February 15, 2001
The Compassion

 Knowing When You're
In Love Enough to Marry
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This article is excerpted from Blaine's Should I Get Married?. Also featured on this site from that book: Is God a Matchmaker?
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"You're a wonderful woman, Jamie. In fact, remarkable. Whoever marries you will be extremely fortunate. But I'm not that man. I just don't believe it's right for us to marry."

Harold rehearsed his lines over and over, steeling himself for the dreaded announcement he felt he must make. He would rather let his relationship with Jamie linger on indefinitely. Yet he knew that it wasn't fair to keep her tied up in a romance that might go nowhere. He owed her a clear answer so that she could get on with her life.

Harold (twenty-five) and Jamie (twenty-six) had talked long and often about marriage during more than two years of dating. But while Jamie had been convinced about marriage for some time, Harold remained confused, not certain that his affection for her had the intensity of marriage love.

Harold knew that he cared deeply for Jamie, and their friendship had been a source of great strength and encouragement to him. He had been, in fact, no less than astonished by their broad compatibility and many areas of common interest. Though physical attraction had been minimal on his part at first, it had developed in time and seemed to be growing.

Yet Harold knew he was capable of stronger physical and romantic feelings than Jamie aroused in him. Several women had done more to turn his head in the past. In several other ways, too, Jamie fell short of his ideals. She was less athletic and generally less ambitious than Harold assumed his wife should be. So Harold had concluded that the evidence that they should marry just wasn't strong enough. The only reasonable step was to level with Jamie and break things off.

As he came close to telling Jamie though, he was filled with remorse at the thought of disappointing her. He realized how much he wanted to make her happy. The thought of bringing her joy through marriage brought him immense pleasure as he mused on it. It was almost startling to face.

He was struck, too, with how much he wanted her to succeed. It was exciting to imagine her finishing her master's degree and finding the research position she had long dreamed of. He enjoyed thinking about how their supportive relationship could enhance her success.

Wisely, before making a final decision, Harold decided to seek counsel from an insightful pastor friend who knew both him and Jamie well. After sharing for nearly an hour about the relationship and his confusion over marriage, Harold concluded by saying: "Pastor Bill, I really want what is best for Jamie. I long for her to be happy. Yet I think it would be wrong to marry mainly from sympathy."

Pastor Bill quickly replied, "I agree with you, Harold. Marriages based on sympathy are bound for disaster. Yet the feelings for Jamie that you described to me are not sympathy but compassion. Marriages based on compassion are bound to prosper."

"What's the difference?" Harold asked.

"Sympathy is merely feeling sorry for someone," Pastor Bill replied. "Compassion is more positive and dynamic. You desire the other to be happy, to prosper, to experience God's very best."

Then after a long pause, Pastor Bill said gently but firmly: "I've got news for you, Harold. You're in love with this woman. You'd be crazy to let this one get away."

Identifying the Feeling

It may seem strange to suggest that someone would have to be told that he or she is in love. This flies in the face of the popular notion that when true love strikes, the sensation is so overwhelming that you have about as much chance of missing it as you would a rhinoceros in a wading pool. Yet cases like Harold's are common. There's a subtle nature to marriage-quality love which can easily escape our notice. This is especially true when we've been programmed, as Harold was, with ideas that hit wide of the mark of what marriage love is all about.

Many, like Harold, have so set their expectations that they are slow to identify healthy love when they actually experience it. Others fall into the pattern of thinking that passionate attraction will provide the basis for a sound marriage.

What then is the essence of marriage-quality love? Pastor Bill was right. Compassion is the basis of it. While the marriage bond requires more than compassion--friendship and sexual attraction are important--compassion is the heart of it.

There are many feelings which can attract and bond you to someone else. When love is truly from God, foremost among these is compassion. You feel the other's hurts and concerns as your own. You ache to see God's best worked out in that person's life.

The dazed sensation which we call "being in love" often has little to do with compassion. It can come from sexual attraction alone or from being enamored with qualities you esteem in the other. It can come when the other makes up for a deficit in your own life. It can come from the wonderful gratification of knowing that someone else cherishes you exactly as you are.

Pastor Jim Conway says it simply: Someone "may say, 'I'm in love with you,' but what he really means is, 'You meet my needs and make me happy.'"*

Don't get me wrong. When God gives you marriage-quality love for another person, you'll have great hope that the other will meet your needs. This is an important part of the emotional mix that melds you to another person's life. Paul says clearly in 1 Corinthians 7 that unless you need the benefits of marital companionship, you should stay single.

Yet when love has been brewed in your heart by God, you're possessed with a deep and often surprising desire to meet the other person's needs as well. Early on in my relationship with Evie I began to realize that I felt compassion for her more strongly than I had in other dating relationships. This was a crucial factor in concluding that God was prompting us to get married. And compassion has been an important motivating factor in our twenty-seven years of happy marriage. Such selfless love does not come easily to me and can only be supernatural.

Assessing Your Compassion

If you are in a serious relationship and considering marriage, let me suggest a test. Imagine something unfortunate happening to the person you're thinking of marrying. Picture him or her being rejected or fired from a cherished job opportunity, failing a program in school or having some experience which would be a blow to his or her self-esteem. Does the thought of this happening fill you with sorrow? Or does it bring you a certain gratification and relief?

When your affection for another person is based mainly on what they can do for you, you may actually rejoice inwardly at their setbacks (though feigning sorrow on the outside), for you perceive that their misfortune will make them more dependent upon you. At the same time you feel intimidated by their accomplishments. And you may feel terribly uneasy if they have strong friendships outside of your relationship.

When compassion is strong, you find yourself naturally desiring what is best for the other person. You're not threatened by the thought of their success--indeed, you rejoice in it. The requirements of 1 Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 5:21-33 don't seem like duties but as guidelines that are natural to fulfill. Not that there aren't times when you feel jealous or fearful of losing the other's affection. None of us is perfect, and humanness invades every relationship. But overall, you are comfortable with the other person developing their gifts, having successful experiences and even special friendships outside of your own. And when the other suffers a disappointment, you feel it with them.

Compassion in Scripture

Though Scripture gives few examples of couples in the courtship or engagement stages, there are two which provide striking pictures of compassion. We see a magnificent demonstration of compassion in the way Joseph, the father of Jesus, treated Mary. Though we're told little about this intriguing man, what we are told shows that he had an exemplary love for his wife-to-be.

When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, it is said that he resolved to break off the relationship quietly (Mt 1:19). At this point Joseph didn't know that Mary's pregnancy was of supernatural origin but assumed she had been promiscuous. What's amazing is that Joseph didn't make a public display of Mary's unfaithfulness. He had every right to do so--in fact, he would have been expected to in order to save face for himself. But he resolved to break the engagement in the way that would be least humiliating to her. He showed great compassion for her even in the midst of this apparent transgression.

I have little question that Joseph's gracious spirit was an important reason God trusted him with the gift of marriage to Mary and the privilege of being the human father of our Lord.

Another impressive example of compassion is Boaz's treatment of Ruth in the book of Ruth (Ruth 3--4). Boaz awakes at midnight to find Ruth sitting at the end of his bed. Though he could easily have taken advantage of her in this vulnerable and enticing situation, he resisted all inclination to do so. And though his subsequent decision to marry her suggests that he greatly wanted her for his wife, he first allowed a closer kin the opportunity to exercise his right to marry her. He showed kindness and fairness at every point.

It is of considerable interest to me that both Joseph and Boaz were willing to accept even the ending of a relationship, as painful as that option might be. This is always the response of compassionate persons, when they know it's in the best interest of the other. It's in the unhealthy, addictive relationship that one feels that he or she must hold on to the other at any cost.

This is an important point, for sometimes one takes their own willingness to terminate a relationship as an indication that their love is not sufficiently strong for marriage. Ironically, the very willingness to let the relationship go may indicate that compassion is strong enough to warrant marriage. This was part of what convinced Pastor Bill about Harold's love for Jamie. It has also persuaded me on different occasions to encourage someone to take a second look at a relationship they were thinking of abandoning.

I don't, of course, mean to suggest that the willingness to end a relationship always suggests that true marriage-love is present. Many times it does not. Yet sometimes it shows in a paradoxical way that love runs deeper than one realizes.

Sorting It Through

If you find yourself, like Harold, confused about how to interpret your feelings for someone whom you're dating, and especially if it has been a long-term relationship, I would strongly recommend finding a qualified person with whom you can talk things through. A trusted Christian friend in an enduring, healthy marriage is a good bet. Or a pastor. I personally count it one of my greatest privileges to be able to help someone in this area. I know most pastors feel the same. You needn't be hesitant about approaching your pastor on this matter.

If you realize that you don't feel true compassion for the person you're thinking of marrying, this means two possible things. Either God is not calling you to marry this person, or else you need to allow more time for compassion to grow. In any case, it wouldn't be right to think of marriage to this person at this time.

On the other hand, if compassion for your prospective partner is strong, realize that you have the single most important indication that your love is from God and is of the quality that can make for a healthy marriage. As undramatic as your feelings for this person may seem to be, you may be experiencing the seeds of a dynamic marriage-quality love. Even though you don't feel dazed, crazed or moonstruck over this person, if you truly care for him or her, you have the most essential ingredient for a vibrant marriage.

A Two-Way Street

I must add that it's just as important that the other feels compassion for you. It might seem that the most self-sacrificing, most Christian thing to do is to go ahead and marry someone for whom you feel deep compassion, even though it's not reciprocated. But as noble as the idea might sound, I can assure you that it is not God's will for you.

God's ideal for marriage is one in which two people share both compassion and personal fulfillment. Though we can argue that it should be otherwise, in reality your ability to give of yourself in marriage is at least partly dependent upon the fulfillment you receive from your spouse. This is how God has created us as humans, and we cannot escape the fact. There is give and take in every healthy marriage; if it's all give on your part and no receiving, eventually your steam will run out. You don't have what it takes to be a savior to someone in marriage, and God isn't calling you to take on that role.

Realize, too, that you'll not be helping the other person by allowing him or her to experience for a lifetime the benefits of your compassion without being expected to make a similar response. God's desire is that this person also grows into a compassionate, responsible individual. If your partner's response of compassion toward you is strikingly less than yours, he or she may stagnate at that point and not be challenged to grow into a more loving person. Don't expect that your influence--or marriage itself--will change your partner. The most compassionate thing you can do for this person is to not marry him or her.

If, however, compassion is strong on both sides of your relationship, rejoice! If it's matched with compatibility at other points which we'll look at, you have a sound basis to proceed with marriage.

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This article is an excerpt of chapter six from the revised edition of Blaine Smith's Should I Get Married? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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