In the months before I got married, there was a truth that many people seemed keen to share with me over and over and over again:
Marriage is work, honey.
It popped up in books. I heard it in sermons and in bits of advice from long-married relatives. Our pastor mentioned it. And so, over time, I began to internalize an idea: dating is fun and chemistry and warm fuzzies, but marriage is work and duty and an endless grind.
Now that I am eleven years into my own marriage, I look back on those pieces of advice and I smile. The people who told me that was marriage was work weren’t wrong – but they phrased the truth in a way that made it hard for me to understand. Marriage is, yes, work. And so is a relationship with God.
But neither of these things are “work” in the way that we culturally understand “work.” In fact, I would say that a godly definition of “work” differs significantly from the way we typically define it in our materially-minded, results-obsessed culture.
Before I got married, work to me was inherently joyless. It was duty. A job. A set of tasks that one must complete over and over. Work meant something like applying consistent effort to something over time in order to produce a desired result. The result – be that a paycheck, or a happy marriage, or a good relationship with God – was wonderful, but the work to get there wasn’t inherently wonderful itself. It was a means to an end, a tedious-but-necessary process like flossing or washing dishes.
After I married, though, I realized I was wrong. The “work” of marriage didn’t feel like work at all. It was exuberant and inquisitive and wonderful. And I began to understand the concept more as I looked closely at my own abilities. I’m a writer and a crafter, and I know people who consider both of those things drudgery. They do require work, at least in the sense that I must apply consistent effort to them over time. I can’t just look at the computer and expect a book to write itself any more than I can peer at a piece of thread until it sews itself into something. Effort. Consistency. And yet I don’t conceive of those things as work, at least in the sense that I think of them as being dutiful or tedious.
That’s because when I craft or when I write, the process is what rewards me, not just the result. There is something soothing in folding polymer clay over on itself and smoothing it out. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I pick apart a sentence or finish a paragraph. In many ways both of those acts feel like prayer to me: a time when my spirit stills and I focus on something and put my all into it. When I delight in putting my all into it. So when I’m done, even though I’ve been working, the process has never felt like work at all. It feels like joy.
And so with marriage. And so with God. The tasks that make up the work of a relationship – the talking, the intimacy, the effort to spend time together, to notice the little things, to pay attention, to give of oneself – do require effort from my husband and I, in the same way that consistent Bible study and prayer does in my relationship with God. But they feel joyful: they are rich and enlightening and delightful tasks that bless me as I do them.
It makes me think back to Eden, when God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15). God was not burdening Adam with work; he was blessing him with it. And it is only in the time since the Fall that we have considered work burdensome, a tedious set of tasks as a means to profit only. The joyful work of marriage, of our relationship with God, of our relationship with others, mirrors more closely work as God intended it than anything we might do as a mere means to a paycheck.
As believers, we must not expect the work God has for us to mirror the work we know in the world. No matter what it might be, God’s work is joyful work: not just because of the results, but because of the process itself and how it changes and enriches us. May you bless and be blessed by it.