Saturday, August 26, 2006

Shopping for a Spouse

Why I decided to chuck my Mr. Right checklist.
by Shana Schutte

Until a few years ago, I shopped for men like I shop for Kleenex, Saran Wrap, or jelly beans?with a list. A girl knows what she's getting when she makes a list. She can size up her date and compare him with criteria to make sure he's "worthy."

Everywhere single women look, someone encourages us to find the perfect guy. Friends say, "Don't settle." Hollywood airs numerous shows that keep Prince-Charming dreams alive. The Internet promises romance at the click of a mouse. Even Christian books encourage us to use a list through titles such as Your Mr. Perfect and God Will Make Your Match in Heaven.

My list was longer than Santa's. Some of my criteria were valid?he must love God and me. Others may have been a tad lofty. For example, at one point, my goal was to marry a man who looked like Mel Gibson, and who was as sensitive as my closest girlfriend and as wise as Jesus. He also had to be funny, financially stable, athletic, charismatic, good with children, patient, a good communicator, gentle, and assertive. He had to share my life's vision, always balance his checkbook, and not have hair on his back, sport a spare tire, or live in a trailer.

But I couldn't find a man to meet these criteria anywhere! So when I turned 33, I was shopped out. When a friend gave me a journal for my birthday with Colossians 3:14 (NKJV) on the cover?"Love is the bond of perfection"?I felt God stirring my heart. I asked God what he wanted me to learn from this verse, and I sensed him gently whisper, Shana, love is the bond of perfection; perfection isn't the bond of perfection. Suddenly I realized the error of my thinking. I thought if I found the perfect mate, I'd have the perfect love. But God clued me in that perfection doesn't create a perfect bond; God-honoring love, even in the midst of imperfections, does.

Shortly thereafter I was shocked to hear that "Lisa," a single woman in my church, was getting married. It wasn't the fact she was getting married that shocked me, it was to whom she was getting married: Tim. I had a vivid memory of how "grossed out" Lisa had been years earlier when Tim had tried to kiss her one night.

After listening intently to her story back then, I understood why she wasn't interested: Her list consisted of tall, dark, handsome, and outgoing. Tim was of medium height, blond, "OK" looking, and one of the shyest people I'd ever met. Yes, Tim was one of the nicest guys at our church. Yes, he was witty, had a great job, and loved God, but these didn't make up for what he didn't have on Lisa's list.

So what happened to change her "eww" to "I do"? Ironically, it was an argument one night after they'd attended a wedding together as friends. As Lisa sped away from Tim's house, she felt God speak to her, Are you overlooking Tim just because he's not every little thing on your list? In that moment, she focused on what Tim did offer instead of what he didn't. Lisa realized that for the past eight years Tim had listened to her cry, laugh, and tell lively stories as only she can do. Together Lisa and Tim had ridden bikes, attended singles functions, and become best friends. Instantly her heart melted and she threw away her list. "I was ready to get married the next month," she said. It seems that while Lisa knew what she wanted in a spouse, God knew what she needed.

When I saw Lisa at her wedding, she was beaming. Her joy caused me to scrutinize my list. While it's important to be discerning and prayerful when considering any potential mate, I began to see the pitfalls of list-making. And I began to recognize some of the unhealthy motivations behind my list.

Fear Factor
In my early twenties, I lost a man I deeply loved. I thought my wounded heart never would heal. I now realize I developed my list for protection. It was easier to have a shopping list no one could fulfill than to risk getting hurt again. Then God reminded me of his promise never to leave me or forsake me ( Hebrews 13:5). I found this comforting in the face of the fact that loving anyone is a risk. Walking in the knowledge that God will carry me through the difficult times and will be with me no matter what now gives me the freedom to take wise risks in romantic relationships.

Additionally, I looked at others who made a poor choice in a marriage partner and determined not to be like them. While there's wisdom in this, at the same time I wasn't trusting God with my personal life. God showed me self-protective hearts can't love. I thought keeping a list would protect me. But after many years of sizing men up, I developed negative thought patterns. I didn't realize I was operating out of fear and a critical spirit until God revealed that to me. It was then I realized the list I held was, in reality, holding me.

Diva Dating
Our society encourages an "It's all about me" attitude. Music, television, books, even well-meaning friends encourage self-promotion. But this attitude blocks love. First Corinthians 13:4 says love isn't proud. We can't focus on ourselves and then expect a relationship to flourish. Not only is this kind of thinking not conducive to a healthy relationship, it's also not conducive to a healthy heart, one free of pride and a judgmental spirit.

Once when I was talking with a friend about a potential date, she responded, "He's too short for you. Never date a guy who's either shorter than you or whose pants you can wear." I'm not sure why she added these stipulations to her list but, with God's grace, I decided I wouldn't add them to mine.

Great Expectations
What if I find a man I think is perfect only to realize on the other side of the altar he has flaws? I easily could think I made a mistake the first time I discovered one of his weaknesses or stumbled onto one of those inevitable relationship problems over money or the in-laws. However, nowhere in Scripture does God promise us a perfect man.

Lasting romance, the Bible tells us, is rooted deeply in the soil of sacrifice. List-making, on the other hand, can be critical and self-serving. Practicing selfless love, whether relationships lead to marriage or not, blesses everyone involved. And as Christians, we're called to selfless love, the kind that has others' best interest in mind.

Selfless, agape love helps me respect a man's hobbies, beliefs, unique qualities, and weaknesses. He may not be able to talk at length about shopping or friendships. His feet may be hairy and his temperament introverted. Agape love helps me give grace when I don't feel like it, and understanding when he doesn't meet all the criteria on my list. It means sometimes I give up my wishes to accommodate his, and sometimes he gives up his wishes to accommodate mine. That's the kind of others-centered love that's called for in the Bible, that leads to lasting relationships, and that Christ himself modeled for us when he walked the earth.

Life After the List
So does trashing your shopping list mean throwing discernment out the door? Certainly not! Some relationships are unhealthy or downright dangerous and shouldn't be entered at all. For example, dating someone who's verbally or physically abusive is always wrong.

Unfortunately, many of us have been tempted by relationships with men who don't treat us well. Several years ago, I became involved with a man who was often irritable and short-tempered. He told me he was unable to change his angry outbursts and was unwilling to seek help. With prayer, I decided not to continue the relationship because it was emotionally and spiritually unhealthy.

Ditching our list doesn't mean giving up any standards; it means adopting God's higher, better standards. This means looking for a man who shares our faith and who exhibits patience, gentleness, humility, generosity, and kindness. These qualities never will steer a girl wrong. And ditching our list means being open to the mysterious, unpredictable nature of love, and being focused on believing God knows what we need in romantic relationships. I certainly trust his judgment more than mine any day!

Soon after I tossed my list, God brought me a date with which to practice selfless, agape love. As I waited for his arrival for our first date, I sensed God saying to me, When he gets here, your job isn't to judge him but to love him as I do. I have to admit, this was a challenge. More than once I wanted to size him up and reject him. Instead, I looked past all the qualities that used to be on my list and tried to get to know his heart. As a result, wonderful things have happened since our first date. We've laughed, prayed, and grown together. We've learned to solve conflict and have become each other's greatest cheerleader. I've become more accepting. I knew God truly changed my heart when my date told me, "You love me like Christ." I don't know where this relationship is headed long-term, but I love that it's marked by grace, God's guidance, and freedom from the constraints of any list.

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