What If We Don’t Need to Suffer in Marriage to Be Made Holy?

by | Mar 10, 2021 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 37 comments

Difficult Marriages Don't Make You Holier
Merchandise is Here!

I had my first real exposure to legalistic thinking when I was on a missions trip at 16.

I went with Teen Missions International (I’ve blogged about the problems with Teen Missions before), and the devotional for that summer was “The Way Up is Down.” It was all about how humility and suffering brings us closer to God, because God uses our suffering.

Now, I actually do believe that He uses our suffering. But more than that, I believe God uses EVERYTHING–the good and the bad–to bring us closer to Him.

Sometimes, though, we focus so much on suffering that we think we learn more through suffering than we do at other times in our lives.

Certainly when we suffer we often feel God to a greater degree, because He’s all we’re holding on to. But this can lead to a strange faith where we think that suffering is ultimately good–that suffering is something we should pursue.

And even that those who suffer know God more and are “sanctified” more.

So let me ask a question:

What is sanctification really about?

I’m going to get all theological here for a moment, but bear with me, because I think this impacts how we see marriage.

What is “sanctification”? It’s a big word which means being set apart and made holy. When we are saved, we’re justified–we’re made right with God. But that only changes our position. Sanctification is a change in our character, as, over time, we grow in holiness.

And that’s what God wants for us–to be made holy.

Okay, great. But what is holiness?

It means pure and free from sin, right? So that must mean that anything that makes us holier is good! And if we’re refined by suffering, then suffering must be good. Suffering must be for our benefit.

People who suffer have more of a chance to learn humility. They have a chance to learn to be more giving, less selfish. When relationships are bad, then, that can actually turn out for our good, because in those relationships, we’re actually made more like Jesus, and that’s the bigger point, right?

What is our goal in life? To look like Jesus!

Let’s back up a minute here. What if we’re only seeing one slice of the pie, and not the whole thing?

Romans 8:29 says this:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Romans 8:29

Our goal is to look like Jesus.

Jesus is holiness, yes. But Jesus is more than holiness--or perhaps we should say that if holiness=Jesus, then holiness is more than just purity from sin.

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus gave His life as a ransom for many. Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.

All of that is true. But He did all of that for a purpose–to usher in a new kingdom not based on the normal rules of power (see Matthew 20:25-28), but based instead on this upside-down way of living where serving and love reign. His death was our forgiveness, and it changed the nature and point of life. It wasn’t rules and striving; it was love and joy and serving.

So if we’re to be transformed into Jesus’ likeness, then it isn’t only about not sinning and being perfectly selfless. 

It’s about all the things that we know God is, that can be summed up in the fruits of the Spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

Jesus wasn’t just purity from sin; he was also pure love. Pure joy.

He also, as we talked about yesterday, laughed!

Maybe one of the ways that we’re transformed into the likeness of his Son is that we understand pure joy! Isn’t that what Paul was talking about in Philippians? Rejoice!

What if being holy–being transformed to look like Jesus–is as much about joy as it is about suffering?

What if getting to know Jesus better doesn’t just mean that we need to suffer. What if it means that we simply need to understand and be part of the kingdom of God with all of that entails–including pure joy?

Would this view of sanctification change the way we see marriage?

I think it would.

So often we feel as if marriage is a slog that God ordained for us so that we could learn to be selfless (as if single people are somehow “less than” because they never had this opportunity to grow). We grow closer to God when we learn to empty ourselves and look out for our spouse first and foremost.

The more unhappy we are in marriage, then, the greater our opportunity to pour ourselves out and become like Jesus. The more unhappy we are, the more faith we get to live out, and the more we serve.

I’ve often felt like the problem with a lot of our marriage doctrine is that it elevates suffering in marriage on earth, telling us that we’ll get our reward in heaven. It makes it sound like if you have a bad marriage, you’re holier.

We are not made holier by having difficult marriages. Those with good marriages are not losing out on a chance to grow their faith.

On the contrary, we’re able to grow in love and kindness and serving, too, while also growing in joy.

Look, God uses everything. He grew me in some of my roughest times in my life.

I had a much rougher childhood than my girls did, and a much rougher first years of marriage than either of them have had. But they have their own stories with God, and they have grown in faith and in love for Him without the need to suffer like I did. I didn’t want my kids to suffer so they would know God better; I wanted them to know God and be able to handle whatever came their way. But I never thought they had to suffer to have faith.

Marriage makes us holy in the same way that singleness makes us holy or going through periods of unemployment makes us holy or grief makes us holy. God uses everything. 

And any marriage teaching that focuses on making sure you are unheard and unseen in your marriage in order to grow in holiness is missing the bigger point. We need to stop elevating suffering and start elevating Christ.

And Jesus? He laughs. So should we.

Difficult marriages don't make you holier
Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

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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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. Lola

    Thank you so much for writing this Sheila! I have heard this message all my life from various pulpits. As if marriage is a sacrificial altar we must lay ourselves on to become more like Jesus; and happy marriages are somehow not what God intended. I love being married! No, it is not perfect, but my husband and I have so much fun together. I cherish that! Andbibdont belief it makes our life together less Holy.
    I’ve also heard pastors say that God doesnt care about our happiness. Wow! What a message. How in the world are we supposed to win people to Christ with those types of messages? I think it is very damaging to our faith.
    Thank you for shining light on these myths we have heard and been taught in the church!

    • Anne

      I was a member for a number of years where “God doesn’t want you to be happy, he wants you to be holy,” was a constant refrain.
      And people wondered why I remained actively single…..

      • Char

        For real though. I had multiple people tell me that your spouse is primarily a mirror to show you your sin so that you can become sanctified 😳. And I was like – apparently I just don’t want to be a better person as much as you guys because honestly that sounds terrible. They also often preached that marriage would expose my selfishness so that God could work it out of me. Neither of these things have been accurate descriptors of my experience of marriage. Yes, we grow together – but it is primarily about a wonderful joy and companionship, and he’s just my favorite person ever ❤️ My life is so much more full and joyful because he is in it, and we get to do life together. Now I honestly think it’s oddly self centered to believe your spouse is primarily in your life to reflect your sin and make YOU a better person. That’s just strange – and kind of insulting to your spouse. Who wants to be married to someone who is going around saying – being married to my wife put me through so much suffering, but she made me a better person? 😳.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          This sounds like exactly the conversation I was having with Rebecca last night! She’d agree with you 100%. She says this about Connor all the time–“I wouldn’t want him to marry me just so that I could make him a better person through suffering.”

  2. Anon

    I guess that with all messages about suffering it comes down to context.
    Specially when it comes down to marriage. People who are happy in their marriage in general don’t need to hear that they need to suffer and this is a way that God is using to sanctify them.
    And people who are being abused should definitely not hear the message about suffering leading to sanctification. They need to get out.
    But people who struggle with being happy in their marriage in general may have to hear it. I struggle with that in my marriage and in some way it gives me hope that God may use this for something good even if I many times wonder if this is how my life will be for the rest of my life.
    Knowing that God can use it for something good and I hopefully will be rewarded in heaven makes it easier to not take the easiest way out.
    Or like the guy I talked to whose wife didn’t want sex for 14 years but who said that he would never leave her because he had made a promise to God and the suffering was part of following God. I guess the message of suffering also gives him hope.
    So it’s all about context.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is a really good point, Anon. Yes, sometimes the point is to learn to be content (and that’s really a big part of life regardless). I’ll elaborate more on this on Monday, but my concern is that by making people feel like marriage is God’s vehicle for refining you, so sacrificing in marriage should be normal and neglecting your needs is just a way to grow in Christ, we fail to actually use helpful strategies to grow our marriages. Instead, we assume that striving is what marriage is about.
      Sometimes we try those strategies and nothing changes. But at least we should realize that trying strategies is actually a good thing, not rejecting God’s attempt to refine us, if that makes sense.

  3. E

    Thanks for this Sheila- really encouraging and helpful! I needed to hear this and am so excited for this new series
    I’d be interested to know how you think about Jesus’ instruction to “take up your cross” if you want to follow him. Do you think that’s about being willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, trusting that our ultimate reward is Jesus and not setting out hearts on the treasure of this world; as opposed to the mindset of expecting/pursuing suffering as the norm for the Christian life (and if you’re not suffering you’re doing something wrong)?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! Exactly. We’re willing to sacrifice everything FOR THE SAKE OF THE CROSS. But suffering for no purpose does not glorify God. Enabling abuse simply allows the abuser to become more selfish while you are hurt and abused (which God never wanted). But even beyond abuse, even just when we talk about daily, everyday marriage stuff, when we have this idea that marriage is about suffering and learning to be “less than” in order to be refined, then we may not work on issues of communication or feeling loved, because we figure God is just refining us. But what if, by working on those issues, we could feel more intimate in marriage, and that could fuel us for the purpose that God has for us in the wider world?
      Like yes, we are to be willing to suffer. But it’s suffering so as to bring the kingdom of God to earth; not suffering for its own sake. Does that make sense?

      • E

        Amen, sister! Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking on this as I can definitely fall into legalism and end up with a negative view of God as a disappointed school principal rather than a loving father

  4. Melissa

    I would just like to say. Any youth program that forces suffering upon their students in the name of making them holier is committing abuse. Extended workouts, extreme physical labor, inducing stress via lack of sleep and tight schedule control…that is not Biblical. It is ABUSE. It took me years to recognize that there wasn’t something wrong with me that left me broken from that system. It’s because that system was abusive. If you have been abused by spiritual leaders who claim they are making you more like Jesus, I want you to know that you’re not defective. And there is hope for healing.

  5. Nathan

    This is a very good insight. Suffering, in and of itself, for its own sake, doesn’t help anybody with anything. Rather than “suffer and be miserable so that you can know God”, it should be more like “Get to know God so that when troubled times come, you can work through it better”.
    Jesus said that in this life you will have trouble. Hard times come to us all. Beating yourself to prove some abstract point, though, is a ticket to nowhere.

  6. A

    Sheila, thank you so much for this! I have thought a lot recently about the idea of happiness vs. holiness. They are so often pit against each other. If God is love – then is it loving to not want us to be happy? As parents, do we want our own kids to be miserable because it will grow them in character? No!
    I love the way that you frame this – holiness is embodying the character of Christ and growing in the fruits of the spirit. All of us will suffer regardless of our status in life. It’s inevitable.
    As far as suffering in marriage leading to holiness – if one spouse has their personhood diminished daily by the other spouse, then how does that help them become more like Christ. We are called to be the light of the world. We can’t do that if we disappear.

  7. Nathan

    On the point of suffering, I’m reminded of Sheila’s story about how one time she did missionary work, and they got sand, rocks and so on delivered for something. They offered to dump them in different piles, but the leaders said no, mix them all up so that the kids can spend hours un-mixing them to learn about sacrifice.
    So instead of spending time witnessing to the local people, getting to know them, etc. they spent hours in unneeded backbreaking work.
    Now, as Sheila herself would probably say (not putting words in your mouth, just guessing), there’s nothing wrong with physical labor. On the other hand, deliberately creating unnecessary work out of nothing is pointless.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yep! The point of life is not suffering–the point of life is CHRIST, wherever that may lead us.

  8. Nathan

    Yet one more thought.
    It’s true that suffering, REAL suffering, can sometimes benefit you in the long run. This comes from the world outside, however. Suffering/abuse should never come to you from the church, your fellow Christians, or your marriage.
    These should be safe havens in our troubled world.

    • Lisa


  9. Emmy

    Isn’t there a book about this? I remember having heard about a book called Holy Marriage. I have not read it. Not all Christian books from English speaking countries are available where we live, but I have heard this book stating that marriage is not meant to make us happy in the first place but to make us holy.
    I don’t want to speak ill of a book I have not read but I wonder if there are other people here who are familiar with the title Holy Marriage and can tell us more about it.

    • Emmy

      Ahhh, I found it. Gary Thomas: Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to make us Holy more than to make us happy?
      Has anyone read it here?

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I have, and I know Gary well. Sacred Marriage scored very well on our rubric of healthy sexuality teaching (though we didn’t measure anything on healthy marriage teaching for any of the books).
        He’s also written another book called When to Walk Away about when to leave toxic people, so he definitely doesn’t believe that suffering is holy.
        I do think there’s an emphasis in the wider evangelical culture, though, with emphasizing suffering in relationships as the route to holiness, and I think that sets us up to ignore red flags or not work on how to make things better. I’ll likely elaborate on this more on Monday!

      • Luke

        I have read it, but it’s been quite some time! My wife and I read it together before we got married 11+ years ago! I remember it being a dense book, but a very good one.
        I grew up in the church my entire life, but based on some of what Shelia has said here and in TGSR I’m starting to realize I may not gotten all the same messages as everyone else. Because when I read Sacred Marriage and it mentioned the idea of holiness over happiness in marriage, I felt like it was a revelation. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve known too many people that need to hear this idea. Instead I hear this concept that I’d assume comes more from the prosperity gospel: “God wants me to be happy” and I’ve seen this used as a reason for people to justify things including discarding their marriage.
        I think most of us here understand that it’s not that the opposite is true (God doesn’t want me to be happy), but that He values our holiness over our happiness. Just as a parent understands that sometimes we can’t always make our kids’ happiness their first priority, but their well-being. (e.g. If my son asks for candy, I’m not necessarily going to give it to him even if that’s what would make him most happy.)
        I could go on, but I don’t want to hit that word limit on my comment! 😉

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Hi Luke! I think you’re right that that’s definitely the thrust of the book, and that the message is a very valid one.
          I also think, though, that women are given a very different message from men. That’s likely why you didn’t hear this stuff growing up. Women tend to read more marriage books than men (I think we buy like 80% of them or something), and women go to women’s book studies where we study a lot of this. And women go to more women’s conferences where it’s taught, and read more blogs. One thing we found that was so interesting in our focus groups was how many women had internalized really negative messages about marriage and sex, but their husbands honestly hadn’t. Their husbands had no idea that’s what they were taught! And so their husbands were really instrumental in helping the women get over these beliefs and move on to something healthy, because that’s honestly what the guys wanted for their wives anyway.
          All that to say, we need good guys like you! So thank you. And if you ever hear weird stuff being spread at church, speak up! Because honestly–women get this far worse than men do, and we do need the guys, too.

      • Anon

        Yes, I’ve read it. I think that phrase sometimes gets misinterpreted – I didn’t take it as meaning that we’re not meant to be happy in marriage, but that it’s not meant to be our focus. Our focus should be on living lives that please God. On becoming more holy. (Which we should be doing whether married or single) I think he’s trying to encourage people to stop looking at marriage in the light of ‘how can marriage make ME happy and meet MY needs?’, and to start looking at it as ‘how can our marriage draw us closer to God?’

      • Anon

        I read Gary Thomas’ book pre marriage and found it very helpful. I think the issue with his tagline about marriage making you holy rather than happy is that people take it out of context or misread it. He’s not saying that marriage SHOULND’T make you happy, just that it’s not meant to be your focus. Your focus in any area of life should always be on becoming more Christlike (more holy). And I think it’s 100% right. And if I’d gone into marriage wanting it to be all about ME, MY wants, MY needs, I think our marriage would actually be LESS happy than it is now. Because I wouldn’t be caring about my husband’s needs, I wouldn’t be willing to compromise on anything, I wouldn’t consider how he was feeling – it would all be about me, me, me. And a relationship that is that selfish is going to push me further away from God too.
        If you read the book, it’s actually really clear what Gary Thomas is saying – I think a lot of people just see the tagline and get all defensive and either don’t read the book or read it expecting it to tell them that being unhappily married is good!

  10. Phil

    I got some things to say but been having some busy crazy weird good times…Sheila you gave me a reference to a book a while back about suffering and I took a screen shot of it I think? Not sure….you recall what that was so I dont have to find out if I deleted it or not? Lol – Ill be back later…

      • Phil

        Found it – how bout the missionary memoir by Kay Bruner? You mentioned she hangs out here too….this the same Kay I see here all the time?

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          No, different Kay! But, yes, that was an AMAZING book! As Soon as I Fell. So good! I had totally forgotten about that, Phil. Thank you for reminding me. I’ll write about that again in this series!

  11. Wild Honey

    This seems like another “pat answer” teaching where lack of nuance can turn destructive.
    If the purpose of suffering in marriage is to make us more holy… then if I REALLY love my husband, I’ll selfishly make his life miserable so he can grow through “suffering,” right?
    OR I can set respectful boundaries like insisting we both honor our agreed-upon family budget, we both contribute to childcare responsibilities, we both pick up the slack for the other when illness or other stressors hit, etc.
    I think maybe people are using “suffering” and “sacrifice” interchangeably, and that’s not always appropriate. Mutual sacrifice (or suffering) in marriage can build character, but I’m not sure that one-sided sacrifice (or suffering) does much of anything except enable a martyr-complex.
    I’m thinking of married friends of mine who are in the middle of a medical crisis. They are both suffering (and sacrificing!) right now, one as the patient and the other as caregiver-trying-to-also-hold-down-full-time-employment, but the key is they are doing it together. If only one was… what an even more awful place to be.

  12. Amy

    I hate the term “difficult marriage”. What does that even mean? I was in an abusive marriage for 7 years, but I didn’t know to call it that because abuse was never talked about in the circles I was in. So, I went the just try harder, just love him more route because that was supposed to be the solution for my “difficult” marriage. I felt so isolated and abandoned from God in those years, especially towards the end of the marriage. I was following the path set out for me by these so-called Christian leaders; why wasn’t it working?
    Contrast that with what happened when I left. It was exceeding difficult. I was unemployed and my one year old and I were living with my parents. I had to find and start a new job and transition from being a STHM to a working mom all while navigating the court system (intimidating when your husband is an abuser), and deal with a group of church elders who’s concern was not my safety and wellbeing, but my marital status. However, during that period of time I was probably the closest I have ever been with God in my life.

    • Sara

      Amy, that’s a really good question. Leslie Vernick writes about the different types of marriages, and “difficult” is different than “destructive”. Difficult marriages have things like health issues, a special needs kiddo, economic struggles, etc. that have a tough impact on marriage. Destructive marriages are different, and are like what you were in. She explains it much more thoroughly than I can, but hope that gives you a resource to check out. It’s been awesome to get to learn from so many people like Sheila and Leslie at the same time, because their messages all fit well together and are helping me heal some “stinkin’ thinkin'” that I grew up hearing, and are also teaching me how to advocate for these truths to be taught in churches so marriages can stop being so wounded.

  13. R

    Could someone point me to Sheila’s post with a checklist for interviewing a therapist? I think I saw it on this site but couldn’t readily find it with a site search. TIA!

  14. Anon

    Do you think the emphasis on suffering is a kickback against all the teaching on ‘God just wants you to be happy’ that’s going around? I’ve even heard people excuse leaving a spouse for another person because ‘he/she makes me happy and God is a loving Father who wants me to be happy’.
    I’ve hunted right through the Bible and I can’t find anywhere where it says ‘God wants you to be happy’. I’m not saying God DOESN’T want us to be happy, but our happiness needs to be compatible with living a Godly life. Just because I feel ‘happy’ with something doesn’t mean it’s right, any more than going through suffering means I’m right. But I’ve heard so many people in the past few years defend all kinds of things on the basis that ‘something that makes me so happy can’t be wrong’.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, there certainly do tend to be two extremes–the prosperity gospel where it’s all about God blessing you, and the “you’re nothing but a worm” gospel. We need to find the middle!

  15. Hannah

    My parents were in an abusive marriage for 20 years. Neither of them displayed holiness very well in their marriage. My mom, after my dad left, has displayed more holiness, joy, and true contentment in Christ than I have ever seen in her or anyone else. In another light, I’m very happily married to a wonderful man who shows me the love of Jesus like I’d never known it as a child. I’ve grown MORE, spiritually, being in a happy, stress-free marriage than any other time in my life.

  16. Cynthia

    I like that distinction between difficult and destructive.

    Hard stuff can come along – health problems, death of a family member, fertility issues, a child with high needs, serious financial struggles, etc. Sometimes, if a spouse is struggling with a physical or mental health challenge or a personal situation, the other spouse may need to take in a lot more than they bargained for. It can be hard. With a condition like Alzheimer’s, it might not always feel like the effort is appreciated. Even so, it is possible to see the extra effort as a gesture of love and commitment, and appreciate how a strong marriage can be a source of support during hard stuff.

    This is very different from the source of the problem being the marriage itself, and the intentional actions of a mentally competent spouse.


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