Solicited or not, many engaged or young married couples hear at some point a variation of the phrase, “the secret to a happy marriage is…” followed by any number of possible answers from those older couples in their lives. Some answers are obviously better than others as they are evaluated in light of God’s Word, and there is no doubt all offerings are well intended. One of my favorite exercises in marriage counseling is to ask couples what they themselves would offer as “the secret.” Their responses typically yield some valuable insights to their own hearts’ values. This conversation also gives me the opportunity to bring some clarity and instruction from God’s Word into the relationship.
Holy vs. Happy
When couples seek counseling, they often assume the common objective I have for them is a happy marriage, a good marriage. While this is not a sinful objective and they are not necessarily wrong to assume this, the question we must ask from the Bible is whether or not this is God’s objective for their marriage. I have found Romans 8:28-29 to be immensely helpful in clarifying the right objective, as clearly within these verses we find God’s definition of good—not only for marriage, but for all of life for every believer. In this passage, Paul defines good as our holiness, conformity to the image of Christ. The first question couples must ask themselves is whose definition of good they are using for their lives and their marriage. This can be incredibly impactful, because often the truthful answer is their own definition, not the Lord’s. Helping them to understand that our loving Father has in mind for them a lifelong process, their sanctification, reframes every aspect of the relationship, for certainly the “all things” of Romans 8:28 includes their spouse. God’s objective of Christlikeness is far greater than even the noblest worldly pursuits they may have set for themselves. When we are able to move from talking about the secret to a happy marriage to talking about the secret to a holy marriage, real progress is being made.
Pride vs. Humility
We must turn to God’s Word to understand what it looks like practically to seek a holy marriage. One passage that helps us do just that is Philippians 2:3-4. Marriage as a sanctifying relationship does more to reveal individual pride than virtually anything else in life. The lowliness of mind to which we are all commanded in these verses is perhaps most immediately given the opportunity for expression when we look to our spouse. Particularly for couples in crisis, it becomes clear that at some point they began to forget that the most significant “other” they are to esteem in their lives is their spouse. The key is helping the couple move from humility as an abstract principle to concrete action. A favorite example of mine is to point out that all but the most cowardly husband, when given the opportunity, would lay down his life willingly for his wife. When this opportunity comes in the form of taking out the trash at the wife’s request when it is late at night in sub-zero weather because the next day is garbage day however, reluctance creeps in. The call from Philippians 2:3-4 is to exercise humility towards one another even in the humblest of circumstances. If there be any resistance to this, or skepticism as to its direct relationship to Christlikeness, the beautiful illustration of this principle at work is in verses 5-11, as we see this lowliness of mind fully displayed in our Savior. For Him, the embrace of humility was quite literally decades of obedience to the will of His Father—the overwhelming majority of which we do not even have recorded for us in Scripture. If the Son of God would walk this path, giving us a living example, before enabling us to do the same through His sacrificial death, how could we be unwilling to follow?
If it has not become clear already, my answer to the question of the “secret to a happy marriage” is humility. To the extent couples will focus on being humble towards one another, other important elements such as love, communication, and patience will inevitably follow. This is not my promise, it is the promise of the God who guarantees the good works He has begun in us will be faithfully completed (Philippians 1:6). His work in us, and the hope for any married couple, is that we will be like Christ when He is done with us. Better than any cultural conception of happiness, this is the beauty of a holy marriage.