Note: This is the second essay on my series about relationships. The first one’s here, and while they build off of each other, they can be read independently.
I see people my age getting married to people they’ve known for like a year and a half. A year and a half? Is that enough time to get to know someone to know you want to spend the rest of your life with them? I’ve had sweaters for a year and a half and I was like 'What was I doing with this sweater?' " --Aziz Ansari
"How am I still single," I wondered. "Yet that guy's in a relationship! Especially with her?" After my initial disgust, I'd make a checklist to compare me and the other guy, choosing categories that weighted towards my strengths and his weaknesses. The results always came back the same: another guy that I should have been married before. As I went through my twenties and attended wedding after wedding, I struggled at times; why them and not me?
I went through my twenties thinking I could will my way into a relationship. If I was the right kind of guy: funny, charming, successful, well-dressed, and planned the right dates, then I'd have to get someone to commit to me, right? After some bumpy breakups, I figured I needed to do more, and added relationship books to my self-improvement diet, thinking that relational success was just a few personality adjustments away. As the years went by, I worked harder and harder to be the right guy, growing more and more frustrated when none of it ever worked. But one day, God opened my eyes and I saw a new truth: a relationship isn’t something you work to deserve, but a gracious gift from God.
relationships by works: i deserve this!
"Justin, you're so old." I said to my older brother, "I can't believe that it took you until 28 to get married." I was 22 at the time, confident that someone like me would be married by 25 at the latest. "Be careful, Luke," my Dad warned from the next room, "You don't know how old you'll be when you get married." Hmmph, I wasn't worried, certain that my success in other areas of life would carry over to finding a spouse.
This mindset is common today, and it pervades the attitudes of young people in our culture. I'll call it a relationship by works mentality: if you put in enough work to become the type of person who fits someone else's dreams, you'll be guaranteed a relationship. So young adults spend their twenties and thirties devoted to self-improvement, using exercise, work, travel, clothing, and social media to create enough social capital to warrant the right to marry another similarly desirable person. We think that if we're polished, smart, and attractive, then our dream relationship can't be too far behind.
This relationships by works mindset works for a while, and you’ll meet lots of other successful young people who are following this same script. This mindset culminates in a subconscious deal you make with God: if I get the things society says are important and I obey all of your rules, then you have to give me a relationship. So you begin to date, certain that since you are upholding your end of the bargain, God will give you your dream spouse.
People in this mindset start your twenties with such relational optimism, sure that their dream spouse is just around the corner. But then your expectations start to crack, as girls say no or guys never ask. And when something does happen, it inexplicable crumbles, leaving you wondering why two people both following this deal with God couldn't make it work. As you stay single year after year, while the pressure to be married builds and builds, you approach God, angry at Him and disappointed with yourself, wondering why He didn't hold up His end of the bargain.
You to God: "Why did you make me this way, God? You're to blame because you could have made me taller, prettier, more successful, more popular, and more athletic, but you didn't. On top of that, you know how much I've given up for you! I go to church every week, I usually read my Bible, I only date Christians, and I'm not sleeping around like everyone else. I do so much for you, yet you won't give me the relationship I deserve. Do you even care about me?
You to Yourself: What's wrong with me? Why is everybody else getting married and I'm not! I guess I really am too short/tall/fat/skinny/ugly/awkward/loud/shy/annoying/poor to ever expect someone to like me. I feel like such a failure, and the fact that I'm still single proves it. But maybe if I work on those things that my ex critiqued me on, I might be good enough for someone else.
In our my-works-merit-a-relationship mindset, we get angry at God when we feel we've fulfilled our part of the deal but He hasn't give us what we deserve. So we pull our moral resumé and wave it in front of God to remind Him of everything we've done, while simultaneously wallowing in discouragement and inadequacy. You take your singleness as proof that not only can you not trust God, but you're also too broken and flawed to be loved by anyone.
relationships are by grace alone
I went through most of my twenties under that perspective, working harder and harder, yet feeling more imperfect than ever, continually frustrated that God wasn't keeping His end of our deal. But then He opened my eyes to a startling truth: that just like salvation, relationships are only by grace. A relationship isn't a reward for being the right kind of person or a sign that you've been good enough, but rather an undeserved gift from God because of His love for you.
What a complete change in perspective! When you believe a relationship is only given as a gift from God and not as a reward for those who deserve it, you can trust that He will give you a relationship if and when it is the best thing for you. You don't have to live anxiously, frustrated you're not in a relationship. Instead, you can give yourself fully to this current time in your life, knowing that God thinks you being single today is the absolute best thing for your life. While understanding this doesn't dissolve the disappointment many feel at being single, it does help you live in a healthier relationship with both God and yourself. How does that happen?
Towards God: Whether you're single or in a relationship, you can trust that this is God's absolute best for you. Your life is not careening off track, but is following God's plan for what is best for you. It also allows you to see being single not as an undesirable state to be gotten out of as soon as possible, but rather as a way for you to serve and glorify God.
Towards Yourself: When you believe a relationship is a gift, it takes away the burden of self-improvement; that constant feeling of needing to be better in order to deserve a relationship. Since God gave you your personality, life circumstances and body type, you can stop feeling like you are not enough, and that you'll never be in a relationship unless you're perfect. It also tells that you being single is not a sign that you're messed up beyond hope, but rather that God is writing a different story with your life.
When you internalize the fact that you can never be good enough to deserve a relationship, it sets you free to both love God and love who He has made you to be. You can accept that your different looks, quirky personality, and persistent weaknesses aren't mistakes that disqualify you from God's best for your life, but the setting in which He will reveal His grace to you, whether that means being single or in a relationship. Being single is not a curse or a sign that God has forgotten you, but an opportunity to dig into the place and people where God has called you.
why we naturally hate this
Unfortunately, we all naturally hate that relationships are by grace alone. Even when we've experienced the destructiveness of trying to deserve a relationship, we all like having that deal in place in God. Here are the two major reasons why:
We Want the Glory: If you receive your relationship only because of grace, then, when a relationship does happen, it destroys your ability to think you're better than everyone else. If relationships are only given through God's grace, then you have to give Him all the glory for yours. We hate this because we want the glory for our lives, and try to steal it from God at every opportunity. Grace says you didn't earn this relationship by being more cool/talented/desirable/or successful, but only because God gave you a gift you don't deserve.
We Want Control: When you submit yourself to God's grace, you have to give up control over your life. We like the works mentality because it gives us a feeling of control over God and our lives. If I do this, then you have to give me that. This desire for control manifests itself in two ways:
You plow ahead in a relationship even when God gives you a red light: You resist God's grace by ignoring all of the red lights He puts up, continuing to pursue a relationship that isn't working only because the person fulfills your idols: they have the right look, job, background, status, etc. To live in God's grace means you need to end a relationship that you know He doesn't want you in.
You refuse to go forward into a relationship when God gives a green light: Here, we resist God's grace and reject a relationship He is trying to give us because the other person doesn't meet our criteria. We ignore God's grace, acting like it's not there, so that we can find someone else who gets us closer to our idols, the things that really make us happy. Most of us would rather be single with the option of a perfect spouse, so we resist God when He brings someone into our life that is a great fit, but doesn’t line up with our dream scenario.
In both of these situations, you don't want to give up control because you're more concerned with getting your way than in getting God and His best for you. Tim Keller nails this mindset in the following quote:
"Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage who will "fulfill their emotional, sexual, and spiritual desires." And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to deep pessimism that you will never find the right person to marry. This is the reason so many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are "not good enough."
While the fact that relationships are by grace alone frees you from the pressure of having to be good enough to get married, it also calls you to stop resisting God's grace and pursue a relationship even if they don't fit all of your criteria. God won’t force you to be in a relationship with someone, but don’t be surprised when He draws you to a person you weren’t initially attracted to.
By now, you might feel a tension between trusting God's grace to provide with your need to do something. God gives graciously, but He also calls you to act. So while your actions never merit God's favor and blessings, they are the means that God uses to deliver His grace to you and to other people. If you feel that you should be in a relationship, God calls you to put some effort in and go for it. Young people typically don't strike this balance, but are either too active or passive in their pursuit of a relationship. This difference requires different advice for each group:
For Active Types: Your temptation is to get out ahead of God and try to make a relationship happen. Active types trample over God's grace, trying to manufacture a relationship even if He isn't leading them to that. If you're an active type, God calls you to be patient, and to wait on Him to provide you with good opportunities that fit His will for your life.
For Passive Types: Your temptation is to sit around and wait for God to provide the absolute perfect opportunity. Passive types abuse God's grace and use it as a cover for inaction. While discerning God's will is a huge topic, step out into faith, not perfectionism, and trust that God will bless you, not in spite of the messiness of relationships, but through it.
Trusting God to be gracious to you isn’t easy. Will He give you a relationship? Will you be single for the rest of your life? I don’t know, and no one does. But the Apostle Paul poses this same question, asking: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” You follow a God who has freely given you eternal life with Him; this enormous gift should give you the confidence that Jesus will provide every other gift that you need in this life.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9