Skip to content ↓

The Great Challenge of Every Marriage

The Great Challenge of Every Marriage

We’ve all heard that marriage was designed to make us holy more than to make us happy. And though it’s a bit of a trite phrase that threatens to force a false dichotomy between holiness and happiness, there is a measure of truth to it. At its best, marriage does, indeed, help us grow in holiness. It helps us in our lifelong quest to put sin to death and come alive to righteousness. Aileen and I knew this was true when we got married all those years ago, but as time has passed we’ve been surprised to learn how it’s true.

It had been our assumption that marriage would make us holy because we would essentially be enlisting another person to our cause—a person who would assist us in identifying sin and in helping us put it to death. “This is the will of God: your sanctification,” says Paul, and each of us would be involving ourselves in embracing God’s will for the other.

Certainly there have been times when each of us has helpfully and even formally pointed out where the other has developed patterns of sin and selfishness. There have been times when we have each helped the other fight a particular sin or a general sinfulness. Yet as we look back on the past twenty-three years, we see that this has been relatively rare. It’s not that we don’t see plenty of sin in one another and not that we are firmly opposed to pointing it out. No, it’s more that there is another way that marriage has helped us grow in sanctification—a way in which our efforts are directed at addressing ourselves more than fixing each other.

Each of us has our sins, our imperfections, and our shortcomings. Each of us is pretty well established in who we are and how we behave and each of us is, at 45, pretty unlikely to experience dramatic transformations in this. That’s not to say that we have given up or declared ourselves as holy as we can ever be. Far from it! But at this point we are assuming that the sins that dog us today will probably continue to dog us to the end—though hopefully with diminishing strength. And this means that the sin we have each had to tolerate in the other is sin we will likely need to tolerate for however many more years the Lord gives us. So while Aileen may grow in holiness by having me confront her in her sins, she seems to grow more in holiness by patiently tolerating my sinfulness—by loving me despite my sin and loving me as the Lord helps me progressively put that sin to death.

Let’s be honest—it is often harder to tolerate a bad habit than a bad sin.

Then, while each of us has our sins, each of us also has our quirks, our preferences, our idiosyncrasies, our annoyances. And just like we assume that the sins that have dogged each of us through the first twenty-three will dog us for the next twenty-three, we assume that the things that just plain annoy us about one another today are likely to persist as well. And let’s be honest—it is often harder to tolerate a bad habit than a bad sin. It is often harder to tolerate the way your spouse chews his food or leaves her clothes on the ground than the way he sins against you or the way she remains unsanctified. And again, while Aileen might grow in her sanctification by having me formally point out a way in which she is sinful, she seems to grow more in sanctification by learning to accept and perhaps even embrace some of those non-moral but oh-so-annoying things I do—those eccentricities and matters of preference.

So perhaps the foremost way that marriage has helped make us holy is not so much in calling each of us to serve as the other’s second conscience, a junior assistant to the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction of sin. It is not in calling each of us to be a kind of moral sandpaper to actively scour off each other’s rough edges. Rather, marriage has helped make us holy by calling each of us to extend a kind of divine mercy toward the other—to simply live lovingly with someone who is prone to be sinful and just plain hard to live with.

In marriage, God allows us to see one another as we really are, then to accept one another as we really are—as holistic human beings who are a mixture of holy and depraved, grownup and immature, wonderful and almost unbelievably annoying. Marriage makes us holy not just in compelling us to identify and confront sin in the other, but also in calling us to bear patiently with another person’s sin, preferences, and bad habits. In other words, marriage makes us holy in the way it calls us to be like God in overlooking offenses, in imparting mercy, in extending forgiveness, in displaying compassion, in refusing to be petty. Thus, the great sanctifying challenge of marriage is not so much to fix one another, as to imitate Christ.

  • Cognitive Decline and Common Faults

    Cognitive Decline and Common Faults

    When visiting a far-off church, I met a man who, with sadness, told me about his father’s final sermon. A lifelong pastor and preacher, his father had withdrawn from full-time ministry several years prior, but still preached from time to time. On this Sunday he took to the pulpit, read his text, and gave his…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (July 10)

    A La Carte: How the GOP became pro-choice / Forgive, and be forgiven / 10 non-cringy faith-based movies / The practice of arranged marriages / Do I share the gospel now? / How to show Mormon missionaries that the Bible contradicts their gospel / and more.

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (July 9)

    A La Carte: A prayer for my children’s walk with Christ / What really happened and Nicea / The secular creed / The Bible is not boring / It’s okay to fail / How can I read my Bible correctly? / Kindle deals / and more.

  • Together We Pray 2024

    This week the blog is sponsored by The Master’s Academy International. They invite you to join them for an important week of prayer beginning July 22. Our Lord’s Final Command The final command our Lord Jesus gave to all who would follow Him was the command known as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20). The Great…

  • The Three Greatest Enemies of Marriage

    The Three Greatest Enemies of Marriage

    Marriage brings us many joys. But since it exists in this world and not some other, it also brings its share of sorrows. It is like everything else in that way—there are times we marvel at its beauties and times we lament its difficulties. A divine gift that was meant to be only good is…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (July 8)

    A La Carte: The crow bait approach to theology / Incredible babies, embryos in limbo, and the idol of choice / Kevin DeYoung on making every issue “your thing” / The abolition of porn / All sunshine makes a desert / Kindle deals / and more.