Happiness is Hard Work

In the past few months I have watched in anguish as four very good friends of mine, good people all, have ended their marriages in divorce. These two couples started out fine. They brought children into this world, and raised them well. They had successful careers, enjoyed life’s pleasures, were faithful church folks, and collected great friends. But in the end what they lacked was friendship in their marriage. They built their relationships on attraction and excitement, and when life hit, little by little, they realized  they really hated more about each other than they liked. In their union they had failed to move past love to find deep, soul-renewing friendship.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common occurrence in our time. The pervasive societal sentiment that sexuality is the primary texture of happy living has eclipsed the reality that shared commitment to lasting values is the only sure foundation for marriage.

There is an old saying among church leaders that “what you win them by is what you win the to.” It means the reason people come to your church is going the be the reason they stay. If they are attracted to hype and glitz and flattery, then you’ll have to keep it up to keep them coming. On the other hand, if they come desperate and hungry to meet a holy God through the teaching of the Bible and the caring fellowship of God’s family, then that will have to be your ongoing strategy.

The same principle is true for marriage. What attracts us to someone had better be real, and lasting, or we will find ourselves no longer interested in walking life with them. Those who have been married for decades understand it is no longer merely physical attraction or the excitement of having your own person that makes their relationships satisfying. They will tell you it is their shared commitment to core values that has brought them past infatuation, through the valley of testing, and finally into the land of deep trust, respect, deeply satisfying love, and radical friendship. They will tell you they have truly become one. As one seasoned husband explained it “I’m really not sure where I end and she begins. We just seem to think, feel, and live as one person. It’s amazing, and it’s great.”

But, it certainly doesn’t come easily. By that I don’t mean marriage is painful, or an inevitably growing series of male/female battles. I mean that achieving (not finding!) happiness is hard work. But it is satisfying, enjoyable, and productive hard work. It is labor for the purpose of great personal reward. It is diligence focused in the direction of nourishing and nurturing another person at the expense of yourself, even as you realize that sacrifice is the only option available if you’re to achieve the euphoria God intended for marriage.

The current decay of marriage in our society probably stems from two basic things. First, marriage itself has become a casual relationship to be tried if you want, and discarded if it doesn’t work out. It’s disposable nature means you don’t really have to prepare for it, or work hard at it. Second, those who do want their marriages to work often are blind to the demands it makes on husband and wife.

Good marriages are made of good people. When we stop being good, even for “good” reasons, our marriages plummet rapidly. But to be good to another person means thinking more of them than we do of ourselves. It will demand hard work to grow in areas of personal weakness, while learning to sacrifice for our spouse’s wellbeing.

But beyond everything else a good marriage demands that a man and a woman are fundamentally committed to bedrock core values that actually sustain life and give it meaning. And this commitment must be the fuel that drives them away from selfishness and into sacrificial love for one another. Only in this way will the lasting bonds of friendship be forged. Happiness is there for the finding but only for those who are willing to give their lives to do so.