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Testing Love Before Marriage

[Take the time to read the short little five-page Book of Ruth in the Bible. It will give you a good foundation for this article]

A 1954 wedding song landed on the popularity charts with such explosive force that it was recorded ten times within ten years! And “Whither Thou Goest” with its enchanting lyrics still forms a beautiful backdrop for wedding vows decades later:

Whither thou goest, I will go.

Wherever thou lodgest, I will lodge.

Thy people will be my people my love,

Whither thou goest, I will go.

For as in that story, long ago

The same sweet love story, now is so,

Thy people shall be my people my love,

Whither thou goest I will go.

The song is indeed from a sweet love story of long ago; a spell binding account out of Bible history which highlights true love, long term commitment, and steadfast faithfulness. The lyrics of the song are taken from Ruth 1:16; “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God”. These famous words spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi have for all time immortalized a model of true love. And in an age when love is predictably short term, it stands as a beacon of spiritual light in a landscape of romantic darkness and broken marriages.

A common reason for divorce is “falling out of love”. After all, if love is a feeling as the world believes, and you add to that notion that “love is the only basis for marriage”, then the conclusion is obvious; feelings are the basis for marriage. Now, its very easy to justify a break-up with “We don’t love each other anymore!” Then one is free to “fall in love” with someone else and repeat the pattern. But there is an alternative. There is a lifelong love and commitment like that of Ruth’s. If, as the Bible teaches, “love faileth not…and…thinketh no evil”, isn’t there a more permanent love than the shallow emotions behind many divorces? Is there not a better way?

The Bible Practice of “Screening”

The biblical practice of counting the costs or testing the waters beforehand seems to fit the bill. What better way to determine the genuineness of your present feelings than to put them to the test before a lifetime commitment!?

This is nothing new to God. He often screened the over eager volunteer up front. Who can forget His method of choosing Gideon’s three hundred out of 10,000 applicants? Or what Jesus did in Luke chapter nine (vs. 57-62) when three potential followers were given dire warning about the hardships ahead? And didn’t Jesus teach at another time, “If any man come to me and hate not [his family],…cannot bear his cross….counteth not the cost…and…forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.”(Luke 14 26-33). When the great Apostle Paul was about to enter into his life ministry, didn’t Jesus say, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake”? (Ac. 9:16) And when in later years the veteran Paul gave instruction to Timothy on how to choose spiritual leaders didn’t he give a list of spiritual and character qualities to look for, while at the same time counseling great caution in actually ordaining them too quickly? “Lay hands suddenly on no man…” (I Tim 5:22).

The common denominator of these tests appears to be that of establishing the presence of a basic selfless, sacrificial commitment to ministry. So when seeking to be a worker for God, a follower of Christ in general, or His disciple in particular, especially to be a pastor or spiritual leader, great caution was to be exercised and careful screening was to be performed.

The Screening of a Wife-To-Be

It might surprise you to know that this same care and diligence was exercised in discerning a life mate in the Bible. Genesis chapter twenty four records the fascinating story of how Abraham sent his faithful servant on a long trip to find a wife for his son Isaac. God answered the simple prayer of the servant: “let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she that thou hast appointed [as a wife for my master’s son]”. (Watering camels was no small feat because camels were notorious for consuming enormous amounts of water, and the servant had ten of them!). Nothing about how pretty she was, how intelligent, how talented, or even whether she had a good education or an outstanding personality. The servant looked for one thing; a servant’s spirit and a willingness to minister to others. Thus began the storybook marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, the parents of Esau and Jacob.

The Test of Love

The book of Ruth records one of the greatest marriages of all time! That of wealthy Boaz and dirt-poor Ruth. Boaz was attracted to Ruth but not because of anything outward. In fact, absolutely nothing is mentioned in the Bible as the basis of her appeal except her character as seen in her selfless care of her mother in-law, and her virtue; “…It has been shown me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother-in-law since the death of thine husband and how thou hast left thy father and mother, … and then he praised her for her spirituality; “The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (2:11-12). Such were the qualities that Boaz valued, and he took his own dear time in observing and evaluating the depth of Ruth’s spirit before walking the aisle.

But Ruth’s screening began long before Boaz. She was a pagan, godless foreigner from the land of Moab where she met her husband when his parents brought him there to avoid a drought in their homeland. But the family was plagued, it seems, by misfortune; within ten years, not only did her father-in-law die, but so did his two sons including the husband of Ruth and the husband of Orpah, Ruth’s Moabitess sister-in-law. Both these daughters-in-law had grown to love their mother-in-law Naomi, and when she decided to return to her homeland and her hometown of Bethlehem, they eagerly started out with her. They assured her of their love, their devotion, and their loyalty even in the face of their shared losses. But a careful study of their differing responses reveals much about true love and false love, as well as a model for testing love.

Initially, the narrative leads the reader to believe that Orpah’s love for Naomi was equal to Ruth’s; they both packed and began the journey with her back to Bethlehem, they both resisted Naomi’s encouragement to return to their families and the hope of a future husband among their kinsmen. They both responded alike to these suggestions with great fervor; “…they lifted up their voice and wept…and…they said..”Surely we will return with thee unto thy people”. So they both rejected her suggestion to abandon her and remain behind, and objected to such a notion with much vehemence – even tears – all the while professing deep commitments of loyalty to her, qualities present in abundance in most pursuits of matrimony.

Now, to this point, the casual observer must conclude equal love and fidelity, and if the story ended there , they would be right…but it didn’t end there. There was a further test to come. The initial test had been Naomi’s suggestion to return home, but now she raises the bar higher and puts her finger on a motivation which heretofore appears secondary. She warns them that as long as they are with her, there is no hope of ever finding a husband. In doing this she deftly exposes the difference in Orpah’s love and Ruth’s.

Both girls protested to this challenge and re-affirmed their love with vocal outcries and effusive emotions. But what follows, in a clear contrasts of hearts was the subtle but distinct difference in their final response; While Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, Ruth “clave unto her”, i.e. although Orpah adds a physical display of affection to the mix, none of her actions are true indicators of her real self-centeredness. Yes, she had packed her bags, began the journey, used sincere words, expressed strong emotions, and showered Naomi with physical displays of devotion, but her real love was not to Naomi, but to herself. She wanted to find a husband, be with her own family, and ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, to return to her false religion; “Behold thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods…” (1:15). So, despite all her protests to the contrary, Orpah had an agenda. When push came to shove, she was unwilling to abandon her heart’s true desires and pay the price of commitment to Naomi. She possessed a selfish “love” and not a selfless love.

What a lesson here for young lovers! They begin their journey of love together with much feeling, generous expressions of physical devotion, and solemn vows to stay with their beloved forever. But like Orpah, when they realize that their gods of personal happiness are no longer available, and their selfish goals are unreachable, they retreat to the comfort zone of familiarity and fresh hopes of greater happiness elsewhere.

Unlike Orpah however, Ruth not only clave unto Naomi, but renewed and reinforced her vow of loyalty… never to change her mind. Her ultimate actions spoke much louder than her words even though those words have been immortalized in wedding songs for years. She meant it when she said to Naomi, “…whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people and thy God my God…” (1:16)

What a compelling tale! What a made-for-hollywood story line! And what an incentive for young “love” to view with suspicion the world’s casual standards of love. All that is valued by the world; an impulsive decision to follow the heart into the unknown, raging emotions, high sounding words of undying devotion, and endless expressions of physical romance can be offered to the object of love without the heart being fully attached.

Secondly, Naomi was wise indeed to challenge the spontaneous well-meaning assumptions of her young charges. She must have suspected that the real motive behind some of the frenetic displays of undying loyalty were self-promotion instead of selfless sacrifice, and she wisely tested the strength and sincerity of their so-called love rather than to see them disappointed in the fires of testing in a foreign land.

Thirdly, Ruth epitomizes true love in a moving picture of selfless, sacrificial ministry to Naomi. She left everything she valued of her past and surrendered all hopes for the future just to remain with her. Her love was abundantly demonstrated in her constant watchcare of her aging mother-in-law.

The lesson here is not to discount superficial expressions of love unduly, but to put them to the test before basing a future marriage on them. This is where a wise teacher can help the uninitiated (even before engagement), and and a demanding dose of pre-marital counseling can help the starry eyed engaged couple.

Fourthly, Ruth was ultimately blessed by God who led a man to be attracted to her, not on the basis of anything but her godly character, her faith, and her virtue. But God’s blessings wasn’t yet complete; He used the union of Ruth and Boaz to produce a son called Obed, who just happened to be the grandfather of David, and therefore in the direct lineage of the Messiah Himself!

God Was At Work!

Lastly, and not to be overlooked is the role of God in this whole scenario. His sovereignty was at work throughout. Although He is not directly credited with orchestrating every detail of the many links to a long chain which led to the heart-warming conclusion, His fingerprints are everywhere! From famines, to decisions, to choice of fields, to a man’s respect for a godly woman, etc., He led each step of the way. Even though, as the writer so cogently states it, Ruth’s “hap was to light on a part of the field belonging to Boaz” (2:3), we know that “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps”.(Prov 16:9). One means of doing that was to put Ruth’s love to the test, a need of every romantic relationship of today. May you too sing the song “Whither thou goest, I will go…”.

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