"How could he do that to you?" I asked angrily. My friend's husband—a Christian—had just told her he was in love with another woman.
"It's not all his fault," my friend admitted. "I helped chase him away by demanding he change so I could be happy."
I listened intently as she poured out the details of her demands, feeling that she was reading from the pages of my life. "I've done some of the same things," I confessed. I remembered times when my husband, Steve, had withdrawn from me, saying, "I can't be responsible when you're not happy." Only now did I understand what he meant.
Throughout my marriage, I'd often focused on happiness. "God," I'd prayed, "all I want is to be happy. Is that too much to ask?" Now I realized it was too little. The pursuit of happiness, though understandable, had kept me from seeing what God wanted for me.
My friend and I decided that God's number-one goal for marriage is not "be happy," but "be holy." He commands us, "Be holy, because I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16). I'm discovering that the "be holy" path blesses me, my husband, and the Lord.
For many years, I failed to see God's purpose for our marriage. I saw it as "my" marriage. I thought I was unhappy because I couldn't gain control of the relationship. God showed me I was unhappy because I was trying to.
I can't be happy unless I submit to God and his purpose.
Embracing God's purpose
So what is his purpose for our marriage? Romans 8:28 promises that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." For years I failed to connect this to verse 29, which states the purpose: "to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."
As I consider the things in our marriage that I once labeled bad, I marvel at the good God has brought from them. For instance, I often felt Steve didn't give me enough emotional support during difficult times, such as when I or the children were ill. Steve's lack of support chased me to God, where I learned to depend more fully on him.
Steve and I have strengths and weaknesses that God understood when he brought us together. These strengths and weaknesses are matched perfectly, so instead of becoming too dependent on each other, we go to him.
I'd be happy if …
For a long time, I insisted that God make me happy my way. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it. Most of my "I would be happy if …." sentences ended with some change in Steve. No wonder he tended to withdraw.
I remember thinking I'd be happy if Steve would pray with me. Once he started praying with me, instead of being grateful, I changed my demand to, "I'd be happy if he'd pray with me every day." This pattern was repeated in other areas of our marriage.
One day I told Steve some things that used to be on my list of "I could be happy if …" statements. "That sounds like heaven," he said.
My theme had been, "I'd be happy if we had the perfect marriage by means of you being the perfect husband." This kept me from seeing the good things about our marriage, such as Steve's ability to forgive and forget, that he's an excellent provider and father, and his support of every ministry God has called me to. Focusing on Steve's faults and continually trying to perfect him makes it almost impossible to concentrate on what God wants to do in me.
When I complain to God about Steve, he always brings things back to me. I remember once pointing out to God that Steve was too impatient. "First Corinthians 13:4 says, 'Love is patient,' Lord, and he's not." God gently urged me to read on: "It also says, love 'keeps no record of wrongs.' And you keep record of wrongs."
God never says, "You poor thing; your husband is such a wicked man." He speaks tenderly of Steve, and gives me difficult commands: "You repent"; "You pray for your husband"; "You bless him." What God won't do is side with me in sin or pamper my ego.
God promises me joy and blessing if I seek him and determine to do not what's comfortable or what feels good, but what's right. That's what becoming holy—becoming like Jesus—is all about.
Sometimes I seek holiness with impure motives. I think, If I act holy, Steve will see a change in me, he'll change, and then he'll make me happy. Instead, I must seek God with a pure heart, desiring to be holy, not just to act holy. And I must do this, not just for my benefit, but because I love God and Steve. When I do, I'm happy.
In desperate moments
Crying out for God is what I do in desperate moments—usually when I haven't been connecting with him diligently and I've let my desires take over.
Not long ago, I felt desperate about the fact that most nights Steve didn't come to bed at the same time I did. We'd discussed it—sometimes loudly—and he tried. But being a night person and not having to go to work early, he just couldn't do it. My early morning wake up call, on the other hand, prevented me from staying up with him. One night when I felt lonely and unloved, instead of going to Steve with demands, I cried out for God. I sensed him saying, "Don't discuss this any further with Steve. Accept it, and allow me to meet your need."
God eased my lonely feelings and surrounded me with his love. But first I needed to repent of my resentment and my demand that Steve must be the one to meet my need.
When I humbly cry out for God, releasing my plans and expectations, I'm giving him permission to make me holy. And God has been faithful every time.
When holiness hurts
Sometimes I forget that I entered our marriage unhappy and broken. It's been difficult to admit, but I've expected Steve to be my savior and fix me. That's God's job. Only the path of holiness leads to wholeness.
This path, however, often involves pain. My husband sometimes brings out the worst in me. His unholy behavior exposes my own: negativity, unforgiveness, lack of compassion, self-pity, depression, and conditional love. I struggle to obey the apostle Peter's words: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing" (1 Peter 3:9). Becoming holy hurts, because I see how unlike Jesus I really am.
Recently I argued on and on with Steve about his criticism of my cooking. I finally lost my temper and stormed out of the room. I wanted to be like the Old Testament prophet Jonah, to insist that Steve didn't deserve my love and run the other way in my heart. Yet I knew that would make matters worse.
When I called out to God, he showed me the core of the problem. After 20 years of marriage, I wanted Steve to understand everything about me. "He never will," God seemed to whisper. "He doesn't have to. I do. He's not your savior. I am." Steve and I repented, kissed, and made up. I was able to rejoice that he understands me better than any other human being, even if he doesn't understand me completely.
People have asked me, "Are you happy in your marriage?" When I seek happiness my way, I have to answer no; I'm miserable. But when I put aside my expectations about Steve and seek God and let him conform me to the image of Christ, then I'm happy.
The important questions are: "Is God happy and pleased with me?" "Is our marriage serving God's purpose?" "Am I willing to continue on the path of holiness, so I can bring glory to him?" When the way I live proclaims yes, yes, and yes, I feel closer to God than ever. I love Steve more than I believed possible, and I can see how God is conforming both of us to the image of Christ.
Just as Jesus trusted the Father completely, I have determined to trust God—with my marriage, with my husband, and with my happiness. I'm discovering, "Whoever trusts in the Lord, happy is he" (Proverbs 16:20, NKJV).
Elaine Creasman, a freelance writer, lives in Florida. This article first appeared in Moody magazine (May/June 1996).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.