The world tells us that the way to know whether two people are “right for each other” is to measure the white-hot physical attraction between the two, combined with the idea of “chemistry” on steroids—their ability to effortlessly have day-long conversations anytime about anything, punctuated by the quick, witty exchanges found mostly in edgy independent comedies.
In our culture—and in many churches—“attraction,” whether purely physical or “chemistry-related,” is considered the foundational way to evaluate a potential marriage relationship.
Christians, however, are called to think differently. We’re to use Scripture as the measure of our desires. We’re to take every thought, every area of our lives captive to God’s Word. Thankfully, attraction does play a role in finding a husband or wife. Read Song of Solomon. Biblically, however, attraction as the world understands it cannot be the foundation on which a godly marriage is built.
Let’s examine two problems with the “attraction-as-foundation” approach to dating and marriage—one theological, one practical—and then look at the idea of biblical attraction.
The fundamental theological problem with the “attraction-as-foundation” approach to dating and marriage is that it grossly distorts the biblical definitions of love and marriage. What’s the big question most people agonize over with regard to finding a spouse? “How do I know if I’ve found the one?” As Michael Lawrence observes, “The unstated goal of the question is ‘How do I know if she’s the one . . . for me.’”
And that’s essentially selfish. I don’t mean that such an approach involves malice or the intent to hurt anyone. I simply mean that such an approach is self-centered. It conceives of finding a spouse from the standpoint of what will be most enjoyable for me based on my tastes and desires. What will I receive from marriage to this or that person?
In Scripture, love isn’t descirbed in terms of our emotions or personal desire (i.e., “attraction”), but as an act of the will that leads to selfless actions toward others. According to Jesus himself, the second greatest commandment (after loving God) is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). He also said “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus’s love for us doesn’t result from our inherent loveliness or our wonderful treatment of him. He didn’t go to the cross as a spontaneous response triggered by mere emotion. His perfect love of us was a choice, an act undertaken despite our lack of attractiveness—and it led to both sacrifice and joy.
The apostle Paul agrees. In 1 Corinthians 13, he describes the biblical definition of love in detail, and he lets us know that love isn’t just felt, it does something—something selfless.
In the world’s version of attraction, I’m a consumer, not a servant. I respond to attributes of yours I like because of their potential to please me. Again, this approach isn’t malicious or evil—it’s just not how we’re primarily called to treat one another in Scripture. It’s not the Bible’s idea of love.
Fundamentally, marriage is a beautiful (if distant) analogy of the way that Christ has perfectly loved and sacrificed for the church, and the way the church, his bride, responds to her Lord.
Marriage is incredibly fun; it’s also incredibly hard. For most people it’s the greatest act of ministry and service to another person they’ll ever undertake. Husbands are literally called to “give themselves up for” their wives. Wives are called to submit to, respect, and serve their husbands “as to the Lord.” Though husbands and wives receive countless blessings from a biblical marriage, the very idea of biblical marriage describes an act—many acts—of love, service, sacrifice, and ministry toward a sinful human being. According to Scripture, marriage is anything but a selfish endeavor. It’s a ministry.
What sense does it make to undertake that ministry based primarily on a list of self-centered (and often petty) preferences? If your idea of attraction—whatever that is—dominates your pursuit of a spouse, consider: Is your approach biblical?
The practical problem with letting “attraction” lead the way in finding a spouse isn’t profound: it just doesn’t work. If all demanded that their quirky, secular notions of attractiveness or chemistry be perfectly fulfilled before they agreed to marry a person, no one would marry.
I once counseled a Christian brother in his dating relationship with a great woman. She was godly, caring, and bright. She was attractive, but not a supermodel. For weeks I listened to this brother agonize over his refusal to commit and propose to this woman. He said they were able to talk well about a lot of things, but there were a few topics he was interested in she couldn’t really engage with, and sometimes the conversation “dragged.”
He also said that, while he found her basically attractive, there was one feature of hers that he “just pictured differently” on the woman he would marry. I’d ask about her godliness and character and faith, and he said all those things were stellar (and he was right). Finally, he said, I guess I’m looking for a “10.”
I could hold back no longer. Without really thinking, I responded, You’re looking for a “10”? But, brother, look at yourself. You’re like a “6.” If you ever find the woman you’re looking for, and she has your attitude, what makes you think she would have you?
Here’s something else the world won’t tell you: Even if you find your “perfect 10”—however you define “10”—marriage is still hard. When you search for a spouse, you’re looking for someone (a sinner, like you) whom you’ll be serving God and living the Christian life with until Jesus returns or one of you dies.
In that context, even a really good sense of humor will only get you so far. Physical attractiveness (as defined by the world) fades in 100 percent of people, including you. “Chemistry” as the world defines it ebbs and flows in any relationship. Your spouse can be as fun-loving as can possibly be and there will still be many moments that aren’t fun. Your spouse can have the best personality you’ve ever seen, and he or she will still drive you absolutely batty sometimes. You can marry someone who appears to be an omni-competent genius, and there will still be times neither of you knows what to do next. Knowing this is part of maturing as a person and as a believer, and it’s part of what makes marriage wonderful and special.
As you seek someone with whom to serve God in marriage, build on something more than what might make for a few fun dates or an impressive catch in the world’s eyes.
What then? Am I saying attraction and chemistry have no place as you consider who to marry? No. Does biblical faithfulness require we all marry the godliest, most personally grating person we can find? Of course not.
In God’s kindness to us, he doesn’t just nourish us. He has provided an infinite variety of foods that not only keep us alive, but that also taste good. In the same way, God has graciously given us physical attraction, chemistry, and pleasure to make marriage and its unique intimacy that much sweeter to us. This is good and right.
Enjoy those things, but don’t be their slave. Desire them, but have a realistic idea of what those words mean in a fallen world and the limited role they should play in one of the most important decisions of your life. Remember, “the movies” aren’t real, and they aren’t the standard. It’s not that attraction makes no difference, but it shouldn’t make the difference.
So what should make the difference? The Bible talks about the characteristics of godly men and women. These are the things that the Lord himself considers “attractive.”
Is your potential spouse clearly a believer in Jesus (2 Cor. 6:14)? Do they exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23)? Do they show clear regard and care for others? Do they show evident love for God in how they spend time and money, and how they interact with others?
Women, is this a man you respect? Could you envision yourself following him over the course of your lives together? Do you believe he’ll care well for you and your children? Will he serve you above himself and encourage your spiritual growth, as he’s called to do? Is he growing in the characteristics of biblical manhood?
Men, do you believe this woman will be a faithful Christian, a godly wife, and a good mother and discipler to your children, if God gives you the gift of children? Is she growing in the characteristics of biblical womanhood and what the Bible calls “true beauty”?
Forget the Fantasy
My friend’s view isn’t rare, and he’s not a bad guy. He would not have married a woman who met his laundry list of requirements but wasn’t a believer. He valued godliness; he just demanded godliness and total compliance with his list. That’s the subtle selfishness that creeps in.
If that had been Jesus’s approach to love, you and I would still be in our sins.
Forget the fantasy. Glorify the Lord in the way you choose a spouse. Let the inventor of attraction and beauty reform your thinking, and your marriage will be rich.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article appeared at Boundless.