I have a confession to make.
When I got into a relationship a few years ago, I caught a distinct sentiment running through my head:
“Now it’s my turn to shut people out.”
And sadly, for a while, I did.
Perhaps I’d been roasted too often by some friend disappearing into their own little world upon finding someone. We all know the pain of finding ourselves on a friend’s back-burner. Once we find someone who really gets us, it’s amazing how expendable everyone else suddenly looks.
And that betrays a pretty awful assumption: that relationships are about us.
I’m making an assumption: that we singles are training for our future marriage with our eyes on God. We’re seeking what he wants for us, revealed through Scripture, believing it’s best, choosing even in our relationships to practice as many marriage principles as we can.
So what if Scripture led us to train 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 lovebirds. 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 to be honored and cherished. What impacts her, impacts them. Obviously the marriage impacts its two participants most immediately, but that’s not the limit of its ripples.
McKelvey is joined by Scripture, where patterns of “it’s not about you” emerge 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, but for God’s glory and for others. A missionary isn’t made a missionary to make him happy (and he 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. All these callings are for others.
Mike Schmitz asks a great question: Why would marriage be any different?
Schmitz points out that marriage is part of the same kingdom – God’s – and subject to the same rules. 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 smoothed by the waves.
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’re 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 – a deep, penetrating cleansing of the soul by his Spirit.
To accomplish that transformation in my life, God plopped me down in a church filled with married couples, younger and otherwise, who are incredibly devoted to God despite marriages with multiple children (I’m talking anywhere from two to eight). They accept that life isn’t a bed of roses but a crown of thorns, and that their family has to serve God. I’ve watched them raise up their children into incredible missionaries, youth leaders, and loving people, before the youngest child is even out of the house.
It can be done. It’s the life I eventually want.
To put off that transformation until later is both unwise and unnecessary. We can start 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 a friend of mine who joined our mission team for a two-week jaunt to the Czech Republic, came home, and got married three days later. She willingly upended things, threw complications into an already chaotic season, because she understood that her marriage wasn’t the center of her universe. She heard the call and decided 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, God provides his own reward – a peace and satisfaction that only he can give. It’s why people say “ministry is a two-way street”. It can enrich a marriage, and it can do wonders to alleviate the loneliness of being single. I don’t know where I’d be by now if I hadn’t had youth and worship ministries to keep me grounded in it’s not about me. It’s more than just “getting your mind off things”; it’s a real treasure of God’s kingdom. Besides, if you’re self-focused now, you won’t be any different in marriage. Might as well practice!
Accountability. Pastors and family have the right to speak to your choices. It’s a mark of my generation’s immaturity that we only listen to what we want to hear, and that we’ll duck and twist and navigate to shut out anything else. 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 see things you struggle to see.
Other relationships. Be prepared to conscientiously maintain other friendships even once you start dating. You may have to force yourself. But the tension is good. Marriages need friends, 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.
Honor. Give honor to the people who have made your partner who s/he is. Parents, grandparents, siblings, mentors. Make time for them; promote your partner’s relationships with them.
It’s true that a spouse will be amongst the most important persons in our lives, and even that a marriage should take alone time to renew itself. But a marriage that has room for God will also have room for other people, as God directs. 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!