I remember a time in my early forties when I discovered the importance of knowing and honoring the ought-to-be life. It was a sultry, summer evening, and I’d just come from a five-o’clock church service. Taking Communion and singing corporately had been particularly sweet joys for me—moments where the veil between heaven and earth seemed to grow thin and the fragrance of eternity wafted in. As I received the bread and the cup, my worship had flowed with abandon.
Driving away from that service in my convertible, I realized that I had been refueled for the work that lay ahead of me. We have all been called to cultivate fruit just as Adam and Eve were; my current version was working for an international ministry—writing, speaking, and mentoring. And that night, after I encountered the Lord so deeply, the lifeblood for my work seemed reinvigorated.
But in that same moment, even as I felt fundamentally grateful for God’s gifts, I also felt the concurrent, too-familiar twinge of unmet longing. I was—after years of praying and getting hundreds of others to do the same (and even writing a book on the topic)—still single. This didn’t bother me most days anymore. But every now and then, sitting unpartnered at church touched this place in me. It was a strange irony: with my heart opened wide in the Lord’s presence, my quiet, background disappointment was free to come to the light. I could stroll with the Lord in the Garden, so to speak, and I could cultivate good fruit in the world around me. But nakedness—intimacy, being known—with an Adam? And a family of my own? Well, all of that was perpetually elusive.
Of course I knew—intellectually, and even in a chunk of my heart—that finding a partner was not the whole story. So much relationally good, substantive human connection was woven like gold thread into my life—friends close by and around the country with whom love flowed back and forth. In that sense, I really did have the relational piece at least halfway there. But if I were honest, the relational gap still felt real. Like this was not how life was supposed to be, at least for me. And tonight, I felt tired of this snake pit in an otherwise beautiful Garden.
I legitimately doubted that it was purely in my power to fill the gap, to meet my own longings. I’d done my part for the past twenty years. Worked on my stuff. Been open to date a lot of men, even when we weren’t a very good fit. Recently, I’d even ventured with a friend into my first-ever speed-dating experiment at a snazzy bar. [I]
But at this moment, driving in my car, I suddenly felt the very strong pull to do anything possible to get rid of the gruesome gap. It just felt too bad. Why should I put up with this ridiculously noisy, unmet longing that I didn’t have the power to fill?
I considered ways to silence the noise. Maybe that longing for a literal bridegroom needed to be totally spiritualized—I could forget flesh-and-blood guys and realize that Jesus was my husband and my ministry organization, my family. There was some truth in that, after all.
Or perhaps that longing for someone special to build my life with needed to be treated as dead weight, no longer meriting my time, attention, and care. Or cynically tossed—with rolling eyes and a knowing scoff—into the “cheesy” category by this smarter woman who now knew better.
But even as I contemplated these options, something else crept into my imagination: that Genesis-shaped mosaic of how life ought to be. It glimmered, faint at first, like gold in the light of a dim candle. But its light grew, and in no uncertain terms, it radiated its ancient, simple truth: These longings for connection—with God, with others, and with creation—are right and good. I’ve made you for this. [II]
There was no promise of a certain kind of future. No insight into big next steps. No guarantee I’d get that for which I was made. Only the increasingly vivid reminder that wholeness came into being from the heart of our good Creator God. This was the way he’d originally designed life for his beloved image bearers. For you. For me.
It was admittedly painful to recognize that a beautiful aspect of life as it “ought to be” was frustratingly beyond my control. Perhaps you’ve felt this, too: the pain of a genuine good always just beyond your reach. But I didn’t have to excise a piece of my heart. To risk wanting that goodness—while accepting that it may not ever be mine—was not and never could be foolish. Risk meant remaining a human with an open and a living heart.
Laying my head down on my pillow that night, I realized how close I had come to buying the lie that there’s no such thing as an ought to be in this life. The lie had such appeal. How simple it would be to tidily decide that good worship, good bonds, and good work were nice if you wanted them and could get them. But if you didn’t or couldn’t, no worries. Just pick the bits of the package you liked or could make happen (like worship or meaningful work), discard the rest, and watch the gaps disappear. Cut yourself off from the achy parts of your own humanity and then—presto!—pain gone. Move on with your life.
This lie had come so close to sounding like wisdom for the journey.
[I]Actually, this was telling. There was the yoga lover whose joy was balancing his chakra. Next was the ex-Mormon missionary trying to find a new path. Then the handsome, divorced tennis pro who offered to give me lessons. Last was the brilliant Jewish doctor who listened to me for two minutes and told me that though I was “great to talk to,” I was clearly looking for a Christian, and he hoped I could find one. He even joined me in scanning the room, and our eyes met again in recognition that the odds weren’t in my favor.
[II]There is a God-made beauty in female union with good male strength, but—of course—not every woman on the planet wants (or needs) to get married. C. S. Lewis offers a lovely reminder in That Hideous Strength that many women “can bypass the male and go on to meet something far more masculine, higher up, to which they must make a yet deeper surrender.” In a profound sense, Jesus really is the consummate husband for women and men alike. And, at a far earthier level, one only need to know one or two married women to realize that the idea of marriage is not the same thing as an actual lifetime commitment to a particular man with all his aches and unmet longings. In other words, marriage is a good to be desired, but not a “must” to be demanded.