Before I even knew what marriage was, I wanted to get married.
I remember playing “house,” caring for baby-doll children with my absentee husband (he had either died or was away for a long time, since none of my girl friends wanted to play the role of a boy). I read countless young adult historical fiction novels where, as part of the climatic ending, the heroine falls in love with a kindhearted and strong gentleman, who marries her and leads her into their happily-ever-after.
Before I ever liked boys, I wanted one to be mine. I wanted to be adored, prized above others. I wanted him to devote himself for a lifetime to me. I wanted to have cute babies with him. I wanted to go on adventures with him and have him be my biggest encourager and best friend.
But for the last seven years of my life, one profound quote has changed the way I look at all of this:
“Be the person you want to marry.”
The quote was spoken by Danica Russell, wife of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, at my tenth grade church winter camp at Alpine Conference Center. She was describing how she and Jason met as children, grew up as best friends, and eventually became husband and wife.
Her quote has resounded with me over and over again since that camp.
I’m surrounded by a culture that constantly encourages people to find the right person who completes them. The one who makes them just so happy, who embraces exactly who they are and doesn’t try to change them, whose interests and passions align perfectly with theirs.
As much as I love Taylor Swift, her songs often perpetuate this myth. One of her newest pop tunes, “Mine,” tells the story of a lonely girl from a broken home who’s smitten with a college student who waits tables at her local diner. He becomes an effective savior for her by bringing her out of her shell and into a perfectly loving, ever-enduring, ever-supportive relationship. He is her fairytale ending; he is the answer to her hurt, her painful memories. He turns her into the person she’s meant to be. Everything she ever needed is found in him.
I’ve heard of people creating lists of what they want their future spouse to be like. Things like: he/she must enjoy traveling to exotic places; he/she must be a libertarian; he/she must want a family of 10 kids; he/she must love skydiving as much as I do; he/she must have curly hair (this was on my list for a quite a while… okay, still is, but I’m flexible).
But the reality of these lists, these dreams placed on one’s future lover, is this: it’s just not going to happen.
Now, it’s not a sin to want to get married. But all human beings are inherently flawed. We are born with the curse of sin; even those of us who are saved by the grace of God from this curse struggle with temptation as long as we’re on earth. So no matter how great your guy is, he won’t be perfect. To make it clearer: he will fail you. As you will fail him.
As to list-making, Mark Driscoll recently commented on Facebook: “Single people need to stop making a list of what they want in a spouse & start making a list of what they want to be for a spouse.”
His recent article “Dating, Relating, and Fornicating” elaborates further, in a section called “Be the right person”:
Too many singles have a list of what they are looking for in a spouse. The problems with this are many. First, most singles don’t know what they really need for fifty years of God-glorifying marriage. Second, the list is usually just their resume and a form of idolatry, as if marrying someone just like you is necessarily a good thing. Third, the list usually does not account for the future, like the guy who told me it was very important that his future wife love rock climbing, until I explained to him that if they had as many kids as he was hoping for she would not be rock climbing much since it’s not the ideal activity for a pregnant lady. Fourth, how about a list NOT FOR THE PERSON YOU WANT TO MARRY BUT RATHER A LIST FOR YOU! It seems very selfish to make a list of what someone else needs to be for you if you don’t have a detailed list for yourself and what you need to be for them.
When I was growing up, I was a very bossy child. I ordered my younger brother around in the way that I thought he should go, because I knew my way was the right way. I distinctly remember one time fixing my kindergarten brother’s homework assignment because he hadn’t colored in his drawing correctly. For years, I gave him unsolicited, force-fed, ill-received advice on everything from soccer (which I know nothing about) to girls to school to behavioral choices. (Full disclosure: I haven’t completely gotten over this yet, but by the grace of God, I’m not entirely who I used to be.)
It took until the last few years for my mother’s gentle correction to finally kick in. Her teaching to me: The only person you can change is yourself. You can’t change other people.
The same, I think, applies to “the person you want to marry.” Ultimately, you have no control over who he/she is. You can become incredibly picky and choosy, looking for the exact right person to fit your precise qualifications before you will even consider dating them, much less the possibility of marriage. But you won’t find him with that outlook. He’s not going to be exactly what you’re looking for.
When you do meet him, you won’t be able to change him. God may (and often does) honor your prayers by moving in his heart, and may (and hopefully will) use you to influence him for the better, but He won’t let you mold him like a block of Sculpey into your picture-perfect spouse.
But who can you change? Yourself.
What are the things you want in your spouse? Commitment, compassion, godliness, faithfulness, strength, a beauty of spirit? Try as you might, you can’t put those qualities within another person. But you can commit to cultivating them within yourself.
Want a man of strong character? Pray that God will grow in you the ability to practice grace and truth. Want a woman who is beautiful? Pray that God shapes your view of what beauty is.
One of my male friends has committed himself to physical fitness and an increasingly healthy diet. His explanation: “I want my wife to enjoy waking up next to me.” He’s not striving to look “hot” to boost his own pride. He values physical attractiveness (come on, we all do) and works hard so that one day, his wife can take delight in those efforts.
Kevin DeYoung puts it this way: “If you are single, pray more for the sort of spouse you should be than for the sort of spouse you want.”
This philosophy takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of time and energy to honestly examine yourself before God and find problem areas and fix them. It takes a lot of humility to seek wise counsel, to ask others to point out areas of weakness in yourself, to solicit help to fix them. It takes a lot of discipline to plod through the day-by-day, seemingly unending process of working out who God has called us to be in Christ. It takes a lot of hard work to shape your own character rather than criticizing the character of others.
And it takes a whole lot of prayer and submission to let God work through the deep, dark corners of your heart to transform you into a new creation. Because ultimately, no matter how hard you try, God is the one who works through your efforts for good.
And His good is glorious.