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Thursday, September 07, 2017

Sometimes Burning is Better

My mother had all but given up on being married when she met my father. At very least she had determined to walk with the Lord and serve him with a whole heart whether or not she ended up doing it alone. Or so I remember hearing the story told.

My father, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t really looking for a wife when he met my mother. He was busy preaching and teaching and seizing whatever opportunities to serve that the Lord put in his way. My take on it is that he was seeking first the kingdom of God and found to his delight that some other things got “added unto” him along the way, so to speak.

With such ambivalence about actively pursuing marriage on both sides, it’s a wonder I’m here to type this today. They might well have missed each other. And yet ... here we are.

A Good Gift ... for Everybody?

So I was thinking about my own genetic history while reflecting on this post. Yaron Mizrahi runs a website designed to match Christian men and women with specific sets of convictions about the Bible, which probably explains his enthusiasm in encouraging Christians not to develop unrealistic expectations of marriage and of potential partners.

Yaron says marriage is a good gift from God (he’s right about that: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord”), and suggests that physical attractiveness, desired standard of living and geographic location — not to mention fear of the usual difficulties in adjustment that attend every marriage — should not get in the way of it. Each sub-section of his article is a reminder not to be unreasonably choosy and not to unnecessarily disqualify potential partners.

I have to think about that some more.

Balancing Act

There’s a certain general wisdom in Yaron’s outlook on relationships, but I wonder whether chasing marriage should really be the default Christian position today. The writer of the above Proverb is speaking of what is normally characteristic throughout human history. Marriage is good. It is a gift. Thanks, God.

We should not fail, however, to balance what would have been sound, standard advice to an Israelite in Solomon’s day with the New Testament counsel of the apostle Paul, which is actually more applicable to our present era. And that first Corinthian epistle suggests there are good reasons to think twice about marrying.

History Sometimes Repeats

Now sure, it’s more than likely some of Paul’s reasons for matrimonial caution are historical. He wrote this passage only 15 years prior to the Romans sacking Jerusalem and dispersing the Jews throughout the world, at a time when being persecuted for being a Christian was certainly a strong possibility. So when he speaks, for instance, of the “present distress”, or when he says, “the appointed time has grown very short,” and “the present form of this world is passing away,” one can legitimately make the case that the apostle was giving advice best suited to a period of church history now past.

That conceded, I don’t think it is terribly far-fetched to consider that Western churches may soon experience their own “present distress”. If that turns out to be the case, Paul’s advice here may once again be useful.

Some Truths Are Always Relevant

Further, on at least one point Paul’s teaching here continues to be relevant to believers thinking about marriage. His concern about the negatives of distraction is as true today as it was in A.D. 55:
“The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”
Talk of Paul being a misogynist should be dismissed as the boilerplate liberal nonsense it is. But he makes a valid point here, and one that can as easily be flipped around: the married woman may well be anxious about how to please her husband, while the single woman serving God does not encounter the same distractions.

All to say, I have my doubts about whether marriage should be pursued uncritically as a universal “good”.

Burning Love

Still, Paul nowhere condemns those who choose to marry:
“If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin.”
Indeed. Better marriage than burning with passion. Usually.

But I can’t help but notice that Paul has in view here a man who has already chosen a partner. He’s not on Christian Mingle or the equivalent looking to pair up with anyone who meets a basic standard. He’s got a particular “betrothed” and his passions are strong toward her. His love and desire have a specific object. He’s not just looking to scratch an itch or do what everybody else does.

That’s not irrelevant, and it makes me wonder if simply pursuing marriage for marriage’s sake is always the wisest course of action. It has certainly led to some less-than-stellar unions.

Looks and Character

So, like Paul does very occasionally, I will now offer my own opinion with precisely zero claim to inspiration. (Don’t worry, I won’t even try to speak to young women since what motivates them to marry us in the first place remains obscure to me even in late middle age.) So this last bit is for the godly, committed young men out there trying to decide if God’s plan for their lives includes a wife.

Yaron says, “Character trumps appearance any day of the week.” I strongly agree. Beauty is largely subjective. Someone I find attractive may not appeal to you at all, and vice versa. Also, looks fade, sometimes much faster than either husband or wife expects, while godly character does not. Banking on her physical beauty lasting is a sucker’s bet. On the other hand, a woman’s inner beauty may win you over to such a degree that your opinion about her looks eventually ceases to matter. But I suggest you don’t count on that.

Know yourself first.

The Unloved Wife

In my travels I have met dozens of women of lovely, godly character to whom I was not in the least physically attracted. I respect them. I value them. They are useful to the kingdom of God, destined for eternal reward, and I am proud to have them as sisters. Some loving Christian man will or at least could make them very happy one day, I suspect, if that’s what they’re looking for.

But it would never have been me.

If your experience to date relating to women has led you to believe that you could be so devoted to a woman you find less-than-physically-attractive that you would never look sideways at another, never fantasize about another and never think twice about your choice, then by all means go for it and God bless. It may well work out terrific.

But if your experience to date has been that six months of dating the same girl always finds you looking around at other options, please don’t commit yourself to anyone, even with the best of intentions. Certainly don’t do it because you’re feeling that you’re ‘getting on’, or because your parents want those grandkids, or because people might think you’re gay if you don’t, or because the world needs more Christian children, or even because you think having a partner might be useful in your particular area of Christian service.

That last one might even be true, assuming your partner feels loved and content.

They Always Notice

But what if she doesn’t? Worse, what if that’s your fault … because she isn’t? Women are hard enough on themselves already without going through life feeling unloved, and marrying a woman you don’t have strong feelings for is just plain cruel.

Don’t think she won’t notice. They always notice; ask Leah. Don’t think she’ll be satisfied with your courtesy, respect and duty. She won’t, even if she thinks she will. She’ll want your affections as well … and she deserves them.

So I say disqualify, disqualify and disqualify some more, for your prospective wife’s sake if not for yours. Few lives have been ruined by marriages that were not made (Romeo and Juliet might be the exceptions). People get up and go on. But marriages that were made, and made badly, often do tremendous damage, crippling the service to God of both husbands and wives.

Sometimes burning is better. Maybe not for you, but WAY better for her.

Yaron will probably disagree. And, as I say, it ain’t inspired …

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