What does it mean to be attracted to someone? And what role should attraction play in my pursuit of marriage?
When I was little, growing up in Maine, my friend and I decided to make a "concoction." It was fun, it was complex, and, yes, it was not exactly edible. We took almost everything we could find from his poor mother's kitchen, mixed it together, and stowed it safely away.
Or so we thought.
Suffice it to say that the lid was not secured as tightly as we thought. Soon, instead of a neatly bottled concoction, we witnessed the unleashing of this concoction on the white walls of the unsuspecting kitchen. Why had this happened? Simply this: vinegar and baking soda mixed together. The result was nothing less than an explosion.
Why do I share this story with you? Because I think many of us have been trained to think of romantic attraction in similar terms. Should we happen to ponder the word "attraction," many of us might think of a cinematic moment, an instance when two eyes inexplicably met. The gaze was held; the connection was palpable; two hearts beat as one. Later, the happy couple chastely walked a windswept beach. Attraction proved an unstoppable force. Destiny was fixed, once and forevermore.
I don't deny that attraction is a powerful force. It surely is, and praise God for that! It's part of what God uses to drive us to one another. But in what follows, I want to suggest that there is more to attraction than that one explosive moment. Here are five thoughts on the topic of Christian attraction, five essential matters that you should consider as you ponder that ever-present yet hard-to-understand question: What exactly does it mean to be attracted to someone?
And a second question, right on the heels of the first: What role should attraction play in my pursuit of marriage? We'll answer both of these tough queries as we go.
1. Attraction is physical, just like God designed it to be. I'm writing on a Christian site to a predominantly Christian readership. This allows me a moment of honesty: Sometimes evangelicals act as if physical attraction a) doesn't exist or b) is bad. Both ideas are wrong. The first instance of physical attraction in Scripture comes in Genesis 2:18-25, when the Lord brings Eve to Adam, and Adam celebrates her design and beauty. He exults in Eve. Other biblical texts show considerable awareness of physical attractiveness; Rachel, for example, "was beautiful in form and appearance" (Genesis 29:17) even as David "had beautiful eyes and was handsome" (1 Samuel 16:12). I confess that in researching for this article, I had not remembered that the Bible indicated as a matter of fact that David had nice eyes (a description, by the way, that is inspired, infallible and inerrant!).
These texts — and many others — remind us that the Bible doesn't close its eyes or purse its lips when it comes to physical beauty. Nor does it regard everyone as equally physically attractive. Beauty of form and appearance is God-given. While we should never exalt physical beauty or think it anywhere near the most meaningful part of a person (see Saul's example), we also should not demean the handiwork of our Creator. Attraction is part of God's design for marriage. We see a person of the opposite sex and find them attractive, a discovery that helps propel us out of fear and shyness and into marital happiness (Paul speaks of this when he mentions the "burn" of sexual desire in 1 Corinthians 7). The couple in Song of Songs, for example, clearly takes delight in the physical makeup of the other, and this delight helps keep their marriage strong.
2. Attraction is holistic, and therefore goes well beyond the physical. We get things wrong if we think that attraction amounts only to physical desire. Physical desire is God-given and grounded in a proper appreciation of the goodness and elegance of the God-created body.
But Christians have many other reasons to find members of the opposite sex attractive. We're "holistic" beings, after all. God has given us minds and hearts and eyes and ears and affections and emotions and much more. Attraction can be intellectual, grounded in an appreciation of intelligence. It can be character-driven, rooted in love for the virtuous deeds and heart of a person. It can be less easy to pin down, but connected to sense of humor, background, recreational interest, music, politics, or many other things.
A very important part of attraction that young couples sometimes overlook is this: spiritual interest. A man or woman who loves the risen Christ and serves Him faithfully day by day is, for a member of the opposite sex, a powerful summons to marriage. You might well feel attracted to a believer for other reasons, but spiritual attraction is for many Christians, the greatest draw to their spouse. Beauty, a love for travel, a sharp wit — these are appealing traits. But a heart sold out to Jesus? There is no more powerful unifying force in the world.
3. Attraction helps build "connection" but can't ultimately sustain it. Time for some more truth-telling: If attraction of various kinds, including physical desire, isn't present between a single man and a single woman, they want to note this. I don't mean they shouldn't get married, only that they should factor this into their consideration.
However, couples should not go too far in the opposite direction, thinking that if desire grounded in different interests and appetites is present from the start of the marriage, their relationship will thrive for the next 60 years. Want proof that this is an inadequate foundation for marriage? Look at many so-called "beautiful people" of Hollywood and their disastrous track record on marriage. Many of these couples are right to be physically drawn to one another. But that quality alone certainly will not fireproof a marriage. In too many cases, such couples have little besides physical desire to bring them together. That, to put it succinctly, is tragic.
The reality of marriage is this: Some of what connects you as a couple is physical attraction. As time goes on, though, every husband-and-wife team deepens in their mutual affection, which in turn strengthens "connection." This is particularly true as a couple seeks maturity in Christ together. As a husband grows as a spiritual leader, and cares for his wife tenderly and biblically, she will naturally find her affection for him increasing. As a wife's faith expands and she chooses to support and encourage his godly leadership rather than undermine it, his love for her will soar. As the couple navigates by the Spirit's power the twists and turns of life, the heartaches and miscarriages and promotions and anniversaries, they will "connect" far more than they once did.
4. Attraction develops and changes over time. This assertion builds off of the previous one. Let's be as clear as we can: "Connection" and "chemistry" are not incidental in dating and courtship. These matters have a place in romantic consideration. But couples should also know that these realities take shape and develop over the long haul.
God has made us not for easily-made, easily-broken covenants that last no longer than a college degree, but for six- and seven-decade marriages that stand every test of time. Marriage is at base a call to perseverance. It is a summons to fidelity. It is a display-case of commitment. God has designed marriage to image the love Jesus has for His blood-bought people (Ephesians 5:22-33). Every couple, therefore, has the chance through faithful earthly union to show the world what heavenly union looks like. Every husband has the chance to show the world what a faithful, self-sacrificial leader Jesus is; every wife has the chance to show the world what a loving, submissive bride the church is. The stakes in marriage are high, but they are much higher than the eye can see. We are putting cosmic realities on display when we wed.
Couples should not be surprised, then, when they find themselves growing in affection for their spouse over time. It is of course possible because of sin to grow brittle and bitter toward one another. But it is much more possible through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to enjoy one another more and more over the years, perhaps, in many cases, for reasons we couldn't possibly have identified in our early years as a pair. Satisfaction in sex might once have been a major connective force — or maybe it never was, but assumes that roles. Character traits might not have been as apparent in easier seasons of marriage — but suddenly become potent when terminal illness strikes. Spiritual maturity might not have mattered as much when the couple was less morally consistent — but then one spouse starts reacting in a new and godly way when conflict arises, and a fresh breeze blows into the marriage.
In these and many other ways, we see — and if we are married, we will see — that attraction takes a lifetime to develop.
5. Men and women experience attraction in different ways. Men and women pursuing marriage, or in the early stages of it, should be aware that though believers have tremendous unity in Christ, our gender and sexuality matter. Men on average have 1000 percent more testosterone than women, explaining why many men are drawn to physical outlets for their energy. Women, by contrast, produce much more estrogen than men, a hormone linked to mood swings and changes related to menstruation. In sum, men and women have some very different physical and biochemical realities.
Men, in general, are far more visually oriented and stimulated than women, while women are far more verbally oriented than men. In some cases, these tendencies are reversed, creating a new set of challenges for couples to deal with. In many homes, however, husbands will find that their wives are attracted to good communication, caring service, and also physical appearance. Wives, on the other hand, will find that their husband is strangely and consistently drawn to their physical appearance. Men may crave togetherness for the purpose of sex; women may crave togetherness for the purpose of emotional intimacy.
Every marriage has its own rhythm, and every couple goes through different seasons when it comes to sex and romance. It is ideal and godly for husbands and wives alike to embrace, rather than fight against, their spouse's natural desire for them. Husbands can work hard at communicating well and plugging into the daily life of the family. Wives can work hard at being sexually available to their husbands. Neither spouse should see themselves as giving more than the other; neither spouse should serve their spouse to "get something back" from the other. Both spouses can honor the Lord in several core ways: growing in the Lord, embracing Christian maturity, caring for their body, and generally seeking to love, serve and build up their husband or wife.
Attraction, then, is not like my childhood concoction. It's more complex than that. (And less destructive to kitchens, thankfully.) Of course, knowing these five basic realities won't answer every question we have. It will, though, help us think with renewed minds about desire, connection and sexual difference.
Fundamentally, we do not need to be scared of attraction, nor should we think it is all that matters in love and marriage. It is a gift of God, one that drives us toward union with a spouse and enables us to put a much greater spiritual love on display, the perfected love that Christ will share with all the saints into all the ages of history and beyond.
Copyright 2013 Owen Strachan. All rights reserved.