Today, in a sort of spiritual successor (no pun intended) to my post "God vs. Human Agency", which I recommend reading first partly as a useful foundation for this post but mostly because it will give me more blog hits, I decided to refute another thing I was told recently, that being "God doesn't tell you who to love" - with "love" there and hereafter meaning the romantic variety of love as opposed to the broader familial love that God has, in fact, told us to bestow on everyone, which I find quite impossible in practice but that's a topic for another occasion. Probably a more common statement with a similar sentiment would be "God doesn't tell you who to marry." It's not a big deal but I just like being argumentative, questioning everything and destroying assumptions that most people take for granted, so here I go doing exactly that. As with the previous one I tackled, why do we make this assumption even though it's not stated authoritatively anywhere?
Most Saints' first response would probably be something like "Because of agency." But God telling you to do something doesn't take away your agency. The whole point of agency is that God tells you to do stuff and you have a choice of whether or not to obey. This scenario would be no different. And I don't know who needs to hear this, but being asked or even required to take certain health precautions to protect everyone around you doesn't take away your agency either, so get over yourself.
But of course, there is also the true principle most famously espoused by President Spencer W. Kimball: "'Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price." So God could tell you who to love and/or marry without violating your agency, but it would still violate the principle that you have a world of options open to you and one is just as good as another, absolving you of the important responsibility and growth inherent in making the most important decision of eternity for yourself, yes?
Not necessarily. First of all, even President Kimball's quote hints at some grey area. I don't know how useful it is to dissect every word choice but I think he was careful to avoid making a total blanket statement. He said "almost any good man and any good woman" (emphasis added) can yadda yadda yadda. I came to realize several years ago that if I ended up getting married in mortality, I would ipso facto have to be one of the implied exceptions, because clearly I can't make it work with just anyone and not just anyone can make it work with me. Nobody's shown much interest in trying. I'm quite distinct from normal people in ways both good and not so good, and undoubtedly anyone willing to acquire my acquired taste would be as well, so that I'd have someone interesting to talk to and she wouldn't be the only one tolerating someone's issues. Yes, we're "all unique and special" and "all have baggage" but if we're being honest we all know that a few people are more unique and have more baggage than others. Michael Jackson said it best at the beginning of the "Thriller" video.
MJ: I'm not like other guys.
Woman: Of course not! That's why I love you!
MJ: No, I mean I'm different.
My mother, a big Michael Jackson fan, got annoyed at me when she showed us kids the video and I laughed at that part. Needless to say he was famous for different reasons when I was in school than when she was in school. But I digress.
For another thing, not to put too fine a point on it, but many Latter-day Saint women - and I'm not saying they're worse than men, but I'm not talking about men in this context - have taught me a lot about what I don't want in a marriage partner. I have criteria too and if nobody who meets them is willing to love me, I'd rather stay alone than sacrifice them. For example, I don't expect her political views to be identical to mine, especially as mine are still in flux, but if she's dogmatic and hypocritical and stupid about one side or the other like most Americans then it's a "Bye Felicia" from me. I also worry sometimes about the quantity of middle-aged Latter-day Saint women (and again, men, but again, irrelevant) on social media who seem to be a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Is that normal? When my hypothetical wife turns forty, is she going to lose her proficiency in English grammar and her ability to differentiate between emotionally manipulative urban legends and real life? If so, I don't think I can stay hypothetically married. Not long ago a woman old enough to be my mother told me "Your arrogance is not attractive" and I wanted to say "Neither is your stupidity" but I didn't because I'm a good Christian sometimes.
In 2013 I got a priesthood blessing for something I don't even remember now, probably insomnia, and the guy felt prompted to go off on a tangent that I hadn't asked about or even been thinking about. He said the Lord wanted me to know that I would find a girl after my mission. It was really weird and I dismissed it as an anomaly because, as I used to assume but recently spent a blog post debunking, God can't promise anything that involves another person's agency. Then it happened again with someone else, and then it happened again with someone else. Then I was preparing for my mission, and I had to meet with LDS Family Services and talk to this therapist who, apropos nothing, mused about how terrible it is to not know whether you'll be alone for the rest of your life. He didn't offer a solution, he just mused about how terrible it is. I told him God had actually promised me that I would find someone. He said I was very fortunate. But then I didn't go on a mission after all and figured even if the promise was legit, I had blown it. Oh well.
I knew those blessings couldn't all be dismissed so easily but that didn't stop me. Agency is a thing and I'm not attractive, so God is wrong, end of discussion, let's move on. There was also the small matter of my ambivalence toward marriage in the first place. I'm not like most people who feel a need for companionship and go out searching for someone to fill that need. Rather, I enjoy my solitary lifestyle and feel no desire to alter it except when I happen to stumble upon someone whose company I enjoy more than the freedom to do what I want when I want. And there are several people in this world who want to get married and deserve to get married but won't. So why, I wondered, didn't God make this promise to one of them instead? He or she would appreciate it a lot more. I don't need it. I can cope with being alone for the rest of my life better than most probably can.
In 2017 I fell really hard for a coworker who set the bar for all prospective spouses going forward. Before her, I had decided who I liked on a case-by-case basis; after her, I knew exactly what I wanted and couldn't be satisfied with anything less. But she had a boyfriend on a mission and was already planning on marrying him when he came home. I calculated that if I had gone on a mission myself and then started working there when I came home, I would have met her a year earlier, before she decided to wait for him, and maybe I would have married her instead. Maybe, I realized, she was meant to be the one for me, but I used my agency to screw it up. Last year, nearly six years after the first anomalous blessing, I got another one that actually was love-related this time, and the guy promised that my alleged wife and I will both know that it's right. Not necessarily in a "love at first sight" way, though, as he also said something about "whether you've already met her or not." I appreciate God's helpfulness in narrowing it down to those two categories.
By this point of course it was obvious that God had someone specific in mind, and that none of the women I had considered over the years was her. One could, in an attempt to preserve agency, split hairs and insist that this obvious meaning isn't the actual meaning, that the future event of a marriage is set in stone but the other party involved is subject to change. But to my mind that's a logical impossibility. Either both aspects are set in stone or both are subject to change. It's not like God is saying, "You're such a nice guy, I'm sure you'll find someone or other, and I'm so confident in that probability that I'm willing to risk a universe-destroying paradox by potentially making a liar out of myself after I state it as a fact."
This past January, a fifth guy gave me a blessing because I was nervous about an emergency dental appointment with no insurance, and he went off for like ten minutes with all these completely unrelated glorious promises and encouragement, which I would have chalked up to him being insane if he hadn't told me to keep writing even though I'd said like two words to him before that night and "I'm a writer" wasn't one of them. He told me that soon (whatever "soon" means to Mr. "a thousand years is one day") I would hold hands in the temple with a daughter of God. He said she's broken like me but we'll be together we'll be a powerful force for awesomeness and stuff. And maybe a normal person would have gotten excited but honestly, this was a mere couple weeks after my already pathetic love life had exploded in spectacular fashion beyond my most paranoid imaginings, and my first thought was Are you -----ing me? I have to fall in love again? And then he said some words that seemed to be God's direct refutation of my worry that I'd already blown it, but were also quite jarring in light of the Church's teaching that predestination is not a thing. He said, "Nothing can stop it from happening."
Well, all right then. Agency shmagency. I acknowledged once and for all that God's promise was legit even though it made no sense.
For a week or so, starting with the receptionist and the hygienist at the dentist's office, I couldn't help looking at every potentially available woman and thinking, Is it her? It could be anyone. How on Earth will I know? It made me not like myself and I got tired of it quickly and stopped thinking like that. If nothing can stop it, then my lack of specific action can't stop it, so there's nothing to stress about. But - and not for the first time - I grew just a bit resentful toward God too. So He's just bouncing me around like a pinball from learning experience to learning experience, shunting me toward the predetermined destination that is the woman He already chose for me? Do I get any say in any of this at some point?
So I've tried to figure out how this makes any sense and I think I've found a much more satisfactory answer than I did to my last existential query. In response to the question "I know we don't believe in predestination but does Heavenly Father already have someone picked out for us to marry?" the website Ask Gramps expressed a viewpoint that makes perfect sense to me: "Were we foreordained to be someone’s child? Someone’s spouse? Someone’s parent? That is a question that can only be answered between you and God. I tend to think that it is a very real possibility for a lot of people (but maybe not all). That being said, we need to be careful that we do not take this possibility and twist it into a form of predestination. With all foreordinations, the people here and now have to make that choice to bring it to pass.... But please note that 'Soul Mate' is not the same as 'Foreordained Spouse' (assuming that is how it was set up and yes I just made that term up) even though there can be quite a bit of overlap. The first robs agency. The second is subject to agency."
This distinction is important in light of the fact that some people in and out of the Church have recognized "the one" immediately. Examples that I'm personally aware of:
Mr. Dubray, not a member of the Church, saw someone for the first time, said to himself "I'm going to marry that girl" and did. At the time I attended his wife's dance school they had probably been married at least thirty years.
Brother and Sister Myler from my childhood branch both knew on their first date that they were going to marry each other, which made it really awkward.
Wain Myers, author of From Baptist Preacher to Mormon Teacher, wrote the following on his now-defunct website: "I was about thirteen years old and one night I had a dream about this girl. Now I know what you’re thinking; what thirteen year old boy doesn’t dreams about girls. But this was a different dream, the feelings I had in this dream where so strong and so profound, that I woke up with one mission; to find this girl. I couldn’t see her face in the dream; I saw only the back of her as she walked in front of me to school. But the feeling I got from her was so gravitational, that I looked for her for years after that dream. Actually, I never stopped looking for her, but I only had the image of what she looked like from the back. It never dawned on me that instead of looking for her that I should be feeling, for her until that very moment.
"I was mesmerized and not only could I not take my eyes off her; I didn’t want to take my eyes off her. As I looked at her, I heard the voice of my Father say 'that’s your wife' in a sweet gentle voice. I said to my Father 'how is this?' He said 'the wife you chose is not who I chose for you, this is the woman I chose for you!' The feeling was the same as the feeling I had in my dream and I knew my Father was right. I said to my Father 'well, if she is my wife, I think you need to tell her because she does not look like she wants to hear it from me!'"
Rod, in the comments of the aforementioned Ask Gramps post: "In my experience we have promised partners. The gal I'm sealed to knew instantly I was who she came to earth to marry. The missionary who baptised me knew she was my Eternal companion as soon as he met her. I'm a little slow. It wasn't untill after she passed that I received a confirmation. Simply ask, would you come to earth to marry a stranger? I don't think so."
Elizabeth Gibson, also in the comments: "I never know what to say about any of this. I am a convert and was never raised to believe in soul-mates or that the Lord would put two people together. I'm not really sure what a soulmate means. However, I have had two great spiritual experiences in my life, the first one was how the Lord led me to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the second was how he led me to the husband after telling me very specific things about him in order to recognize him when I found him. At the time that all of this happened, I did not know that the apostles and some prophets had spoken out against the idea that the Lord had specific people for us to marry. I had never heard of pro or con about it. However, over the years since I have married my husband, I have had a bishop who was told that he had promised in the pre life to marry a certain woman. I've had a friend whose father was told prior to meeting his current wife that he was to look for someone specific to the Lord's Direction. I have known a handful of people who had similar experiences to mine. I don't know why the Brethren teach that you can marry any fine person and it doesn't really matter as long as they are faithful. If you Google it, you find all kinds of quotes that what happened to me cannot possibly happen. But it did happen and it's one of the biggest spiritual experiences I ever had. To deny that would be to deny my testimony or how I found the church."
Even no less an authority than the late President Thomas S. Monson said, "The first day I saw Frances, I knew I’d found the right one. The Lord brought us together later, and I asked her to go out with me."
Oh, and what about Adam and Eve? What are they if not definitive scriptural proof that the concept of foreordained spouses was true for at least two people? Even taking into account the obvious reality that they were not literally the first and only homo sapiens on the entire planet at that time as traditionally portrayed, it's pretty obvious that they were meant to be together. I sort of winked at the possibility in my irreverent little satire of creationism, but for real though, imagine the awkwardness if Adam had said, "Eh, thanks, God, but I don't think she's my type."
This sort of thing may be more the exception than the rule. Certainly if everyone had a foreordained spouse, it would only take one wrong marriage to set off a chain reaction that ruined the system for millions of people. But this phenomenon is clearly a real thing. And explaining it via the premortal existence preserves both agency and the importance of making the most important decisions for oneself. I am convinced that the reason God has someone specific in mind for me is that she and I already chose each other a long time ago, and He is simply honoring that decision. I am convinced that as long as He directs our lives to ensure that our paths cross at the appropriate time, He knows that we'll both know that it's right and will use our agency to be together, because somewhere beneath the veil of forgetfulness our hearts will both recognize that we already fell in love a long time ago. To me that's the only way this promise and this apparent divine usurpation of our decision-making authority makes any sense.
Please don't mistake any of this for the unfortunate incidents at weird places like BYU when someone, usually but not always male, tells the unfortunate object of their affections "God told me that I'm supposed to marry you" or "I dreamed that I'm supposed to marry you" or whatever and just expects them to accept that. In cases like the ones mentioned above, obviously both spouses still needed to make their own decision. In my case, with the way the Spirit speaks to me, I don't actually expect to ever have an abrupt revelation on the matter like one of those, and even if I do, I probably won't dare to believe it unless God opens a literal conduit of light above her head and plays "Unmistakeable" by the Backstreet Boys. If I find someone that I think is maybe probably my foreordained spouse, either we'll get married and prove me correct or we won't and prove me wrong and that's all there is to it. The right situation will fall into place without coercion and the wrong one can't be forced into place by any power on Earth or heaven.
Now I don't know if anyone is still reading but I'm not quite ready to shut up yet because the actual statement that sparked all this was not "God doesn't tell you who to marry" but "God doesn't tell you who to love." And in the short term those aren't necessarily the same thing. Most people have to fall in love a few times before it works out, which can be essential to developing important attributes like patience, humility, selflessness, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I don't know how many times I've been in love because really, what is love? Yeah. No, I don't know why you're not there. I give you my love but you don't care. So what is right and what is wrong? Give me a sign. What is love? And where's the line between like and love? For the purposes of discussion I'll pretend like it's always love because feelings are subjective anyway and you can't prove me wrong.
In May of last year some General Authority or other hosted a YSA devotional about the importance of dating and marriage. Nothing I hadn't heard and rolled my eyes at before. At that time I was not dating, trying to date or looking into the possibility of trying to date, but for whatever reason I decided to obey the counsel of my church leaders, take a leap of faith and make a little bit more than zero effort. All I could bring myself to do for a start was talk to a coworker I thought was hot. I talked to her during break, and she was nice and stuff but I immediately thought, "Wow, she's so young, we have nothing in common." It only cost me ten minutes that I could have been listening to music, so I didn't regret it, and for all I know I changed her life forever when I asked what she wanted to do and she said she didn't know and I asked what she was passionate about and she said she didn't know and I said she should find out and do it. Then that evening I talked to another woman from my ward. I should have paced myself.
By taking these steps of obedience, I think I opened myself up to divine guidance that I never asked for. A couple days later, I noticed another coworker who was in my stake and had been on a different shift during the school year. I didn't know why I noticed her when I thought she was utterly plain-looking. She came to my station to do quality control and here's one of those many times when I only recognize the Spirit's voice in hindsight. The Spirit said, Talk to her. And I thought that was myself thinking and I just thought back to myself in response, Meh, I don't really feel like it. The Spirit said a little more insistently, Talk to her. So I said something like "Hey, you're in my stake" and she said something like "Oh, cool" and the conversation would have fizzled out right then. The Spirit said, Ask her name. I didn't care what her name was, but I asked and she told me. I thought, What an unattractive name.
To make a long story short, she soon became a lot less plain-looking and I fell pretty hard. Almost from day one it stressed me out and cost me hours of sleep every night, and it turned out to be completely not worth it. She was not at all the kind of person I built her up in my mind to be. She was such a waste of my time and so unworthy of the emotion I invested in her that I couldn't even chalk this up to a learning experience, because, you know, every bad thing that happens to you is supposed to be a "learning experience". And I got about as angry at God as I've ever been because this was, of course, all His fault. He pushed me into this situation that I never asked for and then sat back to watch me struggle and fail no matter how hard I begged Him for help. If He had just left me alone, I would have avoided a lot of unnecessary and pointless suffering. So in a sense, God did tell me who to love.
I stand by my initial assessment that this was not a learning experience in any meaningful sense, and I think that phrase is kind of a bullcrap copout as often as not, but I think maybe I can kind of see the reason for it now.
At Summerfest I ran into this guy from her ward that I knew a little, and ended up hanging out with him and at least a dozen other people until like one in the morning. So most of them knew her and for whatever reason, the topic of conversation kept coming back to her and what did I like about her and when was I going to ask her out and so on. I bonded with these people over her, added them all on Facebook in large part to boost my credibility in case I ever got around to adding her on Facebook, and continued texting and hanging out with some of them throughout the summer. One of them was my friend Terrah. When I was forced to move for the third time that year and didn't have a new place lined up this time, and of course procrastinated until most places were full because apartment hunting is less fun than choking on a fork, I turned to Terrah for help. Despite being six years younger than me she was/is a far more functional adult and graciously agreed to call place after place after place on my behalf while I sat next to her being useless. For this act of service I felt as though I should fall to my knees and wet her feet with my tears of gratitude.
Then she called the company that owned the place where she was staying, and they said that a few guys in a few places were selling their contracts, and as I previously mentioned, when they listed the place where my friend Steve lived I was more than happy to take it. Also as previously mentioned, this exciting fresh start turned into a nightmare and I don't yet understand its purpose, but still it's obvious to me that this is another example of God weaving disparate threads together to direct my life whether I like it or not. If I hadn't wasted my time on that girl I wouldn't have gotten to know Terrah much if at all, and she wouldn't have gotten me here. I still think God in His infinite wisdom could have found an easier way but whatever.
This is God bouncing me around like a pinball. And maybe it doesn't matter in every instance who I bounce off of or in what order, so long as it hurts sufficiently. Maybe in some instances God doesn't care who I set my affections on and, if I bothered to ask for His input (which I typically haven't), would say "Grow up and make your own decisions." But with hindsight I'm positive He hand-picked the most significant ones for specific reasons whether I asked for them or not. Again, the paradox is that He seems to have directed virtually every moment of my life despite my ostensible freedom to make my own decisions, and I haven't developed a better explanation for it since that post, but what I'm getting at is that in any given scenario where I feel drawn to love someone, I won't likely have any clue going into it whether she is or isn't "the one" (and obviously the results have been 0/100% on that thus far), but I may discern with a high degree of confidence that God wants me to love her and that if I do, I'll be blessed by the experience even though I'll probably hate most of it.
Anyway, when His promise is kept, the entire world or at least everyone who's ever met me will have no choice but to fall to their knees and confess that there is a God.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.