This is a blog series built on the premise that “books don’t change people, sentences change people.

We can’t remember an entire book, or even its outline. We remember a sentence or concept that is highly relevant and impacts how we live. The rest of the book gives context to that sentence. This series highlights sentences from my reading in evangelical Christian counseling that stood out to me and reflections on why these sentences have been so sticky.

“What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” in Sacred Marriage

I came across this book when I was studying to become a counselor in seminary. It was a required textbook for a class on marriage and family counseling. At that time, I didn’t have strong convictions about how counseling ought to be done or what the outcome of counseling ought to be. I was trying to figure those things out.

This sticky-statement from Gary Thomas was very formative in that process. It is when I began to realize that counseling was not just about symptom relief, but also character formation. Counseling doesn’t just help emotions and relationships become less conflicted (i.e., more or less happy), it also inevitably has a role in shaping individuals into certain kinds of people (i.e., more or less holy).

For clarity, happiness and holiness are neither mutually exclusive nor in competition with one another; at least not if we are talking about long-term, sustainable happiness without the aftertaste of regret. So Gary Thomas is not saying that we must choose between a happy marriage and a holy life.

But he is, as far as I can tell, saying that which we put first in our priorities – happiness or holiness – will determine whether we experience both or neither. To reference another very quotable individual, C.S. Lewis, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”

But one of the real challenges of counseling – whether that counseling is striving to be distinctively Christian or not – is convincing an individual or couple to invest in the long term goals that make their short term goals sustainable. This is true whether we’re talking to:

  • Someone struggling with addiction who must sacrifice short-term relief for long-term sobriety
  • Someone in the midst of debt who must sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term stability
  • Someone who lacks self-control in conflict who must sacrifice a short-term sense of justice to listen well
  • The list could go on and on…

What made this quote more impactful for me was that not only was I a counselor-in-training when I first read Sacred Marriage, I was also a newlywed. These challenges of which we are talking were not theoretical conversations I would someday have with a counselee; they were here-and-now conversations I was having with myself. I was learning what it meant to value holiness as a way to happiness in the day-to-day choices of marriage.

The greatest challenges I’ve faced in having this quote shape my counseling come in two varieties: those who resist the concept and those who mis-apply this concept in a dangerous situation.

First, there is the challenge of those who stridently insist that marriage exists to make them happy even when their demands (verbal or emotional) are undermining viability of the marriage. In this sense, these individuals might be “maritally anorexic;” that is, they are destroying the body/relationship which they believe they are “perfecting” (in a distorted sense).

It can be as difficult to convince someone who is “maritally anorexic” that their pattern of relating is destructive as it is to convince someone who has a destructive relationship with food. They only see the good they want, not the bad they are doing in the pursuit of that good.

Second, there is the challenge of those who believe that God is more concerned with their character than their safety; individuals in abusive relationships who believe God is so concerned about preserving marriage that he tacitly endorses abuse. This latter challenge is a larger subject than this blog post can address, but if you are interested in this subject, I would recommend my blog series Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.