“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection…. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment…. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American. Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize … and the theme of holding out for true love … permeates our collective mentality”. ‘Marry Him!’, Lori Gottlieb, Atlantic Monthly, March 2008

I came across these paragraphs the other night while doing some research on a completely different topic (it was late, and my Internet research skills aren’t state of the art anyway). The piece was written by an apparently non-Christian, successful, early-40s, single professional woman who had recently experienced an epiphany of sorts. She described an outing to the park on a beautiful spring day with a couple of friends — also single. In lamenting their common lack of romantic prospects, it occurred to the women that each of them had had decent guys interested in marrying them at some point but had turned them down in the hope of landing “The One,” “Mr. Right” or some other term connoting the perfect man as they individually conceived of him. They had all refused to “settle” and were not pleased with the results of that strategy — thus the above advice.

Before we dig in, let’s define what we mean by “settling”. Let’s use the following as our working definition: a willingness to date or marry someone who clearly fails to meet all the major criteria on your “list” to the extent you dreamed about when picturing your spouse, and/or doesn’t appear to be your “soul mate” in the Friends/Sex in the City/fill in vacuous worldly movie/show here sense of the word.

Think Christians don’t deal with this? Think again. I can’t begin to tell you how many single believers I have spoken to and counseled who are trying to avoid settling, worried that they are settling, think it’s “wrong” to settle, etc. Good relationships have gone down the tubes or never gotten off the ground because of this issue. The question for us is whether that approach to dating and marriage gels with the biblical approach to life and love we’ve tried to outline here.

It doesn’t, for at least three reasons.

A Selfish Premise

The first is that worries about settling reveal a selfishness approach to marriage that misunderstands the Bible’s idea of love. “Holding out for true love” as the above quote defines it means demanding a person to whom I am completely attracted in the secular sense, somebody who meets all the qualifications on my “list,” and whom I believe is the “best I can do.” In the author’s mind — and unfortunately in the minds of many single Christians — anything short of finding that perfect match created in one’s mind falls short of “true love” and constitutes the sad and unwise act of “settling.” Such an approach to love and marriage fundamentally misunderstands the Bible’s idea of both. I wrote about this at length many moons ago. The highlights are worth repeating:

“I don’t mean that such an approach [looking for a spouse based primarily on my own “list” and attraction] 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 is described not as a mere emotion based on 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’ love for us did not 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, Paul 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 that I like because of their potential to please me. Again, this is not 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.

[According to scripture], 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 is the greatest act of ministry and service to another person that they will 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 is 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 this: Is your approach biblical?”

The Bible calls us to reject the world’s approach to love and marriage. That may require a pretty radical rethinking of your own approach. If it does, join the club. If you can manage that rethinking (with the Lord’s help), it will drain much of the angst from any discussion about “settling.”

Everybody Settles

Another problem with the usual discussion on settling is that it usually reflects two unbiblical beliefs: (1) we can strategize our way around the effects of sin in human relationships and the reality that marriage is hard work, and (2) we can hope to be perfectly, ultimately fulfilled by marriage — or any other earthly relationship.

If you have a biblical understanding of human nature, then you will realize that in one sense, everybody settles — even the people who think they are refusing to. Every person who decides to marry makes the decision to marry a sinner. That means you will marry someone who is at some level selfish, who has insecurities and an ego, who has annoying tendencies that you will only discover after marriage because they will only be revealed in that intimate context. And don’t forget, your spouse will have married the same type of person. As sinners, we all “settle” for marriage to a person who will not always meet our sinful, individualized, selfish whims, who will not be the spouse we “dreamed of” every day, and who likely entered the bargain with some level of expectation that you were going to be the one for them.

It’s also true that anyone who enters marriage expecting it to serve as a substitute for Christ in the ultimate fulfillment of his or her own desires for companionship, love, intimacy, security or anything else will indeed be disillusioned — quickly. It’s a fallen world, and we are sinners. We cannot gain in any earthly relationship what the world tells us to seek from “romance” and marriage. We all settle.

Nobody Settles

Finally, deep worry about settling for less than one desires or deserves in marriage fails to acknowledge two fundamental biblical truths that apply to all areas of the Christian life — not just dating and marriage: (1) as sinners, what we deserve is condemnation from God; and (2) we have been given greater gifts than we could possibly deserve or attain on our own. In other words, compared to what our lives should be before a just and holy God, no believer in Christ ever settles — in marriage or in anything else.

To get at this, we have to talk about sin again, so forgive me for being a little stark for a minute. The Bible teaches that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It teaches that what we all “deserve” is instant condemnation at the hands of a righteous and holy God. We deserve hell. But the Lord hasn’t given that to you, has He? For God’s people, He has given salvation in Christ, eternal life, sonship in God’s kingdom, and glimpses of heaven on earth — one of which is marriage. I know, I know — we’re talking about settling here. Still, in any discussion of earthly circumstances or relationships, when we are tempted to pursue and think we’re entitled to an idealized, easy, hassle-free life, it’s no bad thing to think about the truth of what we deserve and the blessings God has given us instead. God’s people don’t settle; the “best we could do” apart from Christ is a horrible tragedy compared to the lives we have with Him.

What’s more, nobody really “settles” in a biblical marriage because God has designed marriage as a wonderful gift that gets better with age. This is what people worried about settling don’t seem to get. They think joy in marriage is all about the original choice one makes about whom to marry, rather than how they nurture and build their marriage. Again, this misses the picture of biblical marriage.

Read Song of Songs. Look at the implied deepening of a marriage that has to take place if Ephesians 5:22-33 is to be lived out. Sure, it takes hard work. But if two people are truly faithful as spouses, growing in God’s Word, studying one another deeply and attentively with an eye toward uniquely ministering to and serving each other, both will find that 10 years in they are known and loved and cared for better and more deeply than when they were newly married. That doesn’t hinder passion, people. It builds it.

Bottom line, the real danger for God’s people in pursuing a spouse is that we will “settle” for the world’s vision of self, love, marriage and even romance, rather than a vision of those things steeped in Scripture and rooted in the love of Christ. Biblical love and marriage ask more of us than the world’s selfish pursuit of non-existent perfection. But the rewards are infinitely richer. “Keep your eyes on the prize”? Sure. Just make sure it’s the right one [© Scott Croft. Scott lives in Kentucky, where he works as an attorney and serves as an elder of Third Avenue Baptist Church.].