Last Thanksgiving was a Rockwellian affair at my parent’s house. The place was filled with cooking and conversation and every good thing that defines home. My sister brought her husband and baby daughter, my brother brought his girlfriend, and I brought home my best friend, Jenn. As they sing on Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the other."
Recent studies show that people are getting married later and less often and are instead developing tight-knit communities of friends that often serve the function of a significant other. Jenn’s presence among my family was a testimony to the fact that I’m a part of this social phenomenon. While I don’t have a "significant other" in the traditional sense, I do have "significant others"—my friends. We have our favorite restaurants, rent apartments based on their proximity to each other, take vacations to visit those who have moved, seek each other’s advice about career moves, pray for one another, cook together, argue about books and music and movies together, discuss current trends in theology and move each other’s furniture.
At 25, I’m part of a new social reality alternately heralded and reviled in TV programs such as Friends and Sex and the City. As a devout Christian, my personal sitcom has a lot less sex and is produced on a significantly smaller budget, but ambivalence towards marriage is a common theme.
My friends and I are not unaffected by the fact that secular society allows for all manifestations of romantic love outside the bonds of marriage. We don’t have the luxury of assuming that every man wants to be in a relationship with a woman (and vice versa), much less that marriage is the ultimate manifestation of love. Our parents and our friend’s parents taught us as much with their divorces. We may consciously reject these lessons with biblically-informed desires to commit to marriage, but we’re not all that sure what marriage should look like.
And so we’re waiting—waiting for the person who will provide a love so strong that it will warrant commitment. We’re waiting for some sort of assurance that we won’t end up a statistic. We’re waiting not for a spouse per se; we’re waiting for a soul mate.
In the October 14th issue of New York Times magazine, Ethan Watters describes this phenomena and traces it to a shift in attitudes about the nature of marriage. Whereas in 1965, three out of four women said they would marry a man they didn’t love if he fit their criteria in every other way, a recent Rutgers study indicates that 94 percent of people between the age of 20 and 29 agreed to the statement: "When you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost."
I confess that I’m waiting for "the look." I first saw the look as a sophomore in college when I was introduced to the BBC’s film adaptation of one of my favorite novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There is a moment in which the female protagonist, Lizzie, is reluctantly providing after-dinner entertainment for a group that includes the man with whom she’s had a rather contentious relationship up to this point, Mr. Darcy. She is reluctant because she is aware that her piano playing and singing skills are average at best. But as she sings, Mr. Darcy holds all of her awkwardness and intellect and pride and beauty and strength and weakness in his gaze and is undeniably smitten. I’m confident that such a look would make me a happy woman for the rest of my life.
In the meantime, I’ve got my friends. I’ve got a date to any function that requires one, something to do any given night of the week and people I care about deeply. But despite this utopia, our uber-chumminess often masks the messiness that comes with souls searching for a mate.
Last night my grandma made a typically apt observation when she said, "You have to get deeply involved with someone in order to find out if you’re soul mates, and if you’re not, you’re already deeply involved with that person." We "good Christian kids" might not be having sex with our prospective mates, but all too often we’re whoring pieces of ourselves—our inner thoughts, our hearts, our dreams—in the hopes of finding that elusive "soul mate." One can almost see bits of heart and hope strewn about the floor. And as I’ve waded through this emotional carnage, I’ve been forced to reconsider what it is we’re after. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I buy the whole soul mate thing.
I wonder how much our desire for a soul mate is informed by our modern visions of love as opposed to the biblical lessons about love. John the Apostle wrote, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." Sacrifice and determination consistently characterize biblical descriptions of love. God’s pursuit of the nation of Israel through the Old Testament—replete with vanquished nations, miraculous visions and talking animals—is the most epic story of betrayal and enduring love to ever be told.
In contrast, our modern visions of love culminate at the wedding with the beautiful attendants and lavish reception. There is no sacrifice and determination amidst meltaway mints shaped like bells and flowers. The music swells, the credits play and another twosome is forever living happily-ever-after—they’re soul mates, after all—in our mind’s eye.
And when it comes to choosing between two different visions of love, the God with His broken and bloodied heart in hand or the couple forever taking their first dance to "What a Wonderful World," is it any wonder that even Christians cling to idea of "happily-ever-after?"
But more and more I find that my imagination is captured by the love stories that start after the honeymoon—the love born from sacrifice and determination. As Leonard Cohen wrote and Jeff Buckley most plaintively sang, Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and a broken Hallelujah. I think of my friend Heather who walked down the aisle as an act of faithfulness to God and looked at her husband three weeks later to realize that she truly loved him. Hallelujah. I think of Hosea and his pursuit of the unfaithful Gomer. Hallelujah. I think of my parent’s 28-year union and all of its peaks and valleys and the misty-eyed look Dad still gives Mom when she’s not looking. Hallelujah.
My theory is that the security of a marriage is not based on the strength of the love present, as the search for a soul mate would seem to suggest, but that it stands or falls on the content of the character of those who come before God to say words like "forever" and "forsaking all others."
But for all my theories, they’re still just that—my theories. It’s not as though I have a line of suitors at my door.
What I do have is a circle of friends who consistently remind me which vision of love is true and worthy. Last winter one such friend and I spent an evening listening to the music of Over the Rhine. Insulated by snow and stone, we sat transfixed in a candlelit chapel on the banks of Lake Michigan. Confronted by God—with His bloody and broken heart in hand—and His unswerving love and devotion in the face of my unswerving failure and selfishness, I trembled. And in those flickering moments, I prayed that I would become a person of wisdom who wouldn’t settle for the sweet lies we are told and tell ourselves about love, and that, if romance does ever come calling, I would commit to nothing less than a holistic, biblical love—that I would cling to God’s outstretched hand, "till death do us part."
So, I’m still waiting for "the look." But, I think if a godly man came along who wanted to say "forever" and "forsaking all others," I just might stop waiting. Though I might insist he at least read Pride and Prejudice …[Lisa Ann Cockrel is a senior editor of MOODY magazine and lives in Chicago with some good friends.]
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