Let’s talk first (and briefly) about the decision whether to marry a particular person. Here’s a quick review:
First, look at the purpose that God has for your life (generally to “bring glory to God and enjoy Him forever”; more specifically how you see that playing out in your ministry and circumstances). What do you think your ministry will be, or what is it now as the Lord has placed you? Will you be able, generally speaking, to serve God better together than apart? Will you be able to accomplish ministry (be it your original plan or one that you have caught a vision for through this person) more effectively together than apart?
Next, look more closely at Ephesians 5:22-33. Look at the roles laid out there for men and women. Do you desire to fill your role with the person in question specifically in mind? Do you feel that you can love her sacrificially, or respect and support him?
Also, what do others (those that both of you have been seeking counsel from, under whose authority the relationship has taken place, Christian friends or family) think of the relationship? Does it look solid to them? Does the relationship seem to be good for both of you spiritually, glorifying to God and Christ-centered?
Finally, is there affection for this person in my heart and mind based on the way God has defined biblical manhood and womanhood? This is (hopefully) a much deeper and godlier assessment then simply asking, “Am I physically attracted to him or her?” or “Do we have chemistry?”
Off You Go
If you get through all that soul-searching, you may decide (probably separately at this point) that marriage between the two of you is the right thing before the Lord. If that happens, the next step is for the guy to go through that terrifying joyful process of learning about cubic zirconium diamonds, ascertaining the exact specifications of the ring his girlfriend wants through various acts of espionage picking out the perfect ring based on heartfelt intuition, and agonizing about carefully planning a way to propose that will not thoroughly embarrass him sweep the woman he loves off her feet. Just as you women suspect, this process comes naturally and easily to all men. After the proposal is seamlessly executed and delivered by the man with no snags whatsoever, the woman says yes with no hesitation, accompanied by smiles and tears all around. Individual results may vary.
OK, congratulations, you’re engaged. What do you do now? There is really only one concept to keep in mind when it comes to engagement, and it’s quite easy. It should guide you in every decision, thought and act until you stand before God, the people and the pastor on the big day. Ready? You are not married yet. Now, depending on logistical or other circumstances, cultural backgrounds, length of relationship, things other Christians might have told you, there’s another way to put this: Ready? You are not married yet. Remember that if you get nothing else out of this column.
Assuming this “cardinal rule of engagement,” let’s look at some God-honoring, useful ways to spend this unique time.
What Do We Do Now?
In terms of how to spend your time and what to talk about, the main concerns should be to prepare for marriage, to avoid temptation and to keep in mind that you are not married yet. That simply means keeping basically the same constraints on the settings in which you spent time together before you were engaged. In other words, while you will spend more time together, it still should not be alone in one of your apartments. Here are some other things to think about.
First, don’t spend significant time talking about what your sex life will be like once you’re married. As we’ve discussed before, do talk clearly about boundaries in your physical relationship, and do put clear methods in place to help you adhere to them, but don’t spend time fantasizing about your future sexual relationship. This may seem like common sense, but trust me, it needs to be said.
If each of you feels that you should talk to someone that you trust (of the same sex) about fears or concerns you may have about your sexual relationship — especially the wedding night itself — then do that as your wedding approaches. You don’t need to talk about it constantly as a couple, and you don’t need to do an in depth study of Song of Solomon with your fiancé two months before your wedding.
This is important: Don’t buy into the secular myth that you are somehow inferior or failing your new spouse if you don’t show up as a sexual expert on the night of your wedding. In fact, the opposite is true. If you are already a sexual expert on the night of your wedding, then you have, somewhere along the way, blatantly strayed from God’s design for sexuality in your life. Learning and growing together in this way is one of the many wonderful things about marriage.
Prepare for Marriage
Make good use of your engagement by using it to do more than just prepare for the wedding. Take some time to actually prepare for marriage as well. Get solid, biblical marriages counseling, either from the pastor who will conduct the wedding service or from some other person who is mature in the faith and in marriage. Use that time to meditate on marriage as a relationship and as a picture of the way that Christ relates to the church. These will be incredibly edifying conversations.
Finally, talk about things that you think might be sources of conflict during your marriage. A good marriage counselor will force you to do this by finding those areas and poking at them a bit, but you should make an effort on your own to address issues that you know exist. In addition to possibly working through some of those issues early on, the exercise will enhance your communication skills. Trust me. You’ll need them.
Prepare for the Wedding
In my view, much less of your engagement should be spent planning the wedding than preparing for marriage, but obviously you will spend some time talking about this. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you do.
A wedding is not primarily about the two people getting married. It is not primarily the bride’s special day (though it will unquestionably be a special day for her), and it is not primarily the groom’s rite of passage into Christian manhood (though in some ways it is that as well). The wedding day is just like every other day in the Christian life — it is primarily about God. A wedding is a worship service in which two people happen to get married. In fact, in past centuries, it was literally that. At the end of the regular Sunday morning service, the two people getting married would either come down to the front of the church or simply stand where they were and take their vows.
As you plan the music, preaching and other aspects of your wedding service, keep in mind that it is ultimately an event of worship before God. I advise that you keep it simple (even humble), and keep it worshipful. Too many couples put tremendous energy and stress — even tears — into which type of faux parchment they should use for the programs so as to most effectively evoke a “Mediterranean” theme. Meanwhile, they’re neglecting their marriage before it even starts. A simple wedding will also allow you to have a short engagement, which in most cases is a great thing for a number of reasons.
Keep Logistics in the Back Seat
Speaking of long engagements, let’s talk logistics. If you believe that you are called to be married, and you believe you have found the person you want to marry, then get married. The logistics will never be perfect. Marriage is something that will last the rest of one of your lives. It will be central and controlling over whatever ministry either of you has. Adjust things like school, jobs, money, distance (in other words, logistics) to accommodate getting married. Don’t adjust the purpose and timing of marriage for a significant amount of time to accommodate the caprice of logistics or other earthly circumstances.
In other words, it’s unwise — and probably in sinful violation of some of the other principles we’ve discussed — to have a three-year engagement or an inappropriate relationship because the logistics of getting married aren’t perfect. If the logistics are so bad (or so important to you) that you feel you just can’t get married in the near future, then take a hard look at whether you should be in a relationship.
Believe it or not, real accountability is probably most important in this stage. It should still be frequent, personal, local and tough. Many couples make it to this point in purity and then fall into sin. It’s usually because their sinful desire (combined with the message of the world and other factors) causes them to forget the cardinal rule of engagement: You’re not married yet. Take steps to glorify God all the way to the wedding and beyond.
In this series of articles, I’ve presented some “stages” of a relationship and some practical tips for each one. The system is not sacrosanct. The goal is. As Christians, we don’t get a free pass to carnality in this area. We don’t begin to be holy once we have what we think is a permanent companion and sexual outlet. We are to be different from the world in every area of our lives — this one as well.
You’re dating relationship and progression to marriage may look different from some of the practical minutia that I’ve laid out here. Just keep in mind the core principles: holiness, care for the other person’s soul above your own needs, not defrauding one another, headship and submission beginning to play out and be pictured in a godly way for the world to see, relationships being played out corporately and under counsel, lack of inappropriate emotional intimacy, no physical intimacy, leaving marriage for marriage, being different from the world, bringing glory to God.