I recently read an article on a Christian magazine website that proudly proclaimed that there is “no such thing” as one special person for you to marry. I am astounded at the proliferation of articles like this. Perhaps this is partly because provocative titles like “There is no such thing as…” tends to grab our attention. I am not so much surprised that I am reading such debasement of the beautiful and life-changing romance that our God has created in romantic love. I am surprised that such desecration would come from Christian sources.
In defense of these authors, it seems they are usually trying to address a problem that “the one” view seems to be causing. The article I just read was trying to answer the problem of too many Christian young people afraid to pull the trigger on marriage because they fear they’ll later discover they chose “the wrong one.” Other articles I’ve read are trying to address the complaint of married Christians who take their chronic marital unhappiness as a sign that they didn’t marry “the one” God had for them.
As a Christian psychologist working with marriages for over 20 years (and myself married for over 30) I can certainly sympathize with the frustrations of helping Christians find their way through the difficulties of marriage. I once had a patient who only came to see me about twice a year and he would always follow the same story line. After about 30 minutes of reviewing his misery of being married to a self-righteous and argumentative wife, he would always bring the discussion back to the time when he got engaged to this woman. “But there was this other girl…” he would say and then spin toward the conclusion that turned his unhappiness into real suffering. What if he had married the “wrong one?”
I understand the difficulties in advising people in such painful circumstances. While I respect these authors’ efforts, the cure is worse than the disease.
What’s Wrong With The “Many People” View?
Since Christians hold the marriage vow as sacred, when friends, family, parishioners or patients confide to us that they are considering divorce as a remedy for their marriage troubles, it is natural that we try to give advice that will encourage them to stay true to their vows. In the same way, when young people are too fearful to even enter into marriage, we seek some means of counsel to ease their fears. It is now popular to offer the encouragement to “just relax, there is not just one person with whom you could be truly happy in marriage, there are many.” While the goal of offering this view is usually to attempt to take the pressure off of that “first choice” problem and focus instead on the real work of making a good marriage, there are problems with giving this kind of advice.
The first problem with offering the “many people” remedy for these problems is that it doesn’t work. My experience is that people questioning the “one person” view when fearful of or miserable in marriage, are actually just looking for a way to justify their behavior. As enticing as it may be to enter into a theological discussion, most people, unfortunately, are not heavily swayed by theology when dealing with marriage decisions.
A second and much bigger problem with this view is the effect it has on our understanding of the Christian faith. Pope Francis recently remarked that “The church is a love story, not an institution.” Far too many Christians have completely forgotten the deep and romantic story that has always been at the basis of God’s pursuit of His people. From God’s pursuing His wayward people, Israel through the desert to Jesus’ coming as a bridegroom, the relationship of God to His people has always been described as passionate, intimate, and most of all particular; a loving husband and His beloved bride.
In lowering our view of marriage, we lower our ability to understand God’s love for us. It would make no sense to say that the Church is “one of many” possible brides for Jesus! It is also instructive, though no less mysterious, that God did not reveal himself to all possible people in the Old Testament, but to a particular people, Israel, that was to live and move in perfect relationship with Him (and only through this people could the world know God.) It is ironic that at the same time Christian sources are discouraging such romantic notions as searching for “the one,” secular outlets continue to thrive on romantic images of unseen forces driving people together despite long odds (e.g. Marc Webb’s movie “500 Days of Summer” or Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” pictured above.)
The Origin Of “The One”
It is odd the way these “many options” authors refer to the origins of what they call the “myth” of just one person for you to marry. Most of the time, Hollywood is seen as the creator of this “romantic ideal” of one special person to look for. One article even stated confidently that the idea of one person who completes us is from Greek mythology and is not suggested at all in the Bible (see Plato’s quote referring to humans originally created with four arms and legs and two faces). But remember that mythology is often just a dramatic illustration of truths that resist being put into words. The secular world, having lost any basis for believing in “The One” now hankers for it again and creates fantasies that play on that eternal desire for particular, transcendent romance. Sadly, we Christians, who can actually offer the world the very romance they fantasize about, are abandoning this heritage in favor of a shallow appeal to what we suppose must be common sense which, on closer inspection, ends up making no theological sense at all.
I have no idea why these writers completely ignore the obvious, Biblical origin of “the one”… Genesis chapter two. In great detail we are told of God’s creation of the one creature made in His image – the human. God makes only one human out of the ground and then announces that it is “not good” that this human is alone. It is extremely important to note that the human did not complain of being lonely. You’d be surprised how many men quote “it is not good for man to be alone” to justify their demands for more sex from their wives or even to qualify extra-marital sexual behavior. It is not possible that the human was lonely. When one walks in unbroken fellowship with the God of the universe, trust me, you’re not lonely!
If you think about it, this prior sufficiency of God is what makes romance possible. If man did not need woman, then it is all the more wondrously extravagant that she was made! Indeed, God did not even need man and did not need to make him! Instead, we exist due to an abundance of his love and glory. In the same way, we reflect these truths in romance. Romance is hopelessly particular because it is not necessary. I did not need to be married to have a full and satisfying relationship with God, but God showed me my wife, gave her to me as a gift so that it was not my desire to be married that defined our love, but my desire for her. To demonstrate this essential feature of romance (and assuming that you are already married), try telling the story of how you came to be married to your spouse to a room full of seated guests at a dinner party. Try doing this without speaking of your spouse as special, the circumstances of your meeting as memorable or remarkable, or your early days together as heady and enchanted by some singular love or attraction. Try telling an enchanting tale of weighing your compatible traits against your differences and deciding that they indicated a high likelihood of success so you went ahead and bet on it. Most of all, try saying that you might have married someone else and see how that goes over. The story would not only be disappointing, (to all parties involved) but untruthful. Your former self, the one from your early dating days, would likely not believe you. This is not the story that God has written for us. In the same way, Christ does not just desire to redeem “humankind” but you.
God’s pronouncement of “not good” had nothing to do with loneliness but is, instead, a revelation of an important attribute of God and, therefore, the creature made in His image. God exists in relationship and humans are created to exist in relationship as well. An isolated, individual human is “not good” because this doesn’t reflect a true image of God. A man’s deep and divine longing, not just for “woman” but for “that woman” goes beyond biological urges and even the the abstract emotional need for relationship (and the same goes for the woman’s side.)
God’s fix for this problem (a “problem” clearly created as a means of revelation not because of poor planning on God’s part) is surprising and significant for understanding ourselves as human beings. To remedy this alone-ness, God put the human to sleep, took a portion of the human’s body and created another human. In Hebrew it can be seen clearly that, essentially, God split the one human [ha ‘adam] into two beings, a male [ish] and female [ishah].
The Genesis account of God’s creation of man and woman does not simply tell an ancient tale. The story explains the experience recreated in all good romance stories. Young lovers have always felt completed by the one they have fallen in love with. It is innately human to feel this way. Passionate love for the one person that seems made for me is part of being created in God’s image.
Marriage Forms A Unique and Particular Union
Emphasizing that there are “many options” a person could be happy with reinforces our already out-of-control perception of ourselves as isolated individuals. We live in an age that has all but forgotten that the essence of human existence is found in relationship. Many people actually believe that it is a bad thing if a relationship requires an individual to change.
Marriage is formed and sustained in union. The joy of marriage is found in the pouring out of the self into union with another. Marriage requires that each individual sacrifice something of themselves for the joy of unity with their spouse. This kind of sacrifice does not result so much in the loss of the individual as the creation of a unique personality that is the marriage itself.
This means that each marriage relationship is unique and is much more than simply two people sharing a household and parenting duties. To talk of my marriage as one of multiple “possible” marriages I’d be happy with is equivalent to a parent answering questions about their child by saying “it doesn’t matter about any particular characteristics of my child, the important thing is that he or she makes me happy.”
But knowing there is one person out there for you does not burden you with the duty of divining, without a shadow of a doubt, the identity of that person, before you commit to him or her. Part of the joy of finding my “one” was the process of discovering that she was “the one.” I fell in love with my wife in college and I fell very hard. I was immediately attracted to her and as I got to know her better, my interest in any other girl quickly faded. I did not think, in those days, about whether she was “the one.” I only knew that I wanted to be with her all the time and that eventually extended into forever. It was only later that I came to see the unique aspects of our relationship that make my wife the “only one” for me. Correct knowledge of “how to find the one” is not necessary to find him or her and really only misses the point. That knowledge belongs to God and it is best not to overthink it.
In fact, much of what I now value most in my wife were characteristics I hadn’t seen clearly before we married. Like most couples, we valued our compatibility and viewed our differences as grounds for conflict, each trying to mold the other into one’s own likeness. Now we’ve come to value where we are different and begin to see that these make us stronger as a couple. Too often, people assume that the “right one” for me is the one I’m most compatible with and jettisoning the idea of “the one” only exacerbates the problem. Entertaining multiple options of possible spouses really only means “I want the one I don’t have to change much for.” We view incompatibilities as signs we’re not with “the right one” and just assume that God is just as unhappy with this state of affairs as we are (Hosea 1:2 notwithstanding.) Entertaining the fantasy that there are “multiple ones” out there encourages the lie that you might have found a better situation–or at least a different one–and that thought alone is enough to distract you from doing the self-effacing work of loving the one that God picked out for you.
As a marriage therapist, I am essentially working for the “person” that is the union of the two individuals sitting in my office. Often the marriage “person” before me is in critical condition – sometimes it is already dead. Marriage difficulties are caused, in one form or another, by the participants’ retreat from the unity back into their individual-ness. People often tell the story of their failed marriage as if they were the only one selflessly giving to their self-serving (ex) spouse. The funny thing is that when you talk to the other party in this now dead unity, you’ll usually hear an equally rational story that paints them as the selfless victim. It is from this dysfunctional situation of isolated individuals retreating from matrimony that the mythology of multiple possible unions arises. It is a paltry compensation for unhappiness, and it is being deployed–often preemptively–on our young people, disguised as a Christian proverb. May it never be that we, the chosen people of God, mistake His wisdom for world-weariness.
Problems With “The One” View?
The real problems that people have with the idea of just one person for each of us stems both from a wrong understanding of who “the one” is and from a wrong view of God.
The first problem stems from a significant shift that has occurred in our understanding of “the one” God has for us. It is a tremendous change that no one seems to have noticed. Everyone now talks as if “the one God has for me” is defined by his or her ability to make me happiest. Since when did the test of God’s perfect will for our lives become whether His apparent plan is fulfilling me or not? There are definitely times that I have felt my wife is “not right” for me. When this occurs, I’m pretty sure it’s because of my sin, not God’s mistake. Marriage is joy but it is also a great crucible that demands that our self-ness crumble in the face of the sanctifying work of union with another.
God’s purpose for putting a particular man and woman together is for His glory, not necessarily each individual’s constant pleasure. The prophet Hosea’s wife, Gomer, was not chosen for Hosea’s pleasure. Gomer was a prostitute and Hosea was commanded to marry her because she was a prostitute. This union was brought about as an important display of Israel’s unfaithful relationship to her God. Should Hosea have complained that God failed by not bringing him “the right” wife that would make Hosea happiest? Your own unhappiness with your marriage is not a sign that something has gone wrong in God’s plan.
The other common problem with “the one” view stems from a poor knowledge of God. There are Christians who actually believe that God would take something as important as our choice of spouse and treat it like a game. They worry that they might choose “the wrong one” and God would respond with a callous “too bad, you made your choice” lack of concern. Others fear that, since they are now divorced, they are relegated to some sort of “plan-B” where they will never receive God’s blessings.
A. W. Tozer reminds us that, “The man who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of ten thousand temporal problems…” Just because you had improper motives or failed to seek God’s council in making your choice of spouse doesn’t mean that the person you are married to isn’t God’s choice for you all along. God did not wake up the morning after your wedding, look at the newspaper, smack His glorious forehead and declare, “Oh no… now my plan is foiled forever!”
Job declared that God “… can do all things, and that no purpose of [His] can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Having forgotten this, too many Christian young people are taught to mistrust their own romantic passion and fear they will “mess up” God’s plan. What they are not taught is that they should have no fear of waking up one day and feeling that their spouse may not be “the right one” for them. They should not fear it because one can almost guarantee it will happen! Fear not, your own heart is not to be trusted. If you have married before God, that is your person. It doesn’t matter if you happen to feel like it that particular day, week, month or year.
The problems people have with the “one person” view isn’t resolved by suggesting “many” potential partners for each of us. In every way, it only makes things worse by enticing us with the notion that things could have worked out differently. These problems are resolved by clarifying the definition of that “one” person and how we can know who that person is. Our God has always been a God of redemption and power, ever ready to bring our messed up actions into perfect harmony with His will through the sufficient work of His Son, Jesus.
While it is disturbing to read these authors’ attempts to tear down the beautiful romance that is the heart of our faith, I don’t have any real fears about it. I rest in the comfort of knowing that, no matter how much people warn, criticize or spread their cynicism, young lovers will continue to meet and their hearts will whisper that they have finally found “the one.” As in so many places, the truth, where it has been divorced from sense, persists in song:
“Slowly counting down the days
Till I finally know your name
The way your hand feels round my waist
The way you laugh, the way your kisses taste
I missed you but I haven’t met you
Oh but I want to
How I do”
From “To Whom It May Concern” by The Civil Wars
Dr. Kenneth Wilgus is a marriage and adolescent psychologist practicing in McKinney, Texas.