I had my first real exposure to legalistic thinking when I was on a missions trip at 16.
I went with Teen Missions International (I’ve blogged about the problems with Teen Missions before), and the devotional for that summer was “The Way Up is Down.” It was all about how humility and suffering brings us closer to God, because God uses our suffering.
Now, I actually do believe that He uses our suffering. But more than that, I believe God uses EVERYTHING–the good and the bad–to bring us closer to Him.
Sometimes, though, we focus so much on suffering that we think we learn more through suffering than we do at other times in our lives.
Certainly when we suffer we often feel God to a greater degree, because He’s all we’re holding on to. But this can lead to a strange faith where we think that suffering is ultimately good–that suffering is something we should pursue.
And even that those who suffer know God more and are “sanctified” more.
So let me ask a question:
What is sanctification really about?
I’m going to get all theological here for a moment, but bear with me, because I think this impacts how we see marriage.
What is “sanctification”? It’s a big word which means being set apart and made holy. When we are saved, we’re justified–we’re made right with God. But that only changes our position. Sanctification is a change in our character, as, over time, we grow in holiness.
And that’s what God wants for us–to be made holy.
Okay, great. But what is holiness?
It means pure and free from sin, right? So that must mean that anything that makes us holier is good! And if we’re refined by suffering, then suffering must be good. Suffering must be for our benefit.
People who suffer have more of a chance to learn humility. They have a chance to learn to be more giving, less selfish. When relationships are bad, then, that can actually turn out for our good, because in those relationships, we’re actually made more like Jesus, and that’s the bigger point, right?
What is our goal in life? To look like Jesus!
Let’s back up a minute here. What if we’re only seeing one slice of the pie, and not the whole thing?
Romans 8:29 says this:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
Our goal is to look like Jesus.
Jesus is holiness, yes. But Jesus is more than holiness--or perhaps we should say that if holiness=Jesus, then holiness is more than just purity from sin.
Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus gave His life as a ransom for many. Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
All of that is true. But He did all of that for a purpose–to usher in a new kingdom not based on the normal rules of power (see Matthew 20:25-28), but based instead on this upside-down way of living where serving and love reign. His death was our forgiveness, and it changed the nature and point of life. It wasn’t rules and striving; it was love and joy and serving.
So if we’re to be transformed into Jesus’ likeness, then it isn’t only about not sinning and being perfectly selfless.
It’s about all the things that we know God is, that can be summed up in the fruits of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Jesus wasn’t just purity from sin; he was also pure love. Pure joy.
Maybe one of the ways that we’re transformed into the likeness of his Son is that we understand pure joy! Isn’t that what Paul was talking about in Philippians? Rejoice!
What if being holy–being transformed to look like Jesus–is as much about joy as it is about suffering?
What if getting to know Jesus better doesn’t just mean that we need to suffer. What if it means that we simply need to understand and be part of the kingdom of God with all of that entails–including pure joy?
Would this view of sanctification change the way we see marriage?
I think it would.
So often we feel as if marriage is a slog that God ordained for us so that we could learn to be selfless (as if single people are somehow “less than” because they never had this opportunity to grow). We grow closer to God when we learn to empty ourselves and look out for our spouse first and foremost.
The more unhappy we are in marriage, then, the greater our opportunity to pour ourselves out and become like Jesus. The more unhappy we are, the more faith we get to live out, and the more we serve.
I’ve often felt like the problem with a lot of our marriage doctrine is that it elevates suffering in marriage on earth, telling us that we’ll get our reward in heaven. It makes it sound like if you have a bad marriage, you’re holier.
We are not made holier by having difficult marriages. Those with good marriages are not losing out on a chance to grow their faith.
On the contrary, we’re able to grow in love and kindness and serving, too, while also growing in joy.
Look, God uses everything. He grew me in some of my roughest times in my life.
I had a much rougher childhood than my girls did, and a much rougher first years of marriage than either of them have had. But they have their own stories with God, and they have grown in faith and in love for Him without the need to suffer like I did. I didn’t want my kids to suffer so they would know God better; I wanted them to know God and be able to handle whatever came their way. But I never thought they had to suffer to have faith.
Marriage makes us holy in the same way that singleness makes us holy or going through periods of unemployment makes us holy or grief makes us holy. God uses everything.
And any marriage teaching that focuses on making sure you are unheard and unseen in your marriage in order to grow in holiness is missing the bigger point. We need to stop elevating suffering and start elevating Christ.
And Jesus? He laughs. So should we.
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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