I was looking for a book to give as an engagement present and stumbled across Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? by Gary Thomas. Immediately, I knew this was what I was looking for. Of course, the very long title tells you what the book will be about. Thomas’ central idea is that marriage is sanctifying. Indeed, that this is a, if not the, main goal of marriage, to make us more holy. And this, as any Christian should know, usually only happens through trials.
Thomas states his goal early on:
“We’re going to cut open numerous marriages, dissect them, find out what’s really going on, and then explore how we can gain spiritual meaning, depth, and growth from the challenges that lie within.” (p. 84)
Thomas does indeed use many real life examples and some of them, generally the longer ones, are the most engrossing parts of the book. I did not necessarily feel like he “dissected” the marriages. I would say the book works rather in reverse. It begins with certain ideas and then uses examples to illustrate them. I do not think it takes marriages, dissects them, and then comes up with principles. This is not necessarily a bad thing since I would rather have my principles come from Scripture anyway.
This is not just a self-help (or spouse-help) book with simple easy to apply steps. Thomas says early on that the answers are not going to be easy ones:
“To spiritually benefit from marriage, we have to be honest. We have to look at our disappointments, own up to our ugly attitudes, and confront our selfishness. We also have to rid ourselves of the notion that the difficulties of marriage can be overcome if we simply pray harder or learn a few simple principles. Most of us have discovered that these “simple steps” work only on a superficial level. Why is this? Because there’s a deeper question that needs to be addressed beyond how we can “improve” our marriage: What if God didn’t design marriage to be “easier”? What if God had an end in mind that went beyond our happiness, our comfort, and our desire to be infatuated and happy as if the world were a perfect place?” (p. 101)
There is a lot in here that I like, but also perhaps an emphasis that strikes me as not quite right. Many, many people need to hear that marriage is not designed to make us happy, and that therefore we cannot walk out of it just because we stop being happy. And I think the idea that we can be sanctified through the trials of marriage is a valuable one. I had never heard it put that way before, and it certainly does throw a new light on things when one is having problems. It is no longer “What about me?” or even “How can I fix my marriage?” but “What is God trying to teach me?” or better yet “How is God trying to mold me?” Asking the right questions really changes our priorities and in this Thomas is right on target.
But he also at times makes marriage sound as if it is nothing but a crucible for refining us. I know from other places in the book that he views marriage as a wonderful thing. I don’t think he means to say it is nothing but trouble. But some passages might make one think that there are nothing but hard times ahead (Incidentally, the friend to whom I wish to give this book is beginning a second marriage, and I think for her the idea that marriage is hard is nothing new; what she needs to hear is how to think of the trials).
I also think we need to keep in mind that while God uses marriage to sanctify us, I don’t believe this is the primary purpose for which He created it. The BIble repeatedly uses marriage as an analogy for God’s relationship with the church, and, I think, it also mirrors the Son’s (submissive) relationship to the Father. Thomas does acknowledge this, that we show the world God through our marriages. He highlights this idea particularly when he is urging Christians to remain faithful through the hard times and not to contemplate divorce (p. 412). But I also think that this sometimes gets lost in his overall point, that marriage refines. My point here is that the primary purpose of marriage is a positive one, to mirror the divine relationships, and not a negative, or at least a hard, one. Some times, perhaps, we create our own realities; expectations become truth. And I worry that if we send young people in with the idea that marriage is all about trials that we will not only turn them off to the idea but that they will see trials where they need not because they have been programmed to expect them.
Thomas says other things that many people seem to need to hear. A big one would be that your spouse is not going to fulfil you. I have often thought that many romantic songs speak of one’s love as doing things only God can really do. I know one that even says (repeatedly) “you save me.” How is that for idolatry? We tend to get inundated with this idea that finding the right person will make us happy one and for all (happily ever after, you might say), and we end up placing far too much weight on our relationships and when we are not completely happy all the time, we blame our partner and flee the relationship only to see out a new one. Here is how Thomas puts it:
“We want to get the largest portion of our life’s fulfillment from our relationship with our spouse. That’s asking too much. Yes, without a doubt there should be moments of happiness, meaning, and a general sense of fulfillment. But my wife can’t be God, and I was created with a spirit that craves God. Anything less than God, and I’ll feel and ache.” (p. 310)
Now the idea that marriage in sanctifying may upset some who are called to singleness. Thomas does not neglect this objection. He sees his book, rather, as an antidote to the historic Christian view that he believes overvalued singleness as the only way to properly approach God (think monks and nuns). My own experience would be that the church tends to put such a high priority on marriage that single people come to feel like second class citizens. This book may not help them get past that idea. Thomas’ take, if I understand him rightly, is that singleness allows one more freedom to serve God but marriage is more personally sanctifying. This is because in marriage we are in very close relationships and in any such relationship one’s own faults are more likely to come to light. It is harder to hide them when another person knows us so well and so intimately. If Thomas is correct, and I think he is, a single person could still use this bit of insight for his own advantage by intentionally seeking out relationships that will help hold him similarly accountable.
On the flip side, one may ask how then married people can manage to juggle family and ministry. This is not an issue Thomas neglects. He says a number of times that one must not sacrifice one’s family or marriage for one’s ministry. I was happy to hear him say this, because I am often frustrated with how readily we accept the leadership of people whose public role seems to thrive while their families fall apart. At then end of the book, Thomas spends a chapter talking specifically about how couples can have ministries while married. He sees it as completely possible for each spouse to have their own ministry or way in which they serve while still maintaining their marriage. And then, he also sees the marriage itself as a kind of ministry in that it shows the world what love looks like. I wich he had spent a little more time throughout the book on this idea. As I said above, there are times reading this book in which one begins to think that marriage is nothing but refining fire, and I wish he would have talked more about the up-sides.
Overall, this was a good book and I do plan to give a copy to my friend (there are, helpfully, “gift” versions with added devotionals at the end though even the Kindle version I read has discussion questions at the end of each chapter). Thomas’ central point, about the sanctifying power of marriage, is something I think many of us need to hear and I have not heard it made so thoroughly before. The book itself often felt like a series of disjointed chapters. I did not feel like there was a natural progression of the argument through the book. Instead, it felt like each chapter kind of said the same things, maybe with only slightly different emphases. My last criticism is that he seems to spend a bit too long on, and maybe throw a bit too much emphasis on the role of . . . ahem . . . marital relations. But I will leave that bit for you all to read and see what you think of it.