When churches claim that marriage is a sacrament, they claim that it is a visible word of God, a word of grace and judgment.
Marriage is a word of grace insofar as to feel known and desired reflects the desire of God for us. In Christian thought, God’s triune nature entails the flow of desire between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is Himself an interplay of desire and longing, a desire and longing which is never satisfied, which never rests content, but is always marked by a reaching out further and further, a pouring out oneself and finding oneself anew in the other. The desire of God for God is never simply gratified in this movement but only intensified.
Through our union with Christ in the Spirit, we join this movement, now able to cry “Abba, Father,” with the Son. And similarly, our desire for God is never static, never simply gratified either. Even in heaven, we will not rest at ease but join the eternal movement of God’s desire for God, always giving and receiving anew. In a fallen world, a true desire for God may be marked as much by frustration and dissatisfaction as by any satisfying experience of warm fuzzies – think of Jesus’ experience at Gethsemane and on the cross. God may not be able to be our “everything” because the “everything” we want may not be who He is or because of His willingness to grant creation its own freedom and integrity.
We must train ourselves to experience this frustration as an invitation rather than merely dissatisfaction. What better training ground than a lifelong marriage? Our feelings naturally ebb and flow – might not that be interpreted as an invitation? An invitation to go deeper, to linger in the familiar until the mystery returns? To say that marriage is a sacrament, a word of grace, is to say that it reflects God’s love for us, and God’s love for us is unconditional. God’s love does not wait on us; it does not pause while we get our act together. God does not love us because we offer anything, so it will not simply go away if we fail to offer that something – whether that something is sacrifice, obedience, or anything else we can imagine.
In marriage, then, we are invited to love as God loves us and to experience our spouse’s love as a reflection of God’s own love for us. We are invited to embody God’s patience in our willingness to endure our down swings without blame or self-pity, to embody God’s humility in our refusal to take our partner’s down swings personally. Let’s not neglect that last component, embodying God’s humility. It’s not often discussed, but if we’re honest with ourselves, our own inability to be “everything” can be threatening. Our partner’s dissatisfaction can easily produce a reaction in us where we feed our own dissatisfaction to try to out “dissatisfy” our spouse in retalitation for their dissatisfaction.
In my experience, there’s a strong tendency among Christians to doubt (and sometimes attack) the idea that one can be dissatisfied with God. Such an experience is treated as an indication of rebellion. There’s a similar tendency to doubt (and sometimes attack) the experience of frustration and dissatisfaction in a season of marriage as itself simply sin. I have no doubt that these tendencies are related. I should admit that there is some truth to these tendencies – the experience of dissatisfaction is in part the product of a fallen world, it is possible to harbor and so encourage such experiences, and how we react to the experiences will define our spirituality and our marriage for better or worse. That being said, what matters more than our experiences of satisfaction or dissatisfaction is how we handle those experiences, because those experiences offer us the opportunity to embody God’s grace and to receive God’s grace in surprising, profound ways.