For a moment, though, I’d like to address a deep-seated, identity-changing lie that I think some good Christian girls and boys buy into and that many more members of the Christian community perpetuate. I want to say it in love, though–in a way that challenges all of us to be more truthful in our thinking and our speaking.
God does not promise us happiness or marriage. Furthermore, the two are not equivalent.
There is this trend in the evangelical world (and probably beyond, if we’re being honest) towards encouraging others to be happy. We produce all kinds of feel-good sayings and messages (“Just believe” “If you are faithful, God will grant it to you” “Live like X is true until it becomes true”). We put them on wall hangings and we make them our statuses and we pin them on Pinterest. We call those messages “inspirational” but my fear is that these messages are falling on the hearts of vulnerable young women, especially, who are desperate for HOPE and what we give them is HYPE. (ooh look at that. I should trademark it.)
It’s hype because we wave around these inspirational messages like they’re the promises of God. Like they’re biblical. But when I read the Bible, I don’t read stories of really happy people who also happen to be independently wealthy. No, I read of barren women and abandoned women and men sold into slavery and men stoned for the sake of the Gospel. I read about families that are so dysfunctional, I wonder how any good could have come out of Israel at all. I read about prophets who endure years of ridicule and loneliness. I read about men hunted down by their enemies. I read about people who plead with God to end their misery and it takes years of enduring horrible, lonely, fruitless questioning before relief comes. Sometimes the only relief that comes is death itself.
So when we place such a high emphasis on being happy, I am concerned. Because, clearly, happiness is not what the Christian life is all about. I know a whole lot of Christians who are unhappy. It’s just not a promise God makes to his followers. Christ promised his disciples persecution and suffering and rewards they would never see on this side of heaven. So being a Christian is not about being happy. (It could be about discovering the source of true joy, which is vastly different from ethereal happiness. But that is another post entirely.)
But if being a Christian is not about being happy, it’s also not about being married. As if being married would secure your happiness. When your happiness is based on the whims of a fellow human being who is just as broken as you are, as equally susceptible to suffering and pain as they are to causing it, you’re not going to be guaranteed happiness. And somehow in this movement of evangelical Christianity, we made marriage the pinnacle of life: When you’re married, THAT’S when you’ve made it.
Balderdash. (You know what I mean.)
I didn’t wake up the morning after our wedding a new person. I woke up the same Maggie, with the same struggles, temptations, habits, and passions. I have a new last name, yes, but I’m still me; I didn’t wake up with a new personality. I kept going about the life God gave me, in the job God gave me, with the new partner God gave me.
A year and a half ago, I honestly didn’t know if God was going to give me a partner.
I began reading a book in Nigeria called Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church, written by one of my favorite Wheaton professors, Dr. Christine Colon. I began seriously addressing the idea that though I wished to be married, God was under no obligation to fulfill my wishes. As I read, I grew committed to living a fulfilled life knowing that I may never marry. Marriage does not equal fulfillment.
When I returned from Africa, I made the conscious decision not to search or look or wait around. I would live this vibrant, full life and if God brought me a spouse, so be it. I went to church with friends and started my new job and went to dinner parties, and met Jon 10 weeks after I got home. Part of the reason I was so shocked I met Jon at all was that I had finally gotten to this place where I did not expect God to make good on a promise he never made me. Part of the wonderment of the past year has been precisely that it wasn’t promised to me, so it feels all the more surprising and makes me feel all the more grateful.
The trouble comes, I think, when we set young people up with the expectation that marriage is a given, that marriage will make them happy, and that as a married person, they will be fulfilled. Those expectations are bound to come crashing down eventually, whether on an unmarried forty-something, a miserably married twenty-something, or an unfulfilled married any-something.
My frustration has come to a head recently because of anecdotes I read on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and the worst offender: Pinterest. A pin I saw a couple weeks ago featured a teenage girl hiding behind a sheet of copy paper. On it was a handwritten message: “When you feel alone, just remember: God has someone special saved just for you.” Except he might not. And are you, that vibrant young woman with passions and dreams, hidden behind that piece of paper, are you prepared to live a fulfilled life anyways? It will be challenging, and you may experience real suffering, but you may also feel happiness along the way. That might be what God has saved for you.
From my perspective, our challenge is this: keep the expectations real. Not lofty. Not perfect. Not low or pessimistic, conversely. Just correct, theologically. As we encourage and pour into the upcoming generation, we ought to uphold the true promises of God while avoiding the creative exaggeration of cultural emphases into some kind of divine promise.