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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What Marriage Isn’t

The marriage had its troubles in it, which is easy to say. It had something else in it too, which is not so easy.

The fresh-faced and totally-in-love newly weds sat at our dinner table, eager for our advice. They wanted to start a website for newlyweds, they said, and share their story to encourage people. “Marriage is awesome”, they beamed, “and we think people should know”. I chewed my dinner slowly and considered what to say, being five years further down the road than they.

Yes, marriage is awesome.

Except when it isn’t.

But how could they possibly know that yet? And who wants to be the Debbie Downer of Domestic Bliss? Marriage is absolutely awesome and also absolutely hard: both these things are true, and not in the sense that they cancel each other out in the midway to make marriage lukewarm or “mostly harmless”. Both these things are true in deep, shocking measure. Like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, when marriage is good it’s very, very good; but when it’s bad it’s horrid. And sometimes both these things are true in the same week. So to those newly weds I wanted to offer some words of perspective: Marriage between sinners can never be wholly good, but it does a holy good in us.

The longer I am married—and the longer I write—the harder I find it to write about marriage. Not because I’m disillusioned or unwilling to share, but because the mystery of marriage seems to me to deepen with time. Perhaps this is why this reflection from Hannah Coulter—Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel with an elderly woman’s reflections on her life—is so profound:

“The marriage had its troubles in it, which is easy to say. It had something else in it too, which is not so easy. As I go about quietly by myself in my days now or lie awake in the night, I hunt for the way to speak of it, for it is the best thing I have known in this world, and it lays its peace on everything else I know.

The longer I am married, the more I understand why St Paul, in his famous description of love, started out by trying to say what it was, but then was pushed into saying what it wasn’t. Love is patient, love is kind. That’s what love is. But love has a mysterious element too: defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is: it isn’t jealous, nor self-seeking, nor rude. It does not boast, nor does it tally others’ wrongs.

Love is known by its presence and its absences. By the giving of grace and the withholding of judgment. By what it is and what it isn’t. And so is marriage.

Marriage is a friendship, but it isn’t just that. Marriage is family, but it isn’t the only way we experience family. Marriage is hard, but often for very soul-shapingly good reasons. Marriage is good, but that good isn’t always easily won. Marriage is a firm resolve to keep the covenants we have made, and yet it isn’t just that; for marriage can also hold an easy camaraderie and a comforting togetherness and a desire to be together and come together which are so very hard to put into words.

Marriage isn’t salvation, but at its best it models grace and mercy.

Marriage isn’t life’s ultimate goal, but done well it can point us in that direction.

Marriage isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationships, but it is the most intense and refining and rewarding one I’m called to right now.

Personally, I am wary of marriage articles that begin with “5 ways to…” and “31 days to…” The longer I am married, the more I feel like a list of bullet points will not hit the target I’m aiming for. We need to read—and write—words and lyrics which tell the truth about marriage: how we will trip over our own egos and griefs, how again and again we will need deep grace, how sometimes daily life gets boring and yet we need to seek togetherness… and how, somehow, finding that togetherness of partnering through life in God’s service together, despite all our faults and failings, remains the most deeply comforting and joyful things I’ve known in this world.

It lays its peace on everything I know.

 

Image Credit: Sweethearts / Patrick (Flickr Creative Commons), edited using Canva.

What God Wants From You

He is carving new words into the contours of my soul_ %22Come.%22

A few friends have chosen a theme word for their year: thrive. rest. courage. knock. I chose one last year: anchor, and given the horrendously stormy start last year had, an anchor was just what I needed.

I’m not usually a person who limits herself to one, or even a handful, of words – but I do see the value in sometimes boiling something down to one essential truth to meditate and mull over. This morning I was thinking about some specific words to try and nail down what was on my heart for a couple people, so I could pray for them.

For one, the word striving came to mind: always reaching, working, on the go-go-go, and as I prayed, I found myself asking for rest for her, and that she would hear God’s invitation to sit with him and just be.

For another, the word lonely was there, and I found myself praying that she’d know God as Emmanuel: the one who is with us

For another, even though I’ve prayed for this person for years, it was a completely unexpected thing to find the word Fatherless coming to mind, and so I prayed that they would know God as their Father, even though I’d never seen them as an orphan-in-need-of-a-parent before.

And, as I thought about these (and more), it struck me how much my understanding of what God really wants from us, and for us, has changed. My one-word prayers were no longer “help them to do better”, but “help them to draw near.”

I don’t know if I would have put it quite like this, but I think for the longest time I thought God’s message to us—in a nutshell—was this: “Repent and toe the line.” Yes, he loved us enough to make a way to forgive our sin; and yes, he was gracious and all that… but I think I had absorbed a belief that unless I was making an effort to toe that proverbial line, the love and grace was out of reach.

It takes waves a long time to carve contours into rock; and I think the contours of my soul have had to have God’s truth wash over me again, and again, and again (sometimes crashing! sometimes just rinsing out debris with a gentle tide), but I see a new contour, and I see God’s handiwork in this. For these days, if I had to summarize God’s message to us—in a nutshell—I think it would be this: “Come.”

He is a Father waiting with open arms. A Lover who can’t wait to see the face of his beloved. A Shepherd who sees us when we are harassed and helpless, and has compassion.

Come, he says.

More than anything, I believe that’s what he wants from us, and what he wants for us, because he knows that rest, and joy, and life-to-the-full, and meaning, and purpose are all found in him.

Image credit: Bill Richards/Azure Window (Flickr Creative Commons), edited by Bronwyn Lea using Canva.

On conquering the world

My friend Cara Meredith invites people to write guest posts on her blog, and she always has the best prompts. Last year she had us write about unexpected moments, and I got to tell a bit of my love story. This year the prompt is rituals, and I loved getting to write about one of the sweetest things that has developed in our home: the unexpected ritual of world-conquering. Here’s a snippet (and here’s the whole link..)

clotho98

It’s 8:11am, and there’s fussing by the front door:

“Where are your shoes?”

“I can’t find my library book.”

“Why didn’t you unpack your lunch bag yesterday?”

“Hurry up! I don’t want to get another tardy note!”

In the flurry, zips are zipped, snacks are packed, and finally, my husband and older kids tumble out the door. I stand with my youngest—both still in our pajamas and slippers—and call out to them: “Bye! Love you! Conquer the world!” My three year old echoes in a voice that echoes down the street: “Conquer! The! World!!!” and his Daddy rolls down the window as he backs out the driveway and shouts back, “bye! Conquer your little world, too!”

Tail lights disappear down the street, and we click the front door closed.

This is how it happens every day.

(Read the rest here)

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Clotho98

He Tends His Flock (Nicole T. Walters)

sheep

He Tends His Flock (Isaiah 40.11)

The sun is fading behind the trees now

And there’s a place I’m supposed to be

But the fog is rolling in like waves,

Slowly covering and drowning me.

Somewhere is the familiar path

That leads to safety, leads me home.

But in the descending darkness

My tired legs begin to roam.

 

Somewhere not too far from here

The gate is closing for the night.

He is counting every head to see

That each one made it home all right.

But tonight there’s one wandering lamb

Who forgot to watch for His lead.

Now I find myself alone and scared.

I find myself in desperate need.

Against the briars and jagged rocks

At first I begin to grope,

But the world spins around me

As I lay down my head, give up hope.

 

I lay down in defeat to die,

Unable to keep up the fight,

Until in the darkness of despair

A familiar voice breaks through the night.

Could this really be the one I love,

Come to carry me back home?

But isn’t he angry at my mistakes,

At my tendency to always roam?

Why would he leave the ninety-nine

For one alone I cannot see.

Why would He risk His own life

For a worthless lamb like me?

 

When he finds me at last,

Shivering in the cold night air

I see joyful tears in his eyes

And I understand why he is there.

I am not just another lamb

In a flock of nameless sheep.

I am like a precious child

He promised he would always keep.

He gathers me into his arms,

Forgetting all I have done wrong

And he carries me close to his heart,

For it is to him that I belong.

by Nicole T. Walters
Illustration by Corrie Haffly

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The Lord is my Shepherd: this poem gave me a fresh glimpse into what that means for us. Perhaps these words were just what you needed today.

God, Thou Art Love (Robert Browning)

God thou art love

God Thou Art Love

If I forget,
Yet God remembers! If these hands of mine
Cease from their clinging, yet the hands divine
Hold me so firmly that I cannot fall;
And if sometimes I am too tired to call
For Him to help me, then He reads the prayer
Unspoken in my heart, and lifts my care.

I dare not fear, since certainly I know
That I am in God’s keeping, shielded so
From all that else would harm, and in the hour
Of stern temptation strengthened by His power;
I tread no path in life to Him unknown;
I lift no burden, bear no pain, alone:
My soul a calm, sure hiding-place has found:
The everlasting arms my life surround.

God, Thou art love! I build my faith on that.
I know Thee who has kept my path, and made
Light for me in the darkness, tempering sorrow
So that it reached me like a solemn joy;
It were too strange that I should doubt Thy love.

by Robert Browning
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

************

It’s Thanksgiving in the USA today: my favorite of the American holidays. Today, as on thanksgivings past, this day is attended by worries, but in the midst of it: we breathe our thanks.

Above all, I am thankful to be held in the hands of a good and faithful God. I don’t know how I would cope with the fear, injustice, uncertainty and evil in the world. To know that “I tread no path in life to Him unknown” makes all the difference.

I am more thankful for God sending Jesus than anything else this Thanksgiving, and every other day, too. He makes all the difference: I have known his light to “find me in the darkness, tempering sorrow so that it reached me like a solemn joy”. I hope you have, too.

 

Idiot Psalms (Scott Cairns)

Idiot Psalms

Idiot Psalms

1   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by Jew’s harp.
O God Belovéd if obliquely so, 
                     dimly apprehended in the midst 
                     of this, the fraught obscuring fog   
                     of my insufficiently capacious ken,   
                     Ostensible Lover of our kind—while 
                     apparently aloof—allow 
                     that I might glimpse once more 
                     Your shadow in the land, avail 
                     for me, a second time, the sense 
                     of dire Presence in the pulsing 
                     hollow near the heart.   
Once more, O Lord, from Your enormity incline 
                     your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy 
                     of immolation, if You will. 
                                     2   
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.
O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper 
                     of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent 
                     of energies both appalling and unobserved,   
                     do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen 
                     or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant   
                     to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,   
                     nor narrowing his affective sympathies 
                     neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul. 
Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue 
                     to enjoy my morning run among the lilies   
                     and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might 
                     delight in this and every evening’s intercourse   
                     with the woman you have set beside me. 
Make me to awaken daily with a willingness 
                     to roll out readily, accompanied 
                     by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,   
                     the idiot’s undying expectation,   
                     despite the evidence. 
                                     3 
       A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously   
                     slow to act, should You incline to fix   
                     Your generous attentions for the moment 
                     to the narrow scene of this our appointed 
                     tedium, should You—once our kindly 
                     secretary has duly noted which of us 
                     is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused, 
                     You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions, the discussions, the several 
                     questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots. 
                                     4   
       Isaak’s penitential psalm, unaccompanied.
Again, and yes again, O Ceaseless Tolerator 
                     of our bleaking recurrences, O Forever Forgoing   
                     Foregone (sans conclusion), O Inexhaustible, 
                     I find my face against the floor, and yet again 
                     my plea escapes from unclean lips, and from a heart 
                     caked in and constricted by its own soiled residue. 
You are forever, and forever blessed, and I aspire 
                     one day to slip my knot and change things up, 
                     to manage at least one late season sinlessly, 
                     to bow before you yet one time without chagrin.
by Scott Cairns: Poetry (January 2009).
illustrated by Corrie Haffly

***********

I first heard this poem spoken by Cairns himself at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. I had never heard of Cairns, or the Idiot Psalms, and didn’t know what to expect. At first: it seemed snarky and pretentious, but then it began to hit uncomfortably close to home,

…. and I think: yes, this is no doubt how I sometimes pray, too. I start off self-important, asking for placations and blessings and if God would please just keep me comfortable. But, if I stay there long enough, at some point I become more aware of Him, aware that I’m rambling and asking for the wrong things, and in the wrong way. These lines stuck out to me in particular:

You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions.
I pray my own idiot psalms too, sometimes. And I am grateful that the Holy One who “endlessly attends our dreariness” is patient, loving, and knows we are little and young and self-absorbed, and yet he loves us still.