I recall one of my professors, who was also a member of the church I attended, saying something like: “The purpose of marriage is not to make you happy but to make you holy.” It’s been a number of years since I heard this line, but it recently came to mind as I have been reflecting on marriage, the Church, sexuality, and prayer. Yes, that’s a seemingly odd list.
It’s an odd list, until we begin to think about what is at the center of all of these things: God. Prayer, marriage, the Church – and, yes, even sexuality (think desire rather than simply a physical act) – are all intended to be oriented toward God. But, as we often experience, when God ceases to be at the heart of these entities and activities, they become grotesque aberrations of their intended purpose. That is to say, they are steered from their purpose of making us holy – set apart to reflect God’s character.
Sexuality tends to get the most press where this is concerned. It is not difficult to drudge up the culture that utilizes sex in manifold harmful ways. Nor is it difficult to find where the Church has strayed in its misuse of sex either. However, I think that many of the issues that we are struggling with in the area of sexuality spawns from our lack of reflection on the connection between marriage and the Church.
The apostle Paul uses marriage as a metaphor for the Church. Namely, Christ and the Church are bridegroom and bride, brought together to be one Body. We are familiar with this association, but we don’t always see the reverse as true. Yes, Christ and the Church are like a marriage. But, is marriage really like Christ and the Church? We struggle with that particular phrasing, if not explicitly, at least implicitly. And, we may struggle with both the reality of the Church and marriage as sanctifying spheres in our lives for the very reason that we think “happiness” is of the utmost importance for whether or not something has value.
If we were to be honest with ourselves, it would be difficult to deny that marriage or our commitment to the Church is largely based on whether our needs are satisfied in the relationship. If our spouse, our local church, or some person in the church rubs us the wrong way, upsets us, or doesn’t meet our perceived needs, then we are quick to look elsewhere for satisfaction or fulfillment. We look outside the marriage and outside the Church for something more, for something that will finally make us happy.
We treat the institutions (that’s not always a dirty word) of marriage and the Church like shopping malls, which makes us consumers. That puts us in control. When marriage or the Church are their to serve our happiness, we have essentially made ourselves the end goal. In other words, we have placed ourselves in the place of God – simply put, idolatry. And, oh, how our moods and desires are like trashbags caught in the wind, blown to and fro. Our passions as consumers change with each passing season. We cast off marriage like changing a shirt. And, I’m afraid the Church doesn’t fare much better, especially when we see so little use in it making us happy people.
However, if holiness is the proper end because it is pointing us finally toward God, that says something about commitment (rather than our happiness) as intrinsic and necessary for both the life of a marriage and the life of a local congregation. Of course, our model is Father, Son, and Spirit in this regard. They have been committed to the Creation, even after its descent into sin. They have patiently worked with God’s people throughout time, remaining faithful even when we were unfaithful. It is the persistence of God that enables our faithfulness which leads unto holiness.
That’s not to say that joy isn’t an important part of holiness. But, we shouldn’t confuse joy with happiness. Joy is content in all circumstances. Happiness tends to fluctuate with my comfort level, which God doesn’t seem as concerned about. If we could extend my professor’s statement to the Church, it would read: “The purpose of the Church is not to make me happy but to make me holy.” We could also say the same of sexuality (for instance, how we talk about celibacy) and prayer. This would drastically change the way we struggle with conflict and the mundane parts of being married, serving the Church (rather than schism), practicing prayer, and being sexual beings.
If holiness is the point, then our happiness is not the goal. And, holiness is only possible insofar as we remain faithful to a God that calls us to live in faithful, covenantal relationship with God, with others, and with Creation. And, if this is true, then the purpose of such things is not the seeking of my own best interest(s). Rather, it is seeking the best good for others (i.e., God’s peace or “shalom”). John Wesley once said, “There is no personal holiness without social holiness.” Thus, God has wed us together; we need each other.