Is the One True Love biblical? On hope, choice and responsibility

I was recently asked if the idea of ‘the One’ was biblical and I decided to blog about it as I think it’s essentially a question about how romance relates to hope.

The very boring short answer is No, for the simple reason that many modern romance narratives (including the idea of ‘soul-mates’ and the ‘One True Love’) have literary origins which are much later than the Bible.

But that doesn’t answer much more interesting questions like whether God intends everyone to experience romantic affection or whether a Christian can expect to meet their ‘One’ miraculously.

So, I’ve put a few thoughts on the boring short question in an appendix, and have written a post that tries to address those questions instead. Also, because the original question asked about the Bible, I’ve framed most of my answers using examples from it.

So: is the idea of ‘the One’ consistent with the Bible?

I’m going to say more no than yes.

It’s not that God never does bring ‘the One’ into a Christian’s life (he does), but specifically expecting that God will do this makes too many assumptions about life and how God works. And it encourages too many unhelpful behaviours.

Saying everyone has to have a ‘One’ implies there is no fullness of life without romance and sex

But it’s just not true.

Saying that a person hasn’t lived if they haven’t had romance is like saying an actor can’t act unless he can play a romantic lead.

One of the actors who transfixed me, both as a child and an adult, was Pete Postlethwaite. I saw him play a miserly fellow in an adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, a shrewd manager in The Usual Suspects and a colliery band conductor in Brassed Off. And he also made The Age of Stupid to raise awareness of climate change. He was brilliant on screen and on stage. But he never played a romantic lead. Are we to deny his work because he never played Romeo or Benedict? No.

Neither sex nor romance nor marriage nor children is necessary for a person to count themselves blessed or a blessing to others.

There are numerous passages in the Bible which affirm people who are childless (Isaiah 54:1, for example). Plus, many of the stories about women who miraculously bore children are less about fertility than they are about hope for the future and social inclusion. It’s not a stretch to say these passages also affirm people who have never married.

If you still need convincing, consider Paul. I’ll accept an argument that says Jesus’ celibate example was special – after all, he was the Son of God on a mission to save the world. But that doesn’t hold in Paul’s case. He wasn’t a body-negative and/or sex-negative stickler who didn’t know what he was missing. (And if you think he was, read Body by Paula Gooder.) He knew marriage was a good option but chose to immerse himself in the riches of friendship, mentoring and communion as he lived his life to God.

His was a full life. But he didn’t measure its fullness in the ways his culture did.

It crushes hope to believe God’s plan must involve romance

Fullness of life (in both this life and the next) is one the hopes of the Christian faith. However, one of the curious things about hope is that when a person starts anchoring it in a specific idea – like the idea that their fullness of life (in this life) will include romance – it turns bitter. This can drive people to more and more extreme measures or even despair if their wish fails to materialise and their future collapses.

Take Saul for example: he became fixated with the idea that the kingship should remain with his family line. Consequently, he persecuted and tried to murder David as a rival, alienated his son Jonathan and eventually killed himself. His fixation was rooted in fear and it unnecessarily tarnished the later years of his reign.

Not everyone’s actions are as extreme as Saul’s, but if a person believes that God intends every good Christian must experience romance in their lifetime, they are hindered from enjoying the life that they already have whilst single. They are also more likely to doubt they have ‘enough faith’ or the ‘right faith’ if they don’t find someone.

Of course it’s not wrong for a person to desire romance and I’m not certainly not saying that such a person should give up on romance. But the only hope worth having is one strong enough to hold up the future whether you’re single, divorced or bereaved.

That’s why romance is no substitute for finding self-acceptance through knowing God and rooting our identity in him. That should be our hope.

God’s choice of ‘the One’ does not remove choice

Romans 9. Predestination. God’s sovereign choice.

Oddly enough, these aren’t simple topics.

Some Christians believe that God has pre-chosen their romantic partner. So long as this isn’t assumed for everyone (see above) I have time for this idea. However, it must be framed within a broad context of pretty much everything being in God’s plan and not remove human choice or free will.

The debate about God’s will vs free will is far from simple, not least because it throws up questions of who’s responsible for suffering. Saying ‘It’s God’s will’ to someone who’s suffering does not nurture hope, regardless of whether it can be said to be true. Similarly, any discussion around God pre-choosing a person’s romantic partner needs to be handled with care.

It’s good for a Christian to have a broad sense of trust that God’s got their love-life in hand, even when their circumstances are out of hand. However, trusting God’s good choice to materialise should enable not disable a person’s choices or desires.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that Christians infantilise themselves by believing they can’t make good choices. At the last supper, Jesus said to his disciples that he called them friends and not servants – because servants don’t know their master’s business (John 15:15). Yes, God is infinitely more knowledgeable and wise than we are, but God wants to work with us.

Our choices matter.

Similarly, Christians misunderstand hope when they approach every decision believing that doing God’s will involves sacrificing our desires. Yes, sometimes God calls us to do something we don’t want to do, or to give up something we don’t want to give up. But desiring romantic fulfilment is not to be confused with turning from sin. Nor is self-denial for the furtherance of his kingdom to be confused with living in loneliness.

Our desires matter.

It’s not out of character for God to pre-plan a person’s partner. But that doesn’t mean they have no say. God is bigger than that.

God’s action to bring ‘the One’ does not remove responsibility

Some people do have that God-given timing where – wow! – they meet their partner and it’s obvious they’ve met the right person. But others have to go through a much more purposeful process, where power imbalances are recognised, social conventions honoured and loopholes navigated before the happy union takes place. Boaz marrying Ruth is an example of this.

The Bible is quite clear: just because God acted in one particular way at one particular time, that doesn’t mean he’ll act in the same way again. One person’s narrative of how God worked transformatively will always be one narrative amongst many different narratives, and none should be taken in isolation as a blueprint for how a Christian might meet their romantic partner.

In particular, even though ‘wait and watch God do it for you’ is a legitimate narrative (2 Chronicles 20:15-17, for example), it is not a licence for a Christian to neglect all sense of personal responsibility.

For one thing, there are many Bible stories where people were required to act in order to bring God’s purposes about. For another, when a Christian adopts this as their personal romance narrative, it makes them less likely to develop the self-awareness, interpersonal skills and emotional resilience necessary for building a lasting relationship.

I’m not saying that all tactics for finding romance are healthy – some definitely aren’t. However, people grow through a healthy searching process, including when that process involves mistakes.

We aren’t called to be reckless, but we are called to risk with God. That’s why it’s important that – whether waiting or searching (or enjoying!) – we’re not focussed on testing God’s ability or proving his faithfulness. Rather, our mind-set should be one oriented towards discovering and seeing his work in our lives.

He just might surprise us.


Appendix

Is the idea of ‘soul-mates’ biblical?

In a word: No. It came out of a romance narrative that has literary origins, and was first recognised in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was associated with the troubadours and also with the Cathars (read: anti-establishment gnostic sect) which was butchered indiscriminately in the Albigensian crusade.

The idea of romance was picked again up in the 18th century and developed as part of enlightenment thinking and this was done in a way to challenge the values and structures of society.

Now I’ve written that in very broad terms and I haven’t cited sources because I’m not interested in writing a history essay. These are suggested starting points for anyone who wants to read up on it themselves. Please don’t read them as absolute truth or rigorous historic analysis. But it doesn’t take rigorous historic analysis to make the point well enough: the romance idea of soul-mates is simply not a feature of the cultures represented in the Bible.

But is the idea of romance biblical?

If by ‘romance’ you mean the idea of ‘falling in love’ – yes. And there’s a whole book that celebrates erotic enjoyment (Song of Songs).

But.

I struggle to name anyone whose love life could be described as being broadly consistent with a ‘typical’ romance narrative.

In Genesis 24, there’s a near-miraculous encounter that leads to Rebekah becoming Isaac’s wife – but it wasn’t Isaac falling in love at first sight, it was his servant on a bride-finding mission.

Jacob loved Rachel in Genesis 29 – but he was also married to Leah and he didn’t love her.

Ruth and Boaz both seemed more than willing to marry each other, but love and affection aren’t discussed in the book of Ruth. Instead the narrative focuses integrity, redemption and blessing – and is littered with social conventions.

In 1 Samuel 25, there’s a strong sense of Abigail being unshackled from a loveless marriage and then embracing a new life with David. But make no mistake, David had many wives – including Michal and Bathsheba – and we don’t read much of Abigail afterwards.

Hosea married Gomer and took her back after she was unfaithful to him. But the book of Hosea is prophecy and their relationship is framed as dramatically visualising Israel’s relationship with God.

Lastly, when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant (but not through him), Matthew’s gospel strongly implies Joseph cared for Mary, because he intended to break off their engagement privately. However, more likely than not, this was an arranged marriage.

In other words, one can read a narrative of romance into many Bible stories, but they weren’t written to promote a romance narrative.


 

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