From the thrill of wedding anticipation to settling into the roles of husband and wife, it can be easy to forget that marriage is about far more than just two people.

"Let’s focus on something bigger: God," Francis Chan writes in his book You and Me Forever. "Focus on something more important: your relationship with God. This relationship is far more critical than your marriage, and it’s everlasting."

What if marriage wasn’t seen as an end in and of itself? What if it was seen as a means of drawing closer to God?

According to Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage, "The reason God became flesh was so that we might know him; correspondingly, God did not create marriage just to give us a pleasant means of repopulating the world and providing a steady societal institution for the benefit of humanity. He planted marriage among humans as yet another signpost pointing to his own eternal spiritual existence."

And when marriage is seen as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with God and become more like Christ, the ways in which you and your spouse grow will be yet another means of glorifying Him.

"Does your marriage stand out in this generation?" Lisa Chan writes in You and Me Forever. "This relationship was designed to reflect God’s glory . . . The world desperately needs to see an accurate reflection of Christ and the church in our marriages, because this is about God’s glory!"

The following are just some of the ways Thomas, in his book Sacred Marriage, outlines how your marriage can help you grow spiritually and draw closer to God.

1. Learning to love

According to Thomas, "Marriage can be the gym in which our capacity to experience and express God’s love is strengthened and further developed. To get there, we have to realize that human love and divine love aren’t separate oceans, but rather one body of water with many tributaries. We show our love for God in part by loving our spouses well."

You might be in a season of your life where loving your spouse is the furthest thing from difficult, or you might be in a season where loving them is a struggle; either way, marriage deepens our understanding of what it is to love. God doesn’t love conditionally, nor does He want us to. The love He pours onto us and the love we then pour out on others isn’t dependent on how much that person is getting on your nerves or how much you’ve grown apart. After all, Thomas explains, "Christian love is displayed in loving the most difficult ones to love."

"In the marriage context," he continues, "we have absolutely no excuse. God lets us choose whom we’re going to love. Because we get the choice and then find it difficult to carry out the love in practice, what grounds do we have to ever stop loving? God doesn’t command us to get married; he offers it to us as an opportunity. Once we enter the marriage relationship, we cannot love God without loving our spouses well."

2. Learning to respect

"As our partners and their weaknesses become more familiar to us," Thomas writes, "respect often becomes harder to give. But this failure to show respect is a sign of spiritual immaturity more than an inevitable pathway of marriage."

Thomas explains how working from home gave him insight into his wife Lisa’s day. "I had to learn to better understand Lisa before I could truly respect her, and I had to respect her before I could fully love her. This is a tremendously spiritually therapeutic process, an emptying of my self so I can grow more in my love for others."

Ultimately, learning to respect is a choice: "Contempt is conceived with expectations. Respect is conceived with expressions of gratitude. We can choose which one we will obsess over – expectations, or thanksgivings. That choice will result in a birth – and the child will be named either contempt, or respect," he writes.

3. Learning to forgive

Conflict in marriage is inevitable, but it needn’t be spiritually destructive. Even conflict can be an opportunity to draw closer to God. "Conflict provides an avenue for spiritual growth," Thomas writes. "To resolve conflict, by definition we must become more engaged, not less."

"Marriage teaches us – indeed, it practically forces us – to learn to live by extending grace and forgiveness to people who have sinned against us," he continues. "If I can learn to forgive and accept my imperfect spouse, I’ll be well-equipped to offer forgiveness outside my marriage. Forgiveness, I’m convinced, is so unnatural an act that it takes practice to make perfect."

4. Learning to serve

"Marriage creates a situation in which our desire to be served and coddled can be replaced with a more noble desire to serve others – even to sacrifice for others," Thomas explains. "This is a call for both husbands and wives. The beauty of marriage is that it confronts our selfishness and demands our service twenty-four hours a day. When we’re most tired, most worn down, and feeling more sorry for ourselves than we ever have before, we have the opportunity to confront feelings of self-pity by getting up and serving our mate."

He continues by noting that "it is precisely this notion of sacrifice and service that will help us reclaim spirituality for married couples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that ‘Christian marriage is marked by discipline and self-denial . . . Christianity does not therefore depreciate marriage, it sanctifies it.’"

Changing how we look at marriage – as a means of discovering God and becoming more Christlike in the process – is not an easy task. But the rewards are not limited to heaven.

"Although the purpose of [Sacred Marriage] is to help us use our marriages to draw closer to God, when we do that, we often find that our marriages will improve as well, increasing our own satisfaction."

As Francis Chan puts it: "A strange thing happened when Lisa and I started living with an eternal lens: it caused us to enjoy the here and now!" Adding, "God created us for a purpose. We can’t afford to waste our lives. We can’t afford to waste our marriage by merely pursuing our own happiness."

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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