In our American culture, consumer choice is king. We like options, customization, shopping around. Whether we’re grabbing a made-to-order latte or browsing through online reviews to find the best dinner spot, car or tech toy, retailers cater to our sense of empowerment by affording us the ability to make consumer choices. Even when a product disappoints, we are given the option of returning it or upgrading to a newer, better, brighter version.
So what happens when the cultural value of consumer choice trickles into our relationships? Buying a product and building a relationship are not in the same category, but sometimes we act as if they are. This is one attitude that often contributes to the dissatisfaction of singles in the dating pool. We begin to view relationships as utilitarian rather than a mutual commitment, and lean toward consumerism by comparison shopping. We hold out on a perfectly good date because of the possibility that there’s someone better out there, or brand individuals on first impression according to whether they fit our type or not.
Creating a list of desired traits in a future spouse is another debated practice that may carry consumer parallels. The subject has sparked new discussion with newly engaged author Donald Miller’s recent blog post, “What Are You Looking for in a Spouse? Why not Create a List?” Well, it turns out many people had reasons as to “why not,” such as Karen Swallow Prior’s cautionary response on the women’s blog of Christianity Today.
In the much-discussed blog, Miller encourages all single men and women to make a list to cultivate a vision for their future marriage. In this way, making a list can be a healthy exercise, shaping expectations according to biblical standards, guarding against settling for less and identifying specific virtues that will not be easily mistaken for shallow, generic chemistry. But a list can also backfire if we become “married” to our ideal rather than remaining open for God to usher His intended for us into our lives. If we become fixated on our list as an authority rather than a tool, this attitude betrays a consumer mindset that is more concerned with shopping suitors than viewing each person as the gift that they are.
In college, it was common to hear students say of potential dates, “Oh, he’s just not my type." Whenever someone uttered this phrase, one of my professors always shot back with the same answer: “How do you know what your type is? You’re not married yet!” Now that I am married and can compare my teen-scribbled list of life-mate characteristics to my husband, I can see he had a point.
I had my very own list growing up, which was unabashedly titled, “Husband Shopping List.” I filled it front page and back with superhuman traits: unfaltering humility, integrity, spiritual sensitivity, leadership skills and a host of other morally irrelevant qualifications such as artistic abilities and a propensity for strong coffee. Where was I going to find such a person?
Well, I never did.
Instead, I married a saint and a sinner; a man who is in need of grace and striving in this journey toward Christ just as much as I am. And the blessing of marriage is that we get to help each other along the way together, complementing each other with our own unique strengths and weaknesses.
Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of missionary Jim Elliot, said it succinctly: “You marry a sinner. There’s no one else to marry.” In a collection of letters to her daughter on the threshold of marriage, Elisabeth Elliot passed on another word of wisdom from a friend on the subject of finding a spouse. “Well, dear,” this friend advised, “we’re none of us prize packages. Just look for the essentials and skip the rest!”
For all our dating dilemmas, the essentials are simpler than we think. A potential spouse should be of the opposite sex, single, saved by Christ (2 Corinthians 6:14-15), actively pursuing sanctification and able to spur us on in doing the same as “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). I don’t think it’s wrong to hope and dream more specifically, or even to pray more specifically, but the bottom line remains: Only God knows who your type is, because your future marriage is in His hands. In the meantime, whether you have a written list or a mental ideal, hold it loosely in an open hand and let Him do the orchestrating.
Finding vs. Becoming the Person You Would Want to Marry
For all the energy we spend talking, thinking, dreaming and worrying about what we want in a husband or wife, I think a better investment would be to turn the tables on our dating expectations.
In the middle of a discourse about loving others above ourselves, Jesus makes a statement that is as simple as it is radical: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). This expression has become culturally canonized as “The Golden Rule,” and in its original context Jesus is referring to the treatment of our enemies. But all God’s children are called to imitate the giving love of our Savior. It’s a central theme threaded throughout Scripture, whether loving our enemies, friends or strangers. If we were to translate this principle of “The Golden Rule” into our dating dialogue, it would look like this: “Become the person you would want to marry.”
Here’s an idea: take your list and turn it around on yourself. Aspire to cultivate in yourself all the things you are looking for in a spouse so that when you finally meet, you will be in a position to attract his or her attention. If you want a godly woman as your wife someday, you will be more likely to win her if you commit yourself now to growing in Christ and learning how to lead such a woman. If you long for a man after God’s own heart, the best way you can prepare yourself for him is to become a woman after God’s heart.
When we flip the switch on our dating expectations, we learn that a Christ-centered relationship is one that reflects the very crescendo of the Gospel: self-giving love. It’s an attitude marked by service, sacrifice, trust, commitment and fidelity. Self-giving love, the antithesis of a consumer mindset, teaches us to view our future spouse as a precious gift and to anticipate such a gift by developing Christ-like character in ourselves that will someday bless them.
My list written long ago helped me understand what a godly man might look like, but the truth is that God created my husband more intricately and extravagantly than any list could ever define. Whoever your future spouse is, I would venture to say this special person will be a greater gift than you know how to ask for.
Stephanie S. Smith is a twentysomething writer, editor, blogger and independent book publicist addicted to print and pixels. She runs her business, (In)dialogue Communications, from her home in Upstate New York where she lives with her husband. Follow her at www.stephindialogue.com or @stephindialogue.