Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage is a well-reasoned and thoughtful response to the centuries-old tradition of viewing spiritual formation as primarily taking place between an individual and God—a tradition that often celebrates being celibate while marginalizing marriage. It is also fundamentally wrong.
The basic premise of Sacred Marriage is that “God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy.” By this he means that our selfishness and our general lack of sanctification are the things that God intends to address, and has designed marriage to be the primary playing field on which these issues are dealt with (unless, of course, you are single). It is this premise that I take issue with, for two reasons.
The first reason is blatantly theological and goes back, like so many things, to the creation of the world and the creation of man. If marriage existed in a sinless world (it did) then it strikes me as fairly obvious that it cannot have been primarily designed to address the sinfulness and selfishness of human beings. Given the fallen condition of man, marriage certainly is one among the many facets of human existence that force us to confront the sin and wickedness in our hearts and habits. However, it is no more correct to say that God’s primary design in creating physical appetites was to teach us to curb our gluttony than to say that God designed marriage to teach us to curb our selfishness.
The second, and perhaps less obvious, reason I disagree with Thomas’ basic premise has to do with the assumptions about the purpose of life that undergird it. Thomas largely views marriage (and life) as being a training ground for eternity. Life is, in his parlance, primarily about making us holy rather than making us happy. That may be true enough: insofar as God is concerned with the development and well-being of His people He allows us to be unhappy in order to become more holy, more virtuous, and more like Christ.
However, what if life has some meaning of its own? What if life is not simply a laboratory or test-tube in which human beings are evaluated and cultured like so many petri dish specimens, but rather has its own place and meaning because it was created by God to be good in its own right? I tend to take Jesus quite seriously when he said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life—that thing that Thomas’ believes we currently are preparing ourselves for—apparently has less to do with one’s temporal position to the grave and much more to do with knowledge of God. But consider the ramifications of this fact: If eternal life doesn’t start once we die, but begins once we know God, then all the glorious things that God has to say about eternal life and the blessings, knowledge, and riches that go along with it, are not things that are primarily other-worldly; they are things that can, in large measure, be part of our lives…here and now.
Of course there are things to be learned from marriage and recognizing that such an intimate relationship will challenge us to step outside of ourselves, to die to ourselves, will no doubt go along way towards giving meaning to the struggles, pain, and confusion that sap a marriage of a portion of its happiness. But there are things to be learned from every experience, every day, and it is dangerous to view life as being primarily about learning things largely because such an attitude hides a very insidious (because so easily justifiable) selfishness that seems to be, of all places, most out of place in the context of the sacred marriage—the marriage that is meant to picture the self-sacrificing Divine love.