Jesus isn’t just a big deal to Christians. He’s the centerpiece, the whole point. He’s the one who brought us into relationship with the Father (and by extension into a family with other believers), and He’s also the one we strive to imitate in our daily life. The goal of every Christian should be to become more and more like Jesus over time.
The fancy word we use for “becoming more like Jesus” or “growing up in Christ” is sanctification. After the rebirth of conversion, a new Christian does what everyone does after they are born. Our goal is to move more and more into maturity as a believer.
If this maturity is such a major goal of the Christian life, arguably the goal, it leaves the believer wondering how do I become more and more like Jesus? What gets me there? How do I do this thing called sanctification?
While no one comes out on a stage and says, “Marriage is the indisputable, varsity route to becoming like Jesus,” the evangelical narrative around sanctification seems to unknowingly perpetuate this idea. Sermons, podcasts, interviews, conferences and even believer-to-believer conversations regarding sanctification are filled with this message, from the lay and the leader alike.
God does use marriage to sharpen us and teach us more about Jesus. Some of us entered into an entirely new level of maturity once we got married.
Marriage isn’t the only way.
However, to think of marriage as the only way transformation happens is very incomplete. It lacks the diverse voices of the unmarried as well as the countless other instruments God uses to mature his children. Those valuable voices and evidences of grace get drowned out because somewhere along the way, we forgot that God uses all things to make us more like Christ.
At some point, we created a hierarchy in the word all, and started ranking God’s instruments of growth, matrimony taking first place.
Sure he can use your work situation, but he really uses marriage. Or yeah, yeah, your roommate dynamics are helping you see your sin, but just wait until you get married. Sure, ministry work is teaching you things, but that’s nothing compared to what you’ll learn with a spouse.
I know we don’t mean to say that marriage is the ultimate instrument God uses to ignite our spiritual growth. I know that we don’t believe that with our theology, but our rhetoric says that, well, maybe we do.
Think about it. What message does this send to the single, the widow, the divorcee, the teen or the child?
Are we inadvertently telling them that their time for “super-charged sanctification” is either in the distant future or has already passed? That God really sanctifies the block of us who are married but their experience of spiritual growth is second-rate? Certainly not, unless we are brazen enough to say that Paul wasn’t all that spiritually mature because he was single during his ministry and possibly widowed.
Are we then assuming Christians can never truly grow in general “wisdom and stature” or “learn obedience” without marriage? That was obviously not the case for Jesus Himself, who though He never sinned, still had to go through the human experience of growing in knowledge and obedience (Luke 2:52, Heb. 5:8). More than all this, we must remember that these two major contributors to our very theology of sanctification—Jesus and Paul—were unmarried during their earthly lifetime.
Where do we go from here?
Instead of considering one instrument better than the other, we should celebrate any and all ways God is changing his people—the unmarried and married alike.
Just look around your church, your small group, your Christian friendships. The way God is working in that 17-year-old who chose to serve instead of bully at school is just as miraculous as the way God is using your marriage to sharpen you. The reconciliation you saw that child initiate during playtime is the Spirit’s doing, and that should make us all weep with joy. The ways that young ministry intern or single mom has grown to fiercely trust God with their financial needs right now is a miracle.
The fact that your best friend decided to cut back on work hours because he was worshipping success and ruining his relationships is seriously worth celebrating. The decision your small group made to get up early and pray together is a huge step of growth. The health changes your pastor made due to conviction about his eating and fitness habits is just as important as the ways he’s grown in his marriage. The work situation that your married friend is facing can sharpen her just as much as the conversation she had with her husband last night.
These are all ways God keeps His promise that He will finish the good work He started in His people—people of all shapes, sizes and romantic statuses. They aren’t a cute, JV version of the “real” spiritual growth a marriage offers. They are God’s hand at work, right here, right now.
Here’s the truth: God’s sanctifying hands are not somehow tied until you tie the knot. He is working now, in a myriad of ways, to mature you in Christ.
The instrument vs. the hand
At the end of the day, we have great news: The thing changing us isn’t the instrument anyway. The thing changing us is God. The instrument—whether it be marriage, work, roommates, kids, ministry, fitness or whatever—is simply the tool used to our eyes back to God and behold Him as our true source of life (2 Cor. 3:18).
Marriage can be a wonderful instrument God uses to help us cast our eyes back to Him, but it’s not the only tool or even the ultimate tool he uses. In fact, there are plenty of people who come out of a marriage looking nothing more like Christ than when they went into it. We can see that clearly by comparing the marriage of Aquila and Priscilla against the marriage of Ananias and Sapphira. Beyond their example, we can look at the divorce rate, the pornography epidemic, affair trends and conclude that simply being married does not guarantee anyone Christian maturity.
Only God Himself can cause Christlikeness in us. He alone is our grower, not marriage (1 Cor. 3:7, John 15:1). God authors the maturity of all believers by His own hand, and far be it from us to belittle His transformative work in another because it came through a tool we deem lesser. May we not, in our scoffing at the instrument, insult the Hand behind it.
Thank God that God is the author of our growth in Christ, not marriage. May we—whether in the pulpit, podcast, or pew—celebrate all things He uses to make His people more like His Son.