My wife and I recently celebrated another wedding anniversary. We exchanged gifts, watched our wedding video, and enjoyed a romantic dinner together. We spent time in prayer, thanking God for our marriage and asking for many more decades together.

We reflected on the good and bad of our wedding day—and the funny, like how the pastor teased me for quoting Charles Spurgeon in my wedding vows. Our anniversary is a day of rejoicing in God’s goodness.

I wish I can say this is what every Christian couple experiences.

As a pastor, I’ve seen and heard much about the harsh reality of what many Christians endure in marriage. It breaks my heart. But some of the pain is probably avoidable if singles who want to get married had a better understanding of what to look for in a spouse.

What I Once Thought

I used to give marriage advice like this:

1. Marry someone who is a Christian.

2. Marry with mutual attraction in mind.

3. If there is mutual faith and attraction, then consider marriage.

My aim in giving this kind of advice was to avoid the hyper-spiritualization that often characterizes Christian dating. I wanted to encourage men to man up and ask one of the many worthwhile women in their midst on a date.

But now I see how this advice is simplistic.

Though some may disagree, I still don’t think you should marry someone you do not find attractive. That will make intimacy in marriage painfully underwhelming. But while mutual faith and romantic attraction (in that order) are prerequisites for Christian marriage, I now see there are more traits to look for in a spouse if you don’t want to be miserable after saying “I do.”

What are they?

1. Look to the future, not the past.

He was an active gang member in Los Angeles for several years. He robbed, assaulted, and inflicted injustice. But now he’s a Presbyterian pastor, a wonderful husband and dad, and a new grandpa. My friend is a good reminder that Jesus can change anyone’s life, and that someone’s past is not as important as their future.

Someone’s life before walking with God is not as important as where they’re heading now that they are walking with God.

Someone’s life before walking with God is not as important as where they’re heading now that they are walking with God.

This may mean your future spouse will have a sexual history or even a child. There are plenty of single guys in the church who write off otherwise amazing marriage partners because she was in a sexual, non-Christian dating relationship in the past.

Plenty of Christians save themselves for marriage (the right thing to do), but are snobbish and lukewarm (which is wrong). Conversely, many for whom premarital sex is part of their story are incredibly godly. The second person will be a better spouse—every time.

When the sinful woman demonstrated her faith in Jesus by kissing and anointing his feet after weeping in his presence, a Pharisee questioned his knowledge of the woman (Luke 7:36–50). But Jesus knew all about her sinful past and chose, gladly, to forgive her.

Often those who have the “worst” pasts are the best Christians and spouses.

2. Look for self-control.

Self-control, for the purposes of glorifying God and serving others, is one of the strongest indicators of Christian character.

Everyone slips up and says something wrong (guilty) or has too many scoops of ice cream after dinner (guilty again). But a pattern of no self-control across a spectrum of character areas should be a red flag. Think twice before marrying someone who cannot control his tongue, appetite, or sexual desires.

Think twice before marrying someone who cannot control his tongue, appetite, or sexual desires.

Consider two areas.

Pornography: Christian men or women addicted to pornography need to know that they are loved by the triune God, that there are scores of counselors and pastors and resources ready to help him, and that through grace-driven effort and the power of the Holy Spirit, they can kill this self-destructive sin.

But for now, they aren’t ready to be married.

Don’t marry someone who is addicted to porn, and don’t believe them if they promise to stop looking at it once you’re married.

Unrighteous anger: Dating and engagement bring a ridiculous level of awkwardness and tension, so it’s normal to show occasional annoyance or irritation. Overlook it and move on. But if they raise their voice at you repeatedly? Different story. Consider ending the relationship. Typically, we are on our best behavior when dating, and then the gloves come off in marriage. Any concerns with the choice of words that you hear now will only be magnified when you’re married.

A person who perpetually struggles with self-control in multiple areas is not ready for marriage.

3. Look for someone who walks with God.

Online Christian dating is a viable way to meet a spouse. Keywords like “Christian” or “I love Jesus” in her bio may start a dialogue on dating, but don’t become someone’s boyfriend just because she says she is a Christian. Make sure you see evidence of spiritual fruit before a second date.

Personal holiness seems obvious, but one less obvious reason to marry a godly person is that, for better or worse, married people rub off on each other other.

If you’re active in prayer, church, and Bible reading when single but marry someone who isn’t, your spiritual life will suffer. The people in our homes shape what we do.

On the other side, if you marry someone who obviously loves Jesus and wants to grow in sanctification, then your spouse’s devotion will elevate yours.

4. Look for a joyful person.

Self-pity is a disease. We all know persons who play the victim, who are convinced they deserve better lives. Such self-loathing sucks the joy out of life and will suck the joy out of yours.

A pastor once gave his daughter advice on her wedding day: “Don’t let the sorrows of life stop you from rejoicing.” This advice is gold.

Personal sin, family drama, raising children, financial struggles, and all the other effects of living in a fallen world mean there are hundreds of different enemies trying to kill your joy. Depression is real. Lament and grief aren’t just normal; they’re healthy. There are times to cry to God and help each other suffer well. But even in the deepest pain, Christians have thousands of reasons to rejoice in God.

God’s people shouldn’t be characterized by joylessness all year. Marry a person who has some buoyancy, who knows how to celebrate. Marry a person who energizes you and is fun to be around. Your spouse should take Jesus seriously, but not himself.

You Always Marry the Wrong Person

Worried you’re going to make the wrong decision? Cheer up: you will.

Everyone marries the wrong person. Everyone is wrong because of sin. But a robust view of total depravity, and a firm understanding of providence, doesn’t mean you should have low standards for who you marry. Seek advice from trusted, godly, married people. Don’t let a good desire for marriage prevent you from thinking rationally about the weaknesses (and their potential fallout) in a potential spouse.