way, there is a huge variety in how wives feel about being intimate during the period. Indeed, for some women, their period is a mild disturbance with moderate flow; and for others, it’s a very painful time with heavy flow, during which they simply couldn’t imagine engaging in sex. There are ways to continue physical intimacy during this time, but I believe this is something couples need to talk about and work out for themselves.

    2. Anonymous

      Ah, so you have! And right on as always. It appears I haven’t been through the archives as thoroughly as I imagine. Thanks for your thoughts!

    3. J

      I don’t think my site is as searchable as it should be. I’m working on that and hope to update to a better system soon! Thanks.

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