February 1, 2003
Is God a

Yes -- But We Must 
Take Initiative As Well
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With Valentine's Day approaching, I want to feature this selection, especially for singles, from my Should I Get Married?. If you are already married, I trust you will find this perspective helpful in counseling others. Another excerpt from that book, The Compassion Factor, is also featured on this site.                   MBS
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A member of the church I attended as a single Christian wrote a song that became a favorite at weddings there. Many couples included it in their wedding ceremonies, and Evie and I began our own service with it. The first verse sets forth the theme that continues throughout the song: “Before God gave us life . . . He planned us for each other.”

The song proclaims a belief which Christians have long held sacred--that God predetermines whom you marry. If he wants you to be married, he has one ideal choice in mind. And he works in many mysterious ways to bring you to the one for whom you are destined.

Writing Should I Get Married? challenged me to think back to our decision to include that song, beautiful as it was, in our wedding service, and to wonder if it was the wisest and most sensitive choice we could have made. Do I still hold to its premise as strongly as I did then? And was it edifying to proclaim it to others with trumpets as we did in our ceremony?

I have no question that some Christians benefit from the belief that God predestines your spouse. It inspires many married couples to view their relationship as more than a chance occurrence and to appreciate the hand of God in bringing them together. This leads to deeper reverence for Christ and greater faithfulness in their marriage. Many who are single, too, take heart in the thought that if God wants them to be married, he will move mountains to make it happen. They are inspired to stay hopeful and to take the sometimes scary steps needed to find a spouse.

Yet I find that just as frequency this viewpoint has an adverse effect on Christians. Some who are married feel an unhealthy sense of superiority over single friends for having been handpicked by God for the estate of marriage. Others are too quick to blame God for problems that come up in their marriage (see, for example, Gen 3:12!).

Most unfortunate, though, is the paralyzing effect this notion sometimes has on single Christians who want to be married. Some conclude that any personal effort to find a spouse is outside the bounds of faith. Changing jobs or churches to improve the prospects of meeting someone compatible, for instance, is out of the question. Faith demands that you sit still and wait for God to bring the right person to your doorstep.

In one extreme case a Christian woman told me she felt she must avoid any situation that would make it too easy to find a husband. She had four opportunities for missionary service. In three of these situations there were single men whom she would consider marrying. Thus she felt compelled to choose the fourth. Though this woman, who was past forty, deeply wanted to be married, she greatly feared getting her own will mixed up with God's in the matter. Making it as difficult as possible for God to bring a man into her life would help ensure that marriage would come about only if God willed.

The belief that God has one ideal choice also leads some to be too idealistic about whom they would consider marrying. Since God is perfect, it is felt that you must not settle for anyone who less than fully measures up to your image of the ideal mate. Such persons are quick to bail out of a relationship at the first sign of another's imperfections, while others wait endlessly for that perfect relationship that never comes along.

Not Going Beyond Scripture

I must confess I wince a bit when I remember how Evie and I included the song about God predestining us in our ceremony without considering the effect its message might have on others. I fear, too, that there was something too smug or self-congratulatory in our desire to announce to the world that God had determined from before time to bring us together. I shudder when I think that several other couples who featured this same song in their weddings are now divorced. We certainly tread on thin ice whenever we declare unreservedly that we know particulars of God's hidden plan for our lives.

It's not that I'm ready to reject the premise of the song. My Presbyterian background has given me profound respect for the extensive biblical teaching on God's sovereignty and has taught me to be at home with paradox in the Christian life. I'm comfortable with the thought that God can give us full freedom to choose and act on the human level, yet still on a deeper, more mysterious level be ordering what we do in light of a preconceived plan.

My experience, though, is that most Christians do not find this notion helpful when it comes to decisions related to marriage. In an area as deeply personal, life-changing and far-reaching as moving toward marriage, it is vital that we be guided by the most clear and obvious teachings of Scripture and guard against getting sidetracked by speculative notions. Certainly God has told us what he wants us to know clearly and straightforwardly.

Here it is striking that Scripture never specifically states that God predestines a man and woman for each other in marriage. Even though this belief was deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and reflected in a number of sayings and anecdotes in the Talmud, the Holy Spirit did not choose to state matters so specifically in the inspired Scripture. This suggests that, whether or not there is truth in the notion, it is not an edifying one for most believers to keep in mind as they take steps toward marriage. This isn't to imply that Scripture has nothing to say about God's role in bringing about marriage. Quite the contrary! But the Bible in general views the responsibility as a cooperative one, where both God and we play a part in the process. This is a most liberating concept when it is fully appreciated, but a challenging one as well. To this end Scripture stresses three perspectives which are important to keep in mind.

The Call to Optimism

You have supreme basis for optimism as you seek to find a life partner. While Scripture does not directly address the question of whether God predestines a specific man and woman for each other, it does indicate that he gives a special measure of guidance and help--and very often success--to those who seek the opportunity for marriage.

When Paul, for instance, encourages Christians who need to be married to get married, he shows a remarkable confidence that those seeking a partner will be able to find one. In declaring “let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor 7:2 NEB), he doesn't even entertain the possibility that someone needing marriage will be unable to find an acceptable partner! His optimism is especially intriguing when we remember who he is addressing--a fledgling Christian community barely five years old where the pool of qualified candidates for marriage was surely not vast. Yet Paul's outlook is fueled by faith in a God whose hand is not shortened when it comes to meeting the needs of his saints.

Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians with a declaration of confidence that God will sustain them and meet the deepest needs in their lives:

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way. . . . Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (1 Cor 1:4-5, 7-9)

This faith in Christ's provision for the Corinthians' needs undergirds all of Paul's remarks in his letter to the young church. He writes with the underlying confidence that as they seek to make intelligent choices, God will work for good in their lives.

To be sure, Paul stops short of guaranteeing that God will provide a spouse to anyone who wants one. Neither here nor anywhere else does Paul--or any biblical writer--lock God into a required response to any human need. There is always the possibility that God will choose not to meet a need directly but to give the grace to live contentedly with unfulfilled desires, a point Paul stresses in his second letter to this church (2 Cor 12:7-10).

Still Paul puts the accent on hope in his teaching on marriage, and throughout his writings urges us toward faith in a God who provides all of our needs in Jesus Christ (Phil 4:19). If you want to be married, you certainly have reason to stay hopeful that God will provide someone to meet that need unless he changes your desire or in some clear way shuts the door.

Again, it is important as you maintain this hope to keep your expectations within reasonable bounds. If you're thinking, “God has one ideal choice for me,” you may be setting your standards for that person impossibly high. When we consider the perspective on God's role which was in Paul's mind as he wrote 1 Corinthians 7, it seems to be not “God has one ideal person for you to marry”--but “God will help you find a suitable partner.” This is usually a more edifying thought to dwell on. The person whom he gives you to marry will have imperfections and failings, just as you do. Still that person will complement you in a way that will work for your greater happiness and a more fruitful life together for Christ.

The Call to Responsibility

At a party one evening, when I was writing Should I Get Married?, I got to talking with a married friend about the book I was writing on the marriage decision. Our conversation wandered onto the question of how faith and personal responsibility work together in finding a spouse. At that moment her husband walked by, and she handed him an empty glass and asked him to fill it with ice for her. I remarked jokingly: “If your faith were strong enough, Molly, your husband would have known you wanted the glass filled without you asking. In fact if your faith were really strong enough, you would have just held the glass out and the ice would have plopped into it!”

She replied: “But isn't this exactly how many Christians are thinking when it comes to finding a partner for marriage? You simply hold the glass out and the ice drops in.”

She is right. When we talk about faith, some are left thinking that the burden is completely upon God to bring results. They think that we have no responsibility for the outcome.

Scripture, though, never views matchmaking this way. It always sees it as a mutual process where both God and the one wanting marriage have responsibility for the outcome. It involves not only waiting in faith but taking steps of faith as well.

Thus Paul speaks in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 about the attitude in which a man should "take" a wife, using a verb that implies personal initiative.* And in his whole discussion of the importance of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, he says nothing about waiting passively for God to provide a spouse. Rather, he speaks to individual initiative in saying, “let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

In reality we trust Christ most fully not by sitting idly, but by taking careful, prudent action which we have reason to believe is in line with his will. While there is a certain trust implied by sitting passively and waiting for God to dump the love of your life into your lap, there can be a greater trust involved in taking the often scary steps of changing your circumstances or beginning a new relationship. Such steps are not incompatible with having faith in Christ. When bathed in prayer and a desire to honor him, they are a vital part of what walking in faith involves.

The Call to Accountability

This brings us to the third perspective that is vital in seeking marriage. Scripture takes the highest possible view of marriage, deeming it a relationship comparable to that of Christ and the church (Eph 5:21-33). To this end I must strive for the highest possible reverence for Christ at each point as I consider the possibility of marriage and take practical steps to bring it about. Thus Paul commands, “For this is the will of God . . . that each of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor” (1 Thess 4:3-4 RSV).

This statement speaks to the importance of taking my daily walk with Christ seriously--the need for faithfulness to personal devotions, Bible study, worship, fellowship and support groups. Growing in Christ not only will prepare me to be a better companion to my spouse but will enhance the Lord's freedom to work out his best in my life, for marriage and all areas. Part of this growth process is praying regularly about my hopes for marriage. I should give attention both to asking God for grace to do his will and to expressing honestly what my desires are at the present time. Finally, this passage speaks to the need to make the most responsible, sanctified decisions I can as I take steps to find a relationship and, ultimately, as I decide about whether to marry a particular person. At each point my goal should be to understand and do God's will.

While knowing that God wants me to seek a relationship with him presents a challenge, it brings me back to a basis for hope as well, for it reminds me that he wants to work for good at all points in my life. He is not my adversary but my friend, one who desires the very best for my future. As the psalmist declares: “He redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with love and compassion. He satisfies my desires with good things, so that my youth is renewed like the eagle's” (Ps 103:4-5). That is incentive enough to seek to honor Christ in every way as I take steps toward marriage!

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This article is excerpted from chapter three of the revised edition of Blaine Smith's Should I Get Married? (InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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