Here you go, world. Thoughts on dating as Christians. First I look at why dating is so tough for so many Christians. Second is what’s wrong with the current “Christian” approach to dating. Third, I get into why we date and how it fits with the gospel. Then I’ll tackle five problems in Christian dating: 1) Viewing the opposite sex as “dateable” or “not”; 2) Being too picky or not picky enough; 3) Shame; 4) Disagreement about underlying gender roles; and 5) Confusion about The “L” Word. Lastly, I say something about sheep and try to offer practical advice on how to move forward well.
Something has changed
These aren’t exactly the good old days for Christians in the dating scene. We may have Christian Mingle and a million church-sponsored singles’ events – which sometimes feel more like speed-dating to the tune of Chris Tomlin songs – but a lot of today’s twenty- and thirty-something Christians know our generation just isn’t very good at dating.
It’s rarely accurate – and even less often wise – to lament “the olden days,” as though life was so much easier in the era of jukeboxes and James Dean. But when it comes to dating, the grass really might have been greener in another time.
As I understand it, going out on dates was at least as common when our grandparents were young as it is now, and possibly much more. Despite a considerably more conservative culture, they seem to have been far better at dating that we are. “Better” in the sense that they dated more comfortably, more frequently, more naturally.
In our grandparents’ day, getting married was the thing for young singles. It was desired, expected, almost required. It was understood by the whole community that “the young folks” were looking for the person they were going to marry, so let the kids be kids.
In one sense, not much has changed. Marriage is still the thing for many young Christians. So many of us are constantly on the lookout for a person with mate material. We still cling to a youth group God with Cupid-like qualities – Love me and I’ll give you a husband! Commit everything to me, and poof, you’ll find that wife you’ve been desiring! I don’t think we’ve made marriage less important today, even if we’ve come to grasp it as less likely. If anything, we’ve elevated marriage – and, therefore, dating – to a higher plane, because it is harder, rarer, riskier than it once was.
In another sense, something about “Christian dating” has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and not only because we traded in poodle skirts and letterman jackets.
Just look around: today we have things called “singles groups.” We have pastors and retreats, books and classes, forums and an endless supply of dating sites, all dedicated to helping singles muddle through. The way we act, you’d think Jesus came to teach us how to date! You’d think God is just a romance novelist!
What has happened in the last 50 years that has made dating such an obnoxious, overruling chore for so many young evangelicals?
“What’s wrong with the world, mama?” – The Black Eyed Peas
I propose a few possibilities regarding what’s changed the dating game in the last few generations:
Change No. 1: The sexualization of culture
As sex has become a more public thing – pervasive in pop culture and nearly essential in marketing – the Christian community has become more afraid of it.
Whereas once there existed a gap between sex and dating even in the secular culture, society now assumes that dating entails sex:
IF you’re dating, THEN you must be sleeping together.
Even when Christians reject this model, we struggle to remove the link in our minds.
This doesn’t exactly explain the state of modern dating among Christians, but it seems probable that in the backlash against an ascending culture of promiscuity, we’ve stunted anything that might lead to it, especially dating. A fear of sex in the Church has prompted the teaching of a more hesitant, phobic dating mentality from the old generation to the new, from Church leadership to rowdy high schoolers. Improper handling of sex in the culture has led to improper handling of dating in the Church.
Change No. 2: “Going steady”
You’ve heard the term before referring to a dating relationship in our grandparents’ day. But it wasn’t just any dating relationship. “Going steady” had a seriousness, an intentionality to it. For most couples, a period of casual dating happened before they arrived at “going steady.” There were sort of phases to dating, beginning casually, and later entering a more earnest “going steady” phase.
This “phase” approach isn’t the case anymore. Many Christians, I think, have willingly or unwillingly kicked casual dating to the curb (for some good reasons, and some not so good). That’s why the stakes are so high.
Because Church culture has taught us to take dating so very seriously, we perceive “the ask” to be much riskier and the price of failure to be much greater. If she says no, it’ll be awful for me and her, and weird for our whole friendgroup. If we break up, I might not end up married at all. (Whether the risk or price is actually greater is irrelevant because our perceptions make it real.) If every first date is thought of as the beginning of a “going steady” relationship, we will inevitably have a lot fewer first dates, and they will all be much scarier.
One might say online dating has brought back casual dating for Christians. In some ways that’s true. Online dating takes some of the risk and emotional cost out of the equation. However, the only reason it does that is by virtue of total separation. That is, when a Christian finds dates online, “the ask” presents little risk and the cost of failure is low. That’s because 1) you didn’t know the person before and, therefore, had no vested interest in them, and 2) you will never have to communicate with that person again if it doesn’t work out. In some ways this is the ideal dating scenario, but it doesn’t solve the dating problem in churches and colleges – in real-world communities where you do have a vested interest and you will see the other person in the future.
Change No. 3: Fear of rejection
Undoubtedly young people in the ’50s felt anxiety about all the asking, answering, and doing of dating. Perhaps nothing has changed in this department, but I wonder if today’s singles feel a greater fear.
There is always risk in dating – s/he could say no, you might make a fool of yourself, peers might find out and make jokes or judgments – but each of these risks pose greater threats today thanks to the all-consuming reach of social media. Things that could once be kept private seem inevitably to be made public. Social interaction has become nearly impossible to erase. While you were once able to simply avoid a person or group, we now live in a world of almost permanent constant contact – which is why some people literally leave their church (and sometimes the Church with a capital “C”) when a relationship goes south. Today, things like texting and Facebook make it is easier to say no, easier to spread the word, easier to mock and pass judgment, harder to forget, and harder to escape.
Change No. 4: The list of don’ts
Due in large part, again, to the swift, graphic rise of public sexuality, the “list of don’ts” for young Christians seems ever-growing.
Maybe parents, politicians, and pastors simply don’t trust kids like they used to, or maybe the menu of things to worry about just never stops growing, but millennial Christians grow up with a long list of things not to do.
At the very top of the list, adamantly preached in Christians homes and community groups, is “Don’t have sex until you’re married.”
The principle is right, but the perspective has been harmful. Sex and, in turn, dating, has come to be viewed with suspicion. As dangerous. As a thing from which any mistakes lead to a life sentence. That’s why so many young Christians know so little about the biology and psychology of sex (except, of course, STDs and unplanned pregnancy!), and so little about the hows, whens, and whys of dating.
It’s just “Don’t, don’t, don’t, until…” and “Don’t, don’t, don’t, or else…”
This mentality hurts those looking to date, but it also hurts them once they’re in dating relationships and, later, marriages. Sex and dating have become sins against a new commandment.
Instead of approaching sex and dating as a long list of don’ts, think how much better we’d be if we had a dogma of “do”. I don’t mean “do” as in “have sex whenever with whomever you want” or “date anyone for any reason.” Rather, we need “dos” like: honor your significant other; seek sincere, godly love; follow after Jesus in your relationships. These are much healthier and stronger motivators than a list of suspicious, threatening, fear-inducing don’ts.
* * *
Whether or not any of these hypotheses are viable, there is a very real dating issue that many Christians are wrestling with. We need to find a better way.
A problem with the “Christian” approach
In the Reformed brand of Christianity where I identify, God’s sovereignty over all things is one of the banner themes. Rightly so. And part of what that means is that Christians cannot and should not separate themselves from culture. Instead, they should be very much engaged with it, with the aim of reforming it for the kingdom.
A noble goal. Let’s support it.
And yet, I sometimes find myself weary of our endless “Christian-izing”. You know? Like, why should we write “Christian books” or make “Christian music” or do “Christian dating”? Why can’t we just be Christians who also write books and play music and go on dates? Why do we need to invent “Christian dating” when it would be better for everyone if we simply reformed worldly dating?
This is an old critique – and sometimes just boils down to semantics – so I won’t dive into it here, other than to say it’s thought-provoking and, I think, wise.
But in terms of “Christian dating,” does it ever bother you how so much of it seems carried out by the handholding – and sometimes the downright orchestration – of churches and schools? I suppose it’s normal for these communities to invest in our dating lives. And frankly, it can be helpful. After all, I’m more open to meeting a girl at a church function than at the Beercade (though God can bring people together wherever he pleases, and, frankly, the Beercade story would make for a better wedding toast). I just don’t like the babysitting, lecturing feel of it. Because it can be annoying and infantilizing, but also because it can be dangerous.
Sermons and studies on “Christian dating” can be dangerous when they further the traps already mentioned: 1) propagating a fear of sex and dating, 2) making dating so serious that it becomes prohibitively risky and costly, and 3) expanding the “list of don’ts.”
But it can be dangerous in another, more subtle way.
The message of many of these “dating talks” is: Jesus is more important than dating and marriage.
Okay, well, it’s hard to argue with that. Not that I would try. In fact, I present a similar message in some of what follows. But there’s a trap in this message – a trap that leaves young Christians who really want to date thinking dating is irrelevant, unimportant, a danger, an obstacle, and sometimes flat-out bad.
The trap comes out in a few of the main statements made at these “dating talks” (and in all the things left unsaid):
“Jesus is more important than dating and marriage.”
True, but the more we sing this chorus, the more dating and marriage are painted as unimportant. I don’t at all want to discourage people who hear a “dating talk” and decide to go on a multi-year dating fast, because that can be a healing, life-altering practice; but I do want to say that’s not often necessary. We can have a high view of Jesus without having a low view of dating. We can – and I think should – have a high view of both at the same time! Dating is a good, significant thing, and if you want to pursue it (and believe God hasn’t presented any reason for you not to) then you should go ahead.
“If you never get married, it’s fine.”
True again, but don’t use this as an excuse to live in a bubble of fear, doubt, and stagnation. To live single and celibate is a special thing – look at the apostles! – but, I repeat, there is nothing wrong with dating or getting married. In fact, these are also special things and may be God’s will for your life. It may not matter eternally whether you were single, dating, or married, but it certainly matters in this life, which God has given for us to live well and for his glory. So discern, pray, care about whether you date and who you date. God has not called us to be indifferent.
“Wait for God to show you the next step in your relationships.”
This is both the best and worst piece of advice. It’s the best because we absolutely should live our lives in constant prayer, seeking patiently after God’s will. At the same time it’s the worst because, as you’ve probably seen, Christians can waste huge amounts of time waiting for a voice from the sky, when there was action – and maybe dating – to be done all along. What’s really at issue here is God’s will: a big thing, to be sure (check out Kevin DeYoung’s book “Just Do Something” for the most brilliant, brief guide to “finding” God’s will). But waiting, waiting, waiting for God to reveal crystal-clear directions isn’t helpful and isn’t necessary. (Hint: He probably won’t tell you who to date via neon signs or mistletoe, so stop waiting for that.) God has already revealed the big-picture plan for us: to love him, obey him, and pursue him. As long as we heed those three things, we have a lot of freedom to do what we like. So get out of a state of paralyzed, confused waiting. Just go… and date.
* * *
There are plenty of other potentially hazardous “Christian” messages we can bundle in any dating discussion. The point is, yes, Jesus is the undisputed king, master, love of our lives. But dating is still cool, still permissible, still beneficial, still sanctifying, and still God’s will for many of us.
I don’t want to knock the Christ-focused efforts to nudge Christian singles in the right direction. These serve a valuable purpose.
But there comes a time when this proverbial nudging becomes altogether insipid. After you hear “Love God first and he’ll take care of the rest” and “Keep Jesus at the center!” enough times, you begin to adopt a tell-me-something-I-don’t-know mentality. It may be sound advice, but it’s almost beyond the point of being helpful in any practical sense. You think, Did I just spend an hour, a weekend, a whole semester for that?
Let me be clear: these sentiments are vital. They are at the core, and that’s why they’re worth repeating. Like the gospel itself, there are plenty of truths we should never get tired of – even when they come in overly-simplistic axioms.
So we don’t need more, but more would certainly be helpful.
I hope to offer something more here.
Why are we doing this?
You’ve probably heard the once-popular slogan that Christians should “kiss dating goodbye.” You may have loved it once – maybe when Josh Harris’ book came out in the late 90s – only to laugh at it later. (I’ve not read the book, but I’ve heard reactions to “courtship” both good and bad.)
What seems clear is that we still live in a dating society and Christians have not kissed dating goodbye. The courtship model – at least group dates and increased parental involvement – hasn’t taken off in most evangelical circles.
So if we’re still dating in the traditional sense, we need to know why.
Here are a few poor (but common) reasons we date:
- We think we should. No matter how much your friends or family pressure you, there is no should about dating. It’s a personal matter between you, your significant other (or potential significant other), and God. Your friends won’t be doing your dating for you. Neither will your parents. So don’t do it for anyone else. Dating out of obligation is a surefire route to a relational trainwreck.
- Because someone asked you out. While there’s nothing wrong with accepting a date when asked (in fact, this might be a good inroad back to some kind of healthy casual dating), you shouldn’t prolong a dating relationship that’s one-sided. It’s flattering to be asked and it can be miserable saying no, but staying in a dating relationship just because the other person wants you to isn’t healthy, and it isn’t fair to either one of you.
- Because we’re young and looking for fun. Dating should be fun, but a lot of things are fun that you might not be ready for – owning a schnauzer, White Russians, reading Ulysses. If you’re dating for your own pleasure, it’s become something selfish. There’s so much more to a dating relationship – to any relationship – than mere fun. If fun is all you’re looking for, go to a theme park; don’t be shallow with another person’s soul.
- Because we want to find out about ourselves. If you do dating correctly, you will learn about yourself, but that’s not a good enough reason to initiate a date. Again, dating can’t be a selfish thing. It’s not just about you, your feelings, your growth. Don’t treat dating like an experiment or a self-help plan. How would you like to be used that way?
- Because we’re lonely. I recently heard someone say, “If you’re lonely when you’re single, you’ll be lonely when you’re married.” At first it sounds counterintuitive, but then it just sounds true. Loneliness goes deeper than not being physically next to someone; it’s a state of mind. Dating isn’t a cure for loneliness. Real friends, real passions, and most of all a real relationship with God are.
If any of those are your chief reasons for dating, you might not be ready to date at all.
You don’t have to have it all figured out to start dating, but you should iron out some of the basics in your life and in your relationship with God before you jump on the bandwagon. View singleness as a unique opportunity for growth, planning, and fun; not a roadblock to marriage.
So that’s the wrong stuff. What about the right material?
The real reason we date is because we are longing for intimacy. We are programmed to want deep, close, requited relationship. A relationship that should be selfless, not selfish. It’s in that sort of connection that we hear echoes of the complete unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s also by way of the dating relationship that we come to marriage, and both of these statuses – dating and married – should be sanctifying.
So we date because we’re seeking – and needing – intimate relationship.
While dating can lead to such intimacy, it doesn’t lead to ultimate, perfect intimacy, which is the need of every person. Nor does a purely sexual relationship, or an intellectual crush, or bringing a cat home from the shelter.
This is the part where I fall into the old repetition, about the importance of Christ and his gospel in our dating lives. Don’t mistake it for a Christian minimization of dating. I’m not brushing dating off. Dating is awesome. We just need to know that Jesus is awesomer.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In the story, Jesus goes into Samaria, a country that had its differences with Israel. He meets a woman with a checkered past at a well. The woman is thirsty and seeking something to drink, and she gets into an unlikely conversation with Jesus about water. The story is striking because of the improbability of it: a Jewish rabbi chatting with a Samaritan divorcee (five times over), one on one. The religious, gender, and cultural tension could have been patently barefaced.
Looking at the well and then the woman, Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
We must ask ourselves, what are we thirsty for? Are we thirsty for intimate relationship with God, or with someone else?
It’s good and right to thirst for professional success, stable finances, a healthy family, and a good dating relationship. But the moment we think any of these can satisfy us more than God, we’ve deceived ourselves. Our dating partner mustn’t become an idol. Our true identity is still – always and forever – in God.
As the Samaritan woman knew all too well, no significant other can quench our thirst.
We can taste all the trappings of life, and still we won’t be satisfied. Like water from a well, our earthly treasures and relationships may be savory for a moment, but they’re fleeting, contaminated, fragile. God is none of those things. An intimate relationship with him is eternal, pure, sturdy.
Before we jump into the dating pool, we need to be immersed in the divine ocean.
There, I said it. Because it needs to be said, even if you’ve heard it a million times before. Because Jesus is all in all.
The gospel doesn’t say anything about dating… but sort of it does
Now, the only reason Christians are any different than anyone else is the gospel. It’s the “fact of Jesus” – his perfect life, sacrificial death, and redeeming resurrection – that makes the Christian approach to life unique. The gospel is pervasive. It affects one’s whole life. And that includes dating.
The definitions of “the gospel” and “dating” will vary depending on who you ask, but here are the most basic definitions I’ll work with.
The gospel is the story of God’s incredible love for his creation. The story of Jesus’ love for the Church – a love so deep it meant dying in place of those not worth dying for.
Dating is one person’s pursuit of another for the purpose of marriage.
Christians who throw their hats in the dating ring need to find the overlap of these two pieces.
If we know what we’re thirsting for is, ultimately, Jesus, then we know we can be satisfied in him. As such, relationship with Christ is a prerequisite to all our other relationships. And not only a prerequisite; Jesus must also come in our other relationships, through them, and after them.
So when we’re figuring out dating, we must ask whether or not we’re living out the gospel through our dating relationship. Is it honoring to God? Is it sacrificial? Is it other-serving? Loving? Grace-filled? And, most importantly, is Jesus being glorified?
However we go about dating, is the Lord glorified before we begin, is he glorified in and through the relationship, and, if it ends, will he be glorified there too?
This is where the gospel and dating come together. Dating in a way that is faithful to the gospel means pursuing another person the way God pursued his creation, the way Jesus pursued the Church. It means pursuing the one you love in a self-sacrificial way.
You may think this is going too far. You may think I’ve confused dating with marriage. After all, when you’re dating, you don’t even know if you love the person yet; that’s what you’re trying to figure out, right?
Even in a dating relationship, we need to pursue with all love, grace, service, and sacrifice. Even if you don’t end up with that lifelong commitment, till-death-do-us-part caliber love with the person you’re dating, you still love him as a brother in Christ. You still love her as a sister created in the image of God. You cannot, along the way, say, “We’re just dating, so I don’t need to serve you.” You can’t say, “I don’t know if we’re going to get married, so I’m going to hold back some grace.” You can’t say, “We’ve only been together for a month, so I’m going to do whatever I want and you do the same.”
This is not how Christians should live, and it’s now how they should date.
The gospel gives almost no instruction when it comes to dating (anyone who tells you the Bible is an instruction manual for every part of life has tricked himself). We might be able to glean a few tidbits about dating from what it says about marriage – serve and love one another (Col. 3:18-19, Eph. 5:22-23), be noble and prudent (Prov. 12:4, 19:14), and don’t be sexually immoral (Heb. 13:4). Oh, and then we get these gems from Paul: if you get married, you will face troubles (1 Cor. 7:28), and maybe it’s better if you just stay single (1 Cor. 7:1).
So, really, we just don’t have that much practical advice to go off.
What we do have is a pretty clear picture of Jesus, how he loved and served and sacrificed for those he came to pursue. And that’s what dating is for Christians: living like Jesus in hot pursuit.
Dating Problem No. 1: Dating Pool, Gene Pool
Do you ever feel like your church or your school has become a “dating pool”?
I mean, does it ever feel like a marketplace? Like you’re always trying to sell yourself, always alert to what each member of the opposite sex is up to, permanently in Eligible Mode.
This can be a horrible feeling, and a horribly common one.
Brian Kammerzelt has some wisdom on this issue:
… we have let the culture teach us how to interact with one another – how we see one another, how we think, act, react, and speak to one another have all been taught to us by a culture given over to the patterns of this world. We may combat this strongly in other areas of Christian life and practice, but when it comes to ‘dating’ mainstream Christianity has, for the most part, bought in wholesale to the popular schema.
… This means we have adopted rules of interpersonal engagement that necessarily create a predatory, competitive, divisive, superficial, worldly environment of mistrust. We have needlessly, yet enthusiastically, invited this culture into our youth and young adult ministries and thereby reinforced an improperly focused encounter with every guy and girl that meets in our churches. Everything becomes about the ‘romantic qualifier’ – meaning that as a guy every girl I meet is to be evaluated by potentially being ‘the one’ or something else. No sparks? Moving on… unless of course you have some friends I can run through my romantic qualifier.
Okay, so how do we escape this predatory, pop-culture version of dating? How do we escape the idea of a Christian community as “dating pool”?
The way to do it is to recognize our far more important relationship with these guys and girls. When you meet a guy at church or a girl in class, you’re first thought shouldn’t be – must not be – Hmm, is this person dateable, but rather, This person is my sibling in Christ.
When a guy approaches every woman as a potential girlfriend, he ignores that she is an actual sister. A spiritual sister, of course, but that’s even deeper than the gene pool. This harms them both.
He is harmed because, while he prowls for a possible romantic or physical bond in another, he has negated the most important bond of all: a mutual love of Jesus. To his own peril, he has ignored – or not even realized – that he is already more closely, more deeply, more eternally connected to this person than to most people on the planet. By virtue of the simple truth that they share the same faith, they already have the most essential thing in common before they even shake hands. But he completely loses out on that all-surpassing bond if he looks at her simply as “datable” or “not”.
She is hurt as well because she – another human being and a divine creation – is reduced to a mere piece of romantic real estate. She is immediately measured by her looks, the sound of her voice, her flirtiness or lack thereof, and a million other factors that pale in comparison to her most central feature, her truest identity as a daughter of the King.
When this sort of encounter happens – and it happens all the time – both people are in danger of losing out on the relationship that most deeply binds them: that of being family in Christ, of being disciples together, of being journeymen on the same road, with the same destination.
Because they first saw each other as potential dates, they fail to see each other as friends.
And maybe you’re saying, “So what. I’m not interested in being just friends. I’m looking for a husband. I’m looking for a wife. I want someone to grow old with.”
That’s a risky mentality, and an unfair one.
Kammerzelt speaks to this also:
Let’s be crystal clear, ‘brotherhood and sisterhood’ is not a synonym for ‘just friends.’ This cheapens and limits the body of Christ. As the guiding principle of all of our interactions it is so much more. You do not start there and move onto ‘something more.’ The something more, the something greater, is the brotherhood and sisterhood of all believers! We are given this greater default relationship as a gift of grace. And as with all things Gospel you do not need to be anything other that who you are at this very moment to receive it! We begin in the eternal. How amazing is that!
Shame on us for reducing the brotherhood and sisterhood of all believers to something so much less, so trivial as some modern dating version of ‘just friends.’
So in our dating lives, let’s never being accused of elevating a romantic connection – or a potential romantic connection – over the connection of being spiritual brothers and sisters, of being children of God.
Dating Problem No. 2: Who’s Being Unreasonable?
One of the biggest reasons for dating dilemmas for both Christians and nonchristians is pickiness.
I am picky. You are picky. We will not date any old schmoe just because she goes to church, just because he calls himself a Christian.
Good. You need to be picky. Don’t settle.
But, in the same breath, much of our pickiness is ridiculous. It’s not only that we’re too picky to date some people; many of us are too picky to date anyone.
The common question is, “So what are you looking for?” Or, “What are your requirements?”
And the answer goes like this: “He has to be a Christian.”
Okay, good. We’ll take that as given.
“And he has to be funny and kind and not stupid.”
“He shouldn’t be too sarcastic; I don’t like that. I want him to be at least six feet. He’s got to be a family man, because I want three kids, and I want to send them to Christian school, so he should be down with that too. Probably a dog-person. Financially independent and debt-free. Open to mission work. I like blonde hair. I don’t want any tattoos. He should know what an oxford comma is. He shouldn’t chew too loudly, or slouch too deeply, or sing too badly. He needs to hold my hand in public without me telling him to do it.”
Now we’re talking.
None of those things is ridiculous by itself. Each of them is perfectly legitimate to be attracted to or to find admirable. It’s when we take our lists all together that we see the absurdity of it.
That’s the danger with “lists”. When you approach dating with a catalog of requirements, or when you sit down on that first date with a mental checklist, you’re already on the lookout for something that will rule the other person out. Because who could meet the requirements for your mythical mate?
Now you might say, “My list is flexible. I have a few deal-breakers, but am willing to compromise on the rest.”
That levels the playing field somewhat, but you’ll still be sitting there on that first date doing the mental math about how many boxes have been checked off and how many haven’t. You’ll still be viewing the date as an interview, a test, or worse, a trial.
I don’t pretend we can ever be rid of our lists completely. But our own prerequisites – many of them mere machinations of our fantasies or duplications of Hollywood caricatures – shouldn’t dominate our mind’s eye.
So how do avoid approaching dating as a biographical checklist?
Know what you need
It’s appropriate, even necessary, to have some points on which you will not compromise. Your significant other must be a Christian. She must have similar theological beliefs on things like salvation, forgiveness, and sin. He must be mentally and spiritually stable. She must be open to children. He must get along with my family. And so on. Things like core beliefs about God, family, money, and how to solve conflicts should probably be on the must list. But after that, the “list” has a tendency to become just selfishness.
Mark Driscoll says,
If you set your expectations too high, you may never marry, or you may marry the person you think you want but who may not be the one God would consider best for you…. The truth is that most of these lists are simply idolatrous because they are comprised of the seekers’ resume and what they like and do, as if the goal of marriage is to find someone just like them rather than someone different from them so that together they can learn to love and serve one another.
Check your heart
If you’re anything like me, you overthink and overanalyze until you are overwhelmed. Discernment is necessary. God gave us brains so that we would use them. But even an uber-logical person like me believes there is a heart component to all relationships. Perhaps you were not immediately attracted to a person, so you mentally checked him off the list. But then you found yourself laughing, agreeing with, interested in him. In your head, you’d already ruled him out, but your heart might help you backpedal, if you let it. This is not to say you should put all your trust in “feelings,” which change with the wind. But don’t put all you trust in your neurons firing down a registry of yeses and nos either.
Be willing to change and grow
You’ll never find “the perfect someone,” so stop looking. And if you do happen to find that perfect girl, don’t count on her being the same in five years, because people change. All of life is growth, change, and hopefully sanctification. When you start dating someone, you’re not dating a finished product. You’re dating someone with flesh and opinions and problems and goals, all of which are prone to change. You’re going to change too. But that’s okay, because change means an opportunity to mature together. Don’t look for the perfect soul mate; instead, look for someone you can grow with, you can pursue with. Both of you will – and must – change, not just the other person. So be willing to change yourself, and be excited to do it.
See who God puts in front of you
It’s amazing how many people we might get along with, might really enjoy, might want to date, but overlook because we’re busy searching in other places. Or because we’re so focused on the “girl of our dreams,” real or imagined. This doesn’t mean we should view everyone around us as a potential date, but it does mean we shouldn’t ignore people. God puts people in your life for a reason. Too often we scan the far horizon for the right job, the right “next step,” the right person, when God had them under your nose the whole time.
* * *
There is another problem among Christians, which is less common, but should be addressed. It’s the opposite of having a list. It’s the opposite of pickiness. The problem is setting a low standard.
I’ve heard guys say, “As long as she loves Jesus, we can make it work.”
On the face of it, that sounds rather nice. I like to think a mutual love of Jesus is the only piece necessary for a healthy, God-honoring, spouse-honoring marriage, but I think that’s wrong, and a dangerous position to start from. Pursuing and being pursued by Christ is the most important part of any life, but that doesn’t mean the rest of life is superfluous.
Even though marriage – and dating, for that matter – should revolve around the pursuit of Christ, in a practical, day-to-day sense, they’re also about pursuing each other. You’ll be dealing with another human being, with opinions and needs and flaws of his own. For the sake of your relationship, you really should have more to base your relationship on than just Jesus. (I cringe at the words “just Jesus,” but I think this needs to be said.)
I harken back to your first needs in a relationship: shared beliefs about God, family life, money, and conflict resolution. There may be others, but if you disagree about who God is, how your family will operate, how to handle income and budgets, and how to solve conflicts – even if you share a mutual love of Jesus – you’re in for a road that may be more infuriating than sanctifying.
Dating Problem No. 3: Shame if you do, shame if you don’t
Another hindrance to Christians who want to date is shame.
I’ve never been a fan of dismissing shame with a wave of the hand and a dash of grace. It’s true that Jesus takes away our pangs of pudency, and we gain Christ’s perfect holiness in the eyes of the Father. But shame and guilt can also be good, healthy things when they keep us from future sins.
That said, rueful scars hurt Christians in the dating world.
There is a palpable shame for those who can’t seem to forget their past mistakes. I don’t think I grasped the severity of these scars, the continuing stabs of conscience, until I heard men and women open up about how their shame haunts them and holds them back from potential relationships.
There is an inner guilt – a feeling of not deserving a good dating relationship. There is a deep remorse – the notion that one can’t enter a new relationship until all the dirt has been rubbed off. And there’s a nagging fear – that when dark secrets come to light, the significant other will leave.
What must be realized by any Christian interested in dating is that we’ve all made mistakes. We’re all sinners. We’re all dirtier than we appear. This is not an excuse, or a reason to sweep shame under the rug, but it is a reason to be hopeful. Any dating relationship will necessarily be between two sinners, and that should put us more at ease.
And while much of the shame that stalls Christian dating is about previous sexual sins – the horribly damaging “used goods” shame – there is also, interestingly, a real sense of shame among many Christian virgins.
It’s a shame that comes out of a worldly definition of dating, one that holds up sex as the norm, and labels anyone who doesn’t meet that expectation “weird” or “prudish” or “unwanted.” This is why “virgin” has become a bad word. And even though most Christians, if you ask them, will say it’s not bad – it’s probably even good – there is a definite reluctance to admit one’s virginity.
I see two reasons Christian virgins feel shame: 1) culture and 2) self-doubt.
The first reason is obvious. You don’t need to look far to see that the culture expects you to be having sex. Probably lots of sex. Billboards, deodorant ads, top-40 radio, web hosting companies, clothing brands, even sex-ed class. A generation ago, it might have been shocking that something as bland as a car commercial could pawn itself off to the whims of an oversexualized culture, but today, no one thinks twice.
Even cultural attempts to elevate purity ring hollow. Remember the movie “40 Year Old Virgin”? It tried to play up a few lines about the supposed value of celibacy, but in the same moment the whole film betrays those bits. This paradox – or, really, this free-love-in-disguise framework – is present in so many cultural half-efforts to legitimize self-control, to validate intentional (or unintentional) abstinence. The very fact that we believe we need to legitimize sexual inexperience is ludicrous, and points to just how far we have gone along the sexual spectrum. Indeed, nearly-random sex is now touted while virginity has become taboo.
The second reason, self-doubt, may be less apparent, but is no less damaging. Christians feel shame, or think they should feel shame, at their own virginity because they entertain the following belief: If I have not had sex, it must be because there is something wrong with me.
If a Christian (Christian guys especially) admits he is a virgin, he begins to wonder if it is not because he has made up his mind to not have sex until he is married (as he hopes is the case), but if it’s really because he is unattractive, unapproachable, unlovable. He begins to wonder if there is something wrong with him, and that is why he has never had sex. And, even if he doesn’t wonder these things, he worries that if he admits his virginity, everyone else will wonder them.
You see, even Christians who have made a deliberate effort to remain celibate until marriage want to feel that they could have sex. They want to feel that they are sexually desirable.
So don’t let shame of your sexual history ruin your dating life. You are a new creation in Christ. And don’t be ashamed of your virginity either, because that’s just the world talking, putting the fleshly desires on blast.
* * *
Everyone with a conscience feels shame of one sort or another. Whether it comes from fear of man, fear of God, self-deprecation, or an inability to forgive, shame is shame and it feels bad. But there’s unfailing hope in the saving power of Christ, and there’s a strong hope also in genuinely loving, gospel-centered relationships with other Christians.
In every one of those relationships, the picture is of two broken people coming together in the presence of a healing God.
Dating Problem No. 4: Gender roles and why, whatever you do, you should not, under any circumstances, ever, bring up Ruth. Ever.
If you tell me that it is improper for a woman to ask a guy out, I will tell you you’re wrong. It may be a conservative Christian ideal, but it’s just that: one ideal. I can point to numerous happy, godly marriages in which the woman made the first move (which is not evidence, but is something like evidence).
To be fair, the first-step-taking guy is a legitimate desire, but it’s not a legitimate mandate. Gender stereotypes on both ends of the spectrum are hurting dating.
The Christian community has bought into a lot of gender stereotypes that are really just cultural – either 1st-century Palestine cultural, or 20th-century America cultural. (Looking at you, macho men.) That doesn’t make them good or bad; it just means Christians aren’t required to fall in love with the gender formulas that rule so much of our thinking.
As a guy who likes some of the traditional gender-role conventions and dislikes some others, I’ve learned something about having discussions about such roles.
Don’t bring up Ruth!
I say this only half joking. See, I’ve discovered that men and women in the Church have been taught different things about Ruth.
Sometimes men read the story of Ruth and think, “Look at how forward she was, laying down at Boaz’s feet and all! Come on ladies, step up!” We’re tempted to read Ruth as guidelines, as a story of permissible – even desirable – gender roles. We focus on the serving, needy, beautiful, nearly-seductive Ruth, and her relationship with the wealthy, strong, older rescuer Boaz.
But this isn’t the only way of reading the story. And many Christian woman are on quite a different page. They’re seeing a story of a committed mother and daughter. They see an obedient daughter, laying at Boaz’s feet not in a seductive way, but in a way that asks him to obey the law of the kinsman-redeemer and take her as his wife. For many woman, Ruth is not a prescriptive story; it is just a story, and therefore doesn’t offer much in the way of describing gender roles in a dating relationship.
I’m not a Bible scholar, so I won’t argue an authoritative interpretation. What I will say, however, is that while the story of Ruth may be popular among both men and women, it’s probably not a good place to start your coed dating discussion. At least, be open to different interpretations and be ready to change your view. There’s a lot of great stuff in Ruth, but it’s not a story about dating. It’s just not.
So, while I don’t have a problem with the occasional gender role, I think we can be far too narrow-minded, too rigid about them in our discussion of dating, and that disagreement hurts the whole community.
Anyway, whatever our ideas about roles in a Christian relationship, we shouldn’t ultimately be filtering them through Ruth or Boaz, Paul or Mary Magdelene, Abraham or Gomer: our first (and final) filter should be Christ.
Dating Problem No. 5: “L” is for the way you laugh at me
Sometimes there’s a failure to communicate between church leadership and singles. There’s a missed connection that leaves singles feeling misunderstood and misrepresented.
And the questions should be asked, “Why are the singles so often segregated from the rest of the church?” and “Why are so many singles’ pastors married?” and “How can we recognize the real differences between singles who are 18 and those who are 35?”
The church too easily disregards singles, as though its waiting for them to get married before they become “serious” members of the congregation. And most of the time and direction that’s actually invested in singles is meant to point them toward dating and marriage. That’s not all bad, but it perpetuates the toxic myth that the point of singleness is to eventually get married. We need to hop off that hamster wheel. Getting married is not the point of singleness.
The thing that singles need most from the Church isn’t opportunities to meet other singles – though there’s nothing wrong with that. What they need is to be treated with respect, as equals, as valuable members of the Body – not in spite of their singleness, and not even because of their singleness, but rather for the simple reason that they are members of the Church. They need to be met where they’re at – and married singles’ pastors can’t always do that.
What they need is to be fed with the Word, to serve and be served, to be known not as “singles,” but just as Christians.
I may be crazy, but it seems to me that, just maybe, what singles need is not another discussion about finding or becoming the perfect spouse; they just need a Bible study, one that might very well have nothing to do with dating or marriage. What singles need isn’t more dating opportunities; they just need to be together as the Church, as friends, as family. What they need is not more lessons in romance; they need lessons in agape.
It’s this confusion about love that has been so troublesome.
Agape love is perfect, full love. (Check out C.S. Lewis on this.) Feel free here to use words like “unconditional,” “requited,” “imperishable.”
Agape most clearly refers to Christ’s love for the Church. But it can also refer to Christians seeking to love each other, whether that be as brothers and sisters in Christ, or in dating relationships. When we love each other with Christian love, Jesus is necessarily involved. Agape does not have to be exclusively between God and man, but is always from God and through God.
It might be too sappy to bring a heavy dose of The “L” Word into a discussion of dating, but I don’t think so. Dating for Christians – the same as singleness and marriage for Christians – demands agape. That means our love must be forgiving, generous, renewing.
It’s the confusion about “types of love” that so often makes it hard for coed Christians to intermingle without sexual tension. Our love for our Church family and our love for the person we’re dating – yes, love – need not always or only be eros (romantic) or philia (friendship) love, but it must always strive for agape love, which is determinedly selfless, caring, and sacrificial.
In this way, we don’t always have to like other Christians, but we always have to love them. I think this applies to Christian family-ness (loving brothers and sisters), Christian marriage, and also Christians who are dating.
You might not always like the person you’re dating – and if you feel that way enough, you should break up – but you must always love that person, whether you stay together or not. The deepest Christian love is one based on commitment more than emotion, care for the other rather than selfishness, and a higher love of (and because of) Christ.
Married people can teach that well because marriage is a good proving-ground for agape. Agape love is the same for Christians in whatever “life stage” they’re in. It is the uniquely spiritual, Christian kind of love.
George MacDonald’s words are useful for Christians, whether they’re single, dating, married, divorced, or “it’s complicated”:
[Love] strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself but in the object.
God perfects us through the perfecting of others. He uses us to sanctify each other, whether we’re dating or not.
Where do we go from here?
I recently read something about Icelandic sheep. Apparently, they were domesticated by the Vikings and were herded to and fro across northern Europe according to the migrations of their shepherds. The sheep grew accustomed to cold temperatures and harsh winters, and when the Vikings brought them to Iceland, they became even stronger and more perseverant. Today, Icelandic sheep can endure very rough conditions, coexisting peacefully with each other and productively for their shepherds.
The other interesting thing about Icelandic sheep is that they don’t get any credit. They produce wool, but their wool is categorically lumped in with alpaca fleece. It takes someone in the know to tell when a poncho’s fabric is made from the wool of Icelandic sheep and not from Peruvian alpacas.
Christians should be like Icelandic sheep. Despite the sometimes harsh dating landscape – riddled as it is with temptations, fear, pride, and shame – we need to live well with each other, and above all know that we serve a greater shepherd.
And we need to be different, despite being grouped together with the larger culture. When society talks about “dating,” they usually won’t distinguish between “Christians who date” and “nonchristians who date.” That’s fine; we don’t need to make a fuss about it. But while our dating may look only subtly different (after all, we go to movies, restaurants, bars, and beaches just like anybody else), it must be different at its root, because our dating comes from a different place, has a different purpose, adheres to different standards, and pursues a different end.
Our dating should be similar enough to the world’s that people recognize what we’re doing as dating, but holy enough that they sense something is different.
Now tell us something practical!
Trickster that I am, I waited until now to tell you I’m no expert on dating… but maybe you figured that out already. I’m no expert on women either (do those exist?). And I’m no expert on Christian tradition.
What I am is a guy, a follower of Jesus, who has dated, who has been single.
With that said, here are some things I think.
Before Christians date, they need to love God and strive to imitate Christ. They should not be lazy in their life, their relationships, or their faith. They should be growing up. If they want to date – and God hasn’t told them not to – they should be confident, even excited about it. They should be able to deal with rejection. Move on. Both of you. Please, don’t make it awkward. Protect each other, care for each other, before you date, while you date, and when you stop dating.
When Christians date, it needs to begin with honesty. How do you really feel? Be clear. Use the word “date.” Don’t be afraid. If the relationship ends, it needs to end with honesty too. If it’s not going to work, use the phrase, “breaking up.” Don’t drag it out. Don’t “wait for a good time to do it” if it means prolonging the relationship for more than a few more weeks. There is never a “good time” to break up. It will probably suck. So be kind. Be sympathetic. Be prayerful. Hopefully you’ll be friends again later, but you might not be. Deal with that possibility. Dating is being vulnerable.
When Christians date, both the guy and the girl need to be mature. Mature personally, mature emotionally, and definitely mature spiritually. That doesn’t mean you need to be fully grown, because that will never happen (we’re always growing), but if you’re a wreck personally, if you are unstable emotionally, and if you’re immature spiritually, you need to get those things straight before you commit to a dating relationship with another also-problem-laden person. This isn’t a slam; it’s just good for you – and for the person you’ll date.
When Christians date, your relationship with God comes before your relationship with the other person. Fortunately, in a good relationship, you’ll both be building each other up in the faith. If your dating relationship isn’t glorifying to God – if Jesus isn’t present in your lives when you’re apart and when you’re together – you should get out of that relationship.
When Christians date, they try! Surprise each other. Give him things. Take her places. Know what the other person likes, and just freaking do that thing. Dress nice sometimes. Wear sweatpants and “forget” deodorant other times, and be cool with that. Graciously call each other out when necessary and be able to accept being called out. Go out of your way for the other person. Write letters, by hand, in cursive (okay, too far). Don’t just text. Talk on the phone, even though you hate talking on the phone (unless you both hate talking on the phone; then don’t). Say nice, true things to each other.
When Christians date, they don’t need to impress each other. In fact, I heard recently that you know you’ve got a good girlfriend when she’s not impressed by you. You don’t always have to try to be smart around him; he already knows you’re smart. You don’t always have to try to be funny around her; she already thinks you’re funny. You’re already dating, so put away the pretenses. It is cliché, but it’s also true: be yourself.
When Christians date, it’s not just you and your significant other. It’s not even just you, your significant other, and God. There’s also the Church. That means your friends, family, mentors – both single and married – should be aware of and investing in your dating life.
When Christians date, before they date, and after they date, they never, ever hurt each other. Emotionally, physically, spiritually. Christians are people of forgiveness, people of second chances, but abuse – any kind of abuse – is not okay. You should forgive him (because, yeah, it’s probably the guy), but that doesn’t mean you should keep dating him.
When Christians date, they pray for and with each other. Sanctify each other. Continually pursue each other. Talk to each other. Be with each other. And show each other Jesus.
1. Discussions on dating at Park Community Church, Rogers Park campus. In particular, thank you for insights about thirsting for God and the overlap of dating and the gospel.
2. “The Most Eligible Christian Bachelor.” Brian Kammerzelt.
3. “Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will – Or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc.” Kevin DeYoung. (Interestingly enough, the Foreword is by Joshua Harris, who wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”).
4. “16 Christian Dating Principles.” Mark Driscoll.
5. “Ruth 3:4-7 Commentary.”