Their relationship blossomed overnight. What started with a flirtatious glance at a party soon became a fast track toward matrimony. To many on the outside, it looked like this relationship was destined for greatness. They had all of the passion and chemistry that so many modern couples possess. And their closest friends felt like this was a match made in heaven — literally. You see, Julie and Steve came from slightly different life experiences, and many of Steve’s friends saw Julie as the exact answer to their prayers. She was going to be the one who helped him get back on the straight and narrow.
Julie was a committed member of her church and the hospitality coordinator for her Sunday school class. She was always looking for ways to serve her family and friends, including facilitating a weekly Bible study. It was not uncommon to see her serving in the nursery, mentoring a teenage girl or just spending time with her unsaved neighbor. She loved the Lord and loved studying His Word.
Steve’s enthusiasm was a little lacking.
It wasn’t that Steve was completely apathetic to all things church related. He had grown up in the church; it was just that he had gotten busy these last few years. He still believed in God, but his commitment to fun and wild experiences seemed to eclipse his commitment to anything else. And it was this spontaneous and fun-loving spirit that captivated Julie and gave her a drive to help him channel all of that passion toward spiritual things.
Julie loved God, serving in her church and growing in her faith. Steve loved women, Bud Light and chasing the next high. Julie had been working the same marketing job since college and was on the fast track toward management. Steve was lucky if he remembered he even had a job any given week. Together, their friends thought, Steve could get straightened out and Julie would have a chance to help someone improve all in the name of love.
Julie is not alone. It’s a common misconception in our culture, even among Christians, to see relationships as a means to help a struggling person get back on track. I have heard it said of a seemingly mismatched couple, “She is exactly what he needs to straighten him out.” In fact, Hollywood has even picked up on this notion. From movies about 30-something men who still gladly live with their parents to movies about a man whose best friend is a stuffed animal, women are doing a lot these days to encourage the proverbial “lost boy” to ditch the Xbox and grow up.
Even the mainstream media is taking notice.
Reporting in The Daily Beast, Danielle Friedman mused about whether or not actress Mila Kunis was actually good for men.
“Shortly into Seth MacFarlane’s new film, Ted, Mila Kunis’ character returns to the apartment she shares with her 35-year-old boyfriend to find their third roommate, a foul-mouthed teddy bear, partying with four hookers, one of whom has pooped on her carpet. That’s it, she decides. The boyfriend has to choose between her and his stuffed bear. He has to grow up,” she said.
Hardly a context for romance, but then again this is the sea we are swimming in. It used to be that women wouldn’t think twice about ditching a man of this nature, but now he simply becomes a project. And as Friedman says, this might actually be good for men, calling her new Hollywood archetype “the man-up dream girl.” Why? Because in her most recent movies she has been the girl who helped her boyfriend become a better version of himself, all neatly packaged in under two hours. She does it without sounding like a mom. And she does it all with a little patience, understanding and sass. But is that what women should really be settling for? Is God’s design for marriage really met in a relationship that sounds more like a charity project than a partnership?
What Marriage Is
Marriage in a lot of ways is the joining of two equals. While both possess strengths that might differ from the other, the key component to a healthy marriage is that both bring strengths to the table. And nowhere is this clearer than in the first marriage (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:18-23). When God created Adam and Eve, He made them each on a level playing field, and they both were exactly who the other needed. Adam was created to lead, provide for and protect his wife. While Eve was created to be a suitable helper for Adam, it was hardly one of training him to be a better man. Their marriage was meant to be the joining of two companions, equals and image bearers pointing toward their Creator.
The entire point of marriage is to tell a story much bigger than ourselves. The relationship between a husband and a wife is designed to point to the greater relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. Without the continued growth of both partners, the narrative is muddied at best.
Marriage is hard enough without the added stress of a spouse who is far behind on the maturity scale. God did not intend for one partner, namely the woman, to be the one picking up the slack for an immature man. He meant for them both to grow together.
Marriage Changes You, and Then It Doesn’t
This doesn’t mean that you go into a relationship looking for the perfect person. If you do, you will be searching for a very long time. But it does mean that you have a realistic understanding of sanctification and the process of change.
Marriage, like singleness, is a journey toward holiness. By God’s grace we are not the same person on our deathbed that we were on our wedding day (Philippians 1:6). And marriage is one means toward that end. But there is a distinct difference between sanctifying growth and salvation growth.
Tim and Kathy Keller, in their book The Meaning of Marriage, have this to say about the process of change in a marriage:
What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other become our future glory-selves, the new creation God will eventually make us. The common horizon husband and wife look toward is the Throne, and the holy, spotless, and blameless nature we will have (122).
But this process assumes something about the two people involved, doesn’t it? It can’t mean that one partner is lagging behind spiritually or not saved at all. This understanding of marriage only works when both spouses are already committed to Christian growth individually.
Keller goes on to say:
Romance, sex, laughter, and plain fun are by-products of this process of sanctification, refinement, glorification. Those things are important, but they can’t keep the marriage going through years and years of ordinary life. What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness. You’re committed to his or her beauty. You’re committed to his greatness and perfection. You’re committed to her honesty and passion for the things of God. That’s your job as a spouse. Any lesser goal than that, any smaller purpose, and you’re just playing at being married (123).
For Julie and Steve, without a clear commitment to holiness from both of them, their marriage will only be rooted in fading realities, not the stuff that lasts a lifetime. Marriage does serve as a sanctifying force in our lives. But it should not be used as training wheels for the Christian life.
Don’t Be Tempted by the Project
The movies paint a story where Julie and Steve wind up living happily ever after. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case. What works out for Kunis in all of her recent films is an illusion. We don’t see the aftermath, the lifetime and the work it takes to sustain a relationship of this magnitude.
It can be tempting for women to forgo the biblical warnings of unequal yoking and believe their story is different (2 Corinthians 6:14). It rarely is. And while the idea of helping a man grow up and become the man he can (or you want him to) be is romantic and fun, there is a reason why God has already laid out His plan for us regarding marriage.
What many women are feeling in those initial moments of attraction is usually rooted in the godly desire to help and encourage. That itself is not a wrong desire. It simply must be channeled toward the right kind of man. Helping a man become the man you know God wants him to be looks very different when a man is already rooted in godliness. When he isn’t, it will simply feel like a project.
God knew what He was doing when He designed marriage as a joining of two equals. His desire for us is that we grow in godliness as our lives progress. And while the culture might tell us that it is fun and romantic to change a man for the better, only Christ is sufficient enough to be any man’s Savior.
Copyright 2012 Courtney Reissig. All rights reserved.