My wife and I celebrated seven years of marriage this September. As many of our friends sent us congratulatory messages, a friend of my wife asked me if I was truly happy. I asked her why.
“I met person X and they said that to have that kind of happiness and you’ve been married for less than 10 years is a lie. He said you and Turi must be hiding something. Nobody is that happy.”
“What gives them the impression that I am happy?” I asked.
“Well, they see you.”
“Then they see right. I am happy.”
“I don’t know if I’m the happiest person in the world,” I said to them, “But I know I wouldn’t trade anything for what God has done in my life so far. Been poor. Been rich. Been sick. Been healthy. Been up and been down. But I guess it’s the Romans 8:28 thing. God’s sovereignty makes me happy.”
“Well, seven years in marriage with two children, four books and a great ministry; that’s a lot of reason to be happy, huh?”
I thought about that question hard because it didn’t sit well with me. Was my happiness defined by that? I realized that after seven years of marriage, many people around me defined my success and happiness by the outward accolades. But I defined my success and happiness differently.
“Quite the contrary, actually,” I replied. “At the turn of my seventh year in marriage, I am asking myself: am I more in persona like Christ today than I was in my yester-years of marriage? While many look at my children, I am looking at my character. While many look at my ministry, I am looking at my mercifulness. While many look at my public Facebook, I am looking at my private FaceTime with God. While many look at my published books, I am looking at my progressing behaviour. Am I becoming more like Christ? This is my biggest question. And to the degree they are positively answered, I feel happy and successful. Does my wife agree that I am being sanctified? If she does, that makes me happy. My life mission has always been Acts 20:24. And because of that, the temporary things that many look at and tick as success are things I would simply think of the grace and mercy of God or the secondary stuff of Matthew 6:33.”
After that conversation, I did a self-audit of my seven years in marriage and I realized that there was a clear pattern. I was most happy when I was most walking with God. I was least happy when I was disobeying God. The process of obeying God and letting go of one’s stubborn ways is called sanctification. Sanctification is a refining process that God takes every believer through once they become justified through His Son (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Justified means you have been accepted by a Holy God based on the merit of Christ’s perfect life and your sins have been forgiven through Christ’s death in your place. This is the Gospel- good news; you couldn’t live a righteous life so Christ did it for you; you couldn’t pay for your many sins so Christ paid the price for you with his bloody death (Romans 5:8). Once you are justified by the God of the Gospel, you receive the Holy Spirit to dwell inside of you. Once this happens, sanctification is the next step.
Think of sanctification as gold or silver being refined in a blazing furnace. The heat is skin-peeling but it is what removes the dross from the precious metal. Without the heat there is no purity of metal. After we get justified, God begins this process so that we are constantly becoming more like Christ in character. When He finally returns, the sanctification process will come to a fruitful end through a process called glorification (1 John 3:2). Glorification is total purity; dross-free; exactly like Christ. But until then, there are impurities from our sinful side that Christ must work on. One proof of being a believer is that the dross is being removed through sanctification (1 John 3:3). The dross of an untamed tongue, the dross of unchirstlike conduct and the dross of an impure thought-life must be burned up. This process is called sanctification and it determines your happiness in marriage.
Like the refining of precious metal, sanctification of the soul is a time of intense heating for the elements of carnality, pride, fear, worry, doubt, anxiety, and self to be burned away. It is a most humbling process. Christ called it dying to self (Luke 9:23). But the end result is a pure metal. The end result is a happy believer. The most miserable Christians are those that fight with God and are uncooperative with the sanctification process. The only reason a believer would feel that their plans are better than the Creator’s is because of a proud heart. The happiest believer is the sanctified believer because they humbly admit that God’s sovereignty supersedes their brief stint in a corner of the earth that sits in a corner of the solar system that sits in a tinier corner of the galaxy that sits in perhaps the tiniest corner of the universe. They know the universe is a speck to the one that made it. Because of their willingness to have the flame burn away their old sinful man, their sanctification process happens with godly efficiency.
The stubborn believer is always relearning painful lessons because they are not willing to let the King refine them. They are always being seduced by the pleasures of this world and adding more dross to themselves. They are constantly living in a spiritual languid state. They are often losing spiritual battles. They are constantly envying the world. They are miserable because they resist the sanctification. It hit me hard that my wife’s cooperation with the sanctification process in her life has made her a stellar wife. I have also realized that my cooperation with sanctification has made me the man God has needed me to be as both husband and father. The problem of marital unhappiness can be drawn to the problem of spiritual immaturity. When I have resisted the sanctification process I have been unhappy, selfish and a pain in my marriage. And the same for my wife. It has therefore come to me naturally that a happy marriage is one where both man and wife are being sanctified and are cooperating with the process of having their character changed. It has also come to me naturally that an unhappy marriage consists of:
• A man and wife who are not cooperative with the sanctification process. They hold onto their sinful desires, selfishness, fears, worries, doubts and anxieties.
• A man and wife who reject the gospel to start the sanctification process. They are not yet justified. An ore can only be refined once it is out of the cave.
In these seven years I have also come to see that the sanctification process works effectively when you focus on your refining process. Stepping out of this circle to peek into the process of your partner makes you a less cooperative believer and a stubbornly proud spouse. Sanctification is a full-time job that will only be completed at the Second Coming (1 John 3:2). To assume we can take a break from it and inspect our spouse’s process is to not understand how much work is needed. And we don’t understand how much work is needed because we underestimate both the gravity of our sinfulness and the splendour of Christ’s holiness. There are light years of distance between those two. It will only take a miracle to bridge that gap. That miracle bridge is the cross (1 Peter 3:18) and we must never stop walking across to get to the other side where our sin is no more. We must focus on our own sanctification journey when in a marriage. It is the individuality that every believer must retain in their marriage because they will account for it as individuals and not as man and wife on the final day of judgement. In light of that, the enemies of a happy marriage are:
• The false belief that you are a good person that needs little, moderate or no sanctification
• The self-deceiving idea that your spouse’s sanctification is more urgent to attend to than yours
• The untrue notion that since God is sanctifying your partner, you can help Him expedite the process. Remember Sarah “helping” God with Hagar- chaos.
Sanctification is the main operating system of marriage for a man and wife. This program never switches off. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, sanctification and marriage are inseparable Siamese twins. If sanctification dies then the marriage dies. If sanctification thrives then the marriage thrives. As I thought of it more, it made perfect sense why Waturi and I meet many young people who speak the way they do when you ask them why they want to get married. They respond “Because I want to be happy.” Unbeknownst to most, a pursuit of happiness will often result in a resistance to sanctification. Why? Because marriage will sanctify you whether you like it or not and you will see this painful refining process as an enemy to the happiness you are pursuing. However, a pursuit of sanctification will always lead to happiness. If you understand and accept that marriage is sanctifying 24/7, you will embrace the dross-removal process because it only leads to purity of metal that is lasting happiness. Pure gold travels the world and sees many transactions. Gold with stubborn dross remains in the dusty, dirty and draining kiln. To be happy, you must be sanctified.
The happiness that comes with being sanctified involves viewing your spouse positively. What do I mean? The spouse resistant to sanctification always gives their partner a bulk of the blame for their marital problems. And because of that, they dislike their partner. When you are sanctified you see your own flaws clearly and deeply. You realize that you could sink the marriage ship without any help from your partner. You recognize that your sins are enough to crucify the Son of God. This humble state makes you see the strengths of your partner, especially where they complement your failures. This humble state also gives you Gospel eyes; The Holy Spirit works in you to see your partner as one valuable in God’s eyes. This makes you affectionate towards your partner because the love of the Holy Spirit is being poured out in you (Romans 5:5).
I have learned that the way to treat people well is to see them as valuable people. If we have a low view of people, we will have low thoughts of them. Low thoughts result in maltreatment. If we see people as the Gospel of Jesus does- precious in God’s sight to the point of divine bloodshed, we will have the necessary impetus to love and respect them even when they seem unlovable and not worthy of respect. Imagine if we carried this daily into our marriages. What a blessing we would be to our spouses. Bless your marriage; submit to the sanctification process; change. And as you change, ask the LORD in prayer to help you love and respect this valuable person. Better yet, as Gary Thomas would say, let the way you love and respect your spouse be an act of worship to God. Don’t worship God badly.
And so we ask the young people who come our way “What if your marriage makes you unhappy through the sanctification? What if making you holy is the path to making you happy? What if marriage is a refining process for your character?” Many unwilling young people are walking out and thinking themselves wise. If sanctification is the path to marital happiness, then it must also be one of the most important ways for single people to prepare for marriage. Investing in an intimate walk with God in your singlehood will make you accustomed to the refining process and hence more ready for marriage. Resisting change, indulging in sin, taking your spiritual growth lightly and living a lukewarm Christian life in your singlehood is also the fastest way to be unprepared for marriage. The former has warmed up to the refining process and therefore has more chances of cooperating with it. The latter is largely unfamiliar with sanctification and it therefore shakes them to the core when they marry.
The Bible asks us to understand God’s will and not be foolish (Ephesians 5:17). Understand that happiness in marriage is a by-product of a sanctified husband and a sanctified wife. Understand that the way to stay happy in marriage is to submit to the sanctifying refining process. Understand that after being married all these years it isn’t the children, the published books, the money, the ministry or the public limelight that bring you happiness. Understand that who you are becoming in your marriage is more important than the things you are acquiring. Understand that our focus on the altar is meant to refine our focus on Calvary. Understand that Christ is not only a means to a better relationship with your spouse; your spouse is also a means to a better relationship with Christ. If you are sanctified in your marriage, your relationship with Christ strengthens. And once it strengthens, you start to realize that the true lasting happiness lies in not hearing the words “I do” from our spouse at the church, but rather it lies in hearing the words “Well done” from the LORD as the church.