There is a great need for the church to stop lying to people. That is a critical first step to resolving some of the marital illusions and the rising divorce rate even among Christians. Christian Sunday School instructions to girls—even if only implicit—go something like this: go to school, get a good education, get married, have children, and live happily ever after. You can do all things through Christ, and you will remain happily married until death separates you. We subconsciously assume there will be no physical or emotional pain because we will die at the same time as our spouses, spending our final moments holding hands together like the elderly couple in The Notebook. (By the way, I love that movie!)
The problem with the lessons, of course, is the formula rarely works. As Her.meneutics writers have noted, some women don't find their mate. Some wait longer to get married, while others don't get married at all (and yes, we need to remind those women that singleness, too, is a gift from the Lord). Some women can't have children. If the statistics are true, most women will become widows later in life and will deliberately choose to live the remainder of their lives happily ever after without a life partner.
I observe and regularly pray for the challenges that consistently threaten Christian marriages. Reflecting on Elisabeth K. Corcoran's recent article series entitled "The Unraveling of a Christian Marriage," I was brought to a place of sadness, compassion, and grace. I wonder, how many Christian marriages unravel before they even begin because the bride and groom have blindly bought into mixed messages? I think we need to revamp our lessons to include a bit more truth telling on these points.
For starters, we need to ask ourselves, "Why would anybody want to get married in the first place?" Most of the time, young people talk about how happy they are in their current relationships. Young engaged couples are often so happy. So the premise is that folks get married because they are happy and they expect to always remain happy together. It is on this principle that they seek to take their relationship to the next level. If they are wise, they will first seek premarital counseling.
Unfortunately, far too many churches lack the time, resources, or proper training to provide nouthetic counseling. Therefore, church leaders fail to ask an important question, and the subtitle of Gary Thomas's most popular book: "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?"
Thomas believes that God uses marriage to draw us closer to him and to grow our Christian character. Therein lies the truth: Marriage is a ministry that requires us to daily consider our decisions for holiness and happiness. Allow me be to very clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that we cannot, should not, or will not be happy in marriage. In seven years of marriage, I can attest that there is happiness. Marriage does have its benefits and blessings. What I am saying is that happiness is not an end to be sought in marriage. God has a bigger plan and higher purpose for marriage, and that is for our holiness. And the chief end of holiness is happiness, if we are happy to please to Lord.
If happiness is what a young single woman seeks in a groom, I would tell her not to get married. It would be better to gather a group of single girlfriends, buy some popcorn and sodas, and rent a PG-13 romantic comedy. In the movie, the knight in shining armor will come, a beautiful wedding will ensue, the movie will end, and then you can spend the rest of the night dreaming about them living happily ever after. Get the thrill over with; there is no need to destroy your life or the life of another with those unrealistic expectations.
Married people know that marriage can sometimes be difficult. Sometimes we get tired, sometimes we speak when we should be quiet or are silent when we should speak. At times there are irreconcilable differences and that's okay. There will be valleys. So what do you do when you get into those tight spots? Do you cry out to God? Do you feel safe to reach out to other married couples in your family, church, or friend circle for help—preferably those who have been married 35 years or more? (If you are married and don't have these people in your circle, you should. They are like life rafts when in troubled waters.) Or do you smile and keep going along, all the while pretending like you don't have problems?
Herein lies the problem: When we fail to tell people the truth, they become bitter and untrusting, so they don't reach out to us for help when they need it. After all, the church has lied to them, told them that they would be happy in marriage and that marriage would be easy. Therefore, they suffer in silence. They cheat. They separate from each other spiritually and emotionally. They consider divorce. Why? Because they don't believe you have the answer to help them through their problems.
Somewhere along the line, we have missed too many opportunities to tell them the truth, that marriage is a holistic earthly reflection of Christ's love for his church. Marriage is a union of sacrifice, the laying down of self to the glory of God and for the honor of his name. Marriage is a powerful witness of what Jesus has done and continues to do for us. It transforms us into his very image.
In what other relationship can you continuously choose to love another? Where else can you offer forgiveness for someone who sees you for who you are, denies you, crucifies you, and then gives you the opportunity to say, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)"? The truth is: the pursuit of marriage produces holiness in our lives. Holy living should bring our hearts joy and make us happy. This is truth, and we need to start telling it.
Natasha S. Robinson serves as codirector of the Women's Mentoring Ministry at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the founder, writer, and speaker for His Glory On Earth Ministries, a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and a full-time student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Connect with Natasha through her blog, A Sista's Journey or Twitter @asistasjourney.