The Dating Games

An Online War Against True Love

A war is being waged against true love. As we celebrate another Valentine’s Day, I wonder if you will be another civilian casualty.

If the current trends continue, what will the pursuit of marriage be like in twenty years? One new study reports, “Apps are the new norm in dating. . . . By 2040, 70% of people are expected to meet through dating apps.” Why does that cause any concern? Well, because despite all the new and innovative ways to find love, “People are lonelier than ever. . . . One study found that over half of dating app users reported feeling lonely after swiping.” They have called it “the gamification of courtship.”

The fierce irony is that the “game” wounds and devastates so many. Dating websites and apps have ridden in on digital horseback, bearing a dozen roses and declaring their fidelity, but their first love is in your pocket — and they’re jealous lovers. They play the sympathetic matchmaker up front, but they’re more like the Gamemaker in Hunger Games — pulling whatever levers necessary, at whatever cost to you, to get what they really want.

Online dating may have wed its thousands, but it’s wounded its tens of thousands. If you’re wandering out into the crossfire in your own search for marriage, are you awake to the pitfalls?

Who Will Deliver Us?

For all its many weaknesses and perils, old-fashioned courtship did prevent the pursuit of marriage from becoming a playground for digital likes, swipes, and winks. Real-world structure and boundaries meant, for the most part, that pursuing a woman required intentionality, clear communication, patience, and risk. It felt more like buying your first home than renting a movie on iTunes.

Wi-Fi, one of the greatest achievements in communications technology, should have made romance so much easier — more people, less driving, more access. Instead, it seems to have blurred the lines we needed, leaving us even more lonely and less likely to find wedded bliss. The websites and apps have manifestly facilitated random sex and superficial flirtation, but they seem to have done far less to help us find love. Far from solving our problems, they have often multiplied and complicated them, leaving many feeling like we’re driving blindfolded — until the inevitable crash into greater heartache and deeper loneliness.

Who will deliver us from the gamification of our hearts — from this dating scene of death? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Because of him, in the midst of all of the confusion and heartache, we have an anchor and a refuge. We’re no longer condemned by the sins we’ve committed in relationships in the past — by the ways we have wittingly or unwittingly followed the course of this world (Ephesians 2:2) — and we’re not captive to the broken and prevailing dating trends of our day.

Five Reasons to Quit Playing

While the world plays games with sex, romance, and “commitment,” Christ frees us to quit playing and start dating differently — with selflessness and humility, with clarity and intentionality, with patience and sobriety, even if we choose to meet someone online. If you have been wounded by the romantic carelessness of others, or you’re tired of suffering from all the ambiguity, or you simply want to avoid the dangers of dating today, here are five big reasons to beware online.

1. Humility, not vanity, prepares us to love a spouse.

The overwhelmingly popular swipe feature, which allows you to impulsively like or reject people based on their appearance, can poison anyone with pride. The flick of a thumb, so seemingly harmless, threatens to cheapen the image of God. What does God feel when we flippantly swipe a real man or woman, someone he himself wove together, into the trash bin of our phones?

When there were no apps between us, the dynamic was more palpable. You had to reject people to their face (or at least with your voice over the phone), where you were confronted with them as a person, not just as pixels. We don’t have to like or date every man or woman who likes us; we do need to treat them as eternally valuable made ones. Online dating has made it so much easier to treat them as virtually nothing.

The yay-or-nay culture in online dating not only diminishes the value of a person; it also fortifies our walls of pride. The apps and profiles pretend to give us the power to decide what is better or worse, ugly or beautiful in a human being. Instead of leading us to marital bliss, that kind of vanity ruins us for marriage, for the kind of the crucified love that requires Christlike humility at every single turn.

Fill your phone and life with habits that expose vanity and cultivate humility. If you want to love a woman (or man) well, you will need to be relentlessly vulnerable about your own faults and tenaciously patient and compassionate toward hers (or his).

2. Money, not wisdom, fuels online dating.

If you seriously want to be informed, you won’t have to read long to realize that money, not love, drives these companies. They don’t go to sleep at night dreaming about how to get you married. They go to sleep, wake up in the morning, and work extremely hard to make money — from you or anyone else. It’s not personal, but it is incredibly professional.

People have undoubtedly always made money from people who want to marry, but never at this scale and never this pervasively. By some reports, $2.5 billion every year (and growing). After food, shelter, and water, there is no demand higher than love, and Silicon Valley has quickly learned how to turn the demand into millions and millions of dollars. Even if you don’t pay, they’re selling your “free” clicks and likes and connections for advertising.

This does not mean that dating websites or apps are inherently bad, or that godly people may not find their godly spouse through them, but it does mean dating online is inherently dangerous. The apostle Paul warns, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).

If your priorities and desires are shaped by Christ, then I’m sure dating websites and apps can be one good way to meet your future spouse — like a pirate ship in the hands of a just captain. I fear, however, that too many Christians have instead reluctantly climbed aboard with Jack Sparrow, expecting to find a stowaway among the crew to marry, while blindly riding into whatever trouble the ship takes them.

3. Perfection is an illusion, not an expectation.

The apps allow you to create the illusion of perfection — and to buy that same illusion from others. No one creates a profile looking for opportunities to highlight their weaknesses and expose their flaws. The whole system is built to make us look (and feel) too good about ourselves — to indulge in (and entice others with) an illusion of ourselves.

Paul says, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). Can we really think honestly and soberly about ourselves while we’re busy making ourselves look as good as possible?

Many of us need to be reminded that God’s perfect person for us 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. We are not only looking for an almost-perfect husband or wife; we are looking for a man or woman secure enough in Christ to boast in their weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Regardless of the believer you marry (and how well their profile scored), 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 the ways you consistently disappoint and fail each other.

4. Romance has the power to ruin lives and souls.

Gamification. I wrote this article because of that word — because the word was so grossly (and personally) familiar, and because it was so deeply offensive. I have seen the destruction careless dating can cause because I have been the naïve, reckless, and selfish destroyer. I flirted without any serious intention of pursuing. I let girls wonder if I was leading them on. I played hide-and-seek with the blood-bought hearts of my sisters in Christ. I treated physical intimacy like a hobby.

Game may describe how some of us have treated love, but what we leave behind often looks and feels more like a house leveled by a tornado.

We all want to pretend dating is fun and harmless until we’re the ones harmed while someone else has their fun. But even before we get hurt, we know how much is at stake. We know the springs of life flow from the heart (Proverbs 4:23). We know she was formed by God in her mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), and given a soul that will last forever. We know the passions of the flesh wage war against us (1 Peter 2:11). We know that we are lured and enticed by our desires into sin, which leads to death (James 1:14).

Romance has as much power as anything to ruin lives and betray souls. When you’re tempted to treat it more like Candy Crush, remember the eternities that are affected by romantic intimacy.

5. Jesus demands (and offers) more.

You cannot avoid this war altogether. Even if you left all the websites and traded in your smartphone, pursuing love will mean being vulnerable to potential heartbreak. The world of online dating simply makes it easier to get hurt. I want you to be wide awake to Satan’s schemes against you. I want you to be prepared for the fiery arrows that will fall on your path to marriage. I also want you to know how people are wounded so that you can love them well in dating, even if you never marry them.

Jesus will demand more of you. Dating how he wants us to will not be convenient, easy, or cheap. It will require extraordinary patience, self-control, and sacrifice — far more than most expect from us online, and far more than we can muster without his moment-by-moment help. The love he demands won’t have the thrill of flirtation, or the mystique of ambiguity, or the adrenaline rush of sexual immorality, but for the first time, it will feel real. Because it will be real. Because it will be filled with him.