If I could go back and make myself read one article when I was 17, 18, or even 21, I think it might be this one. I would want to try to expand and reframe my naive ideas about dating, romance, and marriage. I would want to lay out a map for making wiser, more loving decisions about relationships. That’s how I think about this article: as a three-dimensional map for dating well.
But why would I choose this article for myself at that age? Well, for at least two big reasons. First, because nothing in my life and faith has been more confusing and spiritually hazardous than my pursuit of marriage was. My teenage years were a long string of relationships that were too serious for our age, went on too long, and therefore often ended badly and painfully. I hope that’s not your experience, but it was mine. And I’d love to save even of a few of you from the stupidity and heartache that plagued me (or lead those like me out of it).
The second reason is that I’ve been married for seven years, and I see it all — dating, romance, marriage — so much differently now. Eight years ago, I knew marriage a little like my 6-year-old knows Narnia. I knew a lot about marriage — from the Bible, from other books, from watching couples in my life — and I was enchanted by the idea of marriage. But I hadn’t stepped through the wardrobe yet. I hadn’t experienced the real thing. And the real thing is wilder, richer, and deeper than I imagined. If we could taste what covenant love is really like before we started dating, I believe we’d make far better decisions about when we date, whom we date, how we date, and when we marry.
I can’t give you that experience, but maybe something I say from the other side can help you see more than you have so far. If you desire to marry one day, I want you to experience the fullness of what God wants for and in a marriage. And to get there, we need wisdom from God. So consider this my letter from the forests of Narnia.
Dimensions of Healthy Clarity
As I look back on what I would have done differently in my journey to marriage, one of the main lessons I wish I had learned sooner would be to pursue clarity and postpone intimacy.
Now, I could say a lot more on the second half of that lesson (“postpone intimacy”) — and I have elsewhere — but here I want to press on the first half. What does it mean to pursue clarity in dating — and particularly as a Christian? What would clarity feel like if we found it? How do you know he (or she) is the one to marry? To answer those questions, I want to give you something of a three-dimensional map.
Most people today, even Christians, pursue clarity about dating by following their feelings. How do I feel about this person? Am I ready for this relationship to move forward? Do I want to marry this person? Those are good questions to ask. They’re just not the only questions. Wise people don’t dismiss their feelings, but they don’t wholly trust them either. They know we need more than feelings to make wise decisions and choices, and all the more so in dating relationships. They know there are at least two other dimensions to a healthy sense of clarity (think height, width, and depth): first, confirmation from our community. And then, often overlooked or at least taken for granted, the opportunity to actually pursue or marry a particular person. So we have three dimensions of healthy Christian clarity: desire, community, and opportunity.
Height: Clarity of Desire
First, consider clarity of desire. It’s good to want to be married. In fact, according to Scripture, the very desire itself is wisdom:
- “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).
- “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10).
It’s good to look for a worthy spouse, and even better to find one. It’s good to want to be married. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of bad ways to pursue marriage (there are), or that the desire for marriage can’t be distorted and imbalanced (it can be). But God made most of us to want marriage.
Now, you don’t need to want marriage to follow Jesus. Some of the happiest, most godly people in the church never marry. The apostle Paul, for one, celebrated the goodness of lifelong singleness (1 Corinthians 7:7–8). But if you do want to be married, that desire isn’t something to hide or be ashamed of. God loves our longing to be married — to promise ourselves to one man or woman, to become one flesh, to bear and raise children if he wills.
Beyond that, we could say a lot about desire and feelings and attraction, but at its simplest, biblically speaking, we’re mainly looking for someone we can marry. We’re looking for someone with whom we can enjoy and live for Christ. Paul says to the widows in the church (and to all believers by extension), “You are free to be married to whom you wish, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). Marriage, for Christians, is never simply about sex, or companionship, or children, or life efficiencies. We want to marry in the Lord.
We want to take in God’s word together, pray together, go to church together, serve together. We want our marriages to consistently and beautifully tell people what Jesus has done for us. We want our marriages to make us more like Christ, slowly but surely changing us into someone new, someone holy. That means that when we look for someone we can marry, we’re not looking first for something physical or financial or convenient or fun (though we will weigh some of these factors). We’re looking for God in one another and in our future together.
So, the first dimension of clarity is our own desire. Do I want to date or marry this person? And if so, am I convinced that my desire pleases God — that he wants a relationship like this for me? If we’re unsure what God might think about that, he often reveals his will in the other two dimensions of clarity.
Width: Clarity of Community
The second dimension of clarity we need in dating comes through community. Of the three, this is my greatest burden for young believers today.
Dating often isolates us from other Christians in our lives. The closer we get to a boyfriend or girlfriend, the more removed we can get from other important relationships. Satan loves this, and encourages it at every turn. To resist him, we need to fight the impulse to date off in a corner by ourselves, and instead draw our dating relationships into those other important relationships.
Again, Proverbs is filled with wisdom along these lines:
- “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
- “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).
- “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1).
In other words, Lean hard on those who know you best, love you most, and are willing to tell you when you’re wrong. Through personal experience and counseling others, I have found that to be a golden rule in Christian dating, the rule that most often makes the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“Lean hard on those who know you best, love you most, and are willing to tell you when you’re wrong.”
Only people who love Christ more than they love you will have the courage to lovingly tell you that you’re wrong in dating — wrong about a person, wrong about timing, wrong about whatever. Only they’ll be willing to say something hard, even when you’re so happily infatuated. Most peers will float along with you because they’re excited for you, but you’ll need a lot more than their excitement — you’ll have plenty of that yourself. You’ll need truth, and wisdom, and correction, and perspective. Lean hard on the people who know you best, love you most, and will tell you when you’re wrong.
Consider, then, three kinds of people who could be this kind of community for you in your pursuit of marriage (I’d even go as far as to say should be this kind of community for you). Which counselors would it be wise to involve in a meaningful way?
First, avoid leaving your church family behind. We don’t usually think of our church family as part of our pursuit of marriage (maybe we even cringe at the idea), but as uncomfortable or inconvenient as it may sound, God gives the primary and final responsibility of our accountability to the local church (Matthew 18:15–20; Hebrews 13:17).
God means for the church to be the rough tread on the edge of the highway, making sure we stay awake and alert while driving in life, including in dating. If we don’t build our church families into our routines and our relationships, we’re likely to ride right off into a spiritual or relational ditch. The church, however, can surround a couple with structure, direction, and safety.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to stand up during the announcements and give the whole church an update on your relationship or print a weekly update in the bulletin. But lean on fellow Christians, and especially some who are older and more mature than you. Let a few people you wouldn’t hang out with on the weekends into your thinking and decision-making in dating. Be accountable to a local church: plug in, get to know and be known by others, seek out people different from you, and draw them into what you’re thinking, wanting, and experiencing in dating. Don’t leave the church behind.
Mom and Dad
Second, lean into the love that made and raised you. “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). It’s so simple, and yet it can often be challenging, and all the more so in dating. In our day, it’s increasingly unexpected to involve your parents at all. It seems old-fashioned and unnecessary. Parents are typically a formality once we’ve already made our own decisions — unless, of course, we want to listen to God and pursue marriage more wisely. Wisdom says, “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. . . . Let your father and mother be glad; let her who bore you rejoice” (Proverbs 23:22, 25).
Maybe we don’t see eye to eye with our parents. Maybe our parents aren’t even believers. Maybe our parents are divorced and disagree with each other about what we should do. Maybe one or both aren’t even interested in being involved in our relationship. We can’t force our parents to care or cooperate, but we can honor them, and we can think of creative ways to encourage them to be involved and to solicit their input and advice along the way. Our parents may be flat-out wrong, but most parents don’t intentionally want to harm us or keep us from being happy. They have known and loved us longer than anyone else, and genuinely want what they think is best for us.
What if we loved our parents more intentionally and more joyfully when we disagreed with them? What would that say — to them, to our significant other, to the rest of our friends and family — about our faith in Jesus? Lean into the love that made and raised you.
The next line of defense in dating will be the friends who know us best — and who love us and Jesus enough to hold us accountable. We don’t just need friends. Everybody has friends. We need real friends — friends who know us well, who are regularly and actively involved in our relationship, and who love us enough to ask hard questions or tell us when we’re wrong.
Even after God rescues us from our sin, pulls us out of the pit, and puts his Spirit inside of us, we still battle remaining sin, and we’re outmatched on our own. We need friends in the fight to help us see where we’re wrong or weak. Don’t wait for a friend to come ask you how things are going. Seek those few friends out, and share openly with them. You might ask each other questions like these:
- What do the two of you talk about? What’s a typical conversation like?
- How far have you gone physically, where will you draw the line, and in what situations do you experience the most temptation?
- What are you learning about him (or her)? Are you moving toward or away from clarity about marriage?
- How has your relationship affected your spiritual health, including prayer life, Bible reading, involvement in the local church, and ministry to others?
Does anyone ask you questions like these? Who are the friends who will go there with you? If you don’t have them, do you know anyone who could potentially become that kind of friend? Do you know anyone who might need you to be that friend for them? If you want to date well, do what it takes to have some real friends.
Depth: Clarity of Opportunity
We have the clarity of desire, the clarity of community, and now, finally, the clarity of opportunity. Our hearts and our community are not enough to give us the clarity we need. Our hearts will speak (through our desires), our friends will speak (through good community), and then God will speak (through opportunity). Really, God speaks in all three ways, but sometimes he speaks clearest in this last way. In other words, he speaks through his providence. The relationship works out, or it doesn’t. Circumstances line up, or they don’t. Feelings and timelines match up, or they don’t.
“If God withholds something good from us, it’s not because he wants to harm us. Ever.”
Sometimes, God gives the clarity we need in dating simply by doing something outside of our control. You might fall in love with someone, and your friends and family may think it’s a great idea, and marriage still may not happen. Maybe she doesn’t reciprocate; she prefers just being friends. Maybe he ends up dating and marrying someone else. Maybe she moves away for school or work, and the distance proves too far. God makes his will clear by clarifying our own desires, but he makes his will clear in other ways too.
Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap” — or the text, or the call, or the bouquet of flowers — “but its every decision is from the Lord.” Does that sound cruel? Why would God give us a good desire for something (or for someone), and then not give it to us? One of the most important lessons to learn about following Jesus is that there are a thousand good answers to that question.
If God withholds something good from us, it’s not because he wants to harm us. Ever. “We know,” Paul says, “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). No, God withholds good from his people when it’s not yet good enough — when he wants and has planned something better for us. So don’t assume that a good desire confirmed by good friends is good for you. Assume God knows what’s truly good for you.
As you pray and pursue marriage, trust God, in his all-knowing and unfailing love for you, to make his will for you clear in all three ways — desire, community, and opportunity.