I love telling the story of how my husband Malcolm proposed to me; it is such a testament to the delightfully awkward flavor of our relationship. We were in Ontario, Canada, at one of his favorite places on Earth: his parents’ cottage on Black Donald Lake. One evening, as we were practically mid-conversation in the living room, he abruptly stood up, marched upstairs, turned on a light, turned off the light a few seconds later, and came back down. “Grab a sweater,” he demanded. “We’re going stargazing.”
We filed outside into the crisp, dark night and trudged in silence toward the dock at the rim of the lake. Admittedly the evening sky was the clearest we had seen all week. The Milky Way was perfectly prominent, shooting stars fizzled through the atmosphere overhead, and innumerable twinkles shone forth their tidings from eons past. Yet my suspicions were confirmed as we arrived at the dock and Malcolm bent over to lay down our blankets, revealing a conspicuously square-shaped bulge in his back pocket.
Epinephrine surged through my body. My heart rate instantly jumped 20 beats and I had to consciously focus on breathing normally as I pretended to gaze at God’s handiwork. Nerves had overtaken Malcolm as well, for he almost immediately grabbed me squarely by the shoulders and faced me toward him. He spluttered out something presumably sweet that neither of us remembers and proceeded to kneel. Having difficulty removing that same square bulge from his back pocket, he paused to reposition himself, successfully wrested the box out, and nervously finished popping the question on both knees. Having already started crying minutes before, I blubbered that I would marry him, and he slipped onto my finger a beautiful diamond ring that rivaled the star-studded sky in its brilliance. After recovering, hugging, and spending some actual time admiring the stars, we spent at least 15 minutes attempting to take a selfie to document the moment. We still have a reel of terribly unflattering pictures of half of our blinking faces and my new gold-set rock.
While I love our engagement story and still think back on that night fondly, much has changed for Malcolm and me since then. The breathtaking stone is resting yet again in that telltale box, now alongside the diamond-encrusted wedding band that Malcolm gave me ten months later in front of family and friends. No, we are not divorced. And no, our relationship is not on the rocks, as some have asked and many more have likely wondered. Instead, a powerful, paradigm-shifting encounter with God’s Word has led us to make decisions we could never have anticipated.
I wore my engagement ring proudly for many months. I didn’t always realize it at the time, but the ring had an inordinate amount of power over me (unfortunately I have never read J.R. Tolkien’s masterpieces or seen the movies, but I think there is probably some hilarious reference I could make here). To begin with, the ring made us “official.” Malcolm and I had already entertained several conversations about marriage, even to the point of proposing a tentative date (that ended up sticking!). For all intents and purposes, we were getting married, but it never became real until that night on Black Donald Lake. Not because we discussed it for the 47th time, but because he asked me while offering me an expensive piece of jewelry. Somehow our words and intentions were not enough, but we also needed some sort of external marker to announce to the world that we were truly serious about getting married.
The engagement ring did not simply change our Facebook relationship status; I also found it changing my thoughts. Never before had I spent so much time scrutinizing other women’s left hands. The diamond Malcolm bought me was far from small (the computer algorithm he wrote in order to find it and the number of family members’ hands it passed through to get to me are stories for another time). Yet any ring slightly bigger than mine, or a central diamond flanked by a halo: “Goodness gracious, how gaudy! What a desperate cry for attention!” Any stone noticeably smaller: “My, how diminutive! Is she proud to wear that?” Silver, white gold, or platinum: “My gold ring is far more classic.” The ugly whisperings of my heart went on, and I was none the wiser that they were growing to hideous, pervasive shouts, or that they desperately needed to be silenced.
Around the halfway mark through our engagement, Malcolm and I began wrestling with Scripture in a life-changing way: we started to ask what our lives would look like if we actually started to obey the difficult commands we found in God’s Word. It was Malcolm who first brought up the idea of foregoing wearing wedding rings after reading challenging passages like 1 Peter 3:3-6 and 1 Timothy 2:9-10. The fierce resistance of my response should have immediately signaled to me the importance of this issue. Many excuses came to mind: “How will people know we are married? What if they think we are just cohabitating together? That will damage our witness and the gospel message!” “What about when we have kids? When people see me with our children, they might think I am a promiscuous single mother!” “Married men only take off their rings when they want to cheat on their wives.” After all, the anticipation had been building up for years, ever since college when I first noticed friend after friend getting engaged and married, and I simply assumed the same would happen to me. “I am finally allowed to wear a ring on this finger, and NOW you want me to give it up for Jesus?”
Yet, despite the dozens of objections I raised, I never verbalized the true undertones of my heart: “But I LOVE this ring. It gives me meaning, identity, pride, and glory. I am not the same person without this ring.” I knew what I was feeling was wrong, yet I could not bring myself to utter the ugly truth. So, I kept up my weak façade and perpetuated some of the other arguments I found to be more palatable.
Nonetheless, in answer to prayer, God was busy reworking my heart and my thoughts. My excuses could not withstand an even greater desire to openly accept all that God asks of me and to live obediently as His daughter and a citizen of His Kingdom. A flood of new thoughts washed over me, thoughts that may seem obvious to some but which had never been emphasized in my Evangelical background. What if modesty is not simply relative to the time and culture I live in, but an absolute standard? What if God cares not just about what we cover up, but also that we choose not to show off? Does it make more sense for “gold and pearls” to be dismissed because they do not comprise an exhaustive list, or to be taken as a synecdoche for a much broader concept?
My discomfort with these questions disappeared gradually over time, as did piece after piece of jewelry from my ears, nose, and finally my ring finger. It was amazing how removing those last carats felt like lifting a metric ton; as with so many forms of spiritual slavery, I only realized the extent of my bondage once I became free. And how truly free I now feel!
How liberating to approach God’s Word openly and faithfully, allowing a simple and logical rendering of Scripture! How freeing to read without bias or preordained conclusions that deviate from God’s heart for His people. How empowering to let “cultural context” only add richness and color to my understanding, rather than to twist and mangle Scripture to reinforce my comfortable and culturally acceptable lifestyle. How wonderful to no longer let women’s left hands dictate my thoughts toward them or fret about what message my own adornment conveys.
Though I still love to think back to the night of our engagement, I sometimes surprise myself how little I think about my bare ring finger. I never miss it. Rather than long to return to my captor, I simply mourn how long it took me to understand that God’s commands are not to restrict or punish, but instead allow us to experience fullness of life, the life He always desired for us.