When the Not-Yet Married Meet: Dating to Display Jesus
Dating is dead.
So says the media. Girls, stop expecting guys to make any formal attempt at winning your affections. Don’t sit around waiting for a boy to make you a priority, communicate his intentions, or even call you on the phone. Exclusivity and intentionality are ancient rituals, things of the past, and misplaced hopes.
I beg to differ. It’s not that this new line of thinking is necessarily untrue today, or that it’s not the current and corrupt trend of our culture. It’s wrong. One of our most precious pursuits, that of a life-long partner for all of life, is tragically being relegated to tweets, texts, and Facebook pokes, to ambiguous flirtation and fooling around. It’s wrong.
Dating That Preserves Marriage
There is a God. And this God created and rules his world, including men, women, the biological compulsions that bind them together, and the institution that declares their union and keeps it sacred and safe. Therefore, only he can prescribe the purpose, parameters, and means of our marriages.
If fullness of life could be found in sexual stimulation, or if it was just a matter of making babies, the “forget formality and just have sex” approach might temporarily satisfy cravings and cause enough conception. But God had much more in mind with romance than orgasms or even procreation, and so should we. So must we.
When people in the world are expecting less and less of each other in dating, God isn’t — so among the single we have to work harder in our not-yet married relationships to preserve what marriage ought to picture and provide.
Mom, Where Do Weddings Come From?
Nothing in my life and faith has been more confusing and spiritually hazardous than my pursuit of marriage. From far too young, I longed for the affection, safety, and intimacy I anticipated with a wife.
Sadly, my immature and unhealthy desires predictably did much more harm than good. I started dating too early. I stayed in relationships too long. I experimented too much with our hearts and allowed things to go too far. I said, “I love you,” too soon. And now my singleness is a regular reminder that I messed up, missed opportunities, or did it wrong.
Maybe dating has been hard for you, too, for these reasons or others. Maybe Mr. (or Mrs.) Right has started to look like Mr. (or Mrs.) Myth. Maybe you’ve wanted the relationship or liked the guy or girl, and you’ve never had the chance. Maybe all the suggestions and advice you’ve collected has become a confusing mess of good-intentioned contradictions and ambiguity. It’s enough to leave you like an 8-year-old, asking, “Mom, where do weddings come from?”
Expecting More from Marriage
The vision of marriage we see in God’s word –– the beautiful, radical display of God’s infinite, persevering love for sinners –– makes it worth it to date, and date well. The world’s approach can provide fun and sex and children and eventually even some level of commitment, but it cannot lead to the life-giving Jesus after whom our marriages are to take their cues.
Friends who enjoy sex with “no strings attached” will find pleasure, but not the peaks waiting on the other side of mutual promises. The happiness of marriage is not only or even mainly physical. With the sex, there ought to be a deep sense of safety, a sense of being loved and accepted for who you are, a desire to please without the need to impress. When God engineered the sexual bond between a man and a woman, he made something much more satisfying than the act itself.
Those who recklessly give themselves to a love-life of dating without really dating, of romantic rendezvouses without Christ and commitment, are settling. They’re settling for less than God intended and less than he made possible by sending his Son to rescue and repurpose our lives, including our love-lives, for something more. More happiness. More security. More purpose.
And the more is found in a mutual faith in and following of Jesus. With this “more,” we can say to the watching world, don’t settle for artificial and thin loyalty, affection, security, and sexual experimentation when God intends and promises so much more through a Christian union. And a Christian union can only be found through Christian dating.
If Christian dating, the intentional, selfless, and prayerful process of pursuing marriage, sounds like slavery, we don’t get it. If low-commitment sexual promiscuity sounds like freedom, we don’t get it. Jesus may ask more of us, but he does so to secure and increase our greatest and longest-lasting (sexual) happiness.
How Then Shall We Date?
For those whose roads are marked more by mistakes than selflessness, patience, and sound judgment, take hope in the God who truly and mysteriously blesses your broken road and redeems you from it, and who can begin in you a new, pure, wise, godly pursuit of marriage today.
Here are (some) principles for your not-yet marriages. It’s not nearly a comprehensive or exhaustive list. They’re simply lessons I’ve learned and hope can be a blessing for you, your boyfriend or girlfriend, and your future spouse.
1. It really is as simple as they say.
In a day when people are marrying later and later and more and more are resorting to online matchmaking, we probably need to be reminded that marriage really is less about compatibility than commitment. After all, there has never been a less compatible relationship than a holy God and his sinful bride, and that’s the mold we’re aiming for in our marriages.
There is a reason the Bible doesn’t have a book devoted to how to choose a spouse. It was not an oversight on the part of the God of all history, as if he couldn’t see into the 21st century. The qualifications are wonderfully clear and simple: 1) they must believe your God (2 Corinthians 6:14) and 2) they must be of the opposite sex (Genesis 2:23–24; Matthew 19:4–6; Ephesians 5:24–32).
Now undeniably there will be more involved in your discernment while dating. Apart from questions of attraction and chemistry, which are not insignificant, the Bible articulates some roles for wives and husbands. Men ought to protect and provide for their wife (Ephesians 5:25–29). Women ought to help and submit to their man (Genesis 2:18; Ephesians 5:22–24). Fathers ought to lead their families in God’s word (Ephesians 6:4). Parents must love and raise their children in the faith (Deuteronomy 6:7). So admittedly we are looking for more than an attractive person who “loves Jesus.”
That said, many of us need to be reminded that God’s perfect person for me isn’t all that perfect. Every person who marries is a sinner, so the search for a spouse isn’t a pursuit of perfection, but a mutually flawed pursuit of Jesus. It is a faith-filled attempt to become like him and make him known together. Regardless of the believer you marry, you will likely find out soon that you do not feel as “compatible” as you once did, but hopefully you will marvel more at God’s love for you in Jesus and the amazing privilege it is to live out that love together, especially in light of your differences.
2. Know what makes a marriage worth having.
In our worst moments, our objectives are small and misguided. We just don’t want to be alone on a Friday night anymore. We just want to post almost-candid, artistically-framed pictures with someone on a bridge somewhere. We want a guilt-free way to enjoy sex. We just want a guy or girl to tell us we’re handsome and funny and smart and good at our job, etc.
If marriage only offered us these things, though, it really wouldn’t be worth it. Many will try to deny that, but the divorce statistics are enough to establish that marriage asks more of you than most could have ever imagined on their wedding day. Most of my married friends would say that what seems fun and pretty and unbreakable at the altar did not feel as clean or easy even days into their lives together. It’s still intensely good and beautiful, but it’s costly, too costly for small aims.
Marriage is worth having because you get God in your lifelong commitment to one another. Marriage is about knowing God, worshiping God, depending on God, displaying God, being made like God. God made man and woman in his image and joined them together, giving them unique responsibilities to care for one another in their broken, but beautiful union.
What makes marriage worth having is that you, your spouse, and those around you see more of God and his love for us in Jesus. If you’re not experiencing that with your boyfriend, break up with him. If that’s not our priority, we need to get a new game plan and probably a new scorecard for our next significant other.
3. Look for clarity more than intimacy.
The greatest danger of dating is giving parts of our hearts and lives to someone to whom we’re not married. It is a significant risk, and many, many men and women have deep and lasting wounds from relationships because a couple enjoyed emotional or physical closeness without a lasting, durable commitment. Cheap intimacy feels real for the moment, but you get what you pay for.
While the great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy, the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. Intimacy is safest in the context of marriage, and marriage is safest in the context of clarity. The purpose of our dating is determining whether the two of us should get married, so we should focus our effort there.
In our pursuit of clarity, we will undoubtedly develop intimacy, but we ought not do so too quickly or too naively. Be intentional and outspoken to one another that, as Christians, intimacy before marriage is dangerous, while clarity is unbelievably precious.
4. Find a fiancé on the frontlines.
This is a throwback to a previous post. The idea is to look for love in the right places. Focus on the harvest, and you’re bound to find a helper. Instead of making it your mission to get married, make your mission God’s global cause and the advance of the gospel where you are, and look for someone pursuing the same. If you’re hoping to marry someone who passionately loves Jesus and makes him known, it’s probably best to put yourself in a community of people committed to that.
This does not mean that we should serve because we might find love. God is not ultimately honored with that kind of self-serving service. No, it simply means that if we’re looking for a particular kind of person, there are good, safe, identifiable places those kinds of people live and serve and worship together. Get involved in a community like that, serve each other, and look for God to open doors for dating.
5. Don’t let your mind marry him before the rest of you can.
While this may seem like it’s much more common among women, I’ve been single long enough around enough single guys to know it’s not exclusively a female problem. The trajectory of all truly Christian romance ought to be marriage, so it should not surprise us that our dreams and expectations, our hearts, race out ahead of everything else.
It simply isn’t that hard to imagine what your children would look like or where you would vacation together or how family holidays would work or what kind of house you might buy. And just like sex, all these things could be really good and safe and beautiful, but in the context of your covenant. Satan wants to subtly help you build marriage and family idols that are too fragile for your not-yet married relationship.
“He told me he loved me.” “She said she would never leave.” They’re the seemingly priceless sentences that don’t always cash. They’re often said with good intentions, but without the ring — and without a ring, the results can be devastating. Guard your heart and imagination from running out ahead of your current commitment.
6. Boundaries make for the best of friends.
The most oft-asked dating question among Christians might be, “How far is too far before marriage?” The fact that we keep asking that question suggests we all agree we need to draw some lines, and that the lines seem pretty blurry to most. If you’re pursuing marriage and it’s going well, you’re going to experience temptation, a lot of temptation.
Sexual sin may be the devil’s weapon of choice in corrupting Christian relationships. If you don’t acknowledge your enemy and engage him, you’ll find yourselves wondering how you lost so easily. Some of our best friends in the battle will be the boundaries we set to keep us pure.
While spontaneous plunges into intimacy look great in chick-flicks and feel great in the moment, they breed shame, regret, and distrust. Let’s try talking about touching before touching. Trade some titillation for trust, surprise for clarity and confidence. Make decisions prayerfully and intentionally before diving in.
Boundaries are necessary because on the road to marriage and its consummation, the appetite for intimacy only grows as you feed it. You are biologically built that way. Touching leads to more touching. Being alone together in certain situations will welcome fierce temptation. Even praying together or talking for hours upon hours on the phone can create unhealthy overdoses of intimacy with not-yet spouses.
If we’re honest, we much more often like to error by wading into love too far rather than waiting too long to take the next step. You will be hard-pressed, though, to find a couple regretting the boundaries they made in dating, while you will very easily find those that wish they would have made more. As followers of Christ, we really ought to be the most careful and vigilant.
Boundaries protect, and boundaries provide the trenches of trust-building. As we establish some mutual boundaries, small and large, and commit to keeping them together, we develop depths and patterns of trust that will serve our intimacy, covenant-keeping, and decision-making should God lead us to marry each other.
7. Consistently include your community.
Dating is a matter of doing your best to discern a person’s ability to fulfill God’s vision and purpose for marriage with you. While you might be the one with the final say, you might not be the best person to assess at every point. Just as in every other area of your Christian life, you need the body of Christ as you think about who to date, how to date, and when to wed.
While it’s rarely quick or convenient, gaining the perspective of people who know you, love you, and have great hope for your future will always pay dividends. It may lead to hard conversations or deep disagreement, but it will force you to deal with things you did not or could not have seen on your own. You’ll find safety with an abundance of counselors (Proverbs 11:14).
Invite other people to look into your relationship. Spend time together with other people, couples and singles, who are willing to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly.
8. Let all your dating be missionary dating.
No, I am not encouraging you to date not-yet believing men or women. When I say missionary dating, I mean dating that displays and promotes faith in Jesus and his good news, a dating that is in step with the gospel before the watching world. I want us to win disciples by dating radically, by confronting the world’s paradigms and pleasure-seeking with sacrifice, selflessness, and intentionality.
Men and women in the world want many of the same things you want: affection, commitment, conversation, stability, sex, etc. And eventually they will see that the ground under your lives and relationship is firmer than the flimsy flings they know. They’ll see something deeper, stronger, and more meaningful between you and your significant other.
Do the people in each of your lives know and love Jesus more because you’re together? Do they see God’s grace and truth working in you and your relationship as you walk through life together? Are the two of you thinking proactively about how to bless your friends and family and point them to Christ? More and more, as the world is watering down dating, your relationship can be a provocative picture of your fidelity to Christ and a call to follow him.
Pursuing Marriage the Right Way
Is this dating perfectly safe? No. Will it keep you from being hurt or disappointed? No. Will it guarantee you never go through another break up? No. But, by God’s grace, it may guard us from deeper heartache and more devastating failure. My prayer is that these principles would prepare you to love your spouse in a way that more beautifully and dramatically displays the truth and power of the gospel.
If you are like me, you may have blown it on multiple fronts already. Maybe you’re blowing it right now in a relationship. Be willing to make the hard decisions, large and small, to pursue marriage the right way today. Whether you’re ultimately married to one another or not (or married at all, for that matter), you will thank each other later.