In an earlier article, I did my best to confront the false idea that God’s will is something we must uncover to make daily decisions in the vocational sense, specifically when it comes to marriage. In reality, God has given us freedom when it comes to choosing a spouse. There is no such thing as “one true love,” and we could find ourselves happily making a life-time commitment to any number of people. (Romantic, I know). But, if we are free to marry whomever we choose, the question still remains, how will we know when we’ve found “the one”? Are there any criteria a Christian should follow in order to choose a spouse wisely?

These are not bad questions to consider, and luckily Scripture isn’t quiet when it comes to how husbands and wives should treat each other. Nor is it quiet about how all people should treat each other in relationships. Here are just a few verses for you to consider:

  • Romans 12:10: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
  • John 15:12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
  • Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
  • Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.”
  • Ephesians 5:25-33: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

A lot of decisions in choosing a husband or wife also just come down to common sense. Do you get along with them and find each other attractive? Do they treat you with respect? Do they honor and love your family members well? All of these things should be considered. But before this turns into a very dull marriage advice column, let me get to the point.

While considering if someone is a good match for us is important and should be weighed with care, wisdom, and prayer, we must be aware of our human tendency to turn finding “the one” into a sort of self-improvement exercise. Too often, Christians create checklists based on good works, purity and personal holiness as the criteria for finding a perfect spouse. I think the overwhelming idea here is to marry someone “who will make you a better version of yourself.” And it might be worth noting that, usually, we tend to define “a better version of yourself” by meeting personal discipleship goals rather than by how well we serve and love our neighbor. While self-improvement is not a bad idea in and of itself, when made into the only criteria for marriage, it can quickly move relationships into the realm of self-justification. We will find ourselves right back in the middle of anxiety if we take God’s instructions and/or wise advice about marriage as a blueprint for salvation.

Theologian Jim Nestingen is fond of describing marriage as two sinners, living naked and belly to belly, for life. I think most married people, if they are honest, can attest to this. This is one of many types of earthly relationships where our true selves become difficult to hide, and we are each quickly (and often painfully) exposed as sinners in need of a savior. Taking two different and independent human beings from different backgrounds and throwing them together for life is like trying to smooth out barbed wire: it’s going to hurt.

When Christians assume the main goal of becoming husband and wife is that we push ourselves to be better, nicer, healthier, or wealthier, we turn sanctification into a transactional process by which the individual benefits.

Wanting all of this to run as smoothly as possible is not a bad thing. But turning our ability to overcome the pains and trials of marriage into personal victories on a ladder-climbing version of sanctification diminishes our ability to see our spouse-neighbor as more than a means to an end.

When Christians assume the main goal of becoming husband and wife is that we push ourselves to be better, nicer, healthier, wealthier, or whatever “er” works best for you, we turn sanctification into a transactional process by which the individual benefits. “You get better at this, and I’ll get better at that” becomes our mantra rather than unconditional love. Furthermore, we assume that sanctification is something we are in control of. Therefore, if we work hard enough at it, it’s something we can develop within ourselves based on our own abilities and for our own gain. When this happens, we become nothing other than navel-gazers hell-bent on personal development, and our spouse becomes the vehicle by which we get there.

My favorite description of holiness is found in Martin Luther’s explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed found in his Small Catechism (I know that’s a mouthful, but I promise, it’s worth the read). In sweeping clarity, he ties together our belief and our holiness through the work of the Holy Spirit:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.

I believe that I cannot believe! The true confession of any sinner, thankfully, and immediately tied to the hopeful “but” of the Holy Spirit. This work is done through the Christian church and the forgiveness of sins, not through my ability to pick a spouse, follow a workout plan, eat healthy food, or become the best me out there.

As Christians, we can trust that in hearing our sins forgiven on Sundays within a body of believers, and through the words of forgiveness handed over to us by our neighbor, the Holy Spirit does, in fact, sanctify us. This, too, is why we must deliver this word to those around us, including our husband or wife. “I forgive you,” must be said and it must be said often in a marriage. These words are salve to barbed-wire wounds and naked bellies who will most certainly forget that their spouse is their neighbor and not a self-improvement project.

With repentance and absolution in marriage come the freeing ability to gratefully consider one another out of true love – love that isn’t bound by conditions, but is rooted in the forgiveness and love first shown to us through Christ crucified. “The spontaneity of the new obedience is protected against enthusiasm by not claiming individualistically and egotistically in blinded self-conceit that it is our own possession, but by taking this spontaneity as the gift of another, by whose power we are enabled to live by faith,” says Oswald Bayer in Living by Faith.

“I forgive you,” must be said and it must be said often in a marriage.

Finally, in the promise of sanctification, we also have the guarantee of life everlasting, not because we are turned into the Christian Übermensch, but because we are brought ever nearer to the redeemer himself, Jesus Christ. “Being made holy is nothing else than bringing us to the Lord Christ to receive this blessing, to which we could not have come by ourselves,” says Luther.

As a Christian, your good works will undoubtedly bless your neighbor, perhaps even through the sanctifying act of marriage. This much is promised. But your improvements, whatever, whenever, and however much they may be, won’t be based on how much your spouse pushes you toward goal-development or spiritual growth. Instead, they’ll be on account of the one who has already made you holy and keeps you in the true faith. Take comfort that regardless of whether your future spouse meets your checklist perfectly or not, Christ has already completed that list for them and for you, and, in turn, he has granted you all of the credit.