Marriage: A Means to Holiness or to Happiness?

Marriage Isn’t for Everyone

Marriage isn’t for everyone. Then again, being single isn’t for everyone either. As Paul said, not getting married can be the best thing for someone’s relationship to God:

I wish that all of you [married people] were [single] as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:7-9.)

This passage makes me wonder about this tweet I read over the weekend:

If the tweet had not used the phrase “designed to make” I would have passed over it quickly. But that phrase unfortunately says more than perhaps Mr. Keller meant.

Nothing makes us holy but the work of Jesus. His life, death and resurrection are the means to our being set apart for God, our being made holy to the Lord.

And by [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10.)

This is the will of God, that we are holy because of the work of Jesus. To say that “marriage is designed to make us holy” shifts the focus from Jesus and onto our relationships with one another. As important as those marital relationships are to God, marriage was not created (that is, not designed) to make us holy.

God’s will – his design – is that the one sacrifice of Jesus is what makes us holy.

So where does that leave marriage? It exists with the rest of life. In all we do we are to glorify God, whether married or single, working or resting, learning or teaching, nurturing or being nurtured, even eating and drinking.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31.)

That’s what marriage – like all of life – is for. Glorifying God.

Life as Designed for Holiness

Some might say that the original tweet isn’t focusing especially on marriage making one holy, but rather on the fact that people can tend to have a misunderstanding about marriage being about the happiness of the spouses. It’s a misunderstanding, they might say, that applies to marriage as in many other aspects of life.

In that case, substitute the word life for marriage. Then it would read:

If we want to be happy in life we will accept that life is designed to make us holy, not happy. Happiness is a byproduct.

But this is not the design of life. Life was designed, or purposed, long before there was a question of not being holy. God created everything, including people, and called it very good. There was no unholiness to overcome.

The same goes for marriage. If Adam and Eve are considered a married couple (is there any other way to see them?) then their marriage is not designed to make them holy since it came into being before the Fall. Thus, marriage itself came into being before the Fall. How can marriage be designed to make us holy if when it was designed there was no unholiness to overcome? It cannot be the original design and there is no indication in Scripture that it was added as a later model of marriage to take over for the earlier model.

Also, if marriage has a design in it to make one holy, what is the comparable relationship for unmarried people? What relationship do single people look to that is similarly designed to make them holy? The answer is that the questions themselves exacerbate the misdirection caused by the original tweet.

The only relationship designed to make us holy is our relationship with Jesus.

Marital Happiness Actually Is in the Original Design

When God created Adam, he made an interesting observation:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable* for him.” (Genesis 2:18.)

Bringing Eve into the picture, then, was a response to the solitude of Adam, not his unholiness. Again, how could it be about making Adam holy before sin had entered the world (see Genesis 3). The answer, as shown above, is that marriage was not designed for holiness.

It was designed for companionship.

This companionship has an aspect of happiness designed into it, but it is the classical definition of happiness (in this case a prospering in one’s relationships) and not the modern version of feeling good about oneself or one’s circumstances in life – marital or otherwise. Here is how the Book of Common Prayer (The Online Book of Common Prayer: Pastoral Offices, The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage) describes God’s design in marriage:

The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. …

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is
intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

It looks like quite a party: Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos (Wikimedia)

It looks like quite a party: Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos

What are these “purposes for which it was instituted by God”? Mutual joy, help and comfort, raising children (if children are part of God’s will for the marriage) who will know and love God. This sounds a lot more like experiencing happiness than achieving holiness, although where happiness ends and holiness begins is a nonsensical distinction in God’s kingdom.

The truth is that marriage is not and was not designed to make us holy. That’s not how it was in the beginning at creation and – as the Book of Common Prayer recognizes by referring to Jesus and the wedding at Cana – there has been no change in its design since then either.


*For the meaning of “suitable helper” in the Genesis 2 account of establishing and designing the first marriage, see Oppressing Women – a Coalition Built on False Premises.


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33 Responses to Marriage: A Means to Holiness or to Happiness?

  1. NJ says:

    This may be only tangentially related, but it reminds me of pastors who declare, “you don’t go to church to get, you come to give!”, which I see as a false dichotomy. If we truly weren’t getting anything out of church, who would come?

    • Tim says:

      Since Jesus said he came to give us abundant life (John 10:10), then why aren’t we expecting to receive as well as give? It’s not either/or but both/and.

  2. This is good, Tim — especially the reference to the BCP’s interpretation of marriage’s purpose. In general, I wonder why people feel they have to make these pithy pronouncements in the first place? Is he encountering an onslaught of people who are complaining, “I thought marriage would make me happy, but it hasn’t”? And would it be helpful to tell such a person “Don’t worry; this relationship is supposed to make you holy, not happy. Have you accepted that? If you have, you should immediately feel happier, since happiness is a byproduct of that acceptance.”

    Doesn’t it just sound weirder the more you unpack it? I’m not trying to insult Keller himself; I know he’s a highly respected teacher/pastor. But I just wonder about it as a piece of general, Tweet-worthy advice.

    • Tim says:

      It’s the pitfall of sounding spiritual without being spiritually sound.

    • Alana Childers says:

      Well, YES, there are a lot of people who think marriage is supposed to primarily make them “happy”. Humans are selfish, and any relationship takes work, compromise, self-sacrifice, MUTUAL submission in the case of marriage, and it just isn’t going to make you happy 100 percent of the time. Now, if you are miserable 99% of the time, or even 50% of the time, or even 20%, that’s a red flag that you need outside help. It’s like parenting. It is intended to be a relationship of lifelong commitment… now, once a child reaches adulthood, if the relationship becomes abusive or intolerable, it becomes necessary to set boundaries (or in rare cases, permanent distancing). The similarity isn’t exactly the same, obv. But there is a similarity, in that parents are committed to their kids, knowing and expecting from the get-go that there WILL be tough days, even miserable, exhausting, frustrating stretches lasting weeks or months, but that the primary purpose of the relationship is unconditional love. If you don’t feel “loved” back, that isn’t an adequate reason to give up, get lazy, or walk away from your loved one. Yes, yes, yes, there is an onslaught of people my age who give up on marriages just because they aren’t “happy” (they don’t want to put the work into the relationship)… Disney has taught us that “true love” should come effortlessly. That’s complete crap. True love, unconditional love, is hard work. I think that may be the angle Keller is trying to hit from, although I think he is trying to back it up with bad theology. I totally agree w bro. Tim Fall, that marriage isn’t supposed to make us “Holy”…. but the process of learning how to love unconditionally and self-sacrificially (in a healthy way, w healthy boundaries) DOES grow us to become “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29-30).
      “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”. (John 13:35)
      “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
      (1 Peter 1:15-16)
      I think my generation has unrealistic expectations of marriage. Some grow up w abuse (physical, verbal, or emotinal) so they think that’s OK in marriage. On the opposite extreme, you have people who think any frustration or disagreement is grounds to just walk away. I think God’s expectation is in the middle – understanding what true, unconditional love is supposed to look like. Unconditional love w healthy boundaries can be practiced in ANY relationship (spouse, parent, child, friend, even neighbor and coworkers!) It does seem unbiblical to claim that “marriage” somehow makes us holy. Marriage doesn’t make US holy… we make our MARRIAGE (or any relationship) holy by following Jesus.

  3. Lucie Winborne says:

    “Also, if marriage has a design in it to make one holy, what is the comparable relationship for unmarried people? What relationship do single people look to that is similarly designed to make them holy?”

    Good question that I haven’t seen asked or answered before. I’d like to see Mr. Keller’s answer.

    Does anyone else ever feel that the “marriage is designed to make you holy, not happy” line just sucks some of the fun out of the mere idea of marriage?

  4. nmcdonal says:

    Tim I’m not sure taking Keller’s tweets uncharitably then writing blog posts about them is the best ministry work you’ve done…there’s plenty to critique in your response, but I think that method would be first in order. Twitter requires charity, because things need to be said without expansion. Anyone could easily do this with your tweets, and I’m sure you’d count that as slander.

    • Tim says:

      I think tweets, like any other communication, needs to stand on their own. Mr. Keller and I communicated about his tweet and he stood by the point he made about holiness as being in marriage’s design, so it’s not uncharitable nor slander to suggest this is what he meant. I just don’t see it as part of the design.

      • nmcdonal says:

        I think that tweets can’t stand under the eye of someone bent on critique. That seems to me what this post is about. But, if you must:

        1. Why do you see a contradiction between marriage making us happy and holy? Keller certainly doesn’t, if you read his book on marriage. This is part of the reason I think you’re being uncharitable. He explicitly shows that marriage fulfills all the purposes you’ve laid out above.

        2. So…do you think God uses no means to make us holy? Because your argument above implies that no part of God’s creation can be a tool in his hands for our holiness, if you follow it out. I anticipate that you’ll reply that the gospel makes us holy. Okay – but clearly Keller is talking about sanctification here, not justification – again, if you’ve read anything he’s written on this besides his tweet, you’d know this.

        3. Since I believe you claim to come from a reformed perspective, I would assume you would see creation’s point, in some manner, pointing forward to Christ. So why would you restrict the uses of marriage to Genesis 1-3? Clearly, it was also meant as a portrait of the gospel, per Ephesians. So how does your argument that it “can’t” be for holiness, because it wasn’t for Adam and Eve, hold any weight?

        4. Why would you insist that Keller’s tweet encompass “life”, not just “marriage?” That seems completely unreasonable to me. I could point to the last dozen tweets you’ve typed out and demand that they’re not expansive enough, because they don’t encompass all of what I’m thinking about at the time…that just seems disastrous to communication, and again, seems more like an eagerness to critique and a will to be charitable. Keller didn’t restrict his meaning to marriage, so why are you insisting that he is?

        5. I think you’re definition of holiness is pretty flat, if you see it merely as filling the gap between unholiness and holiness. I could certainly say that God’s intention for marriage before the Fall was meant for holiness, because marriage is designed to help Adam and Eve understand who God is. So, there can be increased holiness without sin.

        So…I say uncharitable because you’ve made from this post a lot of useless and unhelpful contradictions…and I just believe you’re wiser than that when it comes to your own views.

        • Tim says:

          I appreciate every point you’ve made, Nick. I’ll address one of them, as it relies on something Mr. Keller said in response to my inquiry to him. The reason I said he is talking about life and not just marriage is because he told me that marriage is used for sanctification (as you point out he meant) and my point is that the same can be said of all of life. So I agree this is a sanctification discussion, not justification. But other than those clarifications I just don’t see the holes in my post that you do.

          P.S. More than one pastor and seminary grad have commented on my FB link to the post that they think I got it right, so at least if I’m in error it’s not merely due to me being a lay person. ☺

          P.P.S. You’ll have to take my word for it that I was not “bent on critique”. I like some of Mr. Keller’s writing, especially Prodigal God.

        • Liz says:

          This article does seem to make the case that God does not use means for sanctification. Of course a Biblical Christian is going to assert that only Christ’s righteousness makes us holy in the sense of justification before God…In that sense all saints are holy. But it seems to cross over the line and insinuate we don’t need to strive to attain holiness through marriage because we are counted holy as believers.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks for the opportunity to speak on the justification/sanctification issue. My post is not meant to “insinuate we don’t need to strive to attain holiness through marriage” but merely that it is not marriage that is designed to make us holy, as asserted originally.

  5. DesiringFreedominChrist says:

    Thank you for this! In my five years of marriage, I’ve heard the holiness thing a lot and have always been uncomfortable with it. Thanks for breaking this down for me.

  6. beauryan1911 says:

    Theologically, it seems like God could have designed marriage pre-fall and still have a purpose for it post-fall. Also, it seems like Adam and Eve would still have had to grow in holiness even before the fall.

    Biblically, Paul came close to saying that one of the purposes of marriage is to help us grow in holiness (Ephesians 5).

    Experientially, being married and having children have made me grow a ton.

    Semantically, both happiness and holiness carry a ton of baggage. I just want to pursue holiness and happiness in my marriage in the best senses of both of those words!

    My favorite part of this article was the point on the companionship of marriage. I don’t think that is emphasized enough. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Tim says:

      Pursuing both holiness and happiness, yes!

    • Cheryl says:

      I didn’t marry until my mid-forties, and to “Experientially, being married and having children have made me grow a ton” I would say that marriage is not really a “better” environment for sanctification than singleness is. That is one of the things that always bothered me about this particular quote (which I have heard before from sources before Keller): if marriage is to bring us to greater holiness, does that mean that married people end up more holy than single people? Nothing in Scripture begins to hint at such an idea. Marriage and child-rearing bring a different set of growth opportunities than singleness does, but not more opportunities.

      • Tim says:

        A different set of opportunities is exactly right, Cheryl. God gives single and married opportunities to grow in sanctification, that is, to be more and more like Christ every day.

  7. M says:

    This was super helpful Tim! I’d never thought about it like this. In recent years, with the prevalence of teaching about gender roles and hierarchical ‘complementarianism’, I’ve felt more and more uncomfortable with the idea of marriage. There is a horrible cognitive dissonance between wanting to marry because of seeing the joy in it, and wanting to remain unmarried, because of the awful feeling that women who want to marry have to be prepared to sacrifice most of their individuality, autonomy and capability for it. Slowly, with the help of writings like this, I’m relearning the truth my parents taught me as a child, that marriage is a good gift from a good God, not intended as a trial of faith or holiness (though it is no doubt hard, and faith and holiness can be tested by it, as by many things in life) for human flourishing. It’s relieving to remember marriage was made for the mutual benefit and joy of both partners in sacrificial love of each other. Thanks Tim, you have eased my mind.

    • Tim says:

      “It’s relieving to remember marriage was made for the mutual benefit and joy of both partners in sacrificial love of each other.”

      Amen to that, M.

  8. Pingback: Marriage: A Means to Holiness or to Happiness? - The Aquila Report

  9. Nancy2 says:

    Just three off-the-wall ideas:
    1). Some animal species mate for life. Does that make them holy?
    2). Solomon had hundreds of wives. Did that make him 1000 times more holy than a monogamous person?
    3). Jesus’ death on the cross has bearing on “what makes us holy”. So, do we need to die on a cross to be holy?

  10. Pingback: Marriage: A Means to Holiness or to Happiness? | TLG Christian News

  11. So, we’re discussing marriage at Men’s Breakfast on Saturday under the title ” is marriage an outdated concept in today’s world?”

    Your thoughts would be much appreciated.



  12. Freeatlast says:

    Thank you Tim ! My feet have been held both to the fire and cemented in place because my abusive marriage to a gay man that includes the phrase to forgive and forget was to make me Holy. To assume happiness was akin to sinning. Oh and don’t let me go on about how feelings are to be ignored because they come out of a heart that is deceitful and wicked.

    • Tim says:

      The sermon at church last night had s section on feelings. Rather than ignore them, the point made was to recognize them as indicators of what’s going on around you and in you. God gave us feelings for a reason. I’m glad you listened to yours.

  13. Jo says:

    God’s timing is great. Someone said this to me the other day and it didn’t sit right with me. My immediate response was to say I’ve always thought it was for companionship as per Genesis and Ecclesiastes. I’ve spent the last week thinking I must look into this more in case I was wrong but you’ve done it for me. Thanks for posting!

  14. Tim Keller is a comp. Given that, I think he thoroughly misunderstands marriage in Scripture. Many comps furthermore, I think thoroughly misunderstand divorce in Scripture. This means women can get a double whammy when they are in an abusive marriage and think they cannot leave.

    Keller is smart enough to know that this scenario happens, so as a way to prop up his ideas, I think he comes up with the idea that marriage is a way to holiness. So when you are married and being abused, you are supposed to realize God is using that to aid in your holiness. What a horrible idea! If this has any part in his extra-biblical ideas, I think it amounts to spiritual abuse.

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