“Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)
“Am I doing enough?” It’s the recurring question that invades the mind of every single woman over the age of 30. Singleness is a season of ebbs and flows. There are days when you’re immersed in the wonders of God, relishing each moment of praise and adoration for Him, captivated by the display of His glorious attributes, grateful for each opportunity to plunge head-first into the knowledge of Him, undistracted by the cares and concerns of family life – so thrilled that He chose the single life for you!
But then something happens. You hear of a woman becoming engaged at your church; a family is welcoming another baby; an older couple is celebrating their 25th anniversary; you have another birthday – and those dreams of marriage and motherhood, those desires that are always just underneath the surface, bubble up into your waking consciousness. You find yourself suddenly in a state of panic, fearful, remorseful, regretful, thinking “Did God really choose the single life for me or have I done this to myself?”
Should I be doing more to get a husband? Should I be more aggressive in my efforts to get married? Is praying not enough? Is it time to take the bull by the horns, take life by the collar, pound the pavement, hit the streets, walk the line, put the hammer down, batten down the hatches, pay the piper, shoot the curl and do everything I possibly can to land myself a man?!
Does the “How” Matter?
It’s a touchy subject, especially in Christian circles. We all know the roles that God assigned to a husband and wife in marriage, roles designed to maximize His glory, intensify their enjoyment, and display the relationship between Christ and the church. But what about the approach to marriage? Does the man always have to initiate and lead? Does the woman always have to wait patiently and respond? Might marriage happen quicker if women take the lead?
Cyberspace is buzzing with such talk these days. More and more men……Christian men…..are saying, “Yes! It’s time for women to step up and start initiating! We’d be thrilled if a woman approached us. After all, nowhere in the Bible does it say ‘Only men shall lead in dating relationships’”, they reason. And that’s true; there is no explicit commandment in the Bible. But does that mean the Bible is completely silent on the issue? A journey through the Word of God reveals otherwise. Consider these scriptures:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24
“When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken.” – Deuteronomy 24:5
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” – Proverbs 18:22
“House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.” – Proverbs 19:14
“An excellent wife who can find?” – Proverbs 31:10
“Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” – 1 Corinthians 7:27
“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” – Mark 12:25
More than just a hodge-podge of unrelated verses, these scriptures show a pattern in the way men and women approach marriage. All the action verbs belong to the men; a man leaves his father and mother and holds fast to his wife, he takes a wife, he finds a wife and obtains favor from the Lord, he receives a wife from the Lord, he seeks a wife, and finally, the man marries while the woman is “given in marriage” (the Scriptures are replete with that language). Many have dismissed these descriptions as throwbacks from ancient times. But though the formal courtship and arranged marriages of the Bible have never been a significant part of our American heritage, our speech from the not-so-distant past reflects this same pattern of men leading and women responding.
A man who married used to be said to have “taken a wife”, but never was a marrying woman described as “taking a husband”. An older woman who had never married was called an “old maid”, a derisive term suggesting such a woman had been rejected by eligible suitors and now had only the company of stray cats to look forward to. An older never-married man, however, was never called an “old bachelor” but a “confirmed bachelor”, a much more positive term indicating the man was not a victim of rejection by women but had decided his own marital status. Even today in our women-can-do-everything-a-man-can-do-only-better American culture, barely 1% of all women propose to their husbands. So much for the Sexual Revolution. It seems even in our God-ignoring, secular society women don’t want to do the chasing and men don’t want to be chased. It’s ingrained in our very natures.
This is messed up.
“So what’s a single woman to do?!”, many Christian women have lamented. “I have hoped, and hoped, and hoped, and waited, and waited, and waited, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed, but no man has approached me. No man has asked me to marry him. No man has even asked me out on a date. My youth is slipping away, my beauty is fading, my fertile years are drying up, I’m withering on the vine……I must do something!” Many women in this predicament are wondering if the “how” really matters. Does it matter how marriage comes about? Will it matter in the long run who initiated, as long as it leads to the altar? When it comes to marriage, do the ends justify the means?
Ruth and the Art of Husband-Hunting
In recent internet discussions on the subject of dating and marriage, many Christian men and women are holding up Ruth, the Moabitess, as the archetype for women pursuing marriage aggressively. Ruth, they say, took matters into her own hands when she found herself a widow and in the presence of the eligible Mr. Boaz. When she uncovered Boaz’s feet at the threshing floor that night she practically proposed to the man, and, in doing so, upended this silly, antiquated nonsense about men leading and women responding.
But is that really what Ruth did? Herein lays the danger of modernizing and applying a passage of Scripture without correctly interpreting it in its original historical context first. On Boaz’s threshing floor, Ruth took advantage of an Israelite social structure called Levirate Marriage. In this arrangement, a brother or close male relative of a deceased Israelite man would take the man’s widow to be his wife, giving the firstborn son she bore to the brother her dead husband’s name so that the dead man’s name would not be blotted out of Israel (see Deuteronomy 25). It was not a twist on dating; in fact it wasn’t dating at all. Our modern American culture has no equivalent. Furthermore, it wasn’t Ruth’s idea to instigate the Levirate Marriage system, but her mother-in-law Naomi’s idea (Ruth 3:1-4). Ruth dutifully obeyed Naomi’s instruction. In the passage, we don’t get many details on what Ruth thought of Boaz.
We do, on the other hand, get lots of information on what Boaz thought of Ruth. He is not a passive bystander here – indeed, he has been closely observing Ruth and assessing her character. He tells Ruth, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me” (Ruth 2:11). Later Boaz commends Ruth for not going “after young men, whether poor or rich” and adds that “all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman” (Ruth 3:10-11). Boaz was clearly intrigued with Ruth and when presented with the opportunity to marry her he gladly takes it. Even though the Scriptures don’t reveal Boaz’s state of mind in Chapter 4 when he offers the opportunity to the nearer redeemer, we can almost feel through the pages of Scripture Boaz’s sigh of relief when the other man turns the deal down. None of us want Ruth to go to some nameless bozo we haven’t even been introduced to in the narrative. We want Ruth to go to Boaz, and she does. And so ends one of the most beautiful love stories in the Bible.
Was Ruth an aggressive, role-reversing, go-get-it kind of gal? Not according to Boaz.
Ruth is far from an aggressive, marriage-hungry woman on a man-hunt, as some have portrayed her. Mangling and misinterpreting the book of Ruth cannot refute the obvious fact that men don’t want to be hunted down like prey and women don’t want to chase men down like scared rabbits in a briar patch. The way men and women approach each other on the road to marriage, the complementary roles they assume, really do matter because they reveal a lot about the participants. If a man likes being chased and pursued what kind of man is he? What kind of husband will he be (likely not a good one)? What kind of precedent will a potential wife set if she chases, catches, and pins down a suitor? Can she really say to him, after the wedding, “Well, Johnny, I approached you and proposed but now I want you to lead our family. DO IT NOW!”?
Tales from the Pulpit
The pastor of our church is not only a gifted expositor but also a man extremely delighted to be married to his wife of more than 10 years. This means that in between blocks of his exegesis of Scripture, he regularly regales our congregation with tales of how he met his lovely wife, how he got to know her, how he pursued her, and how he eventually married her – an accomplishment he clearly enjoys remembering and one he expresses with effusive pride. Whenever the biblical text covers words like “love” or “husband” or “wife” or “veil” or “altar” or “covenant” or any word remotely connected to marriage, you can take it to the bank, he will seize the chance to reminisce rhapsodically about how he won his fair bride.
As a woman, single long past the desire to be, I sometimes have a difficult time listening to our pastor’s enthusiastic stories and romantic anecdotes. I find myself wondering if I will ever know the joy of being pursued and desired like that. Ever. But there are times when his telling of how he noticed his wife as a single woman – how he observed her, how he assessed her character, how he wanted her in such a godly and passionate way – is so beautiful and charming! I can’t help but to set my own disappointments aside and listen with rapt attention. One such time, I was moved to tears (happy, not jealous ones) when our pastor explained the many reasons why he felt compelled to marry his wife – that even before they dated he saw that she was gorgeous, witty, intelligent, pure, had a heart for ministry, and a love for Christ displayed in how she discipled other women; he determined by watching her interact with others that she would make an exceptional pastor’s wife and a wonderful mother to his children. Their resulting courtship was careful, thoughtful, intentionally biblical, bathed in prayer, and surrounded by wise counsel and godly mentors. It was apparently quite a journey and, no doubt, equally thrilling for his wife. Hearing Pastor recount it, I must agree with Proverbs 30:19….the way of a man with a maiden is too wonderful for me to understand.
One thing’s for certain: No one gets married like Adam and Eve. God will never again give men wives by fashioning females from their ribs. But it is astounding to me how often godly marriage stories seem to reflect the characteristics of that first encounter, when man met woman. Married Christian women will often tell me how long they waited for their husbands to notice them and approach them but their Christian husbands often recall the experience very differently. They describe how one day, seemingly out of the blue, they saw this radiant, godly woman in front of them, as if she had been hidden from their sight before that glorious moment. Strangely, it resembles that moment when God presented Eve to Adam and Adam excitedly claimed her as his own, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).
So where does that leave me? I want to be desired, I want to be pursued, I want to get married, but I feel helpless to make it happen. What can I do? What’s my role in this? Earlier this week, I expressed those concerns to my former pastor who lives in another state. His advice was surprisingly simple. He said my job was to prepare. Not to worry, not to fret, not to frantically pursue men, not to church-hop looking for Mr. Right – but to simply prepare to be the best wife I could be. Then pray and wait to see what God would do. It was advice the relationship pundits of this world would surely laugh at and scoff. Though even the worldliest advice columnist will never tell single women to head out in hot pursuit of a man, they will suggest things like, “Invade his personal space. Make deliberate eye contact. Mirror his body movements. Lean in when he’s speaking to you. Stroke your hair. Purse your lips.” After doing all that you might as well hold up a sign with the words, “TAKE ME! TAKE ME, NOW!” No, as frustrating as it is to wait and wait and wait, I know my former pastor’s advice is faithful and true.
What not to do.
It all reminds me of a quote from Ray Comfort, the famous street evangelist. In one of his books, commenting on sexual immorality, he stated,
“One who commits fornication takes what could lawfully be his as a gift from God, and corrupts it. He is like a child who one night steals a crisp, new twenty-dollar bill from his father’s wallet, not realizing that his father intended to give it to him as a gift in the morning.”
I read this and thought, “But what about those of us who have never gotten the twenty-dollar bill? You got your $20, but some of us have waited until the next morning, the next week, the next year, the next decade, and we still haven't gotten the $20. Where’s my twenty bucks?!” As I slammed the book shut in anger, the Holy Spirit impressed something on my mind. As a woman, I am not waiting for the twenty-dollar bill. I am the twenty-dollar bill. God had the task of presenting me as a gift to a godly man searching for the twenty-dollar bill. That thought gave me much joy and relief…and even a cautious optimism of what is yet to come.
But what if God never gives me to anyone?! Then I will be safe in the wallet of my Heavenly Father. No, it’s not the same as being in a home with a husband, but I can’t think of a better place for a single woman to be.
Copyright © 2013