Johnny Reid sings about a question that is burning on the heart of a boy: “How will I know it” when I find the right person for me to marry? The song gives the very insightful answer, “You’ll just know it.” And then Reid confirms that every time the young man kisses or loves his partner now, “He just knows it!” If only it were that simple.
The choice of who you will marry is, to use a Latin phrase, decisionus giganticus. Especially if you believe, as I do, that God wants marriage to be permanent. Not only is it an irreversible decision, it is one you must make with huge unknown factors. How will job stress, career moves, chronic health issues, children, accidents, change this person? How well do you really know this person? How well do you have to know him or her before you commit for life? With so many uncertainties and the stakes so high, we crave signs of confirmation, physical or spiritual, that we are doing the right thing.
In this article I want to explore “what is a successful marriage?” How can we find God’s will for us in all things romantic? How much of the decision-making process should be based on discerning signs and interpreting feelings? What constitutes a healthy exploratory relationship? The scope of these questions would make a better book than an article, so bear with me in the length. I’ll try to be concise.
What are God’s criteria for a successful marriage?
1.That it lasts.
“What God has joined together, let no man separate.” Mark 10:9 (NKJV)This verse seems to imply that when a couple says their vows before God, it is God joining them together, so from here on out, being married to this man or woman is “God’s will for your life.” No more questions about whether or not he or she is “right for you.” We need to support married couples and not criticize them behind their back for having married foolishly. Pray that God will mold them into a compatible couple. God is glorified in His ability to change hearts. And even a marriage that looks like a mismatch can be shaped into a blessed union. Once you are married, this is the person that God has for you!
2. It reflects the relationship that Christ wants to have with His church.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:31-32 (ESV)
God created marriage as a picture of the intimate relationship that He wants to have with us. Christ loves the church even when we don’t deserve it – even when we don’t respect him. A husband’s job is to love and serve his wife, even when she doesn’t deserve it or is not grateful. A wife’s job is trickier because while submitting to a perfect Man is easy, submitting to a fallen man is scary. The key is to see her submission as directed ultimately to Christ who is perfect and has the ability to guide and shape her husband.
The natural human response is to only love the worthy. But in marriage there will be times when your spouse is not earning your love or attraction. In fact, there may be times when aspects of that person are repulsive to you. But the Bible’s mandate is love anyway! Serve and respect anyway! And the only way anybody is able to follow Christ’s example is to be indwelt with Christ’s power by the Holy Spirit. God is not asking us to do this on our own strength. He is passionate about marriage and His power is always available to us.
3. It produces Godly seed.
Malachi 2:16 says that God’s “hates divorce,” and verse 15 states why God makes a couple one: “He wants godly offspring.” The family is one of the most effective units to raise up a godly generation equipped to advance God’s kingdom. Producing godly offspring seems to rank high on God’s priorities for a marriage. For infertile couples, there can be a spiritual fulfillment of this purpose as they pour their time and talents into other people and produce spiritual offspring.
4. It is sanctifying.
Other passages talk about the transforming power of marriage as we seek to be of one mind and understand the other (1 Peter 3), or meet our spouse’s physical needs (1 Corinthians 7). We want a spouse who makes us happy and joyfully meets our every need. But God wants to unite two people who are stronger and more effective together than they were as singles, so He often puts together people whose strengths balance each other’s weaknesses. This equals irritation. We are often annoyed by people who fail in areas where we excel. On the flip side, if God gives you a spouse with a strength where you are weak, realize that your weakness will sometimes be a thorn to your spouse. God is not just after your comfort or your spouse’s comfort; he wants you both to be more effective. Almost everything that really causes us to grow, from discipline to exercise, is uncomfortable. Marriage is no exception.
Knee-buckling kisses, mystical signposts, and finding God’s will
There are so many unknowns about the future and the complexities of the person that you are interested in marrying. It makes perfect sense to long for some kind of mystical confirmation, physical or spiritual. It is much easier to pray, “God, just show me who is the one”, than it is to ask the tough questions and take the time to get to know a person.
If there was ever an issue where we needed God’s guidance, it is this one! The problem is that God is not a genie we can rub and get our wish, or a fortune teller who will reveal which choice to we should make. If we really want to receive God’s guidance, we must submit to His guidelines for the way He wants to direct us. And where God has delegated a responsibility, we had better take it.
In Romans 12:1-2 we are commanded to offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (NKJV)
In other words, knowing God’s will requires that we be surrendered to Him, that we live holy lives, and that we are being diligent to have our minds transformed by God’s word. If we are not doing these things, we can’t expect God to make things easy by giving us a simple sign. He could, of course, but He is in the process of shaping us to be like Christ. And He has decreed that part of this shaping is to develop our minds so we can glorify Him with wise decisions. We might prefer to be turned into automatons where we just crank out good choices but God seems to want to develop our moral fiber, where we freely choose to make the right choice. If God had wanted mindless robots, He would have made robots.
You are not alone
The idea that we are responsible to make hard choices can be scary, be He has not left us alone. One of Jesus’ names is Counselor (Isaiah 9:6). God directs through several means. It seems from the pattern of Scripture that He guides us by an unmistakable voice, by bringing a biblical principle to mind, or by revealing new information that makes the choice obvious. God is also in complete control of all circumstances; He won’t torment us with easy-to-miss signs and signals. When God wants us to hear something, we will hear it! The only issue left will be whether we want to obey or not.
In the absence of a specific word from God, our job is to put in the responsible effort: doing research, asking counsel of trusted, mature advisors, and saturating our mind with God’s word. When it comes time to make a decision, if the choice we make does not violate scriptural principles or an unmistakable word from the Lord, we can rest with confidence, knowing that God’s sovereign hand is working behind the scenes. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to not “lean on our own understanding,” but it also promises that when we acknowledge Him, He will “make straight your paths.” (ESV) God controls the opening and shutting of doors and circumstances, and even guides our choices. I was turned down by the fathers of two girls I was interested in before Heidi. I thought I had heard God’s voice and read my feelings correctly, but God in His infinite wisdom had other plans for me. I committed my way to Him and He gave me a clear path. Even our mistakes do not mess up His plan. He knows every detail of our future choices and plans accordingly. We can go forward with confidence in His sovereignty.
Courtship or dating?
We Christians find so many things to argue and split over. We are especially excellent at letting terminology divide us.
“You date? You liberal, unchaste person!”
“You do courtship? You fundamentalist, naïve, over-controlled social misfit.”
The reality is that there are some forms of “dating” that are more in line with Scripture than some forms of “courtship.” Wherever you stand personally, you have to grapple with this problem: How do you get to know a person thoroughly enough to make a confident proposal (or accept one) without doing things that either of your future spouses will be hurt by should the relationship fall through?
God says in Hebrews 13:4 “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” (NKJV) Sex outside of marriage will receive God’s judgment. The necessary get-to-know–you stage of a relationship should not become a get-to-know-you stage. Any activity that stirs sexual desire should be avoided out of love for the person you are with and by a desire to glorify God sexually. I also think that there are aspects of romance that are super-glue for the soul. You do not want to find yourself bonding mentally, physically, or emotionally with a person you are not going to marry. These soul ties last a long time and can prove a real threat to your future marital harmony.
That being said, there needs to be room for a relationship that allows for quality time alone and deep conversation. But the closer you get mentally, the stronger your physical desires will become. It will be so tempting to start enjoying each other romantically before you have really committed. You don’t want to find yourself completely entangled with a person only to discover you aren’t right for each other.
In the courtship world, a danger is that people may expect that you are practically engaged just because you have started a relationship. With this mindset, it will be even more tempting to get physical or allow your mind to go places it shouldn’t. Please, get to know a person before you commit! But before you commit, guard that person physically. If it becomes clear that you are not right for each other, you want to be able to look that person’s future spouse in the eye, unashamed of what you did.
As a relationship progresses towards marriage, for a Christian, it reaches a point of no return. At the very least, this point will be the wedding vows. After marriage, it doesn’t matter what you discover about the other person, you commit, by God’s grace, to making this thing work. I think it is wise to have a “point of no return” that happens before the marriage. You are not married, but you are completely committed to marriage. While every sexual aspect of your relationship needs to be saved for marriage, this earlier stage of unbreakable commitment will allow for a time of mental and emotional bonding without fear of it falling through.
What is a healthy “get to know you” relationship?
Ideally then, a healthy progression towards marriage would be a two stage process. Stage one would be a time of no commitment or pressure to be a couple. Either party can be free to walk away. Don’t change your Facebook relationship status just yet. Not to save embarrassment if things don’t work out, but because there is nothing to announce yet. This time is for evaluation and asking the big questions. Your goal right now should be to discover who a person truly is, not just what his or her public image is. You want to see if you are on the same page spiritually and have compatible life callings, so that you are pulled together when you are both passionately pursuing what God made you to do, rather than pulled apart. You want to see how healthy this person’s other relationships are. The principles that make a marriage work are basically the same that make any relationship work: kindness, trustworthiness, affirmation, a quickness to forgive, a teachable spirit, a desire to serve, good listening skills. Someone with these qualities will be surrounded by close friends and have healthy relationships with his or her family members.
Take time to make sure that there are not any hidden qualities either in this person or his or her family that will sabotage your marriage. Things like current sexual addictions or any form of dishonesty should be treated seriously! Also carefully watch this person’s interactions with their family. Don’t expect to be treated any differently.
During this no-commitment phase, you are not trying to see if you are compatible in every area. You are a man and a woman after all. If you do get married, there will be areas of adjustment. This is the time for evaluating and asking “can I live with this?” In the exploring process, you will naturally turn a critical gaze on the other person as you ask, “Is this person right for me?” (After marriage, that same thought is a poison. If you want to make your marriage work you don’t have the luxury of blaming the problems in your relationship on the other person. You have to look in the mirror and ask, “What can I do to solve this problem?” “How can I change?”)
While in this no-commitment phase, I think there is wisdom in guarding your prospective spouse as still belonging to someone else, i.e. treating that person the way you want others treating your future spouse. Or keeping your interactions, at least on the physical level, to what would be appropriate for your parent to do with someone they are not married to. Focus your attention on getting to know this person in a way that is not clouded by the excitement of romantic affection. Kissing, hand holding, and fondling are going to form permanent bonds. Don’t start gluing yourself to a person you have not committed to!
The second stage would be engagement, the point of no return. Your mindset has now shifted from “are we right for each other?” to, “no matter what, we will make this work.” The evaluation phase is over. From here on out, you are committed to becoming one. This second stage is the time to finally begin enjoying romance, but not sex. You are in a truly committed relationship and are free to let your hearts start bonding with the glue of romance.
As bystanders, if you see a guy and girl in the first stage of getting to know each other (i.e. courtship) don’t flood them with congratulations. This puts pressure on them to see this as a done deal, when in reality they might need more time before they commit. They are not a couple just yet. And if they decide they are not right for each other, they shouldn’t feel like it was a “failed courtship,” or something to be ashamed of. You can learn so much from a close friendship with the opposite gender; lessons about true love and what it takes to make a relationship work. You will be a better spouse because of that relationship. If you have been in a relationship that did not end in marriage, please do not view yourself as damaged goods! You have not given away your heart. It is great when you get to marry the first person you were ever in love with. But the most important goal is to marry wisely and to see clearly how much you need God’s grace to make a relationship work. Even broken hearts can become chalices filled with God’s beauty.
(Sexual) love is blind
Any road map that charts the progression to marriage needs to acknowledge the deceptive power of emotions and the blinding passions of sexual desire. Many people fall madly in love and feel things they’ve never felt before. It’s a chemistry of sexual passion that sets a person’s world ablaze. Because this experience is so strong and overwhelming, it casts a spell over you and deceives you into thinking you have found a shortcut to True Love. Presto! A deep connection that didn’t take work or sacrifice. But it is only a feeling set off by sexual hormones. It doesn’t last.
Just because someone cranks your sexual engine, or sets off a flurry of infatuation, does not mean he or she is good spouse material! Sadly, because sex is one of the main things a marriage offers that other friendships don’t (or shouldn’t), sexual attractiveness or compatibility is often moved to the top of the list of priorities for what you are looking for in a spouse. The reality is that sex, if everything is going well, will only take up 3% of your relationship time-wise. That means for the marriage to work, the other 97% has to be based on something other than sexual attraction, such as friendship and basic relationship skills.
Here is the problem: Sexual attraction is often based on risk and a sense of adventure. Women especially seemed to be turned on by the “bad boy” image. Why? I have no idea. The jerk who turns them on is going to be lousy husband material for 97% of the time and bring hurt that will ruin even the other 3%. Conversely, there may be a guy who is a terrific friend but is not deemed sexually attractive. He would be a great husband 97% of the time, but is written off because he doesn’t turn you on. But here is the thing: Sexual fulfillment is based on things that are learned within a context of trust and commitment. The kind man who you love as a friend but find “boring” can learn to be all the man you will ever need.
You do the math
God has given us gifts of a sexual nature that could be enjoyed between almost any man and woman. A fire can be built out of wood and oxygen. Sexual attraction can be built out of a man and a woman. Or as the great poet Brad Paisley put it, “It takes two to make love, Baby. You’re one, I’m one, you do the math.” There are two implications in this. One, people who are terrible for each other can be very mutually attracted sexually. Everyone else can see that they are a terrible match, but they enjoy their kissing and fondling so much that they believe they are soul mates. It doesn’t matter that they struggle with their relationship when they are not making out; the sexual attraction is so strong, they argue, it can’t be wrong! For this reason, to really get to know a person, you should avoid activities that stir sexual desire and thus blind the eyes during the get-to-know you phrase.
The second implication is that sexual attraction can be built where it once was not. I’m afraid I might have just lost many of my single readers. You probably know someone you find sexually unattractive and you are saying there is no way you could ever become attracted to this person. But remember, I am not talking about lust, which is based on selfish attraction; I am talking about building sexual fulfillment which is based on selfless acts of service. I’ve been married almost 8 years and I know that there are times of real sexual attraction and times where there is nothing. In fact, for the first couple years of knowing Heidi (before marriage, obviously), I was not in the least physically attracted to her. My mom had suggested her to me and I said, “No way!” But as I was drawn to her character qualities, my desire for her grew. I can now say with full confidence that she is 100% my type!
True Love and Expectations
Myths about automatic soul mates can create false expectations about real life marriage. You’ll be led to believe that if you just find the right chemistry, you will have no problems with communication or in the bedroom. Or, in the Christian version, that if you keep yourself pure and marry the first person you fall in love with you will effortlessly waltz into marital bliss.
Marriage consists of two selfish, sinful people. No matter who you marry there will be friction, frustration and massive misunderstandings. A good marriage takes work. You may want to make beautiful music on the violin, but the secret to beautiful sounds has far more to do with the effort you put into practicing than it does with finding the right violin. What many couples may not understand is that screeching, pitchy sounds are necessary steps to becoming a great musician.
True love does exist. And having a soul mate can be achieved. But it can never happen without time and effort or hours of difficult conversations clearing up hurts and misconceptions. The process of being grafted into oneness is painful and full of emotional bleeding. But the end result is breathtaking and worth every bit of turmoil.
Becoming the right one
If you have not developed the necessary relationship skills to make a marriage work, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your spouse is. You will wreck your marriage. If you want to know what kind of spouse you will make, look at your relationship with your parents or siblings. How do you treat them? What are your habits towards them? If you are not “the right one”, you will never find “the right one.”
Marriage is a gift. Proverbs 18:22 says “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” (NKJV) If you have a desire to pursue marriage, pursue it and don’t feel guilty about it. However, the whole process must be surrendered to God. You must surrender your desire to God to be fulfilled in His timing. You must saturate your mind with what God has to say about what it means to love another in a Christ-like way. Every step of your relationship should be submitted to the biblical standard of purity. You must put the needs and desires of the person you are with, and their future spouse, ahead of your own desire for gratification. You need to think about how your actions are affecting your own future spouse as well. You do not want to leave a trail of brokenness in your pursuit of marriage. Enter an exploratory relationship with caution, but not fear. Go with confidence, because God loves marriage. Commit it to Him, and He will make it clear.