Canadian layperson Aaron Armstrong has just begun a 3-part blog series on common misconceptions about marriage. As he puts it: 'we all bring into our marriages a ton of baggage, but where our baggage gets dangerous is when it's founded on the lies that our culture and sinful natures tell us.' His post on the first lie concerns how the Western perspective is so typically centered around the self and one's own happiness.
A primary problem in marriage, he argues, is that we trust our feelings too much. Chalk it up to the continuing influence of 19th-century Romanticism; or maybe chalk it up to 21st-century popular postmodernism. Either way, our culture — and Christians along with it, unfortunately — seems to be deluded into thinking that our emotional responses are accurate and trustworthy guides of truth, rather than something equally corrupted by the fall and naturally inclined towards the exaltation of self.1
Stemming from the theme that the purpose of marriage is to bear witness to the gospel — both one spouse to another, and to the world around — he argues:
We think that our feelings offer a sound measure for whether or not marriage is 'working' and if we're not happy all the time, then it must be broken. . . . What we fail to recognize is the truth of Jeremiah 17:9, that 'the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?' The solution to the happiness problem in marriage isn’t to find someone new to be happy with, despite what our hearts might tell us. We don’t need new circumstances either. We need a heart change. This is what the gospel offers us. When Christ is the center of our marriage, and his relationship with the Church is our model, then it changes how we approach our desire for happiness. Instead of putting our own needs first, we consider the interests of others more significant than our own.
This, in itself, is a quite difficult challenge. On occasion we can bear through the things which challenge our happiness personally, such as difficulties at work or a friend letting us down. But when what challenges our happiness is the very thing that our culture says should most maximize our happiness — romantic love — that can be a real struggle.
Equally difficult is reconciling this principle to the pre-marriage phases of romance. If marriage isn't about my own happiness, what does that mean for how I date? Am I incorrectly approach relationships in a way that implicitly asserts that marriage is all about my happiness? And if so, what does correction look like? Certainly, dating isn't marriage, and so different rules will naturally apply (e.g., breaking up with someone is not comparable to divorce). But how we view marriage unavoidably affects how we approach marriage; and how we approach marriage unavoidably affects how our marriage plays out.
Does this mean that one should be fully satisfied in an unhappy marriage or that it is wrong to want happiness? No, I don't think that is what Armstrong is saying. Rather, he is suggesting that happiness is not the only gauge of a good marriage. Happiness is a gift from God and so we should seek out joy and thank him for it. After all, the chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy him forever. And so an unhappy marriage is imperfect. But imperfect only means there is room for sanctification, repentance, and forgiveness.
Part of the issue that Armstrong is driving at is that people are not attracted to holiness. To someone that seeks after God first, there should be nothing that brings more happiness — perhaps 'joy' is a more proper description — than holiness. The happiness in holiness is the most complete form of happiness; it is able to overcome the pains of holiness in our fallen world. It is when we seek happiness in other things that we run into trouble. As Paul writes, 'I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him'.
If happiness, apart from holiness, becomes your primary goal in marriage, then you'll miss out on its real purpose: to glorify God by bearing witness to the gospel. Not only that, but you'll miss out on opportunities that God has given to exercise unconditional and costly love: to love even when your emotions say you needn't or shouldn't. Part of showing that unconditional love is to pursue the godliness — and yes, the happiness — of your spouse. This then leads into Armstrong's second lie: Marriage is supposed to be easy.
As hinted at above, Armstrong's response to these difficult periods — to which he can bear witness personally in his own marriage — is the gospel. The gospel is love. The gospel is forgiveness. The gospel is sometimes really, really hard to preach to oneself, much less one's spouse. But 'the gospel is bigger than the lie of happiness.'
1This touches on something I've been thinking about a lot lately. As much as I applaud Reformed theology for robustly arguing that the 'objective' intellect has been unavoidably corrupted by the fall, I think there has been too little development of how 'subjective' emotions, affections, and 'one's gut' are likewise corrupted. Van Til, Clark, et al. were a literal godsend, when modernism was at its height, in vigorously developing a Reformed theology of knowledge and intellect in the early 20th century. The church in our postmodern 21st century desperately needs to apply this theology to the emotional faculties.