The FUN Marriage Series: Do We Take Marriage too Seriously?

by | Mar 16, 2021 | Marriage | 26 comments

Suffering in Marriage Doesn't Make You Holier

Is marriage primarily about teaching you to be selfless and to grow like Jesus through suffering?

I hope you would all say a resounding, “no!”

We know that God thinks of marriage for our benefit–our emotional benefit, not just our character-transforming benefit. He said that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. He said it was very good once we were together. God created woman as a “helper”–which doesn’t mean subordinate it all, but rather a connotation of strength that was perfectly suitable for him.

Marriage is about not being alone, about having someone that you are suited for to walk through life with, to support you and be your shield (the word “helper” had a military meaning, as well, where God was often called our help and shield).

Marriage is something good!

Yes, God desires us to be transformed into His likeness, which involves growing our character.

But this month we’re looking at how sometimes the emphasis is misplaced. It isn’t that God deliberately wants us to suffer in order to grow–as if all God cares about is whether we are holy.

It is that God wants wholeness for us–He wants all of Jesus for us. And Jesus is not only about holiness. He is also about emotional and spiritual and relational health. He is about growing into all fullness and wholeness. And that means that we should not elevate suffering above everything else.

God uses suffering to draw us to Him, yes. But God also uses everything else, too. We are not holier if we suffer, and God does not want us to have terrible marriages in order to give us opportunities to be more and more selfless.

And yet that is often how marriage advice sounds.

I wrote about this last week briefly on the blog, and then on Facebook, and we had huge engagement on Facebook about this. So many people said some actually quite brilliant things, and I’d like to leave some of those comments here because you said it better than I could have myself:

Suffering actually is much harder on me spiritually

Many women wrote that they think they were learning the wrong lessons from suffering, and that suffering does not automatically make you closer to God. One woman wrote:

The difficulties in my marriage have not been a source of growing closer to Christ or the will of God. They have been the greatest challenges to my spirit. It pains me to wonder if God’s intended plan for me was to learn to set boundaries that would have ultimately led to not getting married to someone with that kind of temper, and if I would have developed as a better Christian had a taken a braver route back when I was young and idealistic.
Now I wonder constantly what is the best way forward.
Perhaps it is in overcoming such challenges the growth comes, but I no longer have faith that I can just keep throwing positivity and support at my partner to encourage him to be the person he’s capable of, or that we just need to keep trying to understand each other. It’s been 17 years and I’m tired. I’m anxious, increasingly cynical, defensive, and most horrifying of all, bitter. I still don’t understand the choices I made to accept relentless bullying, and that terrifies me in a way I can only imagine self-harmers feel when they look at their past destructive behavior and can’t explain it. But I don’t feel secure enough in my current situation to forgive myself or my husband for the past, because I’m terrified that will lead to an erosion of my long, staggering climb out of outright abuse as I loosen my grip on the negative but useful emotions that help me hold on to my sense of self and knowledge of what a relationship should be— or a least, the bare minimum of how people should treat each other.
God helped us every step of the way, I have no doubt. There was nothing inevitable about turning things around from the point we reached, let alone all the progress we’ve made. And he continues to steer me tenderly between the cliffs of Numbness and Hysteria day by day. Yet, I feel so lost and directionless, because I don’t even see a path forward to a level where we can thrive. His mental health has improved, but plateaued, and mine has slowly deteriorated, and I’m always left guessing what eggshells each new day will bring.

How can we be refined if we’re constantly being put down? A marriage should refine you, yes, but trials have ending dates. Being miserable for the entirety of your adult life ≠ sanctification. It wears you down so that you can’t function, which then leads to you just can’t serve.

Why the focus on suffering in the first place? How do we keep it in perspective?

What if by simply enduring suffering we’re not learning the right lessons, because what God wants from our suffering is to learn problem-solving! He wants us to do something about what is wrong! Some people had some interesting thoughts!

To some extent, I feel like it is spiritual bypassing. Sometimes it feels easier to just “submit to suffering” instead of **doing the work** to make things better. I guess I just wish Christians were FAR more active in alleviating suffering, especially when it comes to systemic oppression of women and minorities. Not to get too heavy here, but I guess I see a lot of misogyny here when it comes to applying all of this to marriage and other hierarchies. You have to teach people with less power to accept their suffering without a fight in order to maintain power. What would the church look like if we rose up and said NO MORE to these kinds of unnecessary suffering?

I have felt so frustrated with this false dichotomy. Holiness and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Not to mention, everything in life is for sanctification – but we don’t talk about ANY other area of life like this. When you’re frustrated with your job, nobody says “Well, work is primarily for your sanctification. It’s to make you holy, not happy.” No, they brainstorm with you about what needs to CHANGE. This teaching prevents problem solving, normalizes unhealthy marriages, and is one of the reasons I was scared to get married. It turns out being married is the happiest thing that ever happened to me. But that is NOT what I was expecting going in. It’s sad to me that the church isn’t providing a more compelling view of marriage than “suffering in marriage will make you a better person.”

There are always ways to humble yourself and serve your spouse. To be less selfish. To take everything to the Lord first. But you don’t have to have an unloving, uncaring spouse to do those things. You could have a spouse who is humbling himself and serving you right back. You could be serving others together. Giving of yourselves together. Suffering through a marriage isn’t a sign of sainthood it’s a sign you need help.

I don’t think suffering makes some people “holier” than others. Some of my good friends have been through some very tough situations, but I don’t think that makes me less holy than them somehow. To imply that I’m “less holy” or “not as close to God” because I haven’t suffered as much is discouraging. And that’s not even touching on how that view impacts women in abusive marriages!

What happens when we see suffering as good, as the aim?

To me, the big problem comes down to expectations, as Shari sums up perfectly:

Something I heard repeated for over a decade: since James said that we are to count it all joy when we face diverse trials, a wife should actually rejoice that her husband is misusing/abusing/causing her to suffer, because he is being used by God to make her more Christ-like (Christ likeness being defined as “emptying himself, becoming nothing”). Do you need to read that again? Wives have been told to rejoice that the man who is supposed to love, cherish, honor, and protect them is doing the OPPOSITE. HOW does that speak to the value of a woman? That betrayed wife needs to hear, “he has broken his marriage covenant with you, and that is not a reason to rejoice”!

I think this narrative that marriage is supposed to be hard because it sanctifies us is *really* toxic and dangerous.
How many people stay in abusive marriages because they have been taught that marriage is supposed to be hard? If you go in with the expectation of having to experience hardship, how are you supposed to know what isn’t okay?

Maybe it would be helpful if the people who say “marriage is hard”, could define what they mean by hard. People in destructive marriages live hard, and just think they have to live with it because everyone says marriage is hard! But defining terms would enable them to recognize that their hard is not healthy hard.
For example, I believe healthy hard would be both partners laying aside their preferences in order to pursue and love the other person. Unhealthy hard would be one spouse becoming nothing in the relationship so that her husband can suck all the joy out of her. Both are hard, and the one living the unhealthy version will often just continue in it because she doesn’t realize that there are two kinds.

A soldier is arrested and becomes a POW in a terrible military prison of the enemy. He goes through abuses of every nature, misses his family and friends, and it is his faith that sees him through. Through his suffering he draws closer to Jesus.
Then, his allies find and capture the prison and discover him in his cell. They open the door and welcome him to freedom, but he insists on staying because he’s a more sanctified Christian as a tortured POW than as a free man.
It sounds absurd because it is. So, why do Christians think abused women have to stay in abusive marriages? They are no longer in “The Lord’s Army” when with an abusive man. Instead, they are prisoners of the enemy. It isn’t a marriage, anymore, when one spouse abuses the other.

You don’t have to be miserable to have marriage grow you.

You can learn to be selfless on a day to day basis. You can choose to think of your spouse first. You can train yourself to be loving. You can immerse yourself in Scripture and in jesus and get to know Him better, so that He flows out of every pore of you.

And you can do this even when your life is not characterized by suffering.

I have felt the closest to God and the most sure of my faith in times of great suffering. But I have grown the most when life is relatively calm and I have time and breathing room to think and focus on healthy change.

Marriage should not be a great time of trial for you. On the contrary, God made marriage to be something that is joyful, that helps you face life together with someone you love. Maybe if that were the expectation–that marriage would grow you in a good way because you could go from strength to strength–we’d have more joy in marriage, and less suffering.

What do you think?

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Suffering in Marriage Doesn't Make You Holier

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Laurel B

    Yes, yes, yes! I was also rather nervous about getting married because of these kind of messages. Imagine my surprise when I married my best friend and discovered that married life was full of so much joy, and (for us) very little struggle. It was easy and fun to be married, and I had not expected that at all. Now, looking back, I think my expectations were rather sad and a bit ridiculous. Sure, marriage has moments of self-denial, but if you each sacrifice for each other, it creates a cycle where it’s reasonably easy to give
    things up here and there for the one you love. I do think we need to normalize healthy marriages and not unhealthy ones, and I’ve been trying to change the conversation in my church. I can’t tell you how many of my single friends have expressed relief & hope when they hear that I have a wonderful marriage. This negative message about marriage hurts singles, too.

    • tjajka

      I think that this positive cycle is what Paul has in mind when he talks about submitting to each other. Love creates the joy of giving, joy reinforces love and so on.
      Demands, anger and disappointment create a different, negative cycle that reinforces power (or powerlessness if you are at the other end) instead of love. Nowhere in the Bible is that how God is portrayed. He is portrayed as longing rather than demanding. That is also how Paul sees it when he continuously talks about God’s love before he urges people to be like God.
      So, spot on! Marriage is meant primarily for joy, not suffering.

  2. Harriet Vane

    “ And that means that we should elevate suffering above everything else.”
    I think you left out the word “not”. 🙂

      • Liesl

        I grew up in the church believing that marriage was mostly hard work. My parents had a hard marriage and they heard the same teachings, so my mom never considered divorce. As a young adult I was determined not to get married. How pleasantly surprised I was when I did get married about how sweet life can be! My husband is not as religious as me and actually believes my opinion is equal to his.

    • Bethany

      You got a lowercase Jesus in the third paragraph from the end, too.
      This is an excellent article and point by the way. And honestly, living in intense community with another person like you do in marriage forces growth – you don’t have to suffer to do it. My life being married is in some ways harder, but it’s also way more fun, more connected, and more emotionally present. I tend towards emotional disconnect, and having a GOOD marriage has made that disconnect difficult to maintain. It’s really the goodness of my marriage that has helped me grow, now that I’m thinking on it.

      • Lynnica

        Yes! So much yes!

    • Anna

      My mom drilled this message to me. I was her little marriage counsellor that she dumped all her problems on (INCLUDING their sex life).
      I was bracing for a hard marriage with screaming matches and silent treatments.
      But I thank GOD, I found a healthy, loving, fun, mature man.
      Approaching 12 years of marriage this year and honestly I can count the times we were at odds. We disagree but we resolve with respect and don’t hold grudges. We are each quick to apologize and acknowledge our faults. (My husband first modelled this to me, and I’ve done a LOT of healing to improve my instinct to be defensive.)
      It was honestly shocking to me for a long time that a healthy dynamic existed.

  3. Nathan

    Jesus Himself said that in this world we would have trouble, but that’s not the same thing as deliberately inviting suffering into our lives or suffering to no greater purpose.
    If we suffer to promote a greater good, that’s one thing. But staying in an abusive marriage doesn’t build character. It only enables the abuser, as others have already said.

    • Estelle

      Not to mention normalising children to abusive and / or unhealthy ways of relating. And the longer one stays in a toxic marriage, the more damage that is done.

  4. Anne Elliot

    I have heard this message in different settings for different experiences. I think how amazing it is that Shelia and her team keep calling out what is wrong or not quite Biblical among Christian circles, and how it clears up what i have felt is a problem. I have been thinking about this for a while, but have not had language to put around it. For instance, my mom, made terrible choices (one being the man she married) and then suffered for them. But then she would make her suffering something to hold up as an example for us kids. Look at my good attitude through all this; God will get us through this, etc. As a kid, I thought what she said was true. And she would even say stuff like, other Christians who haven’t suffered like me aren’t “real” Christians. I even think she said stuff like, “they can’t know Jesus like I know Him, because I’ve suffered more.” As an adult, I can see she suffered because of HER poor choices. And really her “suffering” didn’t make her a better Christian; she just became more controlling and manipulative. I think part of that “suffering” makes you more holy/better than others also comes from Elizabeth Elliot’s books. “A Path through Suffering” and even “Hinds Feet in High Places” GLORIFY suffering. And I’m not saying that if you do and are suffering, you can’t glorify God or lean on Him and grow. But I think sometimes we glorify suffering ABOVE God Himself. Or, like my mom, she can’t even recognize that the consequences of her poor desicions are WHY she is suffering. Maybe God never planned for her to suffer, but she made the wrong choice in the man she married, and hurt because of it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Really interesting, Anne! I think you’re on to something. I remember reading some of Elisabeth Elliot’s books and getting similar feelings as well.
      Sometimes suffering is a part of life, and some of us will have to suffer for our faith in ways that are unfathomable to most. But that doesn’t mean that suffering is something to pursue. On the contrary, when we’re not suffering, when we’re in a good marriage that gives us strength and energy, we are often better equipped to carry out the plans that God has for us. I think times without suffering are times to be deeply grateful for, and times that we should focus on our calling. And then, when suffering comes, we may have to retreat a bit to focus on ourselves, and that’s okay, too.
      But, yes, let’s certainly not CAUSE our own suffering. And let’s realize that if we have, it may be time to learn different life skills so that we can stop it!

    • Anon

      I think people who have drawn closer to God as a result of suffering don’t tend to ‘brandish’ their suffering in your face anyway. I know people who have suffered terrible things, but you wouldn’t know that unless you’d known them at the time they were going through those experiences. If someone’s sharing about their own trials, these people encourage the person to look to God – they never say ‘oh, I’ve suffered much worse than that when…’
      And I remember reading an account of someone at a women’s conference where they were asked to split into pairs to discuss the topic of suffering. She admitted to being very arrogant when she saw who she’d been paired with as she thought this lady had never known any real suffering…and then she found out that she was Nate Saint’s widow (one of those killed alongside Elisabeth Elliot’s husband).
      If our suffering has truly caused us to draw closer to God and become more Christlike, then the last thing we’re going to do is to go round saying how much more holy we are because of our suffering!

  5. Budgie

    I will first of all say I’m not married, contently single, but open to the possibility.
    I think we need balance on this topic and some of us are more prone to one ditch than the other.
    When I hear the statement “God made marriage to make you holy, not happy”, I see it more as a check on the instinctive selfishness and unrealistic expectations that we may bring to marriage. Women are especially prone to romantic fantasies that are not realistic. Over time some decide to throw away a good relationship just because it doesn’t meet the “soul-mate” picture they have. We marry humans with flaws and quirks and if you are too focused on being happy, you can miss what you do have. When I hear about marriages that fall apart where the parties say they are still friends but don’t love each other anymore, I think they may need the happiness isn’t all there is. Of course, this is hopefully not the case in most Christian marriages.
    Relationships also have the ability to mold us into more Christlike people because they force us to live out the selfless life modeled by Jesus. As a person who lives alone, I’ve sometimes thought that I was more sanctified than I am just because I don’t have another person to potentially clash with and indicate that I need to be less selfish. But all relationships have this power, not just marriage. Relationships with siblings, parents, children, friends and so on all help us grow to be self-sacrificing people.
    That being said, I recognize that the “marriage is meant to make you holy” statement can be used in wrong ways, especially when relationships are not healthy or even abusive. So we have to be careful.
    I prefer to use statements like this to help me grow personally and don’t think it’s appropriate to use them as clubs for people in other situations. I do personally feel I have to be careful because it’s easy to use the happiness principle to justify all sorts of selfish behavior, and not just in marriage.

    • Wild Honey

      I agree about “balance.”
      Early in our marriage, we did a course from Andy Stanley called “iMarriage,”’where he said it’s good to have desires, but not good to have expectations in marriage. He would use examples like, it’s good to desire a 3- bedroom house with a picket fence, but don’t turn it into an expectation because that’s selfish.
      When I internalized, however, was that it was not ok to expect my husband to pitch in with chores (we spent our child-free years BOTH working full-time), spend quality time on things other than TV, make and stick to a budget, etc. Those were desires, and it was selfish to turn those into expectations, so I thought.
      The first year of our first child’s life was h***. I finally started putting my foot down and having reasonable expectations of him. It’s been a slow process (coming across THLV two years ago has certainly sped things up!), but our relationship is in SUCH a better place now.
      As is my relationships with Jesus, because now I have space to breath and actually HAVE a relationship that is more than just prayers of desperation.

    • Maria Bernadette

      It’s true that marriage isn’t supposed to MAKE YOU HAPPY. But that does not mean that we are not supposed to BE HAPPY in marriage.
      “Marriage is to make you happy, not holy” should never be said to someone in an abusive marriage. Based on your comment, I would be surprised if you disagreed with that.
      Saying it to someone who complains that their spouse isn’t waiting on them hand and foot, that could do some good. But there might be better ways of saying “don’t be selfish”. Something that’s harder to take out of context.

  6. Wild Honey

    I think when I get around to writing the WHV translation (Wild Honey Version), I am finally kicking the word “helper” to the curb and replacing it with the word “ally.” Down with the implied subordination! (pun intended)

    • Maria Bernadette

      Of course we should have expectations in marriage! Otherwise, what would be the point of wedding vows?

  7. Bethany#2

    I had an expectation that life must always be hard, with few breaks between storms. So even as a single, if there wasn’t a current discomfort/storm I tended to be uncomfortable. It’s still an issue, because I picked up this picture of the Christian life. And while a lot of Christians face hardship, I remind myself that we won’t necessarily always. It’s a fine line, because life is painful, but it’s also something of pure joy. The only moderator of the ups and downs is a strong link to God.

  8. Jo

    If people really think that marriage is supposed to be hard and should be full of suffering, then would it not make sense for single people to be looking for the worst possible partners? Women should be looking for men who have children by several women; who are porn-, drug-, and/or alcohol-addicted; who don’t work and have no intention of looking for a job; who are physically and/or emotionally abusive. Men should likewise be looking for women with children by several men; who have addictions; who are abusive.
    And yet, this is not the advice we give as to the kind of partners that single people should be looking for.
    So what gives? If our position is that “A is good,” then why don’t we suggest actions that maximize the amount of A we’ll have in our lives? Why do we instead suggest actions that minimize both the amount of A and also minimize the chances of introducing A in the first place?

  9. Andy

    Of course the aim for marriage should not be suffering but it’s also distracting us from God’s intent to say marriage is about emotional health. God’s aim for marriage is that a husband and wife would mirror Christ and the church (Eph. 5). I am glad Christ does not divorce me when I fail Him. As Christians, we are free to be fulfilled when we pursue the Lord’s instruction (Psalm 1).

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, Andy, but as we are transformed into Christ’s likeness, we will also grow in emotional and spiritual health. We cannot be transformed into Christ without getting healthier. That is also God’s aim.

  10. CJ

    Please kindly hear this from a single bloke (now old).
    We had Jim Jones, we had Savile molesting the girls on set (and I have met a traumatised BBC – studio – cameraman), we had teachers telling us 14 year olds we should consider “having” sex before marriage (that was authority, that wasn’t our own tittle tattle), we had the evil “body theology” mob pretending not to be communists.
    Inside churches, obsessing about marriage roles is a cover for quashing Holy Spirit entirely in everyone. Individuals that craft a following only pretend to be role models, they only want us (all) to be pliant. The Holy Trinity is about room for the other other, and not just the other. My parents did what they could the way they could, it was a practical struggle solely.
    I have always appreciated girls and women for their personalities (not their “image”) and their minds, and I feel demeaned by being expected to demand something of them or that they should demand something of me. It’s wrong to ask clergy permission for separate beds if you want.
    Fortunately school pupils in England are revolting about being expected to rape or suffer rape. Boys now fear inevitably becoming rapists. I say it’s not right. Though I’ve always hung around churches Roman and protestant, I think my viewpoint is a fair secular agnostic one also.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy

    What happens when we see suffering as good, as the aim?

    You end up clawing your face into scar tissue and gargling lye along with St Rose of Lima.
    To this day, I don’t know if St Rose was holy despite her self-destructiveness or whether her self-destructiveness was mistaken for Holiness.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy

    What happens when we see suffering as good, as the aim?

    You end up baptizing Masochism.
    Long ago I came to the conclusion that Christians are just as screwed-up sexually as everyone else, just in a different (and usually opposite) direction.

  13. Katie

    What if your marriage is hard because your husband has many unaddressed emotional issues and trauma and is afraid of counseling because of what he was taught in a very legalistic religious background? It’s so hard to know what has helped me (from a similar background with similar trauma) and have him reject it.


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