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Is marriage primarily about teaching you to be selfless and to grow like Jesus through suffering?

I hope you would all say a resounding, “no!”

We know that God thinks of marriage for our benefit–our emotional benefit, not just our character-transforming benefit. He said that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. He said it was very good once we were together. God created woman as a “helper”–which doesn’t mean subordinate it all, but rather a connotation of strength that was perfectly suitable for him.

Marriage is about not being alone, about having someone that you are suited for to walk through life with, to support you and be your shield (the word “helper” had a military meaning, as well, where God was often called our help and shield).

Marriage is something good!

Yes, God desires us to be transformed into His likeness, which involves growing our character.

But this month we’re looking at how sometimes the emphasis is misplaced. It isn’t that God deliberately wants us to suffer in order to grow–as if all God cares about is whether we are holy.

It is that God wants wholeness for us–He wants all of Jesus for us. And Jesus is not only about holiness. He is also about emotional and spiritual and relational health. He is about growing into all fullness and wholeness. And that means that we should not elevate suffering above everything else.

God uses suffering to draw us to Him, yes. But God also uses everything else, too. We are not holier if we suffer, and God does not want us to have terrible marriages in order to give us opportunities to be more and more selfless.

And yet that is often how marriage advice sounds.

I wrote about this last week briefly on the blog, and then on Facebook, and we had huge engagement on Facebook about this. So many people said some actually quite brilliant things, and I’d like to leave some of those comments here because you said it better than I could have myself:

Suffering actually is much harder on me spiritually

Many women wrote that they think they were learning the wrong lessons from suffering, and that suffering does not automatically make you closer to God. One woman wrote:

The difficulties in my marriage have not been a source of growing closer to Christ or the will of God. They have been the greatest challenges to my spirit. It pains me to wonder if God’s intended plan for me was to learn to set boundaries that would have ultimately led to not getting married to someone with that kind of temper, and if I would have developed as a better Christian had a taken a braver route back when I was young and idealistic.

Now I wonder constantly what is the best way forward.

Perhaps it is in overcoming such challenges the growth comes, but I no longer have faith that I can just keep throwing positivity and support at my partner to encourage him to be the person he’s capable of, or that we just need to keep trying to understand each other. It’s been 17 years and I’m tired. I’m anxious, increasingly cynical, defensive, and most horrifying of all, bitter. I still don’t understand the choices I made to accept relentless bullying, and that terrifies me in a way I can only imagine self-harmers feel when they look at their past destructive behavior and can’t explain it. But I don’t feel secure enough in my current situation to forgive myself or my husband for the past, because I’m terrified that will lead to an erosion of my long, staggering climb out of outright abuse as I loosen my grip on the negative but useful emotions that help me hold on to my sense of self and knowledge of what a relationship should be— or a least, the bare minimum of how people should treat each other.

God helped us every step of the way, I have no doubt. There was nothing inevitable about turning things around from the point we reached, let alone all the progress we’ve made. And he continues to steer me tenderly between the cliffs of Numbness and Hysteria day by day. Yet, I feel so lost and directionless, because I don’t even see a path forward to a level where we can thrive. His mental health has improved, but plateaued, and mine has slowly deteriorated, and I’m always left guessing what eggshells each new day will bring.

A

How can we be refined if we’re constantly being put down? A marriage should refine you, yes, but trials have ending dates. Being miserable for the entirety of your adult life ≠ sanctification. It wears you down so that you can’t function, which then leads to you just can’t serve.
Shannon

Why the focus on suffering in the first place? How do we keep it in perspective?

What if by simply enduring suffering we’re not learning the right lessons, because what God wants from our suffering is to learn problem-solving! He wants us to do something about what is wrong! Some people had some interesting thoughts!

To some extent, I feel like it is spiritual bypassing. Sometimes it feels easier to just “submit to suffering” instead of **doing the work** to make things better. I guess I just wish Christians were FAR more active in alleviating suffering, especially when it comes to systemic oppression of women and minorities. Not to get too heavy here, but I guess I see a lot of misogyny here when it comes to applying all of this to marriage and other hierarchies. You have to teach people with less power to accept their suffering without a fight in order to maintain power. What would the church look like if we rose up and said NO MORE to these kinds of unnecessary suffering?
Karen

I have felt so frustrated with this false dichotomy. Holiness and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Not to mention, everything in life is for sanctification – but we don’t talk about ANY other area of life like this. When you’re frustrated with your job, nobody says “Well, work is primarily for your sanctification. It’s to make you holy, not happy.” No, they brainstorm with you about what needs to CHANGE. This teaching prevents problem solving, normalizes unhealthy marriages, and is one of the reasons I was scared to get married. It turns out being married is the happiest thing that ever happened to me. But that is NOT what I was expecting going in. It’s sad to me that the church isn’t providing a more compelling view of marriage than “suffering in marriage will make you a better person.”
Charissa

There are always ways to humble yourself and serve your spouse. To be less selfish. To take everything to the Lord first. But you don’t have to have an unloving, uncaring spouse to do those things. You could have a spouse who is humbling himself and serving you right back. You could be serving others together. Giving of yourselves together. Suffering through a marriage isn’t a sign of sainthood it’s a sign you need help.
Kasey

I don’t think suffering makes some people “holier” than others. Some of my good friends have been through some very tough situations, but I don’t think that makes me less holy than them somehow. To imply that I’m “less holy” or “not as close to God” because I haven’t suffered as much is discouraging. And that’s not even touching on how that view impacts women in abusive marriages!
Hannah

What happens when we see suffering as good, as the aim?

To me, the big problem comes down to expectations, as Shari sums up perfectly:

Something I heard repeated for over a decade: since James said that we are to count it all joy when we face diverse trials, a wife should actually rejoice that her husband is misusing/abusing/causing her to suffer, because he is being used by God to make her more Christ-like (Christ likeness being defined as “emptying himself, becoming nothing”). Do you need to read that again? Wives have been told to rejoice that the man who is supposed to love, cherish, honor, and protect them is doing the OPPOSITE. HOW does that speak to the value of a woman? That betrayed wife needs to hear, “he has broken his marriage covenant with you, and that is not a reason to rejoice”!
Melissa

I think this narrative that marriage is supposed to be hard because it sanctifies us is *really* toxic and dangerous.

How many people stay in abusive marriages because they have been taught that marriage is supposed to be hard? If you go in with the expectation of having to experience hardship, how are you supposed to know what isn’t okay?

Shari

Maybe it would be helpful if the people who say “marriage is hard”, could define what they mean by hard. People in destructive marriages live hard, and just think they have to live with it because everyone says marriage is hard! But defining terms would enable them to recognize that their hard is not healthy hard.

For example, I believe healthy hard would be both partners laying aside their preferences in order to pursue and love the other person. Unhealthy hard would be one spouse becoming nothing in the relationship so that her husband can suck all the joy out of her. Both are hard, and the one living the unhealthy version will often just continue in it because she doesn’t realize that there are two kinds.

Melissa

A soldier is arrested and becomes a POW in a terrible military prison of the enemy. He goes through abuses of every nature, misses his family and friends, and it is his faith that sees him through. Through his suffering he draws closer to Jesus.

Then, his allies find and capture the prison and discover him in his cell. They open the door and welcome him to freedom, but he insists on staying because he’s a more sanctified Christian as a tortured POW than as a free man.

It sounds absurd because it is. So, why do Christians think abused women have to stay in abusive marriages? They are no longer in “The Lord’s Army” when with an abusive man. Instead, they are prisoners of the enemy. It isn’t a marriage, anymore, when one spouse abuses the other.

Kateri

You don’t have to be miserable to have marriage grow you.

You can learn to be selfless on a day to day basis. You can choose to think of your spouse first. You can train yourself to be loving. You can immerse yourself in Scripture and in jesus and get to know Him better, so that He flows out of every pore of you.

And you can do this even when your life is not characterized by suffering.

I have felt the closest to God and the most sure of my faith in times of great suffering. But I have grown the most when life is relatively calm and I have time and breathing room to think and focus on healthy change.

Marriage should not be a great time of trial for you. On the contrary, God made marriage to be something that is joyful, that helps you face life together with someone you love. Maybe if that were the expectation–that marriage would grow you in a good way because you could go from strength to strength–we’d have more joy in marriage, and less suffering.

What do you think?


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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