Alain de Botton’s 2016 New Yorker opinion piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” remains one of that magazine’s most read articles. And for good reason.
When I first read it back in 2017, after it was named the “most read article of the year,” I remember feeling both convicted and relieved. He names all the conventional reasons we marry (or fail to marry) in these days: we’re drawn together clumsily though, in our minds, through fate that reason cannot comprehend; we claim to want happiness but really we want familiarity, and we think this person will scratch that itch; and we really just want all the good feels we have in the present moment to continue. Nothing will quite do that by putting a ring on it…or so we tell ourselves.
We all read this and laugh. But it’s a tragic laugh. Because it’s true, and we’ve all fallen in the trap at some point, even if we’ve never married, because we subconsciously buy into all of these ideas and adopt or abandon LTR’s (long-term relationships) before and after the ring because of how they do or do not meet these criteria.
The brilliance of the piece is not in that it points a finger at marriage and laughs. It, in fact, does no such thing.
Instead I would call it an “apocalyptic piece,” in that it pulls back the veil of marriage and LTR’s to reveal them for the broken things they are.
Broken things are not unusable or useless, by the way. But they are broken.
As I was reading the article I was thinking, “Huh. A related article could totally be something like, ‘Why You Will Join the Wrong Church.'” These same factors are at play in the subconscious in looking for faith communities, and seeking out spiritual leaders.
-We stumble into a church or a tradition and feel it is fate for us to be there because, in that moment, everything feels to good/right/just what we need.
-We claim to want love, but what we really want is the feels, especially the same old feels for those of us who have been doing this religion thing for a while. It has to feel like church…or, conversely, feel like the idea of church that we’ve had in our mind but have never experienced feels like.
-We want permanence. Grounding. Which is why when pastors leave, hymns change, buildings change, carpets change, people leave, people arrive…you name it…we’re all too ready to opt out.
Alain de Botton suggests that we view marriage not like a romance novel, but rather like a tragedy, and often a comedic one. As he puts it:
“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
In the same way, I’d suggest that we view joining a church like a comedic, and often tragic, tale of star-crossed lovers encountering one another and making it work.
Because here’s the truth about both marriage and finding a faith community: the active agents are not finished products. In many ways even the idea of “products” is not quite correct. All the active agents in these relationships are unfinished and broken and, you’ll find quite soon, that you’re broken in different places.
See: you thought you were broken in complementary places. And sometimes that might be the case. But in most situations, you’re going to have to force the fit (at best), and at worst just hug the cactus that is the truth that you’re both broken in different places and aren’t going to get fixed.
At least not in a way that you want.
You’re going to join the wrong church, or have the wrong pastor, because our ideas of what makes a “right one” are romantic (and, perhaps, fantasy or fiction if we’re naming genres).
Marriage is an experiment where two people try to love each other into being better versions of themselves. It is not about meeting needs (though there is that), and it certainly is not about meeting expectations.
It is not about not feeling lonely anymore. It is not about constantly scratching your spiritual itch. And it is certainly not about singing your favorite songs, sitting in your favorite pew, having your children experience the exact same things you did as a child, or even fostering that totally different experience that you’ve always longed for, and finally this church has it.
You will continue to be lonely (as we all are). You will be disappointed in the lack of spiritual depth (or the different spirituality). You will be sad because it’s all changed or, conversely, all the same but just in different wrapping.
You will disappoint one another. Hurt one another. Be indifferent when you should care, and care too much about things that really don’t matter.
And you’re going to think to yourself “It shouldn’t feel like this!”
But it does. And will. It shouldn’t be abusive, mind you. But it will always end up being disappointing. On many fronts.
A faith community isn’t about any of that, anyway, when you pull back the veil.
It is about loving each other into a different way of being, by God.
Which sounds pretty Godly, if you ask me.
And, of course, there are totally legitimate reasons to leave your church, especially if you find that the Jesus they talk about doesn’t love as widely as you know God to love. Abandon any ship that isn’t good news for everyone.
But that’s rarer than we think.
More often than not the reason we’re dissatisfied is because, well, we just joined the wrong church.
Which is totally normal.