Our home is a magnet for single men. It probably has something to do with the near certainty of a meal or a hug and the absolute certainty of our love for them. When they come over, we almost always end up talking about single women.
My husband and I value marriage and singleness, so sometimes we end up encouraging our brothers toward a life of undistracted devotion for as long as they’re able and for the good of the kingdom. But we also at times nudge one of our friends toward asking a girl out, help them process a break-up, or encourage one of them to more seriously consider the possibility of marriage with a “mere friend.” From the guys considering a relationship, we often hear refrains of hesitance: “Will we be good ministry partners?” or “Will she make a good pastor’s wife?” or “Will we be stronger as a couple than we are apart?”
For them and many other Christian young men, delayed marriage is common. The reasons are complicated and include unrealistic expectations, lack of confidence, a desire for financial security, aversion to commitment, general immaturity, or more simply, the inability to find or keep a compatible partner. Recent studies indicate that fewer and fewer men are sitting in evangelical churches on Sunday and the men who stay are often marrying later. Anecdotally, at least, I’ve seen this trend in play, and so have my single female friends.
To the single men who are considering marriage and feeling hesitant, I issue this invitation from Elisabeth Elliot’s Let Me Be a Woman: You do not marry a ministry partner; you marry a person. You do not marry someone like another man’s wife; you marry your wife. You do not marry someone like you; you marry a unique woman. And you do not marry someone perfect, you marry a sinner.
The same goes for women in their search for a husband. After marriage, you are not committed to your call more than you’re committed to the person, husband, man, and sinner before you. Nowhere in Scripture is “pastor’s wife” the attribute of a godly, good wife, nor is “deep theologian” the attribute for a husband. The only four qualities we need to understand in our search for a spouse are littered throughout the Scriptures and true of every married person on earth.
You marry a sinner.
Every person sins more naturally than any other thing they do. By the grace of God, we are being sanctified day by day and are full of the Holy Spirit, who helps us on the journey. But sinners we are still. We may think we’re prepared for the sinfulness of our future spouse. But sin is far more pervasive than simply something that we do, and if we’re not aware of that, we’ll be taken by surprise when it is not necessarily our own sin or the sin in our marriage that wreaks the most havoc, but also the larger sin of a broken world. Because of general human sin, our own specific sin, and the sin of the person we marry, we must be prepared to be sinned against by others, by our spouse, and by ourselves.
In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller argue that “what keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.” Instead of valuing a person for who they might be for you, ask instead how you might be sanctified as sinners together.
You marry a human.
Even if the “right” wife stands before you on your wedding day, there is no guarantee that her “rightness for the job” will continue or that yours will. You do not marry the perfect combination of preference, attraction, and giftedness. Rather, you marry a particular person. Both women and men are complex people made in the image of an unendingly complex God. We are bodies in need of food, water, and shelter and in want of health, happiness, and sex. We are minds and hearts and histories, hurts and joys and more.
When we marry, we do so understanding that our spouse’s fittedness for a particular task will be challenged by sickness, poverty, confusion, depression, childbirth, unemployment, sadness, passion, fear, and more. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus say, in essence, that as much as we care for our own bodies, we must be willing to care also for the body of our spouse. We cannot disassociate their humanness from marriage. Instead, we are called to value their whole personhood, flaws and all.
You marry a man/woman.
We often hear jokes and stereotypes about male-female differences—the big shoe collection or “all the emotions,” the toilet seat left up or the doubled grocery budget—but the larger point is relevant: Men and women are distinct. We do not marry someone with our own gender inclinations. We marry the Other, with different proclivities, different drives, different ways of processing, and different appetites. Judging a potential spouse based on our own way of doing things is recipe for disaster. Instead, we’re called by God to embrace the distinctiveness of the Other, the complementarity of marriage, and the difficulties that come with that complementarity.
You marry a husband/wife.
We marry someone who has covenanted with us through sickness, health, wealth, poverty, and more, “until death do us part.” Their fittedness for marriage—which we imagine on our wedding day—will morph every day for the rest of our lives. Their passions will wax and wane, their fears will ebb and flow, their attractiveness will rise and fall, and their abilities will come and go. When sin arises (and it will), when the body fails (and it will), and when their maleness or femaleness is on full display, we are still married to this spouse, this husband or this wife. As the Kellers write,
Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes that you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.
During my single years, I made a list of the kind of person I wanted to marry. I had preferences, and I don’t think they were wrong. Some were attributes like humility, gentleness, and a strong intellect. Others were less important qualities—like a beard, an appreciation for history and literature, and a propensity toward hospitality. In God’s generosity (and only by his grace), he gave me a husband with all those qualities and more. But in the long wait for a husband, what ended up being most helpful for me was not the specificity of my ask or the answer. It was instead a simple truth that I issue now to my young, unmarried male friends:
Our God is a good Father, and he knows far better what you need than you do. It’s possible that you think you’re asking for bread when you’re actually asking for a stone, and he is still waiting to give you the best bread money can’t buy. If you marry, you will marry a sinner, a human, a woman, and a wife. Nothing more, no one less.
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