A Holy Marriage Is a Happy Marriage
When my book Sacred Marriage came out with the provocative subtitle, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” I was asked where this line came from. Let’s take a journey to see how Scripture addresses marriage, looking at what it says and doesn’t say, to arrive at the conclusion that our first concern should be to pursue holiness.
In the New Testament, one of Paul’s clearest recommendations for Christians to consider marriage is for the purpose of overcoming sexual temptation: “Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2). Paul is directly saying that one of the purposes of marriage is for the sake of living a holy life, in particular, overcoming sexual temptation. “If they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9).
Elsewhere, when Paul talks about the nature of marriage to the Ephesians, he also showcases holiness. “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.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Paul says that we should base the marriage relationship on the relationship that Christ had with the church—a relationship in which Jesus seeks the church’s holiness. So too we love each other by encouraging growth in holiness.
Peter also connects marriage and holiness when he warns men that if they fail to treat their wives with respect and as co-heirs in Christ, their prayer lives will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). Holiness within marriage is essential for us to maintain an active prayer life. Once again, this points toward holiness, not happiness. You can pray all you want in an unhappy marriage; but prayer will be blocked solid if you’re in an unholy marriage.
The writer of Hebrews also seems to point toward holiness in marriage. In 12:14, we’re told, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord.” While not directly addressing marriage here, the writer is clearly addressing relationships, emphasizing the role of holiness as a goal in relating to others. He doesn’t say make every effort to be happy.
Most telling of all are the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus tells us to seek first, above all else, as our top priority, “the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” He doesn’t tell us to seek first happiness, an intimate marriage, a fulfilling vocation, financial success or even physical health. Our first concern when we wake up every day should be God’s agenda, not our own, and seeking to grow in righteousness—dying to the things that offend him, embracing the life and virtues of Christ that honor him.
The Bible clearly doesn’t tell us to pursue happiness with the same force it tells us to pursue righteousness, character, holiness, and integrity. There is one exception, of course. In Deuteronomy 24:5 a young man is told to take a year off after getting married so that he can “stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married.”
The verse in Deuteronomy clues us into the fact that perhaps God calls us to holiness because (at least in part) he wants us to be happy. He is not “anti-happiness.” Rather than pit holiness and happiness against each other, we need to understand how they support each other. In moments of decision, however, it’s clear from the biblical record that God values our obedience and character more than any emotional disposition.