In this final part of our series, Marriage Myths, we look at one last myth our culture tells us about marriage. This is the myth that marriage is primarily about our happiness. It sounds nice, to be sure, but just like every other myth, it does not compare with the truth. Keep reading to find out what the truth here is and how we can live in it, and stay tuned for next week when we start a brand new teaching series called The Big Story. If you’ve ever wondered what the Bible is all about, over the next four weeks we’ll talk about it together.
The Happiness Trap
There are people who live normal lives. There are also people who live flashy and impressive lives. There are those whose lives that don’t seem to matter much to anyone outside of their immediate circle of friends and family. And there are those who live lives of great consequence. Then there are those folks who live in such a way that they become legendary. What exactly causes this we don’t know. It could be a single great deed. It could be about the timing of something they did. It could be their whole lives. Whatever exactly serves as the spark to becoming legendary, when someone reaches this status, their deeds become the stuff of rumors and stories passed down from one generation to the next. They inspire myths and legends. Their tale is told and retold over and over and over again, and with each telling they become ever more tightly knit into the fabric of human culture. One such man was named Johann Georg Faust.
Faust lived in Germany in the 16th century. He was a scholar, an alchemist, and an astrologer. By reputation, he was also a magician. Very little can be stated about the details of his life with much confidence. But, after his death, people began to tell his stories. Then they told them some more. The contemporaneous equivalents to comic books were written about him. Around fireplaces and in taverns around Germany people talked about this magician who may have made a bargain with the Devil to obtain his powers. Out of this a legend began to grow. Eventually, a writer named Christopher Marlowe wrote up his story in a book called The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. This story was told and retold until an even more famous and enduring tale, entitled, simply, Faust, was penned by German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This was no book, but a play in which peoples’ imaginations were given aid by live action.
Goethe’s story is about a man who in Solomonic fashion believes he has reached the upper limit of his great capacity for learning and is beginning to despair of the worthwhileness of life. In his depression the demon Mephistopheles comes to him with a bargain: If the demon can give Faust a single moment of supreme happiness, then Faust will give over his soul and serve the demon in Hell for eternity. The pair go on a series of adventures in which Mephistopheles tries to find the thing that will make this man who has everything happy. Nothing works, and the Doctor begins to turn back to despair when he catches sight of a woman, Gretchen, who immediately captures his heart. Yet Faust was no love story. It was a tragedy. It was a cautionary tale that played on Jesus’ rhetorical question of what it will profit a man to gain the world and yet lose his soul. In a twist, though, the tragic ending is not primarily for Faust, but for Gretchen who, in her innocence, gets all wrapped up in the sins of Faust and winds up condemned herself. His pursuit of happiness at any cost resulted not only in his not obtaining the object of his quest, but he wrecked the lives of the people around him as well.
Good story, huh? How does this have anything to do with marriage? Well, Faust’s story doesn’t really. Except for this: His pursuit of happiness at all costs is still being played out in the lives of people today. Lots of them. We may not be making any deals with a demon named Mephistopheles, but we do have a happiness-obsessed culture. If something makes you happy and does not simultaneously negatively impact the people around you, you are encouraged to go for it with gusto. And, frankly, even if somebody is a little hurt by it, as long as you’re happy in the end, most people will give you a pass. Our commitments are determined by what will bring us the most happiness. Or, rather, the length of time we remain committed to them is determined by our level of happiness. If a situation isn’t making us happy, we begin looking for ways out of it. In many ways, happiness has become an idol in our culture. Here, then, is where we begin to cross over into the marriage relationship.
This morning we are in the fourth and final part of our series, Marriage Myths. For the past few weeks we have been talking about some of the ways our culture teaches us to think about marriage nowadays and why the truth about it is so much better. If this is the first part of the series you’ve caught, you’re kind of coming in at the end of the movie. If you will go to my blog—www.the-nexus.blog—and click on the sermons tab under the Home dropdown menu, you can find the previous parts there. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page as we wrap things up, we started this journey by establishing a baseline of what marriage is and what it is for. With the help of Moses’ description of God’s creation of the first marriage in Genesis 2, we concluded that marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed by God in creation for the purpose of pointing people to Jesus.
Then, two weeks ago, on Homecoming Sunday, we started talking about the marriage myths of our culture. We started with the idea that in marriage we are supposed to be united with our one, true soulmate if we want to get things perfectly right. The problems with this are many, but can be summed up like this: In seeking a soulmate, we are trying to find in a person what can only be found in God through Christ. Instead of seeking a soulmate, we need to focus our greater attention on becoming one. Rest assured, if you become the person the person you are looking for is looking for, the likelihood of getting found by this person goes way up. If you’re already married, don’t try and force your spouse to fit in your box, mold yourself into hers, into his. Don’t seek a soulmate, become one.
Last week we confronted the myth of equality. We said then, that marriage is not about equality. It won’t make you equal. Yes, the value of the husband and the wife before God are exactly the same, but they were created for different roles in the relationship. If we shift our focus from making sure things are fair and equal to making sure we are fully filling the role we were designed to play, we will find ourselves a great deal more satisfied than we will otherwise. Making equality the goal of our marriage will just make us miserable and miserable to be around. But, that’s because marriage won’t make you equal; it will make you whole.
This morning we are going to confront one last myth our culture tells us about marriage. I hinted at this at the very end of last week’s sermon. Just like marriage isn’t designed to make you equal, it’s not designed to make you happy either. Let’s call this myth the happiness trap. It goes like this: Marriage is supposed to make you happy. When marriage is at its best, you will be happier than you will at any other point in your life. If your marriage is not making you happy, then you’re not doing something right.
Now, on its face, this sounds really good, right? I mean, yeah, if you’re not happy in your marriage, then it stands to reason that something isn’t going like it should be. Her wedding day is supposed to be the happiest day in a bride’s life. I’m not sure what happened to the groom in that assessment, but I guess they figured that he gets the girl at the end of the day and so he’s going to be happy pretty much no matter how it goes. Every Hallmark movie ends with the couple falling in love, getting married (although not as many end with a wedding scene as they used to do), and blissfully happy. Every good love story ends with the same three words. Say them with me: And they lived happily ever after. There’s this whole cultural mythology that spans lots of different cultures all aimed at driving into our hearts and minds that life in general and marriage in particular is about our happiness. And it’s not true. It’s a myth. It’s a pernicious lie that has ensnared many and wrecked the lives of many more, leaving them all woefully short of the object of their pursuit.
And think for a minute about why it’s such a dangerous myth. If happiness is our goal, then anything which does not lead or contribute to our happiness is the enemy. Consider for a minute how many things we encounter in just an average day that do not contribute to our happiness. Traffic. Taxes. Emails. Social media. Unwanted projects at work. Bills. Children. Parents. Grandparents. Grandkids (be honest now). In-laws. Social calls. Having for any amount of time to do other than what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want, for as long as we want, and without anyone else to tell us otherwise. Maybe…occasionally…even your spouse or your marriage generally could go on that list. One of the impacts of an increasingly digitally-driven society and the ubiquity of screens is that if something isn’t making us happy, we can shut it down and start it over. We can switch to another app. We can call the company and complain about the slowness. We can do any number of things to fix the problem so that we can go back to being happy. We have let a truly artificial situation become the lens through which we filter the rest of our lives. If we are not happy, we should be able to fix that. Immediately. Including our marriages.
Let’s just own the truth together this morning: Marriage isn’t primarily about making you happy. If you are married and have been so for more than about 24 hours, you know that there are more times than you probably want to admit out loud that your marriage doesn’t make you happy. Your spouse makes you upset. Your life as a husband or as a wife does not fully accord with all the ideals of unending bliss you had for it when you said, “I do.” Given this reality, someone committed to the idea that marriage is for happiness faces a terrible choice: Live with the discontent (which usually leads to bitterness and even more unhappiness) or pursue happiness via other means (means, which often lead to more unhappiness if not for you, then at least for the people around you—remember Faust’s story?). Who wants to be in this kind of a situation? But again, what if marriage isn’t about making you happy? What if it is about something else altogether with happiness being merely a pleasant byproduct?
I want to spend the rest of our time together this morning talking with you about what this other thing is. In order to do this, let me take you back one last time to Paul’s challenging words to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. We’re going to look at the rest of what Paul had to say to husbands about what should be the impact of their Christlike love for their wives. Let’s start at v. 25 where we finished last week and look at the next couple of verses together. Check this out: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” That’s where we stopped last week. Just as wives are called to wholeness in Christ by elevating their husbands’ needs and desires above their own by practicing a godly submission toward them, husbands are called to wholeness in Christ by giving of themselves in sacrificial leadership patterned after Christ’s love for the church. In v. 26 he tells us what the goal of this is: “…that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
So, what is all of this saying? Well, let’s talk about the relationship between Christ and the church for a minute. We’ve already said that Christ’s love for the church was expressed in His dying for her. His goal in this was to see her become fully who God designed her to be. Everything Christ does for the church is aimed at moving her in the direction of the Father; to make her more reflective of His character and attributes in all things. His intention is for her to stand apart as a gleaming example of who God is for the world around her to see. When we follow our Lord well as a body and get being the church right, we won’t look like anything else around us. No other organization will be quite the same. Not only will we look different, but we will in fact be different. We will be better. And I don’t say this to sound a note of arrogance. Rather, this is an observation of deep humility because it is fundamentally honest. We will be better, but we will be the most aware that this moral superiority doesn’t come from us, but from the Spirit who empowers us. On our own, we are no better at all. We are broken just like they are. With the Holy Spirit in us, though, we reflect the person and character of Christ. That’s what makes us better.
Think a bit further about this process of becoming better, though. Is it all peaches and cream? Hardly. If we are going to become more like Christ as a people, we are necessarily going to have to become less like ourselves apart from Christ. On our own we are jealous, angry, bitter, possessive, greedy, addicted to illicit pleasures, better with things than with people, cliquish, petty, and the list goes on sometimes forever. We have the roots of such things running deep in our lives and with many fruits hanging both low and high. Well, have you ever tried to take out a bush in your landscaping that was well-established? One with roots that ran deep? How easy was it? Sure, you could chop it off at the ground, but that won’t make it go away. I remember working on the landscaping at my dad’s office growing up. It was character-building slave labor for which I am incredibly grateful. There were these yucca plants he wanted to get rid of. We must have drowned those things in gallons of Round Up, and yet they wouldn’t die. The only way to get rid of them was to dig down deep and remove every trace of the roots from the ground. If you missed even a fragment of a piece of root it was going to come back. This can sometimes take an enormous amount of work. It tears up the landscaping and makes a mess of things until the work is done.
In the same way, the process of the Spirit molding us more and more fully into the image of Christ is rarely painless and easy. It is hard, sometimes tedious, rarely fun, and can leave us deeply unhappy for long periods of time. And that’s when it’s going smoothly and we’re cooperative with the process. When you read the writings of some of the spiritual giants of the past, they talk about going through long periods of depression and anxiety, of unhappiness and melancholy as they wrestled and strove forward with the Spirit on the path to Christ-likeness. Well, why would anybody sign up for something like this? They wouldn’t, or at least wouldn’t for long, if their first commitment was to happiness. Yet these spiritual giants endured because they understood the goal and they were able to taste some of the firstfruits of the process as they journeyed along the path. They experienced peace that the world couldn’t shake. They knew joy that pervaded in spite of deeply undesirable circumstances. They had hope that left them leaning forward no matter how bleak things looked in the moment. They experienced the love of the Father and it warmed their soul on even the darkest night. And even if they didn’t always recognize it, they people around them did: They were becoming holy.
This is what Jesus does in and for the church. This is what Paul said. Listen to it again: Christ loves the church and gave Himself up for her, “that he might sanctify her”—that is, that He might make her holy. He does this through the ministry of the Word. He speaks the words of the Father into her heart and it transforms her from the inside out. And He does it so that in the end, she will be a gleaming reflection of Him; without spot or wrinkle or any such thing; holy and without blemish; perfected in every way in the image of the Father. Eugene Peterson in The Message puts it this way: “Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness.”
Alright, stay with me here. This is what the relationship between Christ and the church is designed to accomplish. The relationship between Christ and the church is intended to serve as the model for the relationship between the husband and the wife. This is what the relationship between the husband and wife is designed to accomplish. Yeah, Paul was talking to the husbands specifically here, but his words are applicable much more broadly than that. Marriage does not exist to make you happy. But then, if you’re already married you already know this. You know this because there have been a few times when you haven’t been happy. You haven’t been happy, and that unhappiness can be linked directly to your relationship. If unending happiness was the goal, then you failed, and you should have quit then. As a matter of fact, way too many folks do quit then. They quit then in large part because nobody ever bothered to teach them what marriage is really about. Marriage isn’t about making you happy. It’s about making you holy. Marriage is designed to make you holy, not happy.
Now, there’s a chance I could be misunderstood in saying that. So, in order to avoid being turned into an unflattering sound-bite, let’s clarify things. I think you should be happy in your marriage. I think you should be deliriously happy. In fact, yes, if you are genuinely not happy, that’s a pretty good indicator that there’s something you need to fix. But, happiness is a situationally-determined emotion. What’s more, it’s an emotion that’s not always properly indicative of the overall rightness or wrongness of a particular situation. A child who’s been made to do his chores instead of playing video games is very likely not happy about it. This unhappiness, though, does not at all mean there is anything wrong about this state of affairs. Indeed, if the child is learning things like the importance of rightly ordered priorities, the value of hard work, and what it takes to be a productive part of an organization (in this case, a family)—lessons that may be learned begrudgingly—then the situation is a very much right one.
When a man and a woman come together in pursuit of a marriage relationship, they don’t begin this journey with a blank slate. As much as we’d like to think that’s the case, it’s not. They come loaded down with baggage. Sometimes a lot of baggage. I’ve counseled couples who were bringing so much baggage into the relationship they probably should have rented an extra moving truck or two in order to haul it all along with them. This baggage is the sum total of our pasts. Some of it is light. Some of it is not. Some of it carries the reminders of wounds that have not healed. There are tensions with parents. There are the scars of past relationships that didn’t end well. There are sin issues that have been kept carefully in the closet for years. There’s…junk.
In the beginning we usually set the luggage to the side and just enjoy each other. But eventually it comes time to start really moving in and unpacking. And I’m not talking about the furniture. This is every relationship. Nobody is exempt from this. This baggage represents the sum total of things that are keeping us from wholeness in Christ. A significant part of what God designed marriage to accomplish is to provide a safe space where couples can, as the husband and wife each learn and come to fulfill the roles God intended for them to play in the relationship, work through these various issues and move each other on in the direction of Jesus. They can together, by their mutual submission and selfless love for one another, create a safe place for the Spirit to work in each other’s lives until they are each a fitting reflection of the image God designed them to bear. In other words, it is the place where they can become holy. Marriage was designed to make you holy, not happy.
Now, make no mistake: Happiness is better now. It’s easier. It’s more fun. It’s…happier. Who doesn’t want that? There’s a reason our culture teaches us to reach and strive for that above all else. But in the long run, if you settle for happiness instead of pushing on toward holiness, you’ll wind up achieving neither of them. Because happiness is situationally-determined, if you neglect holiness along the way, the number of situations that are capable of producing happiness will gradually begin to decrease in number until they disappear altogether. If you make happiness the goal of your marriage, you will fail. Failure may not come immediately, but it will come. This is because marriage was designed to make you holy, not happy.
If, on the other hand, you make holiness you goal in line with marriage’s design, your overall amount of happiness will increase. The increase will probably not come immediately, but it will come. It will come as you together work through some of the baggage of the past and through this strengthen the bond you have with each other. It will come as you walk through the fires of adversity together and by that fire see the relational impurities of doubt and mistrust, of suspicion and jealousy, of faithlessness and fear burned out of the relationship. It will come as you lean into each other as a function of your leaning into Christ. It will come as you fail, offer each other grace and forgiveness, and sew things back together with perhaps stronger thread than the initial weaving used. It will come because holiness unleashed in a relationship allows for the experience of happiness-inducing situations on a much more frequent basis than those without such a drive behind them. And the reason for this should be obvious. The more you look and behave like Jesus did, the fewer problem you’re going to have, and the more you will be able to simply enjoy each other and your God. And by the way: This works pretty well even if just one partner is doing it. When you realize that marriage is for becoming holy and not being made happy, you can endure a whole lot more unhappiness as you pursue a contagious personal holiness that invites your spouse to come along with you.
Marriage was designed to make you holy, not happy. It was designed to make you whole, not equal. It was designed to build you into a soulmate, not to give you the platform to do that to someone else. It was designed to be a covenant, rooted in God’s covenant of life with us, that leaves us looking more like Him when we finish than when we start. Our culture tells us lots of myths about marriage. The truth is better. It’s not always easier, but it’s better. It’s better because fantasies will always eventually end. But the truth brings life and joy and freedom. May you know this freedom, this joy, and this life in your marriage—or any other relationship you have—so that you can experience the wonder of becoming fully who God made you to be.