As a couple repeated their vows during a wedding the groom kept interrupting the pastor. When the pastor said in sickness and in health, the groom said health. When the pastor said for better, for worse, the groom said better. When the pastor said for richer, for poorer, the groom said richer. Finally, the pastor said, son, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be repeating what I say. The groom looked alarmed and said you mean we don’t get to choose!
We are continuing our series of messages on marriage, based around the traditional wedding vows, and this morning we come to the phrase for richer, for poorer. The title of this message is Building Wealth Or Happiness? Last week we talked about some of the financial challenges in marriage and this week my focus is a little less about the financial side of marriage and more on the happiness side of marriage. Despite the title, my point is not to make wealth and happiness out to be a totally either/or type of proposition. It’s obvious to us all that it is expensive to raise a family and cover household expenses and a certain amount of financial success is necessary to do those things adequately.
This morning, what I want us to examine is really a matter of focus – what is our focus in marriage? It is a focus that is concentrated upon building wealth or building happiness, which is a question for all of us, and not just married couples. And I will add that I think all of the messages in this series about marriage have some application to all people – married or not – and this message has the broadest application of them all, as the question of building wealth or happiness or one that faces every person, regardless of marital status.
Our Scriptural text for this message comes from the 12th chapter of Genesis, where we find a story from the life of Abraham that shows us one of his less than stellar moments. It was shortly after God called Abraham and promised to build a great nation through him that he and his wife Sarah journeyed to the land of Canaan. After their arrival in Canaan a severe famine drove them to Egypt, where Abraham feared for his life because of the beauty of Sarah. Abraham feared that he would be killed and Sarah would be spared, so he decides they will say that Sarah is his sister, thus guaranteeing his safety.
10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.
11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.
12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live.
13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman.
15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.
16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
17 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai.
18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?
19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!”
20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
Although Abraham comes out of this episode in a much stronger financial situation, I’m certain it didn’t do much for the level of happiness in his marriage to Sarah. So let’s look at some of the important truths we find in this episode in the life of Abraham and Sarah.
1. Happiness cannot be purchased; happiness is generated by how we live.
We have all heard that money cannot buy happiness (although it does allow us to look in better places, as the old joke goes), although it seems that a lot of people in our society are more than willing to trade happiness for money. Money can certainly buy certain things, and there are some things all people desire in life. Money can also bring a certain level of comfort to life, as well as a certain level of security (at least as long as you money lasts), it can afford opportunity, and money can certainly relieve some anxiety and worry about the cost of living.
But can money buy happiness? Let’s be up front and say that it can buy some measure of happiness, but not genuine happiness; instead, money it buys a superficial level of happiness. There is certainly some amount of happiness in purchasing something you desire and can afford, there is the happiness of being able to travel to a beautiful location, but there is a fleeting type of happiness in those things; it is a happiness that generally lasts for only a short period of time and is not an adequate substitute for the deeper and more meaningful happiness that we all desire. Happiness is not guaranteed by our financial status; some people with money are happy and some are sad, just as some people with little or no money can be happy or sad.
In a marriage, money is more often a dividing point than it is a uniting point; it is more likely to bring conflict than unity; it is more likely to generate unhappiness than happiness. Think for a moment; how many times has money brought you and your spouse closer together and how many times has it brought about conflict?
The question of building wealth or happiness is so important to understand because we must realize that happiness is not something that exists somewhere out in life that we can find by having a certain amount of money or owning certain things; instead, happiness is a by-product of how we live.
When a person goes off in search of happiness they will probably never find it, because it’s not out there to be found; but the person who concentrates on how they live will discover that happiness naturally comes to them. In marriage, many people are trying to construct a perfect life, assuming it will create happiness. They try and make their spouse perfect, their kids perfect, their home perfect, and all they do is drive everyone crazy, because you cannot force happiness to exist in such a way. Happiness only comes when you live life in the right manner, and the entire story of Scripture is God communicating to mankind how life is to be lived, and that when it is lived in that way, happiness will be a natural by-product.
If you read the Beatitudes your translation may use the word happy instead of blessed. The word happy conveys a better sense of what Jesus was trying to communicate, because he was saying that the person who lives according to those principals will find happiness. The person who has a sensitive heart to those who mourn, those who have a hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are willing to be persecuted for what they believe; these are the people who find that happiness will be a byproduct of how they live.
I can’t imagine how the choice Abraham made would have brought him any measure of happiness; it brought him some financial security, but could have done nothing to increase the amount of love and happiness between himself and his wife Sarah.
2. Happiness comes from a self-giving love.
The Pharaoh was so troubled by what Abraham had done that he ordered him to leave town; and to make sure Abraham left, the Pharaoh had him escorted out of town.
I wonder what the conversation was like between Abraham and Sarah as they were being escorted out of town. Abraham may have sought to justify his actions – honey, I got a good deal out of this; you were worth all these sheep and oxen and camels. I’m not even going to try and guess what her response was. Have you ever had that kind of conversation with your spouse where you’re trying to justify something you did, and they don’t say anything, so you keep talking and digging a deeper hole for yourself – or is it just me? I think that was Abraham’s situation.
What is really sad about Abraham’s actions is the cowardice in what Abraham did, because he recognized the Egyptians might kill him and allow Sarah to live. When Genesis says that Sarah was taken up into Pharaoh’s house, it means she was added to his harem, which was a terrible fate for Sarah. What was Abraham thinking? Was he so worried about his own survival that he failed in his concern for Sarah? Was he proud of not only saving his life but profiting rather handsomely as well out of the arrangement? It’s not a shining moment in Abraham’s life. And here is the irony of the story; Abraham, God’s chosen man, being outdone by the Pharaoh. Pharaoh was so anxious to get Abraham out of town that he even has him escorted, rather than trusting that he would leave on his own.
To build happiness, you cannot be out for your own self-interest in marriage, and Abraham was. Make no mistake about it; he was trying to save his own neck and to do so he was willing to put his wife Sarah in a terrible position.
People often make the wrong assumption that marriage is a 50-50 proposition. Marriage is not a 50-50 proposition; sometimes it’s a 60-40 or even a 90-10 arrangement. There are times when you may be called upon to give and give and receive very little in return, but you cannot always see marriage as a place to meet in the middle. The attitude of love is not thinking of where our responsibility of love ends and what we can expect in return, but how can I love and serve my spouse, even when I am receiving nothing in return? Our society has so programmed people into a me-first mentality that many people have a difficulty understanding that in marriage love is built upon self-giving, not receiving. In fact, love is about giving, not receiving. If you cannot give without an expectation of receiving something in return you are not expressing true love.
Let me hasten to add that I am speaking about healthy relationships, not an abusive relationship where someone uses faith as a way to trap another person in an unhealthy and abusive situation. Some people use faith – or a twisted version of faith – in order to trap another person in an abusive situation.
The purpose of life is not to seek our own happiness, not to pack our lives with as many experiences as we can enjoy, but to love God and others, and to demonstrate a life of live as revealed in compassion.
3. Happiness is built upon trust.
What do you think when you walk into a business and someone tells you trust me? We start watching our wallet, don’t we? There are so many people out to rip us off that we can find it difficult to trust. And so many people have been hurt by bad relationships they find it difficult to trust.
This was Abraham’s first test of trust after being called by God. Very quickly Abraham faces a test of trusting God, and he fails. What Abraham did was to take his future, and that of his family, into his own hands. In his mind, what he did probably made sense, because he was protecting the future God had promised. How could he become the father of a great nation if the Egyptians killed him and took his wife?
But it was not Abraham’s task to do God’s job. Abraham would probably protest his innocence, saying he was only trying to insure that God’s plan would survive – but it wasn’t his job to do that; God is going to see that his plan survives.
And Abraham’s failure has some very real consequences. Because of his failure to trust God, people suffered who were innocent in the matter. Pharaoh and his house suffered great plagues because of what Abraham had done (verse 17). Pharaoh certainly had his shortcomings, but he and others suffered because of Abraham’s failure to trust.
And think of how that failure to trust must have impacted the marriage of Abraham and Sarah. By failing to trust God and by taking matters into his own hands Abraham put Sarah in a terrible position, which could not have been healthy for their marriage.
A lack of trust in our lives has an impact beyond our own lives; others face the consequences of our lack of trust as well.
I hear a lot of couples talk about their early years of marriage, when they had very little, but they were very happy. And it’s interesting to listen to them because even though they have a much more secure financial situation now, it’s almost as though they are saying they were happier when they had less. I think it is true that as a couple move through the years of marriage that financial concerns can overwhelm many other parts of life, and the demands of making a living and paying for a home and family gradually and subconsciously became the overriding concern, so that the things done previously to build happiness begin to fall by the wayside. And the end result is that some couples find themselves with a much higher level of financial success and a much lower level of marital success and happiness.
Earn a living, support your family, plan for the future; but also take a very close look and ask if your satisfaction with your marriage has suffered in the process.