By LESLIE LUDY
Whenever Valentine’s Day approaches, the subject of romantic relationships surfaces suddenly, like a deep-sea diver coming up for air. You can’t write a book called When God Writes Your Love Story and not be roped into the topic of romance on Valentine’s Day. Even though it has been fifteen years since that book was released, Eric and I continue to be contacted by Christian magazines, radio shows, and even television networks, asking us to share our opinions about how Christians should date and find spouses. With the popularity of Internet dating and match-making reality shows, our culture’s focus on “finding that special someone” has grown stronger than ever. And as a result there is much confusion and debate about how Christian singles should go about finding a romantic relationship. Here’s a sampling of some of the hot relational issues swirling around in our churches these days:
“Is Internet dating okay? After all, God can’t steer a parked car, can He? We need to be pro-active in finding a spouse!”
“Why shouldn’t women pursue men? Guys need a healthy nudge every now and then, just like Ruth gave to Boaz!”
“What’s so wrong with dating around — isn’t that how you find the right person? How will you ever discover what kind of person you are compatible with unless you play the field a bit?”
“Is it really such a bad thing for a Christian to get romantically involved with a non-believer? I mean, it may be the only way the other person will ever hear the Gospel!”
All of these questions seem to expose a deeper root issue in our Christian culture today — self-focused living has replaced Cross-centered living.
Now don’t get me wrong. Just because someone desires to be married doesn’t automatically mean he or she is being selfish. The desire for a human love story was given to us by God. He is the One who invented romance in the first place, and He is very much behind the idea of marriage.
But when the pursuit of our own happiness becomes a higher priority than surrendering our lives to God and trusting Him with each detail of our lives, we are missing the mark.
Most of the common debates about how Christians should date center from a mentality that says, “How much can I pursue my own desires and get what I want, and still remain on God’s good side?” It reminds me of that ever-popular discussion from my youth group days: “How far is too far?” As Christian teenagers, we always wanted to know how much pleasure we could get away with and still call ourselves Christians. We should have been asking an entirely different question: “How far can I possibly go to please God in this area of my life?” Having that mindset would have immediately cleared up our confusion about how to conduct ourselves in romantic relationships. But we wanted to have it our way, so we were constantly playing with compromise and coming up with elaborate justifications as to why our behavior was acceptable in God’s eyes.
Not much has changed since then. Entire books have been written that provide today’s Christians with spiritual-sounding reasons for why surrendering our love lives to Christ is unnecessary and legalistic, and why we should be free to pursue relationships the same way the rest of the world does (within reasonable moral boundaries of course).
But once upon a time, Christian men and women understood what it meant to lay down everything for the sake of Christ — including their desires for marriage and family. Like Abraham surrendering Isaac, they willingly laid their most sacred and priceless blessings upon the altar before God. They realized that if He desired them to be married, He would make it clear in His own perfect time and way. But He must always come first, and He must always be implicitly trusted.
Throughout Christian history — in recent decades and in ages past — men and women entrusted their romantic desires to Him, declaring that obedience and surrender to God were of far greater importance than their own personal desires. For some, like Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward, and John Hyde, this commitment meant giving up marriage completely in order to serve Christ without distraction.
For others, it meant stepping into marriage for the glory of God, not merely for their satisfaction and fulfillment.
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot’s story beautifully illustrated this pattern. When they felt drawn to a relationship, they immediately surrendered their desires to God and committed to wait on His guidance and timing before rushing ahead with their own plans. “A good and perfect gift, these natural desires,” wrote Elizabeth. “But so much more the necessary that they be restrained, controlled, even crucified, that they might be reborn in power and purity for God. For us, this was the way we had to walk, and we walked it. Jim seeing it his duty to protect me, I seeing it mine to wait quietly, not to attempt to woo or entice.”
Elizabeth and Jim didn’t just wait on God for a week. They didn’t just wait a month. They didn’t wait for a year. Five years passed while the two young people sought God’s direction. They remained committed to each other, but they were careful to guard their emotions and pursue nothing more than a Christ-centered friendship until God showed them otherwise. The road was narrow and lonely. But Elizabeth and Jim understood the difference between self-focused human love and a love scripted by the God of creation.
“A man’s love for a woman ought to hold her to the highest,” Elizabeth said. “Her love for him ought to do the same. I did not want to turn Jim aside from the call of God, to distract his energies, or in any way to stand between him and surrender. This was what I understood real love to mean. Purity comes at a high price. Sometimes the sacrifice makes little sense to others, but when offered to Him it is always accepted.”
How different their story was from the “do what makes you happy” approach we are so accustomed to these days. Most of the common questions that swirl around modern Christian relationships didn’t even come into play for Jim and Elisabeth—because they were focused on the glory of God and not their own selfish whims.
The Elliots were not the only Christian couple in recent decades to have walked this path of surrender. Oswald Chambers (the author of My Utmost for His Highest) met Biddy, his wife-to-be, during his preparation for the mission field. They shared an incredible kindred-spirit and like-minded passion for God, and marriage seemed to be an obvious fit. And yet, Oswald knew that his desires must first be fully surrendered to his Lord. Christ must come first, even if it meant they never married. He wrote to Biddy, “God has all the circumstances in His hand — in His hand my whole life (and yours with me) must be for Him and not for domestic bliss.”
Later God did direct Oswald and Biddy to marry and labor together in His Kingdom, and they had the beautiful satisfaction of knowing that He’d been given His rightful place as Lord over their decision.
Rees and Elizabeth Howells, who led one of the most dramatic revivals in Africa and had a powerful lifelong ministry of prayer and evangelism, felt drawn together by God, yet willingly laid their hope of marriage on the altar before Him. Their biographer writes, “The Lord had drawn them together, until they wondered if it were God’s will for them to marry and make a home for the tramps. Soon after, however, they were led in the opposite direction — to give up their marriage, not knowing whether it would ever be restored to them. [It wasn’t until] three years later that the Lord’s word come that their lives should be united in His service.”
No matter how our selfish, fleshly side feels about it, laying everything on the altar before our King and allowing Him to do with our lives whatever He sees fit is where true Christianity begins.
Our desire for marriage must be no exception. Let us not fall for ear-tickling, lackadaisical messages that require less than absolute abandonment to the One who gave His very life for us. He took up His Cross, and He asks us to do the same.
Never forget … on the other side of surrender, we will find the greatest joy!