“Once upon a time…”
Is there a single line in all of fiction that is more instantly recognizable? I can only think of one: “And they lived happily ever after.”
From the time we’re small children, fairy tales are engrained in our consciousness. Storybooks and Disney movies tell the same “tale as old as time” again and again: boy meets girl. Boy and girl are perfect for each other and fulfill their destiny by falling instantly, eternally in love. Boy and girl live happily ever after.
Take this iconic scene from Sleeping Beauty, for example, “Once Upon a Dream”.
Princess Aurora has dreamed about her soul mate long before she meets him. She spends her time thinking about him and how lovely her life will be once they’re together. When he appears, she recognizes him almost instantly, and they fall in love at first sight. When narratives of idealized romantic love are this obvious, it’s easy to laugh at them for being ridiculous. They’re the stuff of fairy tales – of children’s stories. When we grow up, we leave children’s ideas about love behind. Don’t we?
When we grow up, we leave children's ideas about love behind. Don't we?
For many of us, the answer is no. If you’ve ever gone to a retreat or workshop on romantic relationships, or read a Christian dating book, you’ve probably encountered ideas that sound suspiciously similar to Sleeping Beauty when examined closely. For example:
“…if you are brave enough to turn the pen of your life over to the Author of romance, you’ll soon discover that God is in the business of scripting fairy-tale love stories.” –Eric & Leslie Ludy, When God Writes Your Love Story
“Ariel chased Eric, Belle saved the Beast and, while both Princess Aurora and Snow White slept, Prince Charming pursued his lady. He knew what he wanted; and what he wanted was mild, modest, mysterious Cinderella. Though unknowingly, she let herself be pursued.” –Bethany Jett, The Cinderella Rule
“Why is this notion of a hidden princess (and a prince who comes to find her) so enduring?...We long for romance and an irreplaceable role in a great story; we long for beauty.” -John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating
We are taught again and again that as children of the King, we are Princes and Princesses, and therefore we deserve a fairy tale. God is preparing one perfect person for us, and when they arrive (as long as we are patient and pure) we will live happily ever after. When I was in college, I heard it said in one worship service that our job was just to “wait patiently while God prepares the right person to be your prince.”
The idea of predestined soul mates can be comforting if you’re lonely, or going through a bad break up. But does it make any sense? The movie Ever After (a reimagining of Cinderella), plays with this idea when romantically frustrated Prince Henry discusses love and fate with inventor Leonardo da Vinci.
As Henry points out, even the simplest complication – remarrying after your spouse’s death – causes the concept of one perfect soul mate to seem a little ridiculous. Oddly enough, the Apostle Paul (who himself was single his entire life) gives a good handful of instructions on the topic of re-marriage after the death of a spouse in the New Testament (Romans 7:2-3, 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 1 Timothy 5:14).
Just because there’s technically no such thing as a soul mate, though, does that mean that God doesn’t prepare romantic partners for each other?
The Bible contains relatively few love stories. There’s the story of Ruth and Boaz, brought together from different nations and cultures: the only Biblical love story to get its own book. There’s the heartbreaking account of Jacob and his relationships with Rachel and Leah. And – in perhaps the clearest example of a story where God seems to bring people together – there is Genesis 24.
Abraham’s son Isaac comes to marry his wife, Rebekah in a way that is not the most conventional – or direct. Abraham is worried about his son, so he sends a servant to find a virtuous wife among his own people for Isaac. When he arrives in the city of Nahor, Eleazar prays that God will show him “the one you have appointed for your servant Isaac” – as a sign of God’s steadfast love for Abraham!
Now, Rebekah appears and fulfills the sign that Eleazar asks for. She agrees to come with him and marry Isaac, despite having never met him. She travels across the desert on a camel, meets Isaac for the first time, and pledges her life to him. “Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.” (Genesis 24:67).
While the story ends happily – Isaac loves Rebekah –marriage in the ancient world was more of a transaction than a celebration of romance. It wasn’t even Isaac or Rebekah’s prayers that were answered! God revealed Rebekah to Eleazar as a sign of his love for Abraham, and as part of his continued promise to protect and bless Abraham’s descendants.
Is this really a model for how we should approach romantic relationships today? The Bible makes it clear that romantic love and happy marriage are blessings from God – Proverbs 18:22 says that “he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord. This is something we should look for in life. But we should be careful about setting our hopes on a mystical "one" who will magically appear in our lives, and also be careful to avoid misapplying the cultural norms of Bible times to our current world.
In what ways does Rebekah show herself to be a good potential wife for Isaac besides the fact that God gives Eleazar a sign?
How important are romantic relationships to God? Does he have specific plans for our romantic relationships?
Is there such a thing as a soul mate? Do you think that God selects certain people for each other? If so, can you be happy in a relationship with someone other than that person?
Do you believe that God prepares romantic partners for each other before they meet?
Find a love song that you think has a positive view of romantic relationships. What principles does it relate? What promises does the singer make? Does it sound realistic?