I have two good friends who recently got engaged to someone after only three or four months of dating.
I know – every Courtship Alarm went off in your head as you read that. Only three months? They can’t do that!!! Your friends must be impulsive and foolish. Not really. I know them too well. Both are strong believers, grounded in Scripture, and so are their chosen partners (immensely so). Yes, wisdom often makes longer engagement waits a wise choice. But God isn’t limited by that. There are times he surprises us.
However…I’ve known other couples who did worry me. They met, they courted swiftly, and people around them had concerns about their readiness for matrimony and about their familiarity with the other person.
And when they raised their concerns, the couple would respond with some variation on a familiar theme: “It’s not your business. It’s between us and God.”
Or perhaps it’s just the classic tendency of a happy couple to retreat in their own little world. We all know the pain of finding ourselves on a friend’s back-burner. You often see it in married couples, and you see it in many dating relationships. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. I remember a previous relationship where I actually caught myself thinking, “Now it’s my turn to shut other people out.” Once we find someone who really gets us, it’s amazing how expendable everyone else suddenly looks.
I’m making an assumption as I write. I’m assuming that as we singles train for our future marriage, we’re training with our eyes on God. We’re seeking what he wants for us, revealed through Scripture, believing that it’s best, and choosing even in our dating relationships to practice as many marriage principles as properly apply.
So what if Scripture led us to train – mind-blowing as it seems – as if marriage isn’t about us?
In talking about his hopes for his daughters, blogger Doug McKelvey handily blows open the whole idea that marriage is mostly just about the two of you. Obviously the marriage impacts its two participants most immediately, but that’s not the limit of its ripples. McKelvey is far more eloquent than I, but his point is that a woman who marries has had worlds invested in her – by parents, grandparents, siblings, pastors, mentors, friends – who deserve for their handiwork to be honored and cherished. What impacts her, impacts them.
McKelvey is joined by Scripture, where I see patterns of “it’s not about you” emerging all over. 1 Corinthians is the best place to see this. We’re taught that our gifts aren’t given for our own validation or enjoyment (though God might grant us those things on his own terms); they’re given for God’s glory and for others. A missionary isn’t made a missionary to make him happy (and won’t be effective if that’s his aim); a teacher isn’t made a teacher to make him feel smarter; a prophet isn’t made a prophet to bolster his own confidence by letting him stand on Scripture when he posts his Facebook memes. All these callings are for others.
Mike Schmitz asks a great question: Why would marriage be any different?
Schmitz points out that marriage is a calling as surely as any of those vocations. It’s for the same kingdom – God’s – and therefore subject to the same rules. And when we examine 1 Corinthians, we see things like eyes needing hands and heads needing feet and marrieds needing devotion to God (7:35) and it’s just not about you. The body of Christ is one organism, its members never intended to go it alone, with every action we take producing ripples that affect others. It’s designed this way, that we may be polished by the mandate to love one another.
And if a man is the product of parents, grandparents, siblings, pastors, mentors, and friends, then eventually he will become all those things as well. Which means his life will have an impact on others down the line, influencing his children and his children’s children and all those around him.
No man is an island.
So we must not live as if we were.
This is a huge problem for us singles. Why? Because in general, we are conditioned to thinking about what we can expect out of marriage, not what we can extend. I used to be. Nobody daydreams of the sacrifices; we daydream of the comforts. Of course God intends joy and comfort in marriage; he has a generous heart and designed us for pleasure.
But like all gifts of his, marriage is part joy and part sanctification. If our focus is solely on the former, we end up losing both. And to place our focus on sanctification and leave the joy up to God requires growing up, requires a deep, penetrating cleansing of the soul by his Spirit, a radical transformation.
It would be unwise to put off that transformation until later.
When Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7 that a single was better positioned to serve God, he wasn’t saying that a married person couldn’t do so. He was saying that both are expected to do so, that singles have it easier, but that people could still righteously take the harder road if they met someone they just didn’t want to travel without. There need be no crisis of conscience there. We can marry without having sinned or short-shrifted our pursuit of God.
One way God taught me this was by plopping me down in a church filled with married couples, younger and otherwise, who are incredibly devoted to God despite a marriage with multiple children (I’m talking anywhere from two to eight). They simply accept that life isn’t a bed of roses but a crown of thorns, and that their family still has to serve God. I’ve watched parents raise up their children to become incredible missionaries, youth leaders, and loving people, long before the youngest child is even out of the house.
It can be done. And it is the life I eventually want.
Here are some ways we singles can start training for it now.
Mission. It’s rather hard to say “I’m getting married, so I can’t do this hard thing right now” after Jesus shot down that very line in Luke 14:20. I have great respect for my friend Abby, who joined our team for a two-week mission trip to the Czech Republic, came home, and got married three days later. She willingly upended things, threw complications into an already chaotic season of her life, because she understood that her marriage wasn’t the center of the universe. She heard the call, and she wanted to start her marriage with a statement of “kingdom first”.
Service. You know the popular saying “JOY = Jesus first, Others next, Yourself last”? Make that a mantra. Look for opportunities. Start asking yourself how you can serve others in any situation.
A great secret of God’s kingdom is that when you serve others without thought of reward, God provides his own reward – a great peace and satisfaction that only he can give. It’s why people say “ministry is a two-way street” – when you minister God’s way, he gives back. This will actually cement a marriage, and it can do wonders to alleviate the loneliness of being single. It’s more than just “getting your mind off things” – it’s learning to wield a marriage best: as another apparatus to serve others. If you’re self-focused now, you won’t be any different in marriage.
Accountability. Pastors and family do have the right to speak to your choices. It’s a mark of my generation’s immaturity that we often don’t listen to anything except what we want to hear, and that we’ll duck and twist and navigate to hear it, even from our own minds. But don’t just shrug off those whom God has put into your lives for guidance. Sometimes life lies down the road we least want to take. They can see that road; they can see things you struggle to see.
Other relationships. Be prepared to intentionally and conscientiously cling to your friendships even once you start dating. You may have to force yourself; you won’t want to do it in the midst of romantic ardor. But the tension is good. Marriages need friends, dating relationships need friends, and none of it is a betrayal of the person we love. It can actually be a reinforcement of your relationship; spiritual family provides not just accountability but support. There will be times you need their cavalry charge.
It is true that a spouse will be amongst the most important persons in our lives. But a marriage that has room for God will also have room for other people. How might his kingdom be changed if we started viewing our marriages as a “booster” to our efforts to love others? What purpose, what shared joy there would be in such a view!
Start putting others first today, singles.