In her book, Bound and Determined: Christian Men and Women in Partnership, Jeanene Reese observed that happiness is a bit of a fixation for Western culture. Many believe that marriage is for making people happy, and its not just marriages.
Most parents too, at least in North America, if they were asked what it was they wished for their kids, they would say, “I just want my kids to be happy.” (Aside: If this topic is more interesting to you go here and read Dr. Robin Berman’s article on “Unhappiness: The Key to raising Happy Children”)
Now Jeanene doesn’t want her kids to be unhappy (neither you nor I do either) but she says that in marriage, happiness is the wrong target to aim for, both for your kids and for your marriage. Happiness is too dependent on our emotional state, and our circumstances, both things we cannot change nor control.
Pinterest is full of little projects that celebrate the “happiness of marriage.” But what if you follow the recipe shown here and find that it isn’t all that happy? What if marriage is instead frustrating and difficult, even when you follow the recipe?
Marriage was created by God and one of the things marriage does is help us practice loving someone the way God loves people. Unlike people, God loves the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. God never tires of loving. On the other hand, remember the way you loved your spouse back at the beginning of your marriage. Everything they did just tickled and delighted you. The cute way they sneezed, the way they folded towels, the way they left the seat up / or down, the way they left the dirty dishes on the counter even though the dish washer is empty and ready to be loaded again. How about now? Not so much.
The truth is that humans aren’t natural lovers. We learn to love from the example that God gives us and marriage is a place where we can safely learn to get better at it. Jeanene reminds us,
Do [you] always feel the love? No. Love is not an emotional response but an ongoing choice. There are times, however when I don’t even have the will to choose to love. Jack (her husband) and I, like all married couples, have experienced our share of hard times. I used to think that if things got difficult enough that I couldn’t love with my love, I could always love with God’s. Then I discovered that I cannot love with God’s love unless I am fully surrendered to it (p. 141).
What Jeanene means here is that I need God to be at the center of my marriage and I need to love in the same way I am loved by God. When I can accept that unconditional love that God has for me, I can then be a conduit of God’s love to others. If I don’t accept that God loves me and is working a miracle in my heart, then I only have a limited supply of love to give. When that runs out, I will naturally switch gears and begin my games of manipulation and distrust (something humans are naturally good at).
There are times when I am not feeling it and on those days love is a choice. Marriage is tough and sometimes I am so fed up and frustrated that I don’t want to choose love anymore. Then I need to trust God to fill my choices with his love. (There is, of course, no place for abusive or destructive behaviours in a marriage relationship. Abuse is not something that is tolerated or worked through. This deserves its own blog article sometime, but I feel compelled at this point to mention that I am not suggesting that God will help you love an actively abusive spouse until they stop abusing you some time down the road. Abusive behaviours are unacceptable and need to be addressed as the sin that they are. You will need to seek the help of a counselor and in some cases you may need to involve the police.)
Marriage was invented by God as a way to train our hearts to love like God loves. Theologians call this “progressive sanctification.” It is the gradual process where you learn to forgive and learn to love in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before. You are being transformed into the image of God. You are becoming holy, in one of the ways that God is holy. It is a difficult, and yet beautiful process, and it starts with submitting to the love that God has for you, and then embodying it for someone else.
Marriage was designed by God to produce holiness, not happiness.