He told me he knew that marriage was designed not to make him happy, but to make him holy. He had accepted the wisdom in the phrase, and there is certainly an element of truth behind it: Marriage really can serve as a significant means of sanctification in the life of the believer and it really can foster growth in holiness. But as useful and challenging as the phrase is, it failed to address the question that had been nagging his mind of late: What if marriage isn’t making me as holy as I had hoped? And what if marriage isn’t making her as holy as I had hoped? If marriage is designed to make us holy, why are we still so unholy?
I think there come times of reckoning in the life of every believer where we are forced to ask, Is this all? Is this as holy as I’m going to get? Will that temptation I’ve been fighting for decades never loosen its grip? Will that habit I’ve been trying to break never fully disappear? Will that discipline I’ve been trying to establish never become easy? While I may be holier than I once was, it’s still shocking and disappointing how unholy I remain.
And then there come other times of reckoning where we turn those questions toward our spouse. Is this as holy as she is going to get? Will that temptation he has been fighting never fully loosen its grip? Will that bad habit never disappear from her life? Will that discipline I so want him to put on never become established and easy? While our spouse may be holier than he or she once was, it’s still shocking how unholy a person can remain, even after many years of Christian living and Christian marriage.
As our lives mature and as our marriages continue on, we all eventually come to the realization that there are certain sinful behaviors in each of us that probably won’t ever be corrected. There are certain bad habits that probably won’t ever stop. There are certain selfish idiosyncrasies that grated the day we got married and will grate to the day “death does us part.” While there are certain strengths that will get stronger, there are certain weaknesses that will show little sign of improving and will perhaps even grow weaker.
And maybe in the face of these reality checks we need to remind ourselves that our pursuit of holiness on this earth, while genuine and meaningful, is only ever a limited pursuit. In life and marriage we become—and help our spouse become—not holy in a final sense, but holier—holier than we once were and holier than we might otherwise be. We enlist one another in our shared commitment to sanctification, knowing we will never complete the task. I love how Tim and Kathy Keller state it in The Meaning of Marriage. To fall in love with someone “is to look at another person and get a glimpse of the person God is creating, and to say, ‘I see who God is making you, and it excites me! I want to be part of that. I want to partner with you and God in the journey you are taking to his throne.’”
Yes, we will grow actually and substantially in the journey, but no, we will not grow nearly as much as we wish or nearly as much as we ought. And what is true of us personally, is true of the person we married. That husband or wife will also grow actually and substantially, but at the end of it all he or she will still die simul justus et peccator—justified and sinning, saint and sinner. Our pursuits of holiness, whether our own or our spouse’s, are only ever incomplete pursuits. They are real and meaningful, but necessarily limited by the harsh reality that there is no perfection to be had on this side of the grave.
But this is no reason to despair because these pursuits are motivated by the wonderful reality that there is life beyond the grave. There is relationship beyond the grave. What we do in the here and now really matters. The Kellers capture the importance of that so well. They have said that in marriage we say to another person. “I want to partner with you and God in the journey you are taking to his throne.” Now read the rest of the thought: “And when we get there, I will look at your magnificence and say, ‘I always knew you could be like this. I got glimpses of it on earth, but now look at you!’ Each spouse should see the great thing that Jesus is doing in the life of their mate through the Word, the gospel. Each spouse then should give him- or herself to be a vehicle for that work and envision the day that you will stand together before God, seeing each other presented in spotless beauty and glory.”
As partners for life, bound together through our marriage vows, we are concerned not first or only for our happiness but for our holiness. Though that holiness will remain incomplete, it will be real and meaningful and bring glory to God.