Marriage & Joy


Two more sermons will conclude our series of evening sermons on the Bible’s doctrine and ethics of marriage, tonight’s and next Lord’s Day evening’s sermon on singleness. I’m sure that I could have covered more subjects than I have, but one must make an end somewhere and I think I have treated the Bible’s primary texts and interests. But for my last sermon on marriage itself, I wanted to end on a very positive note. In one respect tonight’s sermon is the recapitulation of everything I have said so far, but it is a point important enough to deserve a separate treatment. I am speaking of marriage and Christian joy. I haven’t a single text to read but will refer to a number of biblical passages as we go.

You have heard many times as you hear the marriage service read: “God has established and sanctified marriage for the welfare and happiness of mankind.”  It is of that “happiness” that marriage is to convey to husbands and wives that I want to speak this evening in this last sermon devoted to the life of marriage.

One scholar has said this about the place of joy in the Christian life.

“It is astonishing, and certainly does not need to be verified by quotations, how many references there are in the Old and New Testament to delight, joy, bliss, exultation, merry-making and rejoicing, and how emphatically these are demanded from the Book of Psalms to the Epistle to the Philippians.”  [K. Barth, CD, III, 4, 375]

Such an observation, easily proved as it is, should strike us more than perhaps it does. No other religion in the world and scarcely any other philosophy of life make anything like as much of joy as the Bible does. The Bible is shot through with joy: joy in the present and joy in the future, joy in actual experience and joy in the prospect, joy in principle and joy in fact. Christianity in a way that is unique among the world’s faiths and philosophies is a religion of joy. Stop and think about this; ponder it. I think that you will realize that real Christians could never do what the Sunni militants are doing in Iraq today, shooting down helpless men and women, if there were real joy in their religion. There is something purifying about joy. There is something all-encompassing about joy. It draws us to many other good and noble things because of its power and effect in our lives.

I have told you before that over the mantel of Nathaniel Ward’s (1578-1652) home in Ipswich, Ward was the Puritan who lived from 1578-1652, a former occupant is said to have carved three words representing the sum of Puritan ethics: sobriety, justice, and piety. Ward had a fourth word added when he moved in: laughter. And was that not right? And was not Lewis right to say that “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can!”  [A Severe Mercy, 189]

After all, the bible makes joy an essential part of the true and faithful response of the believing heart to the good news, to the Bible’s central message of salvation, founded as it is on the triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ; the triumph over all our enemies. You know those famous pictures of the celebration at the end of great wars; people kissing in the street, women throwing flowers. There is hardly anything that produces a more powerful experience of joy than a great victory at the end of a terrible war. And that’s the story of your salvation and mine.

  1. In Deut. 28:47 we read the Lord threatening curses upon his people if they “did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity.”
  2. When the Lord Jesus set out to draw the profile of his true disciple, he began he begins by saying “Happy are the poor in spirit…happy are the meek…happy are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”
  3. In John 16:22 Jesus promised his disciples that when the Holy Spirit came the joy of the disciples would be complete and that no one could take it from them.
  4. In the epistles of Paul we read that the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but “joy in the Holy Spirit” and are commanded to “rejoice in the Lord always” and Peter similarly speaks of a “joy unspeakable and full of glory” that is a mark of Christian life and experience.

Where else to you find this in the thinking of human beings or in the worship of human beings? We have a certain fear, in this day and age, that making too much of personal happiness will play into the hands of the self-serving and self-adoring spirit of our day and turn the Christian life into the pursuit, not of God’s glory, but of one’s own happiness and pleasure and fulfillment. We must certainly take care to be fully biblical and serious in our consideration of Christian joy. But we must equally take care to hear what the Bible says to us again and again about joy being the inheritance of believers in Jesus Christ. What is more, the place of joy in the Christian message is related to the place of joy in the human heart. The Christian life is the fulfillment of human life. It should never surprise us to find allies in the hearts of unbelieving people we know. They, too, have been made in the image of God. They, too, are longing for the same things we are longing for and one of those things they are longing for is joy.

As Jonathan Edwards observed,

“Jesus knew that all mankind were in the pursuit of happiness.  He has directed them in the true way to it, and He tells them what they must become in order to be blessed and happy.”

In other words, joy is the longing of every person. God made the heart to be happy and so human beings cannot help but long for happiness. Life without happiness, this is so universally in human experience, must always be an unsatisfying, an unfulfilling life. Martyn Lloyd Jones, the great London preacher of the middle of the twentieth century, explained it this way.

“Happiness is the great question confronting mankind.  The whole world is longing for happiness and it is tragic to observe the ways in which people are seeking it. The vast majority are, alas, doing so in a way that is bound to produce misery.”  [Sermon on the Mount, I, 32]

This is your ally in the heart of the unbeliever you know. He wants to be happy and you know how human beings can become happy. His point was that the question of happiness is not raised in the Bible simply to appeal to the selfish interests of human beings. It is raised because the question of happiness concentrates the issues of human life. We want to be happy; everyone does; no one can help wanting to be happy. You know Pascal’s famous remark about the fact that everything that everybody does, every day, all the time, is for the sake of happiness. He says that this is so inevitably the case that it is true even of those who commit suicide. They do so because they think they will be happier dead than alive. Pascal was right. Everything human beings do, every choice they make, even when the choices are difficult and miserable, are made because they finally conclude they will be happier doing this than not doing it. We want to be happy. And so the question becomes: where can we find this happiness we seek and cannot do without? Sin, which in its most fundamental nature is an anti-God state of mind, a spirit of rebellion against God, must seek happiness in God’s world where it cannot be found. Hence all the woe in this world. What we find in this world is a universe of people looking for happiness where it cannot be found. We were made to be happy in God and no human being will ever be truly and permanently happy in anything or anyone else. But the Devil will do his best to convince men and women otherwise. The tragedy of human life is precisely that of people seeking to be happy in ways guaranteed to make them miserable now and forever.

“Man is a slave to that by which he wishes to find happiness.” So said Augustine (Of the True Religion, 69).  Jesus agreed and, rather than telling people that they shouldn’t worry about happiness or that they should seek other things first, he told them instead how to  find true and lasting happiness and told them where it cannot be found. In a sense if a man finds true happiness he will find everything else with it because the only place where it can be found is in God and in Jesus Christ. Such happiness can’t be found in money or things because they are temporary and even at their best do not satisfy the longing of the heart for higher and deeper joy. Worldly pleasures can grant us a measure of happiness to be sure — a nice home, a great meal, a wonderful trip, satisfying accomplishments, and on and on — but by themselves they are too temporary, too fleeting, and too insubstantial.  The memory of some past pleasure is hardly enough to ward off the sometimes punishing sorrows of life in this world!

So we are not surprised to learn that Christian joy is founded upon the most substantial things of all. In the Bible true joy is a theological joy; it is rooted in our knowledge of God, in the experience of Christ’s love, in the forgiveness of our sins and in the prospect of eternal life in a world of joy. But that does not mean that this joy cannot be experienced, cultivated, preserved, and expressed in a great many different ways or experienced in many different dimensions of life. Because God is to be found in every aspect of our lives and in every one of our experiences, so joy may be found in everything as well.

Jesus, for example, compared the joy he grants to his disciples to the joy of a mother who has given birth to a child or the joy of a man who found a treasure hidden in a field. He spoke of joy, in other words, in this-worldly terms and taught us to think of it in terms of those things that have given us the greatest happiness. There is joy in all sorts of things in life. But, for a Christian, since all those things are from God and to be enjoyed in the Lord, that everyday happiness is also to be joy in the Lord.  Because we live and move and have our being in God, because he has ordered our days before there was a one of them, because all things work together for good for those who love God, joy should be and can be everywhere in a Christian’s life. And, because joy is our inheritance as the children of God, joy is something that can be practiced at any time in our Christian life.

Take, for example, the account of Ezra reading the law of God to the people on the Feast of Trumpets in Nehemiah 8. You remember what happened. The people wept as they heard God’s law read and then preached to them, because it was clear to them that they had not lived according to this law; they had betrayed it. Now you might have expected Nehemiah and Ezra, given how rare and necessary true repentance is, to respond to this evident spirit of repentance with gratitude and try to build on it and deepen it. But, instead, Nehemiah told them to stop mourning and weeping. “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And the people did as they were told and went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food to the needy and to celebrate happily. Christians, in other words, can rejoice even when they are sad and rightly sad! Christians, as Paul put it are sorrowful but always rejoicing. There are always things to make us sad in this world. But there are likewise always things to make us happy. The women, we read in the Gospels, departed from the tomb that Easter morning, “afraid yet filled with joy.” Christian joy can be experienced in, under, around, and through sadness, fear, worry, regret, even near despair, precisely because it is rooted in God and, like God, never fails. In such cases, of course, Christian joy is a deeper thing. It isn’t a grin or a bouncing step. It is the sure conviction that even now, even in the face of this, all is well.

I take away from an account like that one in Nehemiah 8, among other things, the truths that 1) joy is to be practiced, that it can always be practiced by Christians – even in times and situations when it might be thought inappropriate or impossible – and 2) that its practice is fundamental to a strong and fruitful Christian life. We need joy; we need lots of it. It is the counterpoise to the dreariness and the enervating quality of sin; it is the evidence of a good creation and a great salvation. And whatever means may be employed to foster it in our lives ought to be exploited to the full. Hence the number of feasts in the Bible – banquets with good food and drink and convivial fellowship. This is why the celebration of Christmas is such a Christian thing and serves such a Christian purpose. Why do we give gifts at Christmas time? Because it increases joy and that’s what we’re doing at Christmas. We’re cultivating joy.

Well, all of this being said, we have now to look at marriage and notice once more how the Bible connects married love and life with joy.

  1. We return one last time to the first expression of married love in the Bible, Adam’s exclamation over Eve when first she was created for him. We hear joy in those exuberant and excited expressions he used there. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” He might as well have said, “Lord, she is just what I wanted; the perfect Christmas gift.
  2. Or, take the father’s wish for his son, in Prov. 5:18 that his son might marry and “rejoice in the wife of his youth.” That is a wonderful phrase. He might have used many other terms – “may you find fulfillment”; “may you be satisfied with”; etc. – but he used the word “rejoice” – the ordinary word for “rejoice”; the word used, e.g. at Ps. 122:1: “I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”
  3. Or consider the Song of Songs, the Bible’s own celebration of wedded love. The poem is shot through with joy. The wedding, we read in 3:11, is “the day his heart rejoiced.” (Some of us were talking after the first service about the wedding yesterday afternoon between Chris Rankin and Beth Brodersen and how we had never seen Chris so happy.) We were reminded of Ps. 19:5: “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” You’ve seen an Olympic athlete crossing the tape first in one of those Olympic races hardly able to contain himself or herself, rejoicing to run his course. Or Jer. 62:5: “As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over a bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” The Lord is making an illustration out of the fact that we all know how happy grooms and brides are on their wedding day.

This does not surprise us of course. We know the joy of love. Weddings are regularly among the happiest events in the ordinary course of human life. But, then, that makes it only the more important that we face the implications of this connection that the Bible is always making between marriage and married love and joy and do not take it for granted. We often do. We don’t think about this. We are not living a sufficiently analytical life or analyzed life. God gave us marriage, as the liturgy reminds us, to make us happy! We are therefore to be happy in our marriages. If we are to fulfill God’s purpose in our marriages, we must be happy! Isn’t that the inexorable logic of the situation? God intends for marriage to make us happy; so we must seek to fulfill his intention and be happy in our marriages. Marriage is one of those ways, and one of the most important ways, more important than feasts, for example – for marriage is our life every day – for us to cultivate, deepen, preserve, and practice our joy. If we’re happy in our marriage as Christians, we’re going to be a lot happier in our life, a great deal happier than we would be if we were not happy in marriage.

I want to be happy, to be sure, and as your minister I want all of you to be happy, I want you to be very happy! Happy in the pure, honest, and deep way in which Christians should be and can be happy. We need that happiness for the spiritual strength it imparts to us – it is far easier to undertake almost any duty or to bear almost any burden when one is genuinely happy – and for the recommendation of the gospel that the happiness of Christians is to our children and to the world. It is an immense privilege for a child to be raised in a happy home! And it contributes to a child’s psychological and spiritual formation in so many good ways. A happy marriage is a very important part of that happiness of life, so great a part of life as marriage is and so intimately connected to all the rest of our lives as marriage must be.

Do you remember the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, recorded for us in 1 Kings 10?   She came with her great caravan to see for herself if what she had heard about Israel’s great king were true. And when she had seen Solomon’s court and capital and spoken with him and tested him with questions, she said,

“The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard.” [And then she said this.] “How happy your men must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” [Vv. 7-8]

Well, that is the idea. To have women, especially unsaved women, say to our wives, after seeing the way they are loved by their husbands, after hearing how their husbands speak to and about their wives and how they treat their wives, “How happy you must be to have such a husband, such a marriage!” And to have men to say the same to our men concerning their wives and their marriages. How happy you must be!

Lloyd Jones put it this way in a sermon on joy in the Christian life (cited Murray, vol. 2, 36).

“Let us in our married relationships show how Christ binds together two persons in holy love…let us so live in this relationship that people of the world looking at us shall say, ‘Would to God we could live like that; would to God we were as happy as they are…’”

And, if we are Christians together in our marriage – man and woman – we certainly cannot say that it ought not to be so; we certainly cannot say that such joy and happiness is beyond us. We know that God created us for marriage and for one another. We know there can be nothing wrong with marriage itself because God made it. If there is a problem, if there is a dearth of happiness in our marriage, it has to be our fault. This is the logic of the biblical viewpoint. We know what God expects and requires of us, both of husbands and of wives. We know what it means to love, appreciate, and celebrate one another with our speech and to cultivate married love. We know that the commandments of God are not burdensome. We know that in keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward and that he who loses his life – to love his wife or her husband as he or she ought to be loved – will gain his life – in the joy and pleasure and satisfaction of a very happy marriage. Surely, it takes two to tango and one spouse cannot make up for the disinterest or unfaithfulness of the other. But, I hope I am speaking by and large to Christian men and women who equally feel the obligations of faithfulness to God in their marriage, to love and make happy the spouse God gave to him or to her.

Sooner or later we must face the implications of all of this biblical teaching. We who are husbands and we who are wives must face it in particular, and put the question directly to ourselves: how happy am I and how happy is my wife or my husband? How happy, how delightful is our marriage? How much am I rejoicing in my spouse? How much is my marriage an engine of joy in our lives and a public witness to the goodness of God?

Or, put it backwards and ask yourself if you could say this about your marriage as James Fraser of Brea, the Scottish covenanter, said it about his.

“…the Lord showed His mercy to me, in giving me a comfortable and suitable yokefellow, who did me good and not evil all the days of her life. In her did I behold as in a glass the Lord’s love to me, by her were the sorrows of my pilgrimage many times sweetened, and she made me frequently forget my sorrows and griefs, and was the greatest [temptation] to me of saying, ‘It is good for me to be here;’ so that I can seal to the truth of that, ‘An inheritance is from the fathers, but a good prudent wife is from the Lord, and whoso findeth her obtaineth favour of the Lord.’”

Do you understand what Fraser said? Can you say that your wife or your husband is a great temptation, in that you so delight in his or her love, and find such happiness in living with him or her, that you fear you don’t want to leave this world and be with the Lord as much as you should? I am happy to tell you that I have felt the force of that temptation in my life, but of the temptations of this life, that is about the happiest and the best and the purest of all temptations! I think God is quite happy to have his people struggle with the temptation to desire heaven less because they are so enjoying being married to their husband or to wife, because they get such pure pleasure out of their marriages.

I can say this with confidence because of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. I will read those few verses for you as we come to an end this evening. Paul writes this in the midst of a long consideration of issues touching marriage. (Read)

Now, at first glance, you might conclude that this text was making precisely the opposite point, viz. that marriage interfered with the practice of the Christian life. After all, doesn’t Paul seem to be arguing here that, for the purposes of a consecrated Christian life, the single life is to be preferred to the married? “An unmarried man,” he says, “is concerned about the Lord’s affairsthat’s a good thing is it not? – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided.”  Doesn’t the Lord always want us to have a single mind and a single heart of devotion to him? Well, there is no getting away from the burden of Paul’s remarks. He certainly does seem to prefer the single life for Christians, though, as he makes clear enough in the rest of this chapter 7 that single life may be the calling of a small minority of Christian people. For example, interestingly in 1 Tim. 5:14 Paul counsels younger widows to marry. He doesn’t there take the view that their widowhood can be turned to great spiritual advantage. It is, he seems to assume, too difficult for many such women to be single and holy at the same time. He has said virtually that about men and women in general earlier in this same chapter [7:7]: “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his gift from God; one has this gift, another that.” And, however good it may be to remain single for spiritual reasons, he does not hesitate to write in v. 9 that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” By and large, consulting the whole of Scripture and even 1 Cor. 7, marriage is the normal condition of life for most people and needs to be. Well come back to that next week.

But, there is something else of real importance to notice in Paul’s words in vv. 32ff.  For, while it seems unmistakable that Paul favors the single life – all things being considered   — he says something of considerable importance about marriage and the sacred obligations of marriage in the process. For what is clear is that Paul is not saying that married men and women have this divided concentration and are no longer entirely devoted to the Lord’s affairs but that this shouldn’t be the case! He is not saying that marriage produces a divided interest between the Lord and one’s spouse though it shouldn’t!  He isn’t saying that at all. Rather, he is acknowledging that marriage must produce such a division of interest. Paul is saying that it is God’s will, God’s law indeed, that marriage produce this division of attention and interest, and that a husband must give some of the attention he once gave to God and give it to his wife instead, and vice versa.

Frankly, that makes even more remarkable that Paul goes on to say (vv. 36-38) that if one desires to be married, he is always free to do so and does not sin. In other words, Paul is as much as saying that God does not mind if a man or woman no longer has undivided devotion for him, but divides that devotion between God and a spouse.  The Almighty, Paul says, is ready and willing to share with a wife the devotion, the time, and the attention of a Christian man, or with a husband the interest and commitment and attention devoted of a Christian woman.

He is our Maker and our Savior.  He loves us with an undying love, has made a sacrifice for our salvation of incalculable cost. We are always on his heart, the Bible says. We are, the Bible says, “The apple of his eye.” He has an inalienable right to every last gram of our worship, our devotion, our interest, and our love. He would be entirely within his rights to demand of us the undivided interest and devotion of our lives, married or not.

But, quite the contrary, he permits us – no, that is not quite right – he urges us, even commands us, to give some of that interest, some of that love that is due to him alone and give it instead to a wife or a husband. God so delights in the love we show to others – to husbands and wives especially – that he is happy to surrender his own rights to that love so that others may enjoy it and profit from it. And if you are tempted to think that is a small thing for God to do, ask yourself how easily you do the same. How easily do you happily surrender the love, the interest, the attention that might be given to you and take pleasure in it being given to another instead?

Now this reality, of course, is not unique to marriage. We love and serve God by loving and serving others. We are taught that a thousand times in Holy Scripture. The first commandment is that we love God, but the second is right behind it: that we love others as we love ourselves. And marriage is the first and foremost of all neighbor-loves.

So, husbands and wives, here are your marching orders; you’re to stop and think about this: you’re to begin to seek in a new and fresh way one another’s happiness and that of yourselves together. It is what your heavenly Father wants you to do! He instituted marriage for the welfare and happiness of mankind. I can guarantee you that you are not as happy as you can be. You are not as happy in your marriage as you can be. You are not as much in love as you can be! If you are going to push the envelope anywhere in your life, why not here?  See how happy in love you can become, what perfect pleasure and joy you can get from your marriage, before the Lord takes one of you home to himself. This is a goal to set for your life. You men, especially, make it the goal of your life to see how happy you can make your wife, how much pleasure you can learn to give her, how much romantic fire you can put into your love, much pure fun you can find in living with her and loving her, and how much glory you can give to God by demonstrating how good, how kind, how wise he was to make marriage, men and women for marriage, and particularly to make you her husband or him your wife. The Lord’s intentions are your commands and it is his intention that you should rejoice in the wife and the husband of your youth!

Martin Luther once famously said,

“According to the Word of God, there is no more precious treasure on earth than that of holy marriage. God’s highest gift is a pious, amiable, God-fearing and domestic wife, with whom you may live in harmony, to whom you may entrust all you have, indeed, your body and your very life, and with whom you may bear children.”  [Cited in German in Schaff, Church History, vol. viii, 417n]

Now, you husbands, prove the great Reformer true! And if you do, my brothers, your lot may be like that of the great Jonathan Edwards who, when he came to die, had breath for one last word to the three at his bedside – his daughters Lucy and Esther and his doctor, a Dr. Shippen, the one who had administered the small-pox vaccination from which he died. We expect that with but breath to say one last thing, a man of the spiritual stature of Edwards would say something memorable about the grace of God, or the love of Christ, or the righteousness that was his by faith. He might have said, as Mother Theresa did on her deathbed, “Jesus I love you; Jesus I love you.” That would have seemed to us very like Jonathan Edwards! And a beautiful thing for him to say! And, in a way perhaps Edwards did say something like that. But he gave witness to his love for God and Christ in an entirely different way.

“Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever.”

We will, you and I, have done well by the Lord, the giver of every good and perfect gift and the one who desires that husbands and wives love one another and delight in one another, if a goodly number of us think to say such a thing when we are about to leave the world; if we too could speak of the “uncommon union” we had with our husband or our wife!