Really, Truly, Deeply? Really?

I read a quote from two of my favorite people the other day: "In a gospel-centered marriage, we can be really, truly, deeply known and at the same time really, truly, deeply loved." I've learned more about the gospel from one of those people than anyone in my life so I'm reticent to push back on this idea, but it wouldn't be the first time I've given him a hard time, so here's my careful pushback to this common idea in the church. 1. Even within marriage you will never be wholly known by one another. 2. Outside of marriage you are still known and loved.

Within earthly marriage, which is a beautiful picture of the gospel, we are still clinging to these earthly tents. We can never be truly known inside any human relationship and indeed we are not meant to be. There is beautiful ahava, a give, a love within marriage. A selflessness, a caring, a joy, for sure. But there is not the elusive juxtaposition of being fully known/fully loved. This only exists within life in Christ. When we say this what we communicate to married people is they're missing something if they don't feel truly known by the other person. And we communicate to unmarried people they can never be really known outside of marriage.

The church should be the place that gently lifts the heads of two people in a less than perfect marriage (which is all of us) and sets their eyes on Christ as the one who knows and loves them fully now, so they can be set free to love and know one another as fully partially as they're able here on earth.

The church should be the place that gently lifts the heads of unmarried people and shows them how men like Paul and Jesus and women like Lydia and Mary were fully known and loved by their Father, but fully misunderstood by the men and women around them—and yet they still pressed forward in love doing amazing acts of church planting, bearing the Son of God, miracles, and writing more than half of the New Testament.

Neither married people, nor unmarried people will ever feel as really, truly, and deeply known as the ache in our hearts tells us we ought to feel. It is so easy to paint the picture within the Church that marriage can be the nirvana of earthly existence—but friends, if marriages quells all the longing inside of you for something more, than your marriage is not actually gospel-centered, but earthly-centered. Marriage should smack of a holy discontent and a fervent desire to be fully known and fully loved by Christ alone, who then empowers us to walk by the spirit in how we love and know others incompletely.

In the same vein, singleness should meet that holy discontent in the middle and know with full assurance that waiting for marriage to feel known and loved is foolish. Start now. First, Christ does it with more ardor than any spouse ever will. Second, the relationships you have in your life right now can be some of the richest you will ever know if you will submit yourself to being known and loved in them. It's an act of submission, to be sure, letting your weaknesses be seen, challenged, and pressed into, but Christ has set a good example for you in His submission to His Father on the cross.

Friend, you may be in the happiest marriage known to man or the hardest, you may be joyfully single for life or you may be limping through every day in your wait, but you are fully known and fully loved now. Go now, and love and know as truly as you're able—albeit imperfectly—knowing the gospel is no respecter of marital status even as it displays the perfect union of Christ and His bride.

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Why Sex Isn't the Best Thing Ever

One of the best blessings to me in my singleness were friends who did not make marriage an ultimate thing in my eyes by only telling me the beautiful parts of their marriage, but who told me the difficulties of it as well. They also prayed for me actively to someday have the gift of marriage. I hope I am doing the same for my still single friends who desire the gift. I want them to know its not all romance and intimacy and good feelings and great conversation. But I also want them to experience the gift themselves so they can both see it and minister out of it. One thing it is very easy to believe during the long fast from sexual intimacy that is godward singleness, is the option to have sex will make things better. Most of us wouldn't be so foolish to say having sex makes things better, but it's darn easy to believe the option and permission to will make it better.

But sex doesn't make things better.

Not in the way you think it will.

Sex is good, God created it, he blessed it. He made it the integral piece in the procreation of humanity—science thwarts it and succeeds it but even science admits the masterful design of two humans making more humans. Sex is great, but it does not make all the angsts of longing for intimacy before marriage go away. All those angsts still exist within marriage, they just take different forms.

I know it's easy for the married person to say this, you protest, because at the end of the day I can still have sex. But what I wish I could tell every unmarried person I know is until we realize our issues are much deeper and more profound than a sexual itch for satisfaction, we will still find our desires unmet. Within marriage and without.

The blessing of sex between a husband and wife is not to relieve stress, to make me feel desirable, or to make my husband feel strong and manly. It is not even to conceive and bear children. These are all benefits, but none of them are guarantees. God doesn't owe us relief from stress apart from him, the guarantee I will always feel desirable (I don't), my husband will feel capable and sufficient (he doesn't), or children will be borne. God doesn't even owe us sex within marriage. None of the things we think sex will accomplish (and indeed try to chase inside and outside marriage), are guarantees.

When I hear those who are not married say "But at least you get to have sex! And live with your best friend!" Well, first, I'd warn against saying at least in regard to much. But second I want to say your words betray a much, much deeper need and the fact that you think sex or living with your best friend fixes it tells me you don't see your need as clearly as you think. If you think I'm just saying this because I'm married, trust me, I've been saying things like this for years and years as a single.

I've heard the illustration of the gift of sex for a man and woman in marriage like this: it's glue holding you together. But in my limited view sex is more like a reminder: I am not my own anymore, I am part of someone and sex is a tether to remind, seal, and strengthen the binding. Outside of marriage there would actually be no reason or benefit for sex because union with this specific person—my husband—doesn't exist. What I mean is, until he was my husband, he wasn't my husband and sex wasn't necessary (1 Corinthians 7:2).

I know this sounds very pragmatic but I want to be a bit pragmatic if I can. Our view of sex has been so colored by films and imaginations and images, and in many ways I want to sit down and say: sex just isn't as great as you think it is, and we don't need it like we think we do. It's greatness is not in how it makes us feel or how it destresses us or how awesome our orgasm is. It is only truly good in relation to the person with whom our body is intended by God to be joined with. Can sex outside of marriage feel good? Yup. Can masturbation curb the itch? Yup. But do either of them express worship of God with the gift He's given in the right context of covenant? No. Therefore, outside marriage it is not good. And inside marriage it is only good if it points to our incompleteness apart from God.

Unmarried friends, the sex you desire and think will satisfy your longing will not. Married friends, you still feel unsatisfied? Like your longing for something is never fully realized? All of this emptiness points to a greater need and a greater longing. Sex within marriage, if anything, makes the lack of complete culmination even more profound because no matter how perfect it is, it still isn't enough to still the longing in our hearts for God. Fasting from intimacy outside of marriage is preparation for how even within marriage we are still apart from our Groom until the culmination of all things.

My need is for Christ. In marriage and out. Sex is a gift from God but it isn't the ultimate gift and it certainly doesn't come without baggage of its own. We live in a broken world, my friend. If it doesn't feel perfect it's because it's not, and it's okay. Christ, our perfection, knows our longings and knows we are dust.

And that's better than sex.

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A Short Story about Sin, Secrets, and Searching for Shrimp

Wayne Irons was a tall man, long in the neck, broad in the shoulders and gut, and small at the feet, like an upside down triangle or an ice cream cone. He was the sort of man who seemed intimidating until he stood up and his spindle legs gave him away. His skin was the color of a scrubbed toddler after a hot bath or a high-school prom dress, pink and bright. Still, children were afraid of him (his height) and grown men ignored him (his complexion). The other students in his class were bored by him and he cared little for them too. Science was his master and his friend, his company and his mistress, his god. This particular morning Wayne Irons was wearing galoshes and a raincoat. It was not raining, nor had it been, nor was it scheduled to be, but Wayne Irons was not wearing them for inclement weather outside. And as we have established, Wayne Irons cared little for the opinions of others regarding his person, his stature, or his clothing.

The galoshes were heavy and too large. The left one slipped up and down as he walked, his satchel under one arm and his lunch sack in his other hand. His limp slowed him and he stood on the corner of Beech and 34th to rest a minute, his left leg crooked at the knee. This stance felt most natural for him, even more natural than standing or sitting or lying down. He could still observe everything around him, above the heads of the crowd, while standing only on one leg. Most humans couldn’t do this for long, but he had adapted to his limitations, as all animals do. His own evolutionary process thrilled him. He considered himself a great testament to the truth

Wayne Irons was today visiting the city zoo which was just like every other day, but for one difference: he had been invited to tour the inside of the tropical exhibit, to see up close the animals he had studied for all his life. Invitations to anything were rare for Wayne Irons so it was not lost on him the exceeding good luck he had in procuring this one. It had not occurred to him that he neither tried nor cared for invitations to anything else, not parties, not holidays, not reunions. Being inside tropical exhibit at the city zoo was the pinnacle of all his years of study, the creme de le creme of his life’s work.

The walk to the city zoo was not long and Wayne Irons had walked it nearly every day of his life. He grew up in the same house in which he still lived, in the same bedroom in which he still slept. Wayne Irons was not a man who strayed far from his natural habitat and home. He was a man of consistent rhythms and knew his needs and his habits well. He considered daily visits to the zoo a need more than a habit, but understood others saw things differently. Being a good student of the evolutionary process meant being tolerant of the process in other lives and the bodies of others. He felt himself in an upper echelon of thought in this way. Human beings could be so intolerant of the simple biological needs and urges of others. Laws enacted, taxes attached, protests made, and elections fought—all of these because humanity couldn’t live with a greater understanding that all things eventually evolve or grow or change or die. It was a freeing way to live, Wayne Irons knew this to be true, as certain as he knew that someday he too would die because of an unseen limitation his adaptation would bring him too. “We are finite entities,” he would often say to himself, “But we are also capable of much more than we think.” He would usually say this before leaving his house in the morning or before doing something that frightened him in some way. He said it now, standing before the zoo gate, though he was not frightened so much as exhilarated. Certain he was wading into something deeper and more profound than he even knew.

It was early and the gate wasn’t unlocked yet (he knew it wouldn’t be), so he stood in front of it, resting on his right leg again, his left bent at the knee. The gate was rusting at the hinges and one side hung deeper than the other, so the O that was intended to connect the two gates at the middle was split. ZOO looked instead like zSo. It made Wayne Irons chuckle to himself and he decided he would begin to hunt for all the ways neglect made signs and words say something different than their intended word.

Neglect was another interest of Wayne Irons, to a lesser extent than science—although he would argue they were related. What we don’t need we neglect, he would say, and eventually we lose. He pointed to his left leg as evidence of this—its muscles atrophying and spider veins spreading from the back of his calf. His leg was eating itself alive. He found the process fascinating instead of disgusting. He was watching his own body turn into its best version of itself all on its own. He was eager for the day when doctors would amputate this appendage that had become strange to him in its neglect. Most doctors told him there was nothing wrong with his leg, it was all in his head, that if he would just begin to use it again, it would be fine. Wayne Irons knew better, though, the leg felt foreign to him and so he treated it like it was.

A zookeeper came to the gate to unlock it. Wayne Irons knew his name was Hopper or Harper or something, but usually gave very little indication that he knew or cared about the names of anyone. Names, he thought, were of little importance to the person. People were made of cells and blood and veins and organs—the same as animals—and we didn’t give names to all the animals. He nodded quickly at the man but did not meet his eyes and walked toward the tropical exhibit. To get there he had to go past the gorillas and the chimpanzees, humanity’s forefathers. He had little interest in gorillas and chimpanzees, but he did respect the process they had undergone to become what he was today and so he always slowed a bit at their enclosure to regard them and wonder what these exact gorillas and chimps might have become if they were not treated like the animals they were. In this way the zoo made him sad. It seemed to him a giant experiment in limitations. A bubble of possibilities that would never materialize. Glass walls and ceilings keeping the beings inside from expressing their true selves. He rarely lingered in the sadness, though, because the zoo was his only opportunity to be amongst the beings where he felt most himself.

The tropical exhibit was partially under glass with rain-spritzers intermittently spraying down and partially outdoors with all sorts of vegetation and water pools spread around it and an arched cage ceiling above it. Wayne Irons loved the tropical climate. He had been told by the keeper to wear the galoshes and poncho today, but if he had his way he’d have gone in barefoot and undressed, his pink backside and belly blinding the eyes of zoo-goers. He felt both his most vulnerable and his most secure with these living things. He ought to feel like he was walking into an exhibit, but he felt like he was leaving the exhibit and walking into home.

Wayne Irons followed the keeper (whose name he did know was Le Grange, but to whom he would never address as such) into the enclosed space and walked into a wall of humidity. It was cooled by the spritzing of water and by the presence of vegetation, but the air was thick and heavy. He liked it because it felt safe and he hated it because it felt oppressive. He knew he would feel better outside with the birds, even if it was inside a cage.

The keeper brought Wayne Irons with him as he opened doors and fed animals and cleared out weeds from the tropical gardens. Wayne Irons did not speak and the keeper did not speak to him. Theirs was a silent parade through the motions of the morning. Wayne Irons did not offer to help and the keeper did not ask him to. Whenever they paused, Wayne Irons rested on his right leg and lifted his left, crooking it at the knee. The heat was beginning to grow oppressive and Wayne Irons did not mind the rain water so he shed his poncho and soon his galoshes, then his buttoned up shirt and his socks too. They were outside now, feeding the alligators. He could see the birds in another caged enclosure and he rolled his pant legs up.

The keeper had a bucket of small fish in his left hand and a bucket of grey shrimp in the other. The food looked delicious and Wayne Irons knew he would rather the shrimp than his own brown bagged lunch. He and the keeper were walking toward the flamingos now, and Wayne Irons felt his belly growing sweaty and full with expectancy.

The flamingos were, for Wayne Irons, the most perfect specimens of any animal. He had spent full days staring at them before. They were graceful and awkward, audacious alone and camouflaged together. They were social in the exact way he felt most unable to be. He longed to be like them. He longed to be them.

Wayne Irons had spent his life studying flamingos, their patterns, their prey, their preening habits. He stood for hours in front of the mirror in his bedroom at home mimicking their stance, their grace, and their coloring. He could not thank any god for giving him a body such as his, tall and rotund, leggy and pink, but he thanked evolution for making it clear that he would never be as fully human as he was flamingo. They were showy in a way he dreamed he could be if he could be one of them. He had begun evolving himself into a flamingo in his earliest memories, lifting his chin and craning his neck to impossible lengths. All of the children in school thought he was haughty, but he knew the truth: I am really a flamingo.

Wayne Irons was running into the flock now and they scattered at his presence. He knew why of course: they did not recognize him! He began to shed the last of his clothing, the undershirt, the pants, and the underwear beneath. He heard the shouts of the keeper behind him but he did not listen, he no longer comprehended the words. He waded farther in, slowly this time, pausing to let them see his pink skin and lifting his left leg to show them he was one of them. They scattered still to the perimeter of the shallow pool, squawking and making a show of their feathers. Wayne Irons knew he did not yet have feathers, but in time, he would adapt, they would see. He could be just like them.

The keeper threw the bucket of shrimp and fish into the pool and ran to the enclosure’s gate. The flock of birds half ran half flew to the pile of food near Wayne Irons and he felt the warm glow of acceptance. They wanted to be near him. They didn’t mind his presence. Wayne Irons threw back his head, stretched out his neck, and felt at once glorious and free.

Then Wayne Irons held his breath and dipped his head into the water around him looking for food like the rest of his flock. They were catching the shrimp quickly and swallowing them whole but Wayne Irons did not yet know how to fish under water with just his mouth while holding his breath. He knew he would learn though, if his flock would just give him enough time down there and leave a few shrimp for him to find.

It was ten minutes later when Le Grange came back with zoo security and a small crowd had gathered at the bird cage. A child in a red and yellow striped shirt and fraying shorts was standing there pointing in, “Look mama,” she said, “that man in there looks like a flamingo but he isn't!” “Hush,” said her mother, as the man who looked like a flamingo with his head in the water buckled under the weight of his body and the lack of breath to his lungs. “We don’t talk about people in such a way.”

The man in the enclosure who looked like a flamingo but was not one sunk to his knees and then his belly and then collapsed completely, his head still under water, searching for food. The flamingos around looked for a moment and then walked away, disinterested in the giant pale, pink, naked body with a head of black hair. They stood together in another corner, on one leg each, preening their feathers with no thought for the man who thought he was a flamingo lying dead in their water pool.

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Written in response to this article in the New Yorker.

Don't Get Married

I have yet another single friend who is convinced if only this one little thing changes about the guy she's dating, they'd be perfect together. If he just didn't nag her so much. If she didn't just shut down emotionally. If they didn't argue so much. If his family wasn't so crazy. If she felt like herself around him. All those "ifs" and so many of my friends persist in the same pursuit. They have "chemistry" or "spark" with this person. They feel on fire around them. They just "know" them better than anyone else has. But settling for the sort of person who, in dating incites you to anger, brings out your passivity, makes you shut down, doesn't encourage you, and more, is foolishness, friends. Don't so long for the gift of marriage, or even marriage with a particular person, that you lay all that marriage is intended to be on the bench and pursue the lust of being not-alone.

We have swallowed the idea that marriage is hard because that's the narrative of the Church, "Marriage is hard. It's the hardest thing you'll ever do. It shows you your sin. You'll never know your selfishness until you're married." But I don't think that's the picture God intends to illustrate the love between Christ and the Church—and I don't think that's the narrative we should believe or espouse. There is difficulty in life, yes, challenges, sin, brokenness, but those things exist in marriage and out. As long as you are unmarried, don't settle for the belief that being married is another thing on the long list of hard things in life.

Don't believe the lie that marriage is supposed to be hard and you have to choose your battles and just settle for the first girl who makes you feel alive or the first guy who tells you you're meant to be. If you didn't think it was "supposed to be like this" than maybe "this" isn't it. I beg you, singles, with the words of the man who married us, "It isn't done until you say 'I do.'"

Here is what the bible actually says about husbands and wives:

The heart of her husband safely trusts in her (Prov. 31:11). Brother, do you trust this girl? Trust her with your weakness? Your basest fears? Sister, are you trustworthy? Do you gain his trust by being one who cares for him?

The husband washes her with the water of the word (Eph. 5:26). Brother, do you respond with words fortified with the word or words fortified by the world? Do you point her to the gospel and the hope in God, or tear her down by comparing her to the world?

A wife is not contentious or angry (Prov. 21:19). Sister, do you incite him to anger? Do you nag him and criticize him? Is your natural inclination to defend yourself by tearing him down? To make yourself look better by shaming him?

A husband is not bitter toward her (Col. 3:19). Brother, do you take all those reasons for bitterness to the cross and leave them there? Do you carry your angsts and allegations against her?

A husband cares for his wife's body as he cares for his own (Eph. 5:28). Brothers, do you care for her actual body, the flesh and blood body, the heart that beats inside of her, her emotions, her mind, her stress. Or do you only care about how hot she is?

A husband honors his wife (I Peter 3:7). Brother, do you speak well of her in front of others? Are you proud to stand beside her and be hers?

A husband lives joyfully with his wife (Eccl. 9:9). Brother, does being beside this woman bring joy to you? Deep, lasting, comfort and joy? Do you go home and night and beam with joy at the thought of someday being with her forever?

A wife is a companion (Mal. 2:16). Sister, are you a friend? Not a floor-mat and not a fierce competitor, but a friend? A peer? An equal?

A wife brings her husband gain (Prov. 31). Sister, is one of your goals to see him gain, to see him grow, and to see him succeed? Or do you tear him down with your words and actions?

A wife is respectful and pure in her conduct (I Peter 3). Sister, do you respect this man in purity? Do you care more about the way he treats your heart than the way he treats your body? Do you present your body as a peace offering instead of offering your heart?

A husband finding a wife, finds a good thing (Prov. 18:22). Brother, is this a good thing? Ask yourself that hard question before you move any further in this relationship. Does everyone around you, those who know you best: do they agree this match is a good one?

If you can't see yourself in that list above in the relationship you're in right now, get out. Seriously. You don't have to marry him or her. They might be really great people, but they might be really great people for someone else and that's okay.

I wish someone had told me this in every single dating (and engagement) I had. Or I wish I had listened. Marriage to Nate is the best thing I've ever experienced. It is a blessing every single day, without exception. I know there are those who would say our time is coming, but if you knew a half of the hell we've walked through already you'd probably close your mouth. Sin has been crouching at our door since day one and God has put his Holy Spirit inside of us and the gospel in us, and by His grace, we rule over it.

Pray over that list above if you're in a relationship heading toward marriage. Taking off that ring, making that phone call, asking for the ring back, having that last conversation could be one of the best things you ever do for your future marriage.

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Birds and Lilies and Beards and You: Or why a girl should never settle

I used to worry that God would make me marry a man who bored me or didn't like to read or didn't challenge me or who didn't have a beard. You see my frivolity? A beard? I spent time worrying God would make me marry a clean-shaven, soft-cheeked, hairless-faced guy. But I stand by the other desires: I wanted to lay on a blanket by a lake and discuss church and Church, theology and Isaiah, politics and the shape of the clouds. I wanted to never get tired of talking to him. Or listening to him. As I made my way through my twenties and then thirties, and dated good, nice, solid, kind men, I still found myself slightly stomach-knotted at the thought of tying myself to any of them for the rest of my life. I couldn't imagine it would be worth giving up singleness (as difficult as it was and lonely as I felt) to latch myself to any of them—and latch myself to that stomach-knottedness—for life. They were good men, but they weren't Nate.

A friend asked me the other day how a girl can avoid settling. The market is what it is, she said, and the pickings are slim. I hear her sentiments and shared them for 34 years and I hate the platitudinous answer I gave her, which was this: don't settle.

And I wasn't talking about settling for a man without a beard or a man whose physique may not be what you envisioned or who might have blond hair instead of brown and who may not play the guitar or write love poems for you—in this regard, women, settle yourselves down. No, I meant this:

Don't settle in the belief that God knows what is best for you today and tomorrow and all the days of your life. He has given you the blessed-horrible gift of singleness today. One day you feel its blessedness and another you feel its horridness, but either way, it is the gift you have today. The question of settling is not attached to a man at all, but to the God whose job alone it is to give you the gift of a mate. So the question is not "Should I settle for a man who is less than what I envisioned?" and really, "Should I settle in the belief that God doesn't hear or care about the desires of my heart?"

. . .

Nate and I have created a small ritual in our lives these days. At five o'clock, when the workday ends, we knot our sneakers, he slings a blanket over his shoulder, and we walk to the lake a few blocks away. We find a spot high enough up that we can see the sun set over the Rockies and we talk until it creeps down behind them. Sometimes one of us rants. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes he just listens, or I do. The other day we talked about Church history and architecture, and when the wind came blowing down the hill I pressed myself against his strong back, touched his beard, and I thanked God for not giving me the chance to settle. I thanked him for all the stomach-knotted uncertainty I'd had for the past 34 years. It was God's good protection for me, and such a familiar feeling that when I knew I would marry Nate, I knew it with a surety and freedom I couldn't have had without all those years of knowing it was not right.

Sisters and friends—and brothers, you too—do not settle for less than the belief that God has written your story before the foundation of the earth and he is the giver of good and perfect gifts in the proper time. He cares about birds and lilies and beards and you.

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