Like most good Christian girls growing up in the last few decades, the advice I received about marriage during my teens and early adult years is largely a mixed bag. Some of it has been helpful (marriage is not an award for being awesome), some of it comical (husbands always balance the checkbook), and some of it just plain wrong (you’ll know 100% when you’ve found “the one”).
This last piece of advice has had a particularly damaging impact, as it too often causes angst, guilt, and uncertainty for Christians who hope to be married one day or find themselves struggling within marriage. Unfortunately, I think this damage comes from two misinterpreted Biblical doctrines, the first having to do with God’s will and the second having to do with sanctification. I would like to address both to see if it’s possible to counteract our anxiety about husbands and wives with God’s promises. Let’s begin with the first.
Biblically speaking, we won’t find much evidence for a preordained spouse.
Much of our anxiety about marriage as Christians comes from the spread of the, “true love myth” into Christianese; or that God has predetermined and preordained one specific person for you to wed. This is undoubtedly a nice-sounding idea, one that seems both to imply God’s care for the smallest of details while also simplifying things: finding your true love is the most difficult part of marriage (ha!). But Biblically speaking, we won’t find much evidence for a preordained spouse. If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself. You’ll find plenty of language about God choosing you (yes, you), but surprisingly absent is language about God choosing him or her for you.
Additionally, this idea quickly gets complicated when we look for it in real life. Your great-great-grandparents (maybe even your parents depending on where your family is from) probably had some version of an arranged marriage. Did God change his revelation techniques in the last 50 years, preferring to let younger generations in on his matchmaking secrets? And if his goal is to choose a spouse for you from before the beginning of time, how will you know when you’ve met the right person? What do you need to do to confirm his appointment? And then there are questions of timing: are they the right person for you now, or later on in life?
The idea of “one true love” can leave single or dating people frozen in fear of not choosing the “right one.” Similarly, it’s an idea that can haunt the thoughts of already married people. If there is a perfect person for you, complete fulfillment and infrequent marital discord become an implied part of the package. When these things do not happen, it can leave us doubting our faith (did I not really listen to God?) or the faith of our spouse (are they not the person of faith I thought they were?).
Perhaps most alarming, when we believe God has chosen our spouse for us, we may be drawn to ignore real problems in a relationship, including abuse and neglect. Reason is gifted to us for a purpose. God has gifted us with heads and hearts so that we can make rational decisions when it comes to our relationships, our vocations, and our lives in this world.
Behind this myth is the even larger misconception that we must each uncover God’s will for our lives. Much like a treasure hunt, this aspect of decision theology implies that we are rewarded with clues of his ultimate purpose for us through our discipline, obedience, and good works. In other words, we enact God’s will.
Behind this myth is the even larger misconception that we must each uncover God’s will for our lives.
But Scripture doesn’t speak of God’s will in this way. In John 6:40, Jesus says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Certainly, God cares about each detail of our lives, but it’s his ultimate will and purpose that each of us has salvation through Christ. And this is not a will we enact for ourselves - if that were the case, we could save ourselves. (And subsequently, if we are the “enactors” of God’s will, such decisions could be appropriated as our own).
We know God’s will by knowing Christ, and we know Christ through Scripture. This is where he is revealed to us. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:7-10).
This should lead us to comfort no matter our current obstacles, insecurities, or sufferings. God has chosen to be close to us in a way that leads us to certainty - perhaps not when it comes to the things we would hope for such as which job to choose, what car to buy, or who to marry - but because of his Words, in the eternal, we can be certain. Through his son, he draws us near and reveals to us his love and care for us. He has willed us to become his sons and daughters. Therefore, we are free to stop treasure hunting and start living with joy and assurance that we are his.
As Luther says in his commentary on Romans 12:2, God’s will becomes good to us through the belief He gives to us. “Thus to hate our own life and to will against our own will, to be wise in opposition to our own wisdom, to confess sin in the face of our own righteousness, to heed foolishness spoken against our own wisdom, this is “to take our cross” (Matt. 10:38), “to be his disciples” (Luke 14:27), and “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” We don’t need to enact anything because the work has already been done.
Your marriage is probably not perfect, or perhaps it has even failed. Maybe you are unsure if the person you are currently dating is right for you. The point here is not to ignore red flags, but instead to encourage you to freely recognize when a relationship is right and when it’s wrong. Married, single, or divorced, God’s will for your life is that you find your worth in his son through whom he made you righteous.