a wonderful woman, Jamie. In fact, remarkable. Whoever marries
you will be extremely fortunate. But I'm not that man. I just
don't believe it's right for us to marry."
his lines over and over, steeling himself for the dreaded
announcement he felt he must make. He would rather let his
relationship with Jamie linger on indefinitely. Yet he knew
that it wasn't fair to keep her tied up in a romance that
might go nowhere. He owed her a clear answer so that she could
get on with her life.
(twenty-five) and Jamie (twenty-six) had talked long and often
about marriage during more than two years of dating. But while
Jamie had been convinced about marriage for some time, Harold
remained confused, not certain that his affection for her had
the intensity of marriage love.
Harold knew that
he cared deeply for Jamie, and their friendship had been a
source of great strength and encouragement to him. He had
been, in fact, no less than astonished by their broad
compatibility and many areas of common interest. Though
physical attraction had been minimal on his part at first, it
had developed in time and seemed to be growing.
Yet Harold knew
he was capable of stronger physical and romantic feelings than
Jamie aroused in him. Several women had done more to turn his
head in the past. In several other ways, too, Jamie fell short
of his ideals. She was less athletic and generally less
ambitious than Harold assumed his wife should be. So Harold
had concluded that the evidence that they should marry just
wasn't strong enough. The only reasonable step was to level
with Jamie and break things off.
As he came close
to telling Jamie though, he was filled with remorse at the
thought of disappointing her. He realized how much he wanted
to make her happy. The thought of bringing her joy through
marriage brought him immense pleasure as he mused on it. It
was almost startling to face.
He was struck,
too, with how much he wanted her to succeed. It was exciting
to imagine her finishing her master's degree and finding the
research position she had long dreamed of. He enjoyed thinking
about how their supportive relationship could enhance her
making a final decision, Harold decided to seek counsel from
an insightful pastor friend who knew both him and Jamie well.
After sharing for nearly an hour about the relationship and
his confusion over marriage, Harold concluded by saying:
"Pastor Bill, I really want what is best for Jamie. I
long for her to be happy. Yet I think it would be wrong to
marry mainly from sympathy."
quickly replied, "I agree with you, Harold. Marriages
based on sympathy are bound for disaster. Yet the feelings for
Jamie that you described to me are not sympathy but
compassion. Marriages based on compassion are bound to
difference?" Harold asked.
merely feeling sorry for someone," Pastor Bill replied.
"Compassion is more positive and dynamic. You desire the
other to be happy, to prosper, to experience God's very
Then after a long
pause, Pastor Bill said gently but firmly: "I've got news
for you, Harold. You're in love with this woman. You'd be
crazy to let this one get away."
It may seem
strange to suggest that someone would have to be told that he
or she is in love. This flies in the face of the popular
notion that when true love strikes, the sensation is so
overwhelming that you have about as much chance of missing it
as you would a rhinoceros in a wading pool. Yet cases like
Harold's are common. There's a subtle nature to
marriage-quality love which can easily escape our notice. This
is especially true when we've been programmed, as Harold was,
with ideas that hit wide of the mark of what marriage love is
Harold, have so set their expectations that they are slow to
identify healthy love when they actually experience it. Others
fall into the pattern of thinking that passionate attraction
will provide the basis for a sound marriage.
What then is the
essence of marriage-quality love? Pastor Bill was right.
Compassion is the basis of it. While the marriage bond
requires more than compassion--friendship and sexual
attraction are important--compassion is the heart of it.
There are many
feelings which can attract and bond you to someone else. When
love is truly from God, foremost among these is compassion.
You feel the other's hurts and concerns as your own. You ache
to see God's best worked out in that person's life.
sensation which we call "being in love" often has
little to do with compassion. It can come from sexual
attraction alone or from being enamored with qualities you
esteem in the other. It can come when the other makes up for a
deficit in your own life. It can come from the wonderful
gratification of knowing that someone else cherishes you
exactly as you are.
Jim Conway says it simply: Someone "may say, 'I'm in love
with you,' but what he really means is, 'You meet my needs and
make me happy.'"*
Don't get me
wrong. When God gives you marriage-quality love for another
person, you'll have great hope that the other will meet your
needs. This is an important part of the emotional mix that
melds you to another person's life. Paul says clearly in 1
Corinthians 7 that unless you need the benefits of marital
companionship, you should stay single.
Yet when love has
been brewed in your heart by God, you're possessed with a deep
and often surprising desire to meet the other person's needs
as well. Early on in my relationship with Evie I began to
realize that I felt compassion for her more strongly than I
had in other dating relationships. This was a crucial factor
in concluding that God was prompting us to get married. And
compassion has been an important motivating factor in our
twenty-seven years of happy marriage. Such selfless love does
not come easily to me and can only be supernatural.
If you are in a
serious relationship and considering marriage, let me suggest
a test. Imagine something unfortunate happening to the person
you're thinking of marrying. Picture him or her being rejected
or fired from a cherished job opportunity, failing a program
in school or having some experience which would be a blow to
his or her self-esteem. Does the thought of this happening
fill you with sorrow? Or does it bring you a certain
gratification and relief?
affection for another person is based mainly on what they can
do for you, you may actually rejoice inwardly at their
setbacks (though feigning sorrow on the outside), for you
perceive that their misfortune will make them more dependent
upon you. At the same time you feel intimidated by their
accomplishments. And you may feel terribly uneasy if they have
strong friendships outside of your relationship.
is strong, you find yourself naturally desiring what is best
for the other person. You're not threatened by the thought of
their success--indeed, you rejoice in it. The requirements of
1 Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 5:21-33 don't seem like duties
but as guidelines that are natural to fulfill. Not that there
aren't times when you feel jealous or fearful of losing the
other's affection. None of us is perfect, and humanness
invades every relationship. But overall, you are comfortable
with the other person developing their gifts, having
successful experiences and even special friendships outside of
your own. And when the other suffers a disappointment, you
feel it with them.
gives few examples of couples in the courtship or engagement
stages, there are two which provide striking pictures of
compassion. We see a magnificent demonstration of compassion
in the way Joseph, the father of Jesus, treated Mary. Though
we're told little about this intriguing man, what we are told
shows that he had an exemplary love for his wife-to-be.
discovered that Mary was pregnant, it is said that he resolved
to break off the relationship quietly (Mt 1:19). At this point
Joseph didn't know that Mary's pregnancy was of supernatural
origin but assumed she had been promiscuous. What's amazing is
that Joseph didn't make a public display of Mary's
unfaithfulness. He had every right to do so--in fact, he would
have been expected to in order to save face for himself. But
he resolved to break the engagement in the way that would be
least humiliating to her. He showed great compassion for her
even in the midst of this apparent transgression.
I have little
question that Joseph's gracious spirit was an important reason
God trusted him with the gift of marriage to Mary and the
privilege of being the human father of our Lord.
impressive example of compassion is Boaz's treatment of Ruth
in the book of Ruth (Ruth 3--4). Boaz awakes at midnight to
find Ruth sitting at the end of his bed. Though he could
easily have taken advantage of her in this vulnerable and
enticing situation, he resisted all inclination to do so. And
though his subsequent decision to marry her suggests that he
greatly wanted her for his wife, he first allowed a closer kin
the opportunity to exercise his right to marry her. He showed
kindness and fairness at every point.
It is of
considerable interest to me that both Joseph and Boaz were
willing to accept even the ending of a relationship, as
painful as that option might be. This is always the response
of compassionate persons, when they know it's in the best
interest of the other. It's in the unhealthy, addictive
relationship that one feels that he or she must hold on to the
other at any cost.
This is an
important point, for sometimes one takes their own willingness
to terminate a relationship as an indication that their love
is not sufficiently strong for marriage. Ironically, the very
willingness to let the relationship go may indicate that
compassion is strong enough to warrant marriage. This was part
of what convinced Pastor Bill about Harold's love for Jamie.
It has also persuaded me on different occasions to encourage
someone to take a second look at a relationship they were
thinking of abandoning.
I don't, of
course, mean to suggest that the willingness to end a
relationship always suggests that true marriage-love is
present. Many times it does not. Yet sometimes it shows in a
paradoxical way that love runs deeper than one realizes.
If you find
yourself, like Harold, confused about how to interpret your
feelings for someone whom you're dating, and especially if it
has been a long-term relationship, I would strongly recommend
finding a qualified person with whom you can talk things
through. A trusted Christian friend in an enduring, healthy
marriage is a good bet. Or a pastor. I personally count it one
of my greatest privileges to be able to help someone in this
area. I know most pastors feel the same. You needn't be
hesitant about approaching your pastor on this matter.
If you realize
that you don't feel true compassion for the person you're
thinking of marrying, this means two possible things. Either
God is not calling you to marry this person, or else you need
to allow more time for compassion to grow. In any case, it
wouldn't be right to think of marriage to this person at this
On the other
hand, if compassion for your prospective partner is strong,
realize that you have the single most important indication
that your love is from God and is of the quality that can make
for a healthy marriage. As undramatic as your feelings for
this person may seem to be, you may be experiencing the seeds
of a dynamic marriage-quality love. Even though you don't feel
dazed, crazed or moonstruck over this person, if you truly care
for him or her, you have the most essential ingredient for a
A Two-Way Street
I must add that
it's just as important that the other feels compassion for
you. It might seem that the most self-sacrificing, most
Christian thing to do is to go ahead and marry someone for
whom you feel deep compassion, even though it's not
reciprocated. But as noble as the idea might sound, I can
assure you that it is not God's will for you.
God's ideal for
marriage is one in which two people share both compassion and
personal fulfillment. Though we can argue that it should be
otherwise, in reality your ability to give of yourself in
marriage is at least partly dependent upon the fulfillment you
receive from your spouse. This is how God has created us as
humans, and we cannot escape the fact. There is give and take
in every healthy marriage; if it's all give on your part and
no receiving, eventually your steam will run out. You don't
have what it takes to be a savior to someone in marriage, and
God isn't calling you to take on that role.
that you'll not be helping the other person by allowing him or
her to experience for a lifetime the benefits of your
compassion without being expected to make a similar response.
God's desire is that this person also grows into a
compassionate, responsible individual. If your partner's
response of compassion toward you is strikingly less than
yours, he or she may stagnate at that point and not be
challenged to grow into a more loving person. Don't expect
that your influence--or marriage itself--will change your
partner. The most compassionate thing you can do for this
person is to not marry him or her.
compassion is strong on both sides of your relationship,
rejoice! If it's matched with compatibility at other points
which we'll look at, you have a sound basis to proceed with