Michael was in the driver's seat and I was holding a string of ultrasound photos: glossy, black-and-white images that gave us glimpses of our first child. Moments before, we had been in the dark room where the technician had asked us if we wanted to know if I was carrying a boy or a girl. Yes, we wanted to know.
A girl, the technician had told us. We were having a girl.
Now, driving in the car, we said her name over and over to each other. This was Ella, hiding away in my belly. This was Ella, her name no longer an option on a list but a person joining our family. A baby. A girl. Our girl. Ella.
I looked up from the photos as we drove down the four-lane road. We were heading to our favorite restaurant to celebrate, and as I looked up, I saw Michael's eyes softened with tears. "Someday," he said, "I will walk her down the aisle and give her away."
Praying for Her Husband
Now, eight months after staring at those ultrasound photos, and three months after her birth, I often look at Ella's face and try to imagine what she will look like in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years. Today her tiny, rounded nose and full cheeks beg for kisses. Her eyes are more blue than the grey they reflected in the hospital, just 14 weeks ago. Her mouth, always moving, always sucking, and—more and more—smiling back at us, is small and pink. She is still more baby than girl.
I wonder still, as I did during all the months of pregnancy, who this child is, what she will be like, who she will love. She is still a mystery even though she is in my arms, and I pray that we have many years to learn each other as she grows up.
As I pray for her now, I pray similar prayers to the ones I have been praying for years—prayers that I prayed before we knew she was a girl, prayers that I prayed before we knew I was pregnant, prayers that I prayed even before I was married, before I went to college. I have been praying for Ella for years, when she was only a foggy idea of a child that I might one day have. I have prayed for her salvation and her relationship with God; I have prayed for her relationship with us, her parents; and I have prayed for her spouse.
I have prayed—and continue to pray—for her spouse because I know that if she does choose to marry someday, that marriage relationship will shape her deeply and profoundly.
The Imperfect Marriage
In my own life, the decision to marry Michael was the second most formative decision I have ever made. Choosing to follow Christ was the most important decision. As the Lord, Christ requires all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Michael, as my husband, is not the one I worship, but if I am loving him rightly—as the second but most important earthly love I have—then marriage requires many of the same things of me—heart, soul, mind, and strength. I know, should Ella marry, that who she marries will shape her more deeply than any other human relationship. So I pray for her husband.
I cannot imagine him any more than I could imagine Ella a year ago. He is no more real to me than the idea of my future husband was when I was 12 years old. I remember praying for my husband then, knowing that one day I hoped to marry, although it seemed a distant possibility. I prayed simple prayers, prayers that my future husband would love God and love me, and that I would meet him when the time was right. It was all I knew to pray. When Michael and I married in our twenties, I had the realization that I had been praying for Michael for a decade, although I had known him for less than two years.
And for the last seven years, our marriage has been wonderful and challenging and funny and hard, as most marriages are. We are both people, woven together by vows and prayers, but neither of us is perfect, or even perfect for each other. There is only one who is truly perfect for both of us, and that Bridegroom will come for us eventually. But here, today, and over these years, we are making a marriage together, full of triumphs and failures. Even my 10 years of praying before marriage, and my seven years of praying in marriage, cannot make either of us perfect. God has answered many of my prayers, to be sure, but this side of heaven neither of us will be fully whole. And so our marriage, lovely as it is, has weaknesses and faults.
And this is why I pray for Ella's husband, too. If Ella follows in my footsteps, then her husband is not even born yet (Michael is two years younger than I am). But although I cannot imagine him, although he may not even yet be a cluster of cells, I pray for him. Because I know that if Ella does marry some day, that man will mold her soul in ways even deeper than I, the one who carried her inside myself, ever will.
And so I pray. I pray for his salvation and relationship with the Lord. I pray for his parents, most likely my peers, people I could be working with, people I could be passing by on the street. I pray that they will raise him in a God-fearing, loving home. I pray that he and Ella will both stay physically and emotionally pure until marriage, and that they will continue another generation of men and women who love Jesus.
And sometimes, when I look into her tiny face, I know that even with all my prayers, if she marries anyone, she will still marry a man with faults and foibles and failures that will hurt her. My prayers as a mother, even prayers piled year upon year, day after day, cannot protect her from the reality of marrying a human being. Marriage is full of pain and sacrifice, just as it is full of love and contentment. All my praying cannot protect her from that.
The Altar and the Cost of Marriage
And in truth, I do not want her to be able to sidestep the sacrifice that marriage requires. It is a refining tool in God's hand, a way that he shapes us to look more like Jesus if we respond to him. If Ella chooses to marry, in one sense she will choose a person, and in another sense she will choose a way of life. For when we yoke ourselves to another human, we cannot wander the field of life in our own direction. We must fall in step with someone else, and sometimes it is hard to walk so closely with another soul. Sometimes the load shifts to our shoulders more heavily than it ought to, and sometimes the load shifts to our spouse. The give and take of marriage has never been for the faint of heart. It will cost Ella her life if she chooses it.
I think that is why marriage vows are spoken in front of the altar. The altar was a place of death and sacrifice in the Old Testament. Marriage involves much of the same; self-death, self-sacrifice. But for God's people, the altar also symbolized hope and right relationship with God. Through death was a chance for life. The altar, and the sacrifices offered upon it, became the pre-cursor to the gospel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He became the perfect sacrifice, offered once and completely, securing the way for God's people to have right relationship with him—the chance for God's people to have true, abundant life. Marriage is meant to show the world a picture of this gospel: the Apostle Paul connects the reality of marriage to the relationship between "Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:32). There is sacrifice involved. There is a deep cost.
The Ultimate Bridegroom
When I pray for Ella and for her future spouse, I do not often dwell on the thought of marriage as her choice of going to the altar to die to herself, while her husband does the same. But in many ways, that is what marriage is meant to be—laying down your life for the life of another. And I know that if Ella does marry—if this is part of her story on this earth—than it matters deeply who she marries. I want him to be a wonderful man, full of God's love and unwaveringly faithful to her in every way. But I know that he will not be perfect. And that is a good thing. It is good that her husband will not be perfect, will not meet all her needs, and will not make her ultimately happy. If she opens herself to the fullness of loving another person in marriage, she will, at some point, experience the ache of realizing that he is just another broken human being, prone to consider himself above her and her needs. But through that aching, through that realization, the idol of marriage can be broken and another love must triumph. That love is Christ himself, the ultimate bridegroom and caretaker of our souls.
And that is always my first prayer for my daughter—that she will love and follow Christ. A close second is that prayer for her spouse, that she will marry a man whose partnership shows her more fully the glory of Christ, and whose love toward her reflects the love of Christ.
If there does come a day when my husband walks Ella down the aisle to a man who will promise her his love and faithfulness, I will be able to tell him that I have been praying for him longer than he has been alive. I never pray that he will be perfect. But I do pray that their marriage will lead both of them more wholeheartedly to Jesus. This is, I think, the best prayer I can pray.
Ann Swindell teaches classes at Wheaton College and writes about marriage and ministry on her blog at annswindell.com. Follow her on Twitter @annswindell.