“Marriage is a beautiful thing that only reaches what it was designed to be through the methodology of a painful process” (What Did You Expect, 52).
Love is the end which God produces through the power of the Spirit: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). “7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
However, by nature, we are self-centered. The sin we possess in our flesh and the sin we produce in our lives merely build upon and increase the intensity and depth of our sinful selfishness. This selfish runs directly counter to the demands of marriage:
“What all this means is that sin is essentially antisocial. We don’t really have time to love our spouse, in the purest sense of what that means, because we are too busy loving ourselves. We actually want our spouse to love us as much as we love ourselves, and if our spouse is willing to do that, we will have a wonderful relationship” (What Did You Expect? 47).
[I remember reading of a poet who fell in love with one woman while he was already married to another. When he informed the first wife, he could not understand why she was not happy. After all, if she wanted him to be “happy” wouldn’t she be pleased with his new passion?]
Yet, our new life in Christ requires us to live outside ourselves, for love entails seeking a good which does not necessarily mean my person and private privilege:
1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,
2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:1-4
In marriage, this demand is heightened: the wife and the husband are required to sacrifice their own personal concern and give up their immediate desires in favor of the good of another. The submission of the wife, the self-sacrifice of the husband are demands of love of the most extraordinary sort. I think we do a disservice to Christian marriage when we pretend the goal of marriage can be obtained by some sort of effort and education. The demands of marriage are supernatural.
You see, the demand of marriage is a demand that requires extraordinary holiness, extraordinary mortification of sin. It is not merely a matter of communication skill, it is a matter of death to self, death to sin and life to God in Jesus Christ. Paul makes plain that the law cannot kill sin — this is a work of the Spirit:
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:12-13.
Marriage is a blessing to us in its very difficulty. The success of marriage — true success — requires holiness, it requires walking in the Spirit (consider it thus: what would marriage be like if you were to walk in the Spirit and if your spouse were to walk in the Spirit? What would be the marriage where the fruit of the Spirit did abound? Galatians 5:22-24).
The difficulty of marriage gives rise to the incessant need to seek holiness. “[T]he trouble you that you face in marriage is not an evidence of the failure of grace. No, those troubles are grace. They are the tools God uses to pry us out of the stultifying confines of the kingdom of self so that we can be free to luxuriate in the big-sky glories of the kingdom of God” (What Did You Expect? 52).
Thus, marriage is merely a particular instance of the common work of God to use trials as a means to produce conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29). Twice in the NT, we are told trials are a basis for joy because they are means of transformation (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:2-4).
Marriage inherently presents the raw materials for trial: the close relationship, the conflicted expectations, the differences between the sexes, the curse of Genesis 3:16, our own sin, the bad examples from which to “learn” — such things makes trial in marriage almost unavoidable.
God, then, in his goodness presents only one means of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13): we must learn to love our neighbor — and more so, our brother or sister (for my wife will be my sister in Christ long after death ends our marriage). I must learn to sacrifice my self, my pride and live for the good of another (and must do likewise). In so doing, obedience of faith creates a perfect correspondence between what I must do in obedience to God and what will produce the greatest happiness within my marriage.
The unhappiness of marriage comes from seeking to force another to become what I want. The joy of marriage comes from the mutual self-sacrifice of love.