When couples move past the awkward first-date phase of a relationship, many face a new and unsettling tension between strong romantic feelings and the reality that they are not yet married. They ask themselves, “What does a relationship look like with someone who is neither my spouse nor my fiancé?” How does one practice vulnerability without any security, any promises, any covenant? How does one react to anxiety in the relationship without always becoming defensive?
“A relationship with a lack of covenantal commitment often ends explosively, either in a breakup or a marriage.”
How does one move forward in the uncertainty of dating in a right and good way without becoming a nervous wreck? The forward march of the heart in dating is like walking a tightrope — all daters perform, and dating feels de facto not by grace. Each of us is left with a basic question: How does the grace of Christ meet us in the midst of emotionally charged, often over-spiritualized, life-encompassing performance anxiety?
The Cause of Uncertainty
First, we must try to understand the anxiety of the uncertain. Why does exclusive dating so often leave us undone? The answer is very clear: There are a lot of chips on the table and with blind odds. The risk in dating is never higher than when sharing intimate, vulnerable, breakable pieces of ourselves — in appropriate ways and at appropriate time — without any certainty this will lead to marriage. We’re betting a portion of our heart, without knowing how they will respond. It can be terrifying.
More than that, when sinful people are put in a place of danger, they’re more prone to play God. We are most prone to try and seize control of the situation — of hearts, of circumstances, or of emotions, all in self-defensive ways that are tragically self-defeating. We would rather eat “the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2) than trust the Lord is holding and guiding us. We feel like we have control over the outcome. In self-perpetuating irony, magnifying all of the uncertainty and anxiety, we just end up multiplying our own pain and destroying the relationship.
Indulging in anxiety in a dating relationship is like indulging in back-seat driving: It only makes everyone else more nervous and annoyed and doesn’t actually contribute anything positive. Yet, the experience is legitimate and real, and so is the fear. The cause of the feeling of uncertainty, to state the obvious and critical, is that things are uncertain. God has made no promises. Circumstances are shifting shadows. To know how Jesus Christ is relevant to our situation in dating, we must first of all come to terms with the often avoided, but very obvious reality, that we are not safe in a relationship. Sinful humans, with all of our benefits, come with risks.
The Normality of Uncertainty
Affection and vulnerability with a lack of covenantal commitment is a tension that can end in a naturally explosive way — either in a breakup or marriage. The stakes are high on both sides, and the pressure and fear that invariably accompanies those stakes very likely will not be resolved in the dating process. Dating is an emotional complexity we were not intended to endure for long.
“Uncertainty in dating is an unsustainable reality meant to lead you to depend on God.”
Understanding that anxiety is a proper reaction to the unsettled angst of an unfulfilled and covenantally unprotected relationship is the best starting place. We can say a dating relationship is protected and settled and safe, but it isn’t — no matter what dating philosophy one adheres to, the emotional escalation of dating leads either to a breakup or a marriage.
The Function of Uncertainty
There is only one honest thing to say when the weight of dating uncertainty weighs heavy: “We don’t know.” We must confess that, to the experience of besetting and anxious uncertainty in dating, there isn’t an answer or at least not a concrete and immediate answer. Maybe the whole point of dating — and the fact that Scripture says so little about it — is that we don’t know what we’re doing, we can’t do it well (alone), and it isn’t sustainable. If it made sense, or it was easy, or it wasn’t soul-splittingly uncomfortable, there would be no propulsion forward, towards marriage or otherwise. Uncertainty in dating propels us forward with purpose. It unsettles us, and shows us idols in our hearts. It makes us anxious. Uncertainty is the soil of the Psalms (Psalm 38:17; 88:3).
Uncertainty dangles us from our ankles and reveals all of the unspoken (and often ungrounded) expectations hanging loose in the pockets of our faith:
“God, I know this person is the one.”
“I did everything right. Why isn’t this easier?”
“Are you punishing me for my sins in a previous relationship?”
“I thought you loved me. So why doesn’t he love me?”
“I was so sure that was your will and then it ended out of nowhere.”
You don’t need to pretend you haven’t thought those things — like you haven’t wanted to say those things to God, to other Christians — like you haven’t preached those things over and over again to your own heart. I have. The uncertainty of dating peels back the floorboards of our presumptuous theologies — our crystallized ideas about what God should be doing for us — and shines the light on all the threats beneath the otherwise comfortable world we live in: “Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets” (Lamentations 4:5). Uncertainty creates urgency and sobriety.
“Uncertainty in dating propels us forward with purpose. It unsettles us, and shows us idols in our hearts.”
The uncertainty of dating is a microcosm of the otherwise forgotten truth: Life is uncertain. Even the notion that life beyond dating has no uncertainties — marriage, kids, family — is a delusion. The risks are higher, the vulnerability deeper, and the losses greater. In dating, disappointment exists in the form of breaking up. In marriage and parenting, the disappointments and pains can be much more devastating, and sometimes even permanent.
Grace for the Uncertain
We need not be uncertain about everything in dating, though. God is not inactive, distant, disinterested in our relationships: “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:11). The same God says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22) and, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Dating literature, for too long, has offered too many of the wrong guarantees, and too few of the relevant graces.
I once heard someone pray, “We pray against a closed sky.” It may be easy for some to feel ignored in the abyss of uncertainty. We also live in an open world and feel threatened. Many attempts to resolve this tension result in a self-pandering theology. We are tempted to earn and secure love by our own power, and tempted to test others’ worthiness for our love. And yet we have a God who passionately endorses marriage as the norm for people, and is actively seeking to bless us. The uncertainty of dating highlights for us the immanent possibility of blessing and tragedy. That tension was not meant to be immediately resolved. It is an unsustainable (but not purposeless) relationship-form in the long term, meant to lead you to depend on a heavenly Father who cares for you, and promises to provide for you, regardless of your relationship status or prospects.
But uncertainty is a mercy, if we’re prepared to receive it — it reveals to us the tensions of life itself, especially when we can’t sit still long enough to listen. At times, that may be too hard for us. Life in the midst of “We do not know” (John 14:5) and “You know” (Psalm 139:4) can, at times, feel like we’re fastened to a torture rack — pulled between a big God and real life.
Jesus Christ knows the anxious heart of the uncertain dating Christian (Proverbs 21:1). And he does not judge: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11).