In the early ‘80s – yeah, it was “back in the day,” but try to stick with me – any man who wore all black, had spiky hair, and liked R.E.M. and Elvis Costello was the height of new wave cool.
In my eyes, few were cooler than my friend, Michael. He got me backstage to meet Bono after a U2 concert and he took me to the Mostly Mozart festival at the Kennedy Center. He introduced me to popular punk dance clubs and also brought me to his home for my first Passover seder. He was adventurous and loved new experiences, but never got drunk. I don’t ever recall him using drugs, either. He soaked up the culture, but never seemed to be overcome by it.
He also asked me one of the most important questions of my young adult life. Sitting on campus one afternoon, we were talking all around the issue of our friendship. As in many male-female friendships, the tension of “what if” always tugged at the edges of our relationship. Turning to look at me, he regarded me kindly but spoke with quiet resolve.
“You know … I’m not going to ask you out,” he said, pausing momentarily to allow his statement to sink in. “I don’t believe in dating anyone that I couldn’t consider marrying. And I would only marry a Jewish woman, because my religion is important to me.”
I met his gaze with a small smile. “I understand that, Michael.”
“Good,” he said. “Well, what are you looking for in a husband?”
“Oh, I guess I would look for a sense of humor, a sharp dresser, someone who is into music,” I mused. “Definitely someone who likes to dance.”
After a diplomatic pause to let the shallowness of my answer register, he asked: “What about trust? Isn’t that important?”
I blinked, considering the implications of his question. At 20 I was not yet a Christian, and I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the random, uncommitted dating culture. Trust was neither expected nor given. I wasn’t even considering issues of character (mine or his), just entertainment. “Yeah, that’s important,” I mumbled, mildly embarrassed. But even then I didn’t fully comprehend what was being asked.
The Heart of the Matter
Proverbs 31:11-12 (ESV) says, “The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” I believe the area that requires greatest wisdom for single women is knowing what’s “good” when interacting with men, both single and married. In our friendships with single men, we can’t presume that any man is “the one.” We might hope that he will be “the one,” but only time will unfold God’s plan for us. It could be that our future husbands are watching us at this time, evaluating how we interact with them and other men. One certainty is that the vast majority of single men we know now will be someone else’s husband in the future. The woman of a Proverbs 31 noble character, therefore, doesn’t live just in the present, but carefully considers her interactions from the perspective of an entire lifetime – and thereby earns the trust of her husband (should God provide), as well as the numerous men who will be her friends and brothers in the Lord.
That’s simple to say, but harder to live. There are two challenges with this concept: 1) There’s more than one heart involved, and 2) Our culture is entirely at odds with the biblical standards that we will look at in this column.
So how do we break it down? Let’s go to the end of this verse and work backwards. “All the days of her life” is a translation of a Hebrew idiom that means “constantly, all the time,” similar to our modern phrase, “24/7.” But to be that constant after the wedding means we are building on a foundation of the days before. So in these days before, we have to evaluate our actions and plans in the context of what will ensure good, not harm, for our future husbands. We have to consider what will bring him gain, or as the New International Version translates it, that he lacks nothing of value. This is the bedrock of trust.
I think the key here is found in the first noun, heart. The Hebrew for this word is leb, also used figuratively for the feelings, the will, and even the intellect. The biblical view of the heart is not the intense intoxication of romantic passion as we view it today. Leb means more than subjective attraction or ardor. Our feelings are only one-third of the package; the other parts are the will and the mind, which are usually far more objective. As much as our culture is currently concerned with how we feel about various things, Scripture is more concerned with how our feelings should be governed by what we know to be truth about God. (Isn’t it amazing that the Psalms so consistently end with praise to God no matter where they begin?) So if you find matters of the heart to be confusing and arbitrary, this is actually good news! The Bible is telling us that we have more tools to work with in romance and friendship than our culture would tell us.
In the middle of a series of articles about beauty and fitness in a women’s magazine, I once found this important nugget:
“Despite the conventional wisdom, being married boosts happiness only one-tenth of a point on an 11-point scale, and most people are no more satisfied with life after marriage than they were before, says Richard Lucas, Ph.D., a psychologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who analyzed 15 years’ worth of data on 24,000 people. Although happiness rises after exchanging vows, most people return to their pre-marriage level within two years. (The same is true for people who win the lottery.) ‘People need to have realistic expectations,’ Lucas says. But if your marriage does not bring everlasting happiness, he adds, ‘it does not mean it’s not a good one.’”
Only two years of wedded bliss after all that fuss and scheming to get there?! We shouldn’t be surprised; this mainstream study confirms what we read throughout the Bible. God has designed us to find our ultimate fulfillment in Him, not in anything He’s created. Therefore, it’s not surprising to read that the author of this study found out that “people are no more satisfied with life after marriage than they were before,” and that he cautions readers to “have realistic expectations.” A realistic expectation of what or whom is merely left to the reader’s inference.
Our culture uses this phrase a lot – “realistic expectations.” But, really, what’s a “realistic” expectation? In some ways, I think that’s the secular counterpart to the Christian phrase, “guard your heart.” We casually toss those phrases around, and we freely give them as advice to one another. But they have a way of stopping a meaningful conversation short, as though everyone involved knows exactly what it means to have realistic expectations or guard your heart. If we did know, the lucrative self-help publishing industry wouldn’t exist. The truth is, relationships are messy. They require risk. But the Bible doesn’t leave us in the dark here. In matters of the heart (whether or not we get married) there are four perspectives to consider:
- Our husbands
- Our “brothers”
- Our unions
When we examine romance through these four perspectives, I think we’ll see how we can live wisely all the days of our lives, and earn the trust of our future husbands. In this column, we’ll look at the first point, and in future columns we’ll explore the last three points. (By the way, this topic is a tough one for me. I’ve learned a lot in recent years – mostly the hard way – so I need to rely on a “multitude of counselors” for their wisdom and their pithy quotes. The good news is that I’ve done all the reading for you!)
Guard Your Heart
Proverbs 4:23 (ESV) says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The King James Version translates it as, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” Here, “issues” doesn’t mean the disparaging way we use the word now – “He’s got issues!” Rather, this phrase in Hebrew alludes to geographic boundaries or source, as in water. Like the mountain spring that’s the source of a mighty river, the heart is the source for all the operations of human life, and we’re commanded to “keep it” (guard, protect, maintain it) with all vigilance (watchfulness). In the area of romance, this means we have some work to do – or we will end up with some issues!
I remember talking to my pastor as a new believer, wondering why everyone always talked about “guarding your heart.” This was an intriguing phrase to me. I didn’t know why it mattered to anyone if I was or wasn’t “guarding my heart.” I’d already survived several broken romances by the time I became a Christian, so I wasn’t concerned about handing my heart to someone new. I was a seasoned dating veteran. But my pastor wisely pointed out that with each dashed relationship, I was dinging my heart. By the time I got married, I would be handing my husband a fairly scarred, dented heart, complete with the bitter memories of how each injury occurred. This was his elementary advice for a new convert, but there was still much more for me to learn.
Sometime later, I actually noticed that phrase in the Bible: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 ESV, emphasis added). Backing up one sentence, I read: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Fact one: The Lord is at hand. Fact two: Prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving are the ways to let our requests be known to God, who is at hand. Fact three: Because we’ve made our requests to a Lord who is at hand, we can know peace. Fact four: Peace guards our hearts in Christ Jesus, who is at hand and has heard our requests.
What makes us anxious about romance? It’s our speculations. Does anyone like me? Does this man like me? Will he call me? Will he introduce me to his family? Does he think we have potential for the future? Will he propose? Will we get married? Will we stay married? Will he commit adultery? Will he die first and leave me alone? And on and on and on. When we do this, we are way out in the future all by ourselves, churning in sinful anxiety.
Meditating upon imaginary future circumstances is a futile exercise. There isn’t grace for our speculations. That’s why God tells us “do not be anxious about anything.” We can try our best to control all of our circumstances to ensure we won’t be hurt or that we’ll get what we want, but it will never produce anything more than anxiety. We have to learn how not to get ahead of God and the man who has attracted our attention. What that looks like can vary, but I like this description of guarding your heart:
The moment we meet a man, we snatch our heart out of God’s hand, toss it at this new guy we’ve gotten all excited about, and say, “Here!” Small wonder the poor little thing is so banged up. I think it’s time to get a clue, don’t you? How about trying this approach – you meet a man, he’s re-e-al cute, you like him. Your little heart is all aflutter, revving up to leap out of your chest and at the poor unsuspecting guy. Place your hand over your heart, whisper to it: “Calm down,” and put it back in its secret place. And then say this: “God, I think I really like this one. What do you know about him? What is the purpose of his being in my life? Is he the one for me? Should I proceed, or should I not waste my time on him?”
In due time, I believe the Lord will always answer those questions and provide peace to the woman who first talks to God before she talks to the man.
Carolyn McCulley handles church and ministry relations for Sovereign Grace Ministries and is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. This column is adapted from her book about biblical womanhood for single women titled "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred." (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.gnpcb.org). Carolyn welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her blog, http://solofemininity.blogspot.com. Previous articles and messages are posted at www.carolynmcculley.com.