How to Stay Married: Hostility and Holiness

Marriage is meant to change you. If you spend 50 years with someone, sharing the most intimate aspects of your life with them and you don't change at all then you're doing it wrong. From a Christian perspective we believe that marriage is a means of sanctification, or a vehicle God uses to change us into the image and likeness of Jesus. Yes, it’s there to bless you and bring joy to you. But for a follower of Jesus one of God’s greatest goals is that through the ups and the downs, the arguments and apologies he would do far more than make you happy. He’d use it all to shave off your rough edges, mature your heart and make you holy.

The reason this is so important is because when you fail to understand this purpose in marriage (helping broken people become holier people) two things happen: first, you set the expectations for marriage way too high, thinking you’ll marry someone mostly perfect and only mildly messed. And second, once you’re married—and the masks are off—you hit a season of deep disappointment, thinking you’ve made a mistake or bought a lemon.

I see it all the time. Newlywed couples bury each other under impossible expectations. “She’s gonna be super low maintenance, love having sex and be perpetually cute.” “He’s going to stay up late and talk, understand if I’m not into it and hold my hair if I have to puke.” Fast-forward two years and while they love each other they are deeply disillusioned due to the selfishness they’ve discovered in one another and the amount of change it will take to make it work. But on the flip-side if you grasp that marriage is two broken people working to become holy, things are different. You must enter it with the solid expectation of discovering deep imperfection. Likewise, if marriage is a playground for us to become like Jesus, I should not be surprised to find out all of the reasons why my spouse needs Jesus.

If marriage is a playground for us to become like Jesus, I should not be surprised to find out all of the reasons why my spouse needs Jesus.

Now, I say that with a few words of caution. This doesn’t mean that any issue you discover in a spouse is something you’ll have to love them through. In cases of abuse or infidelity the best way to love them may be to put significant boundaries into the relationship and in some cases to leave them so they can no longer sin against you. Likewise this doesn’t mean you get to purposely marry someone with serious problems or who you know is not the same page with you on some serious things, seeing them as a "project." It’s one thing to learn that she’s a bit of a spender. It’s another to marry someone knowing they have 85K in credit card debt. It’s one thing to discover his faith is not as mature as yours and another to go into it knowing he’s never once come to church with you. This is why you must listen to the words of family and friends as you approach the altar. They can often see the huge problems that will hit you later that, in the moment because of infatuation, you’re blind to.

Now, once we have all that straight (that we shouldn’t be surprised by the sin of our spouse and that God wants to use us to slowly but sure change them) then we’re on the right track. But now the question becomes this. How in the world does one live this out? How do I help change them? Let's look at Ephesians chapter 5: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27

Paul says, “The model for marriage is Jesus. Jesus gave his life to make it possible for us to become who the Father wanted us to be: forgiven. And we are. In the same way a husband looks at his wife and says, “I will make it my life’s goal—as I discover her problems and am awakened to her sins—to help her become the woman God wants her to be."

"The woman God wants her to be." That’s an important distinction. Often in marriage we’re all about fixing our partner but we have the wrong goal in mind. We want to make her into the woman we want her to be which leads to constant nagging. Or you’ll spend the whole marriage saying "yes" and letting him become the man he wants to be, which is enabling. But sanctification is different. It’s about me, pursuing my spouse with God's purposes and goals in mind.

It’s about me, pursuing my spouse with God's purposes and goals in mind.

This might be a good spot to stop and reflect. If you’re married, wrestle with this: Do you tend to be a nagger, an enabler, or a sanctifier? Do you tend to bark at them about how they fail to meet your vision for a spouse and demand that they become more like your dad, less like they’re mom or just like Tim Tebow? Or are you a "yes" girl, a "yes" guy? Do you wrongly mistake loving someone for always giving in to someone? Or do you see who God wants them to be and slowly encourage them toward it?

You might not know this, but God has great things in mind for your mate! Ladies when it comes to your husbands, God’s goal is that through the ups and downs of marriage you might help him become the respectable, Christ-focused head of your home. And men, God’s goal is that as you see your wife’s struggles you might love her through it and encourage her to become the lovable, Christ-focused, heart of your home. Men, God is slowly transforming you—among other things—into a sacrificial protector, a proactive provider and an accountable leader who is worthy of praise. And ladies, God is molding and shaping you—among other things—into a woman who is full of truth that convicts, strength that soothes, and encouragement that empowers.

And no matter how awesome you think you are at these things you will not continue to grow more toward these ideals unless there are people in your life who need to receive them from you for their own good and demand them of you for your growth. Ladies, he needs to learn through you that he’s tends to "check out" of the relationship. Guys, she needs to learn through you that when she uses the silent treatment it makes others feel small and makes her look like a jerk. Ladies, he needs to learn through you that a real man plays on the floor with his son rather than retreat to the computer 5 minutes after dinner. You need each other to sanctify each other.

And you say, “Matt does that mean there will be conflict in my home?” Yes. “Does this mean my ego will get bruised and my heart will get broken?” Yes. "Are you saying that I’m supposed to let her learn who she should become by making mistakes on me and then giving her encouragement and feedback?" Yes. And again, if you go into marriage knowing that, giving one another permission for that, you won’t disappointed when married life requires such conversations and conflict.

When I was a kid my grandfather used to polish stones. He’d take these jagged rocks and put them through this long process where they became beautiful and smooth and something you wanted to carry in your pocket. And one day, I asked him, “How do you do this?” And so he showed me. He took a handful of rough rocks, a little bit of chemicals and dropped it all in a container—a tumbler it was called—and he turned it on.

All you could hear was the hum of the motor and the sound of rocks rubbing up against each other. I asked him, “What’s happening?” My grandfather looked at me and said, “They’re knocking the edges off each other. Over time they’ll become beautiful.” That, to me, is a perfect description of my and Lisa’s first few years. That, to me, is a perfect description of sanctification in marriage.

Hebrews 10:24 says that Christians should, “Provoke each other toward love and goodness.” Hebrews 3:13 calls us to "Exhort each other daily, lest you become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Life together as fellow Christians, but particularly as Christian husbands and wives, is a life of rough edges being refined and beauty being brought out by two people coming into constant, purposeful collision. We need to knock against each other, knowing that over time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will bring out the best out in each another.

Marriage is meant to change you. However, it is not a means for me to change my spouse into my vision of the perfect mate, but into God's vision of a Christlike one. Therefore do not be surprised by the depth of their sin or their dire need for your patient truth and constant encouragement. You are stones in a tumbler. In the midst of the friction seek God's will, pray for His Spirit, and know that over time and through the pain more beautiful people will emerge.