There are few things in life that can both cover and expose like finding love.
In the last year, since meeting my fiancé, I have gone through several cycles of death and rebirth. I have tussled with all the questions a precocious, conscientious, and spiritually-minded young woman would: “How do I know he’s ‘the one’?” ” Do I even believe there is one ‘the one?” “What does the Word say about this?” “When the Word seems to have gaps, what do the ‘experts’ say?” “Should I trust their interpretations and opinions?” “When I pray, what does the Father tell me?” “What questions am I not asking that I should?”
When I was a teenager, I was told to make a list of characteristics I wanted in a husband and pray for Yah [HaShem] to bring me the man of that list. I decided later that, while well intended, this was a misguided activity. Do I really know what I need in a man? At 15, can I know what I want and need at 30? I think not. I gave up on that and started praying that Yah would direct my path to the right man and that we each would be shaped into the person the other needs. As I matured and mused on finding a mate, one thing became clear.
At the end of the day, there is one prerequisite that matters most – he needs to love the Father more than he loves me. If he has that priority straight, the rest will take care of itself.
Like many young ladies, I wondered and dreamed at how my future mate and I would meet. Being highly involved in church leadership, I figured I would meet him at church. There were a few attempts at relationships with guys I served alongside, but they were short-lived and, frankly, frustrating. I discovered that while the church seems to preach an ideal image of what a Biblical or Christian relationship should look like, that image is vague in application and usually not lived out. In fact, the church, in general, sadly conforms to the same habits as the world: aimless dating based on physical attraction, relationships rife with interpersonal issues caused by selfishness and miscommunication, immaturity, and lack of mentorship. Add to that the hazards of temptations and missteps being a condemnable sin.
I was supposed to be the most prepared person to find a suitable mate. I read numerous books, attended women-only Bible studies on the topic, promised to save myself for marriage, and committed to date only for the purpose of marriage. Still, I felt sorely underprepared. I knew what not to do (with big blaring sirens and lights!), but not what to do. In addition, my parents divorced when I was 17, contributing to a feeling of isolation and ambiguousness. I lacked not only their (healthy) model, but also their leadership. I would love to say that this sticky wicket resolved itself with time and experience, but it did not. When I met my fiancé at 29, I felt not much more prepared than my 17-, 24-, or 27-year-old selves.
When my fiancé and I met (at work!) in April of last year, the air was electric. I was disarmed. Our connection was undeniable. I soon began a recurring cycle of questions, time, prayers, exhilarations, terrors, deaths of assumptions and expectations, resurrections of dreams and hopes, doubts, confirmations, more questions, and more prayers. That was a journey in and of itself, a tedious and delicate act of Divine trust. The interplay of spiritual and physical decision-making was more complicated than I had anticipated. But, when I emerged on the other side of that true and genuine battle, I finally understood what a few key couples in my life have told me, “When you know, you know.”
My fiancé and were engaged in December of last year. The last several months have been marked with a contentment I have never experienced before. My heart is happy. Happy happy. I cannot help but be bright and full of life. It is effusing from every pore in my body; my heart, my chest, my face. It is exhausting and energizing.
I feel so full, so saturated and, somehow, at the same time, emptied, flung wide open. This exhilaration carries both a deep sense of satisfaction and anchorage while also being so obviously vulnerable and fragile. It is covering and exposing. I am soothed and raw.
As our wedding day nears, I find myself alternating between a sense of being somewhere and nowhere. I am spoken for, but not yet taken, and cannot live like either. I have moved into a holding pattern that, from what I have been taught, is somehow supposed to maintain a certain status quo (purity, separateness, guardedness) while also moving forward (intimacy, unity, vulnerability). The tension exists not just in the physical sense, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Mentally and emotionally, this anticipated relational change is more than just having someone else to spend time with, consider, coordinate with, and look after. It feels more like becoming a citizen of a new country. My new country has its own learned language, non-verbal gestures, customs, expectations, and rhythm. My core identity is being acted upon and shaped, touched and accessed in a unique way, more deeply in this transition than in any other I have experienced. However, at the same time, miraculously, this new citizenship is not just happening to me, I also have a hand in defining it. In any situation, I can choose to act on, stop, or advance its creation.
As I merge with this oscillating dance, acting on and being acted upon, my familiar and usual frame of reference of “me” and “you” is morphing into “us”. Emerging out of this give and take of influence, a distinct, third entity is taking form. We.
This process is wondrous and uncomfortable. At times, I see a side of myself that I do not like, a side I did not know existed. What is this sudden burst of emotion or selfishness or immaturity? I do not like that. Is that really in me? Other times, I get a fleeting taste of what true unity must be like. It is a closeness hard to describe. And just when I think we are close, we get closer.
I cannot write about the liminal space of engagement without discussing physical intimacy. In fact, this is the part I am most excited to write about. Why? Because it is the part that has, so far, taught me the most. I have received many mixed messages about physical intimacy in my years growing up; it is shameful, beautiful, uncontrollable, painful, to be avoided, to be celebrated, embarrassing, sacred, something we do not talk about, something I should know about, something Yah created, for procreation, for recreation, carnal, a necessary evil, on and on. It is no secret that our society has a myriad of views on intimacy – even the church varies in its sentiment.
As a woman who has saved herself for marriage, finding and falling in love with my future husband has brought these mixed messages front and center. What is the difference between lust and desire? Is it as simple as a day and some vows? What does it mean that I so deeply desire something that is regarded as both a gift and a plague? What does the Bible say about it? How should I feel about it? In the face of increasing closeness and the necessity for unity, how do we protect our boundaries? How do we care for each other, embracing the real, physical part of our relationship, without overstepping our limits and hurting ourselves and our future? And how tedious is it to talk about and prepare for something you will be sanctioned to do in the future, but cannot at present?! (That is a thought in and of itself: what else in life does the Bible say we cannot do until we make a certain covenant, undergo a certain passage?)
Ultimately, what is this new intimacy and, in this liminal space, how do we learn to be intimacy-minded while not being intimate? At least, not in that way.
What I am discovering is that physical intimacy is far more than a kiss or a touch. Those elements are essential, but are accents to a greater motivation. Intimacy is an orientation. It is a posture. It is something that, through our tangible, concrete decisions, we either move towards or move away from, intentionally or unintentionally. Intimacy is in how we include our spouse, regard our spouse, and protect our spouse. It is in how we guard our relationship; how we allow somethings in and keep other things out. Intimacy is – as appropriately described in my premarital class textbook – about stewardship. We are making the choice to care for each other in the way that Yah has told us is the best, whether we want that in that moment or not. Before marriage, it is minding our physical boundaries. After marriage, it is tearing those boundaries down and not allowing them to build back up. Before marriage, it is possessing our bodies and conducting them appropriately, together, but still separate. After marriage, it is surrendering our bodies to the “we”, making them a shared space, without boundaries, without ownership.
Falling in love with my fiancé has given me a new appreciation for the spiritual intimacy that Yeshua wants to have with us, but not without its discomforting epiphanies.
The closer I come to being a bride, the more awkward it seems to seek to relate to Yeshua as my bridegroom, my husband. My brother? My friend? My shepherd? Those make sense. What do you mean Yeshua desires me and that I should desire Him? Desire Him like my fiancé? For a brief moment, I squirm at the thought, but finding the spiritual equivalent is actually not that hard. We have to remember that intimacy is an orientation. How am I including Yeshua, regarding Yeshua, and protecting my relationship with Yeshua? Thinking about the closeness I feel when I am in my fiance’s arms or when we are acting in unity on a project or issue, what am I doing to create those moments with Yeshua? Do I rely on my alone time with Him like I do my time with my fiance?
On one hand, my fiance and my relationship has caused me to feel pulled “away” from the spiritual; my time, focus, and energy are being applied more to the concrete things around me (buying a house, planning a wedding, working an extra job) that need to be done. But, on the other hand, I feel more tightly connected to my relationships with the Father and His Son. I am beginning to sense a level of intimacy that is available and possible with them that I have never known before – and I am encouraged and excited to move forward.
We need to savor and value these strategic, liminal spaces in our life journey. Truly, He has embedded lessons in every transition, in every liminal space, to awaken us to new capacities and to draw us closer to Himself.
Sarah Sanders is an educator, worship leader, and soon-to-be bride.
Born and bred in the Pacific Northwest, she enjoys being a health nut and a foodie (and wants to be more outdoorsy), but gets excited learning and experiencing just about anything. She dearly looks forward to being a wife and mother, and building, together with her fiance, a home of hospitality and worship.
Sarah and her fiance Shane.
- Artwork: Israeli artist Martina Shapiro