Unreliable Mirrors

A woman poses in a fun fair hall of mirrors, circa 1935 (BBC.co.uk)

I’m never sure if it’s a compliment if someone says “you’re really photogenic”. Do they mean “you are attractive and this photo shows it!” Or do they mean “this is a nice photo of you… in real life you don’t look really as good?” One thing is for sure: depending on the photographer and the angle, the same face can look a variety of different ways.

My children and my husband, for example, have a different perspective (literally) on what my face looks like. One looks more down on my hair, the others get to see much more of my chin (I try not to think about this, actually.) As for me: I see myself eye-to-eye in the bathroom mirror, which is the closest I can get to seeing an accurate reflection of what I look like. But often, others can reflect things to me that I don’t see: the tag sticking out of my shirt at the back. The bit of fluff behind my ear. Or, later in the day, the proverbial piece of spinach between my teeth. We need mirrors—glass or human—to tell us what we’re like.

Much more important than our physical appearance, though, is that we all rely on others to reflect back to us what we are really like as people. There are no bathroom mirrors that can tell us if we are kind, or self-deluded, or mentally unstable, or genuinely hilarious. We gather information about what we are like from the human mirrors around us: our family, our friends, our communities.

However, we human mirrors vary wildly in our ability to reflect truth. None of us are perfect mirrors: every part of us is affected by sin (this is what I understand by the phrase total depravity… not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by it). We all are prone to self-deception, self-focus, and self-interest; we are finite, fallible, and foolish—as one of my professors used to say—and so we all give somewhat “warped” feedback to the world around us.

But, some people give healthier reflections than others. And this post is my reflection (<< cannot resist puns) on whether the most significant relationships in our lives are providing us with reliable or unreliable mirrors about who we are as people. So much of our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being depends on it.

The healthiest of relationships are ones where a person show us, as closely as they can, how God sees us. They see our dignity, our gifting, our strengths. They also see our flaws and our struggles, and they are able to reflect back to us when we might need to “take a good, hard look at ourselves.” They are able to help us identify our talents. They are able to name our blind-spots. The best of friendships, and the best of marriages, are those where we are loved by a reliable mirror. This person doesn’t always take our side in things (they are not a permanent instagram filter for our character!), but they are not critical by default (like the mirrors in the Target dressing room).

The most toxic of relationships, by contrast, are ones where the person is close enough to be playing a major role in you forming your self-perception of you, and they reflect a deeply distorted version of yourself. This, I think, is what gaslighting is at its worst (you need to know what gaslighting is. Read about it here.) This is what abusive relationships look like: where you begin to see yourself as a crazy, awful, terrible person and a blight on human existence… but the terrible twisted image you are seeing of yourself is not accurate because it isn’t you which is twisted as much as the twisted mirror which is reflecting back a distorted image.

So my question to you is this: take stock of the relationships in your life, and consider how reliable the “mirrors” are among your inner circle.

Are your mirrors telling you that you are wonderful and perfect and lovely all the time? If so, your mirrors may need to be sharpened up a little. We need others to help us see and identify our weaknesses, to gently point out where maybe we took offense too quickly, or are responding to some trigger from a past insecurity rather than the person in front of us.

Are your mirrors just pointing out your flaws? Do you feel like you’re always failing? Always responsible for someone else’s bad behavior? That you might be a little bit crazy? Do they see you for who you are? Or for what you can do for them? We need mirrors that also see our strengths, that hear and validate our voices and our value. If your primary relationships (with your parents, spouse, boss, best friend) show the signs of being deeply unreliable mirrors, please – get help. Not all our loved ones reflect the truth about ourselves back to us accurately.

Are your human mirrors reflecting both the beautiful and the broken in you? And do they love you, regardless? Ultimately, this is the way God sees us, and this is the self he wants us to see when we look at him. One day we will see him face to face, we will know and be fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but until them he has given us Scripture as a mirror in which we can see our true selves, and he has given us other people who, as they themselves become more and more like Jesus, should also be better able to reflect true to us.

I’m hoping and praying that we will be increasingly reliable mirrors to others, and be loved and known by increasingly reliable mirrors in return.

 

What I want from church: the Jesus of the Gospels

Jesus – The Prince of Peace (Akiane Kramarik)

I find it ironic that in the midst of the conversation about the undervalued and misunderstood role of women in the church, the church is often still characterized by preaching a message which is packaged in a more “female” way, and thus undervalues and misunderstands the call of both men and women to discipleship. What do I mean by this?
Why “female”, and why in inverted commas?

Our evangelism is characterized by a presentation of our felt needs: we are sinners in need of a Savior, guilty ones in need of pardon, lost ones in need of a Shepherd. The gospel is marketed towards our emotions. Our worship songs sometimes sing declarations of God’s majesty, but can also often tend towards the “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics, calling for us to declare “I’m so in love with you” “in this intimate place” – right in the middle of our corporate worship services. These refrains are uncomfortable for me, but all the more awkward for my 6’2″ husband who won’t even whisper “I love you” on the phone when he’s at work. Our ministries appeal for service help in the more “feminine” categories: welcoming, working in the nursery, teaching children’s church, providing snacks. Hospitality, children and food are not traditionally the areas where men sign up in their droves.

Church may be a place where (for many) there is a “masculine feel” in leadership, but I find the message and ministry of the church often have a distinctly feminine feel. If you ain’t the preacher or an elder, the opportunities for men are limited. Of course, my husband can change a diaper with the best of them, but in some nurseries men are not permitted to serve, and the bevy of faithful bible teachers who serve in children’s ministry remain predominantly female.

I wonder, though, if the feminine “feel” of our ministries doesn’t take its cue from the felt-needs-based way in which we pitch our message. Jesus is a comforter, a healer, a Savior. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, the suffering Servant, the loving rescuer.  That Jesus rightfully and perfectly holds all these titles is proof that those nurturing qualities do not belong exclusively to the female domain. Jesus IS the epitome of love, of care, of welcome.

However, as a woman who is a disciple myself, as a woman with a husband who wants to serve with the particular gifts God has given him, and as a woman who is raising sons and daughters: what I want from church is this – a robust preaching of the Jesus of the Gospels.

I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces fiesty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That’s the Jesus I want. That’s the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike.

A few years back, Preston Yancey invited women to write guest posts on what they wanted from church. This was my post which ran on his blog. A reader recently asked me if I could help her find that piece, and it seems to have disappeared from the internet so I’m publishing it again here. And, just to say, since that time I’ve read Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Crossing the Waters, which is about as robust a dive into the wild, tender, authoritative, awesome Jesus of the gospels as I’ve ever come across (you can read an excerpt here). And it’s written by a woman 😉 

What I Want More Than an End to Porn

A friend told me recently about a kid in third grade who was having behavioral troubles: saying and doing weird stuff, relating oddly to his peers. A little sleuth work from adults who love him revealed why: he’d been exposed to—and nearly devoured by—porn on his phone. He is eight years old.

EIGHT.

This story was shocking because of the age of the person involved, but sadly not because of the content. More and more I hear from pastors and friends and wives-of-husbands and mothers-of-teens about the soul-destroying , imagination-crushing, joy-sapping and trust-smashing effects of pornography. In their homes. Classrooms. Churches.

And, more recently, I’ve had young men (and women, because this is not just a men’s issue) tearfully confess to me how they feel like they’re drowning in this addiction. They know they shouldn’t, but they just don’t know how to stop. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen, and somewhere deep inside them there’s an insatiable visceral growl to see more, and more, and more.

I feel their despair and some of their hopelessness: addictions are so hard to break. Will they ever be able to have healthy sex lives? Is it really that bad? If they’re Christians, will God forgive them? Will they ever be able to go to sleep and not be assaulted by mental images that tantalize and torment them?

Of course, there’s all the research out there that says STOP, JUST STOP using porn. It’s bad for you: it’s rewiring your brain, wrecking adolescentsdestroying your capacity for intimacy in relationships, underpinning human trafficking, and more. Heck, even manly man magazine GQ has a list of reasons why you should stop watching porn, including that it declines arousal rates, increases rates of erectile dysfunction, and leads to all-round lower energy and productivity rates.

Stopping such high-sensory-feedback, addictive habits is notoriously difficult, particularly when there’s the cloak of shame that makes community support and encouragement (often the bedrock of any addiction recovery plan) all the more difficult. But the good advice and necessary steps to stopping remain important and true:

  • find a buddy/community who can help you identify when you feel weakest/most likely to indulge.
  • take practical steps to make access more difficult for you: alcoholics purge their homes of alcohol. Porn addicts  need to get their screens the heck out of their bedrooms and enclosed spaces. Put your phone and laptop in the living room. Keep the office door open. Install software that flags porn and give someone else the passwords to check it.
  • Look for the encouragement from people who’ve walked this road before you, whether in person or online. There are stories of people who’ve come out on the other side. These are important for the wisdom they give as well as for cultivating hope. We *need* to hear stories of people who will say “I used to have these images in my mind ALL the time, but it’s been a year and I’m not so haunted anymore. It gets better.”
  • Celebrate little victories. A year without porn doesn’t happen until you’ve had a day, two days, three days, a week without it. Each of these is worth celebrating.

But the more I listen and read and pray over this situation, the more I realize that I want more for people than for them to stop using pornYes, I want them to be free of the entrapment and shame and damage that it does – but I want more for them than freedom. Just like I want more for a caged animal than for it to be let out of its cage: I want to see it run free in its habitat. I want to see it flourishing in the areas it wasn’t able to before.

This is what I want for a generation trapped in porn addiction: I want them to be free, but I want more:

  • I want for you to have a network of healthy, rich, rewarding relationships with men and women of different ages. I want you to be able to laugh, work, partner, play, and grow with men and women in friendship and companionship, without it being weird or erotic. I want for you, young men, to have female FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I want for you, young women, to have male FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I don’t want you to be afraid of your own psyche or taunted imagination: I want you to be able to share a story or a project or a hug or whatever with freedom and joy with men or women around you.
  • I want you to kindle your creative imagination: to use your time and energy to devote to something you love and can do well. Hours of addiction, particularly addiction which rewires our brain with (terrible!) narrative plots, kill our imagination. I want you to invent something, build something, write something, chase after an ambition, run a 10k race, take up rock climbing, adopt a puppy and train it to do amazing tricks. Whatever. I want to see you experience joy and fulfillment in something you put your energy into.
  • I want you to experience your sexuality – your maleness or femaleness – as something good, beautiful, and true – not terrifying or debilitating or depraved. We are not androgynous personalities, we are male and female in all our relationships and endeavors, and I want you to know that being a woman is good and being a man is good and to think and pray and explore what that means. Our sex-crazed society has eroticized all of our gendered conversations and I want us to reclaim that good and holy ground: what does it mean to be a BROTHER and not just a sibling? What does it mean to be a DAUGHTER and not just a child? How is it unique that you are a GUY-friend or a GIRL-friend to your community? How do we experience being sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters in the church?
  • I want you to know the powerful and healing good of non-sexual, physical touch. Greet one another with a holy kiss, the Apostle said; and Jesus—while totally able to heal with a word—repeatedly TOUCHED people in his dealings with them. I want you to be able to give and receive hugs, handshakes, and the laying on of hands in prayer in life-affirming ways.
  • I want you to know, both in conviction and hopefully one day in experience, the richness that married sex can bring. It’s so much better, so much more rewarding, so vastly different from the sex that is peddled online. I want you to know that it’s possible and doable, even for broken people. I know, because I’m one of them.

Thinking through this list gives me courage, though. Because while there’s not a lot I can do to help people STOP using porn, there’s a lot I can do to help be part of a redeeming and healthy community of men and women. I can invite men and women over and be a healthy female friend to them. I can ask questions about people’s interests and hobbies and encourage them in them in creativity: attend that art exhibition, cheer them on in their first race, post a picture of their cool art on instagram. I can notice and affirm healthy relationships where I see them – for someone who’s internally feeling that they are not a safe or worthwhile person to be in a relationship with the opposite sex because of their internal shame struggle with porn, perhaps it could be life giving to have someone else affirm: “you were a good friend to her when you said/did x,y,z.” And, of course, we can be healthy touchers. I’m a believer in hugs and handshakes and words of affirmation. And, as readers of this blog know, I’m a believer in sharing hopeful, redemptive stories about marriage and sex.

There’s a battle going on for the hearts, minds, and imaginations of this generation. I can’t be the 1am gatekeeper or take down the porn industry; but this much I can do:

I can pray.

I can encourage.

And I can help be part of the forgiven and flourishing community of women and men that God intended for us, and keep inviting people to experience True Life there.

This much, I can do.

 

 

On The Pain of Going to Church and How Community Orchestra Helped

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It was hard to be in church yesterday.

Trump won the US presidential election, and it is no secret to readers of this blog that I was sad about that (although I will respect him and pray for his government). But I was sadder still that pollsters said more than 80% of evangelical Christians voted for him, and so it was hard to go to worship in an American evangelical church on Sunday morning. With a US flag up front. Even though the prayer was tender, and the sermon spoke so directly and kindly about loving our Muslim neighbors. It was hard to be there.

I was sad about how divided the church is.

I was sad about how much damage we’ve done to each other and the witness of the Gospel in the world by presuming to speak for God with “endorsements as Christians.”

I was sad about what felt like a win for fear and divisiveness, when the church is supposed to be about mercy, radical welcome, the kingdom of God, and love.

hate feeling this way. I feel a bone-deep grief for the church and our community, and I’m wrestling with my own attitudes and judgments towards other believers who are just as loved by God but who seem to come to such different conclusions about life. “What a mess we are. What a mess I am,” I wailed as I drove alone in my car yesterday afternoon. “What do you think of this, God?” I challenged.

He didn’t say anything.

I had to cut my prayer rant short and find parking: I’d arrived at the community hall where a local chamber orchestra was giving a recital. I brushed the tears off my face and slipped into the back row. They had just started the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th: a well-known and well-loved piece if ever there was one.

And friends, it was…. how shall I put this? It was…. not the best rendition of Beethoven I’ve ever heard. I confess I winced more than once in the first few minutes, particularly when the cellos sounded discordant (I’m not sure if that’s because the strings section was weaker or because I am particularly aware of cellos since it’s the only orchestra instrument I’ve ever played.)

But it wasn’t long before my wincing was replaced by more tears as God gently walked me through a series of thoughts:

“This doesn’t sound very good, but I couldn’t play any better than this.”

“The skill level of each of these individuals is pretty high, but getting people to play music together is so much harder than playing alone.”

“A player’s individual weaknesses are sometimes disguised by the sound of the group, but each person’s weakness also lowers the overall quality of sound.”

“And when they’re not listening to each other or the conductor, it sounds particularly messy.”

And then,

“Each one of these musicians knows how this piece is supposed to sound. And each of them knows that it doesn’t sound like they wish it did. Perhaps they’re tempted to quit because they don’t want to be a part of something that sounds so awkward. And yet they keep playing. It doesn’t sound as it should but it’s better than it did when they first started rehearsing. And so, they keep playing, and doing their best. Measure by measure. Movement by movement.

“If the cellists were to realize they were the weakest in the group and simply stopped playing, the whole thing would fall apart. All the parts matter. Rather like 1 Corinthians 12. Who are we to honor one part above another, or say to any one else “I don’t need you?”

“And, still, they are making music. Listen, that part with the pizzicato was lovely. Listen, your heart beat faster in that section. Listen, awkward as it is at times, they are making music together and look: it is finished, and you are clapping, and you mean it.”

God showed me a glimpse of the church as his little community orchestra, filled with faithful-and-far-from-perfect musicians. Each person with their skills. Each person with their weaknesses. All of us letting the others down at times, and yet all of us soldiering on together at the conductor’s urging. Sometimes the combined sound makes us wince, but what shall we do? We’re not where we should be yet, but God knows: we have to keep playing.

So I’ll go back to church on Sunday, and I will focus my efforts on playing as faithfully as I can and keeping my eyes trained on the Great Conductor. We all will. And one day, we will look back, and we will have muddled through and made music together, and we will be glad.

A Prayer for Election Day

a-prayer-for-election-day

We were apprehensive about that election in 1994: the first democratic vote in South Africa’s history. There had been so much bloodshed leading up to that point, and I was just one of a throng of believers who prayed fervently as people cast their ballots. More often than not, I found myself praying 1 Timothy 2:1-6: for a government that would allow us to lead peaceful and quiet lives, so that the gentle work of God drawing people to know him could continue.

Today is election day in the USA, and again I am one of a throng of believers praying. This time, these are the words I keep finding myself praying:

Our Father, who is in heaven,

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom Come,

Your Will be Done –

– on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread,

and forgive us our sins. Even as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

Deliver us from Evil.

For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are Yours.

Now, and Forevermore.

Amen.

The Ministry of The Happy Chicken

Not long ago, I met with a vivacious young woman who is just entering into vocational ministry. We shared parts of our stories as the ice clinked encouragingly in our lemonade glasses. Towards the end of our time together—which had started out with the awkwardness of strangers but then blended into story-telling and a host of “me too” moments—she seemed to remember herself and why she was here and, squaring her shoulders and getting back into “ministry-mode”, she asked me how I’d seen God at work through me recently.

It wasn’t so much the wording of the question as the timing and the tone of it, but I laughed (I can be rude that way). I told her that it had been a long time since I felt like I needed to give an accounting for my ministry. There was a time when I sat down at a computer and labored over a monthly report back to those who were supporting me financially and in prayer, and while I know none of them expected a graph chart with numbers of students converted and bibles distributed, in truth I did feel that I needed to give an account. Which sometimes might include numbers.

These days, I told her, when it comes to seeing God at work, I’m taking a longer view. Like moving from the narrative arc of a Pixar short movie to epic full-length features. “I have no idea whether what I’m doing is successful or fruitful,” I confessed, “it’s really hard to take an account of that when you’re in the day-in and day-out of it with kids, and when you have no idea who reads your stuff and whether it makes any difference. So I’m aiming for faithfulness. To be kind today. To tell the truth today. To show my neighbor the gospel today, perhaps by taking their trash bin in or watching someone’s kids while they are at the doctor. That’s about all. I really wouldn’t have much to put in a monthly ministry newsletter.”

Friends, even to me this answer sounds a little like a cop-out: should I not be more strategic? intentional? make the most of every opportunity? Maybe. I have certainly trained others in ministry to be strategic in their goals over the years. But then again: I myself have been under the tutelage of the Happy Chicken.the ministry of the

Meet my Happy Chicken.

This hot water bottle was a gift from my sister nearly twenty years ago. I think it was a birthday present, but I can’t be sure. But I remember thinking it was hilarious. My sister and I had joked for years about a Far Side Cartoon in which a forlorn man sits on a bed while a chicken looks on from the window sill. The caption read: “the bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the chicken of depression.”

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Of COURSE when my sister saw the hot water bottle chicken, she had to have it. (She’s always been one excellent gift-giver.) And so, the chicken of depression made its way into my home. Within a few years, I was finding my way into ministry, and found an increasing number of people sitting on my couch sharing their stories with me. Some were very, very sad; and armed as I was my newly-minted-theological-education, sometimes I tried to help with comforting explanations. But as we all know, this was almost never the right thing to say or do. For even if the hurting person’s lips are asking why did this happen, their hearts are asking who will be with me in this? And so, slowly, I learned to shut up and listen. It became something of a formula: tears would spring up, and I would offer tea, a pair of socks, and the chicken… because it helps to have something warm to hold, and the kettle was boiled anyway. (It didn’t seem appropriate, somehow to tell people that this was the Chicken of Depression, after all.)serious_chicken_by_sandra_boynton_canvas_print-r1f5f44ee6a7b480d9bf43daad7546afa_wt7_8byvr_324

Over time, friends who got to know my chicken re-named it: the Happy Chicken. And years later, when I discovered the wonder of all things Sandra Boynton and met her happy chicken characters who bore a striking resemblance to mine, the name was formalized.

I think, in some in-my-bones kind of way, the Happy Chicken taught me that the simplicity of listening and welcome offers Christian comfort in a way that even my best theology does not. Jesus did teach many truths about God, and God had been speaking comforting, true words for a long, long time before that. But Jesus came. He sat in the mess. He touched the unlovely. He listened. He ate with people. He ate dinner with the heartbroken and received their tears without needing to fix it right there and then.

But still, sitting quietly while people weep and marriages end and children starve and girls are sold and refugees drown in the Mediterranean feels desperately ineffective. And despite the fact that the quiet ministry of neighbors has brought me comfort more times than I can count, I still occasionally panic and think I should be doing more. We should have a plan here. If, after all, I was still writing a hypothetical newsletter updating people on God’s activity in and through my life, what on earth what I say? And if all I had to say was “I made tea and introduced people to the Happy Chicken”, would it make God look bad? Or Christianity insipid?

517SjSiMdxLIt was this taproot of fear that made D.L. Mayfield’s new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith such a gift to me. Mayfield has such a writing gift: she crafts simple sentences with simple words—so easy to read—and yet the result is breathtaking. Reading her is like marveling at Leonardo daVinci’s finest work done on an etch-a-sketch.

But more than her beautiful writing, the message of this book spoke to me, and will speak to anyone who’s earnestly wanted to do great and beautiful things for God but then floundered when real life and messy relationships happened, making the monthly newsletter which was meant to sing of all God’s glory seemed so hard to write.

In a series of short, highly readable essays, Mayfield tells of her teenage zeal—holiday clubs! short term missions! seminary!—and her deep love for the displaced refugee communities in North America. And then she writes about what really happened next. She writes about failure: her awkward attempts to Jesus-ify conversations, and the skepticism with which her goodwill was sometimes (rightfully) regarded. She writes about the deep humbling of realizing people don’t change on our timeline or according to our well-intentioned western ways, and of learning that God has made something beautiful in every person and every culture – no matter how different and broken- and she tells of how, after all was said and done, she re-found (is re-finding!) faith in learning to sit and be a witness to all that God is doing, and to just love as she has an opportunity. She writes:

“I used to want to witness to people, to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life… To plant myself in a place where I am forced to confront the fact that my reality is not the reality of my neighbors. And to realize that nothing is how it should be, the ultimate true reality of what God’s dream for the world is.

Being a witness is harder than anything I have ever done. And he is asking all of us to do this task, to simultaneously see the realities of our broken world and testify to the truth that all is not well. To be a witness to the tragedy, to be a witness to the beauty. Jesus, the ultimate witness of the love of the Father heart of God, shows us the way…

He is asking us to drop everything and run, run in the direction of the world’s brokenness. And he is asking us to bring cake.”

He is asking us to bring cake. Mayfield’s love language is cake. And I’m thinking mine might be the Happy Chicken. Today I’m facing the broken world with eyes wide open and ears perked up. Who will God send my way today? I’m ready. The Happy Chicken and I are as ready as we can be.

 

Ask Me: How can I know if he’s the one? And are we too young to get married?

Am I too young to get married? How can I know if he's the one?

Dear Bronwyn,

My boyfriend and I are both 20, and have been dating for 4 years. We have been talking about getting married for a few months and I’m getting scared. I’m scared that he’s not the one for me because I don’t have that gut feeling and part of me is saying run away and that were both pretty young. I really want to be with him and wake up next to him. I’m worried I’m just in love with the idea of getting married and he’s convenient so I should just marry him. But we have a fuzzy electrical feeling when we kiss or touch and I don’t want to let that go. He says he knows I’m the one for him, but I just wish I had that feeling too. He’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband. I’ve prayed and asked God for a sign to let me know if hes the one for me. The first time He sent a shooting star. The second time I felt like He was telling me through particular songs that kept coming up on the radio. After that second time you would think “Okay, God, I get the message,” but I still can’t shake the gut feeling of wanting to run. Is that the devil at work? Does the Bible say anything about this? Please help.

From,

Dating but Doubting

Dear DbD,

I hear three questions in your letter: Are we too young to get married? How can I know if he’s the one? And, will God give me a sign that I’m making the right decision? I’ll try to touch on each of these:

Firstly, on the question of “how old is old enough to marry?”: A hundred years ago (and probably for centuries before that), a couple who were twenty and had been together for four years may well already have been married! It is a strange feature of our modern world that it has become normal to delay marriage for ten, even fifteen, years later than our ancestors did.

But there is still much to be said for marrying young. In her excellent article The Case for Getting Married Young, Karen Swallow Prior talks about the difference between seeing marriage as the cornerstone, rather than the capstone, of your adult life. I was one who married a little later, but am now in a position where I have a group of friends who are my age but many of them have been married ten years longer than we have (and have kids going to college already!!), because they married in their late teens and early twenties. When these friends of mine talk about their marriages, they talk about how they and their husbands had to grow up together: they figured out how to “adult” (as it now seems to be a verb) as a team… and they are the better for it.

But this is not the norm with most people in their early twenties. I hear more people talk about first wanting to reach certain career and financial milestones before thinking about marriage, and while this is the conventional wisdom of our age, I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about seeking first career and financial stability, and then marriage being added unto you. Certainly, those who delay marriage and land up making poor sexual choices as a result have not chosen well. (In fact, did you know that in the Westminster Catechism, in the discussion of ways in which the seventh commandment is infringed, they list “undue delay of marriage” as one? Qu 139 over here.)

The health and maturity of your relationship matters so much more than your age. I would encourage you to try to rely less on your feelings and more on the wisdom of your community in taking stock of whether you and your boyfriend’s relationship is healthy and mature enough to move towards marriage. Ask your parents, leaders around you at church, trusted friends, and people who have been married a while: ask them about their experiences, ask them what advice they’d have, and then ask them if they would help you to identify any red flags they might see: do you have patterns of co-dependency that you might not be aware of? how do you handle anger, disappointment, and conflicts of interest etc? Also, if you are seriously thinking about marriage, I would strongly encourage you to do pre-marital counseling. Take your time and take it seriously: pre-marital counseling doesn’t “solve” any issues up front, but it really does a lot to help you walk into marriage with your eyes wide open and your expectations adjusted towards reality. If you can—and this is gold—stay in relationship with those counselor’s and ask if you can check in with them every couple of months after you are married. That kind of mentoring makes the world of difference.

As to the question: “how can I know if he’s the one?” I’ve written about the idea of finding the “one” and how much we can trust the tingly feelings of dating chemistry here, so I won’t go into too much about that more. I do want to add this, though: that you are dating in a millennial climate where we all like to keep our options open, but the downside of that is that sometimes keeping all our options open means also watching them all go by without having taken any. The desire to optimize all our experiences—to find the best deal, or the perfect vacation destination,  or the dream school, or the perfect mate—leads us to the deluded belief that if we just do enough internet research, we will make the perfect decision and then life will be easy. But it is a delusion. And sometimes, wisdom says that we would be happiest if we picked the GOOD option and worked with that, rather than indefinitely delaying deciding because we’re waiting for the best.

I mention this just to express some sympathy for the cultural climate we live in: the fear we have of “making the wrong decision” and “settling for second best” is horribly amplified by the world around us; and it is undergirded by the false premise that the “best” decision (or “the one”) really is out there, and that if we would just find that one then we will all live happily ever after. But life is not like that, and no matter how wonderful you and your partner may be (or how long you wait), marriage is still one between sinners and you will have seasons of deep challenge and mutual refining… and in the process, grow together.

Now that’s not to say we should go to a dance and “take a partner by the hand and doh-se-doh into happily ever after” with the first available single guy. Obviously, we need more wisdom than that: finding someone who loves God, who loves you, with whom you can grow and serve together, and (I think this is a deal breaker), with whom you can laugh at both triumphs and disappointments, goes a long way towards making marriage smoother. You say in your letter “he’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband.” I think that’s a really encouraging start 🙂

Finally: will God give me a sign so I can be sure? Probably not. Will he give you wisdom if you ask? Yes. Will he give you guidance as you prayerfully try to figure this out? Yes. Will he make the decision for you? Usually no. Not unless you’re Gideon. But take heart, dear friend: just because God hasn’t put an appendix at the back of the Bible with the list of who you will marry (wouldn’t that be a trip?) doesn’t mean he isn’t leading, guiding, and providing, or that he won’t work in good and amazing ways through this process of questioning you’re going through. If I think back on the discernment process through my own dating and deciding-to-marry relationships: I felt so unsure at the time, and really wished God would just TELL ME WHAT TO DO ALREADY, but as I look back I can see his faithfulness in answering every one of my prayers, for being with me through the breakups, and in landing up where I have. I have ever confidence He has no less than abundant plans for flourishing for you, too.

All the best,

Bronwyn

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