In every age, societies have had methods for finding a future spouse. For better or worse, our culture embraces dating.
But what is dating? Is it Christian or not? And if it isn’t, is it redeemable, or should Christians be looking for an alternative?
In this episode of the CCL podcast, we feature a recent event from our partner, the Priscilla & Aquila Centre, at which Moore College Dean of Students Paul Grimmond explores God’s wisdom for dating and answers some audience questions.
Links referred to:
- Priscilla & Aquila Centre
- Watch Paul’s talk “God’s wisdom for dating” online
- Paul’s talk outline (PDF)
- Follow-up Q&A with Paul Grimmond and Jane Tooher
- Recommended books:
- Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness and Dating (Marshall Segal)
- Preparing Children for Marriage (Josh Mulvihill)
- 2022 Priscilla & Aquila Centre Conference
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 1:42:34 min.
Chase Kuhn: In every age, societies have had methods for finding a future spouse. For better or worse, our culture embraces dating.
But what is dating? Is it Christian or not? And if it isn’t, is it redeemable, or should Christians be looking for an alternative?
In this episode, we hear audio from a recent event from our partner the Priscilla & Aquila Centre, at which my colleague Paul Grimmond explored God’s wisdom for dating. I hope that you enjoy listening.
Jane Tooher: Well, welcome to Moore College and to the Priscilla & Aquila Centre seminar, “God’s wisdom for dating”. I’m Jane Tooher. I serve on the faculty here at Moore, where I lecture in Ministry and Church History, and I’m the Director of the Priscilla & Aquila Centre.
The Priscilla & Aquila Centre, or P&A, as we often call it, seeks to encourage women in a variety of ministries in partnership with men. It aims to think more seriously and creatively how we can live out gender complementarity. P&A has two aspects: the internal here at Moore College and external—serving the churches, serving you. The external has three parts: first of all, the website: we have over a thousand resources on our website for you to freely access on topics to do with the ministries of women, and men and women ministering together and living life together. We also have information about ministry jobs for women.
The second part of P&A’s external focus is our annual conference. This is aimed primarily at ministry leaders, but all are welcome to attend. And next year, the main talks are on the “one another” commands. I think this is a really neglected area when we’re discussing the ministries of women and men. So I think it’ll be excellent to have some time to focus on that and see what they have to say for us. Plus there’s also nine electives to choose from. So more details about our annual conference on our website.
The third aspect of P&A’s external focus are our seminars—such as this one that you’ve joined us for. Our speaker tonight is my colleague Paul Grimmond. Paul is the Dean of Students here at Moore, and he lectures in Ministry. Paul came to know Jesus as his Lord and Saviour at the end of Year 10 in high school, and he says he has been growing in his understanding of what that means ever since. In recent years, that has particularly meant learning that it is in suffering that we become more like our Lord. Paul says,
I am so thankful for my own family and for my church family at St Matthias Centennial Park, who are continually helping me to understand this more fully. I have a real love for seeing people know God and grow in him through the ministry of the Scriptures, and I am so thankful for the joy of being able to work at Moore College and watch students grow in character and resilience, preparing themselves to be sent into the harvest field. I’m also thankful for God’s gifts of music, photography and books.
Paul is married to Cathy and they have three children: Anna (who’s married to Nick), Ethan and Joel. Paul’s research interests include pastoral issues that impact all Christians, developing resilience for ministry workers, preaching and proclaiming, and Paul is currently pursuing postgraduate study in preaching.
Next year, we’re having two evening seminars. The first one is on “Men and women and church discipline”. Church discipline may be something you haven’t really thought much about. It probably really depends on your cultural background and your church background as well, or what church you’re at. Does it make any difference whether the person is a man or a woman when we come to think about church discipline and being disciplined? What do we need to keep in mind? Kara Hartley and Phil Colgan will be our speakers for that. Kara is the Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Diocese of Sydney, and Phil Colgan is the Senior Minister of St George North Anglican Church, here in Sydney.
Our other evening seminar next year will be on Proverbs 31 and our speaker will be Andrew Heard, who is the senior pastor of EV Church, an independent church on the Central Coast. So what is Proverbs 31 saying about women—about wisdom? Is it literal? How does it apply to us today? Is the woman of Proverbs 31 a superwoman that women can feel easily intimidated by? Or is there something more to the passage? Come and find out. Come and hear Andrew Heard explain Proverbs 31 for us. More details on the Moore College website.
We would love you to come and study at Moore College, or come and enquire, ask questions about whether that is a good fit for you or not. We have a range of courses at various levels to help form you as a Christian to be better equipped to serve God’s church, build his kingdom and reach the lost with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, more details on our website.
Our topic tonight is “God’s wisdom for dating”, and we need God’s wisdom, don’t we. This topic is one which is exciting for many of us, but difficult also for many of us—disappointments, past sin, but also great joy. It’s excellent that you have submitted so many questions. We won’t get through all of them tonight, because there are over 150 of them. But Paul and I are going to record another session and work through all the questions that we don’t get through tonight. That recording will be available in a couple of week’s time on the Priscilla & Aquila website.
I’m going to pray for us now and then I’m going to hand it over to Paul. Join with me in prayer.
Our great God and heavenly Father,
We thank you that we are your children. We thank you that your ways that you have spoken to us in your word are right, true, good, best and freeing for us. We thank you for the wisdom of Christian brothers and sisters. We pray for Paul now as he speaks to us that he will be faithful to you and wise. And we pray for each one of us listening that we will listen with soft hearts, eager to trust, obey and rejoice in your plans and purposes. And we pray these things for Jesus’ sake.
Thank you, Paul.
Paul Grimmond: Well, friends, good evening. It’s really lovely to, well, be with you sort of over the internet thingy.
1. Biblical lessons for finding a spouse?
Well, I guess the question of the night really is “How do you find a spouse?” And if you went looking in the Bible for an answer to that question, you’d actually come up with some incredibly interesting answers, I reckon. You see, you could send your servant off to your home country with a few camels to stand around near the wells in the hope that a young maiden will offer him water for his camels. If she does, she’s definitely the one (Gen 24).
You could travel to a far-off land, work for your uncle for seven years in exchange for the hand of his youngest daughter, but make sure you actually check under the veil before you say “Yes” (Gen 29).
Or alternatively, and perhaps this is the weirdest one of all, you could hide in the vineyard near Shiloh until the young maidens come out to dance, and then capture them and take them home and marry them. And if you don’t believe me, go and read Judges 21 after this evening.
Now, there are lots of, perhaps, even for us, slightly weird or strange examples of people finding spouses in the Bible. But it’s remarkably silent on hints, tips or steps for finding a spouse. God doesn’t prescribe, as far as I can see, a particular model that we’re supposed to follow to work out what to do with relationships and how to work out who to marry.
And as I’ve been reflecting on that, I think it’s in part just because of the really complex and almost mysterious way that romantic relationships work. The proverb that you’ve got down there is actually one of my favourites:
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a virgin. (ESV)
And actually, reflecting on that, it makes you think about the nature of attraction and romantic relationship, right? I mean, why are people attracted to each other? It genuinely is mysterious. Is it physical appearance, sense of humour, wisdom, grace, integrity, boldness, outrageousness, quirkiness? What one person loves, another person screws up their nose at. It’s almost impossible sometimes to pin down exactly what it is that attracts people to each other. And yet, in the midst of all of that mystery, we have this weird societal institution called dating, where people somehow navigate the space between singleness and getting married, working out all of the answers to those questions around “Do we get on?” and “Are we compatible?” and “Should we spend our life together?”
The question “Will this relationship work?”—or as it’s been more often posed to me over the years, “Is he the one” or “Is she the one?”—is not a straightforward problem. The Bible tells us it’s a complex problem, but it doesn’t have a neat chapter with five easy steps to follow. So what does it mean to apply biblical wisdom to the process of dating? And that’s really the question that I want to engage with tonight.
2. Assumptions and observations
Now, before we do, it’s probably worth starting with some assumptions and some observations about dating. What exactly do I mean, as I talk about dating? Now, part of the problem here is that there’s a whole world of language. For some people, all these words mean the same thing, and there are other Christian subcultures where these words have been divided up and made distinct from each other. So “going out”, “courting”, “being in relationship”, “going steady”, “coupling up” and any one of a number of other terms that you could think of using.
One of the problems is that how you use those words will be dependent upon your church and your family background and your history and a bunch of other things. What I am saying tonight is that somehow or other, there is this thing that happens, which I’m going to say is defined by two realities, really. I think that whatever you use as the blanket term, and I’m using “dating” to describe that process—of somehow making some commitment to each other to work out together whether marriage is the future or whether you’re going to be separate at this point in time.
And I think the things that define it, there are really two. One is being exclusive and the other is being intimate at some level or another. That is, what I think most of us mean by “dating” is that two people have made some sort of a commitment to each other to deal with each other in a way that’s different from everybody else. There’s an exclusivity to that relationship. I’m going to speak with you, share things with you, do things with you that I won’t do with anybody else in the world.
And as we create that exclusive kind of relationship, there’s also an intimacy involved in it. It often involves sharing secrets—the inner workings of ourselves—revealing things about ourselves that we’re careful not not to reveal to many other people. And somehow or another, in the midst of all of that, couples form as they commit in some way, and we might talk more about this as we go, but to being a bit exclusive and intimate with each other.
But here, I think, is where it gets particularly complex for us as Christians. Because the Bible has no particular description of a pattern for courtship or dating, we are free, to some extent, to adopt slightly different methods to work out how that thing works. There is not one universal set of five guidelines that define it. But as much as we’re free to, perhaps, adopt slightly different ways of doing that coupling up and talking to each other and working out what the future thing looks like, it’s really important to understand that because we’re followers of Jesus, because we want Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and to know God as our Father, we know that it’s going to be radically different in some ways from what the world around about us means when it talks about dating. The Bible expects that what we believe and how we live as followers of Jesus will at times be radical for our non-Christian friends and family.
And there are some things that I’m going to suggest tonight that will sound really weird in our culture and society. I think that’s the nature of spiritual reality, but I just want to put that up front and centre. We need to listen to God first and then use our wisdom as we think about what it looks like to be members of the human race in the society in which we live—to think Christianity about what dating might look like.
So my main aim tonight is really to do three things: I want to look at some key biblical truths; I want to think a little bit about our cultural context and, perhaps, some of the impact that has on us; and then I want to get a bit concrete about some details of what dating from a Christian perspective might look like.
3. What are the biblical principles?
All right. First things to say: what some key biblical building blocks?
i) We are made for marriage.
The reality is, the Bible doesn’t say, as we’ve said, much about dating. But it does say a lot about about marriage. And so, whatever we do, the fact that marriage is at the heart of God’s plan for the world—we need to start with our understanding of marriage and then work backwards from there to think about what dating might look like.
So what exactly is marriage and how we might talk about it? Well, I think there are two big elements that I want to pick up.
The first is the nature of how we’ve been created by God and where marriage fits into that. You’ll see two passages there on your outline from the early chapters of Genesis, and there are just a couple of things that I want to highlight there for us as we begin. The first is verse 26 of chapter 1:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:26-27)
So we’re made as male and female, and we have been made for the expressed purpose of fulfilling God’s plans for us in the world. And verse 28 picks that up: “God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion’” (Gen 1:28). So God’s made us as human beings, but he’s made us as human beings different from each other as men and women—male and female—for the expressed purpose of actually being fruitful, multiplying and filling the earth, and ruling over it.
Now from that big picture of our purpose as humanity, in chapter 2, God goes back over that ground again and then describes the creation of woman from man, and pick it up at verse 18: he speaks in these terms: “God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” (Gen 2:18)
Now, I know that for many of us, it’s not good that man should be alone—particularly if you’ve had a romantic bone in your body somewhere. That’s kind of a description of the longing of loneliness and the desire to be in relationship, and all of that kind of stuff. But interestingly in its context in Genesis, I’m pretty sure the reason that it’s not good for the man to be alone is that he can’t actually do what God has called upon humanity to do if he’s by himself. See, how can he be fruitful, fill the earth, multiply, rule over it and subdue it by himself? And the simple answer is that he can’t: God intended for us men and women together to be part of that process.
And so, verse 21,
the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:21-24)
Made in God’s image. Created for the sake of actually multiplying, filling and ruling the world together. And at the heart of all of that multiplying, filling and ruling is this picture of man made for woman in such a way that they leave parents and form a new unit—a new family unit. Because she is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).
Now there’s a couple of really interesting things to see there. The first is that actually, biblically, marriage is the human relationship, in a sense, that trumps all others. Biblically, the person that you get married to is more significant and the union is closer even than the relationship that you have with your parents or your children. It’s closer than the other human relationships that you have around about you. And so, there’s this significance to marriage right at the core of the biblical story.
The other thing that that means is that we are designed, I think, for the sake, in God’s world, of being attracted to one another, to desiring sex and intimacy and exclusivity. That’s just part of our created nature: God has made us to be united for the sake of multiplying and filling the earth.
But the reality is, that’s the not the sole part of the story, is it. And when we get to the New Testament, in spite of that fundamental nature to our createdness—made for marriage, made for sex and intimacy, for desire, for coupling up, for multiplying—Jesus’ appearance in the world radically unsettles and reshapes that story. See, think about the way that Jesus talks about marriage and singleness. In Matthew chapter 22 and verse 30, when Jesus talks about the resurrection—what it’s going to be like for you and me to be in heaven—what he says is actually human marriage, for all of its goodness in God’s createdness, passes away. In heaven, we will neither marry or be given in marriage.
And I think that, biblically, that’s because our creation for marriage is a mirror of something greater and more real. Ephesians chapter 5: these words, I think, are remarkable, because they pick up those words from Genesis, but reapply them. Listen:
no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, [says Paul] and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:29-32)
Whatever our relational nature is, and whatever we’ve been created to be, the ultimate fulfilment of that actually occurs in our relationship with Jesus and not with another person. For all of the importance humanly of marriage, there is an exclusivity and intimacy with Jesus that radically overthrows and unsettles all the rest of it.
And so, when we come to the Book of Revelation and a picture of marriage in Revelation, it’s actually about perfect communion with our Father and with his Son:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Rev 21:1-3)
So our ultimate relational destiny is perfect communion with our heavenly Father, which will actually surpass of all of our experience of relationship in this world.
But here’s the really strange thing for us living at this moment in time after our creation—after the death and resurrection of Jesus—but this side of heavenly reality: the Bible says, because of the heavenly reality, singleness is of higher value than marriage. We’re not going to look at that in detail, but if you go away and read the start of 1 Corinthians 7, you’ll see that Paul argues quite strongly that, actually, devotion to Jesus and therefore singleness is a really good thing, and that singleness might actually save us from some of the grief and difficulty of marriage. Knowing that God is our hope relativises the value and importance of marriage for us.
And yet, as much as the Bible can say singleness is better than marriage, both Jesus and Paul step way short of commanding everybody to be single or from telling people that being single is the only way to live. You’ll see it there in Matthew 19: Jesus is actually talking to his disciples about divorce and he says, “Look, guys, hate to tell you this, but divorce is just not an option. God doesn’t believe in divorce. You shouldn’t believe in it. If you’re married, you’re married for life.” And the disciples say, do you notice, verse 10: “Well, if that’s the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry!”
It’s kind of a strange response, isn’t it. You wonder if it’s slightly cynical, or it’s just real about being human. “Gee! If going into that relationship is fixed and I can’t get out of it, then maybe that’s so scary that I wouldn’t get married.” But notice what Jesus says: he says,
“Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matt 19:11-12)
The disciples are going, “Well, it seems like maybe being single’s better than being married”. And Jesus says, “Yes, for some people, that’s a path that they will choose. But it’s only a saying that can be received by those who are able to receive it.” He is not overthrowing our created nature by the new heavenly reality, even though it’s where we’re going.
And so, in 1 Corinthians 7 when Paul says singleness is better than marriage, he still says, “Actually, each person will have a different path”: 1 Corinthians 7:7: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Paul was single, and he’s arguing for singleness. But he said the gift that you have from God may be singleness or it may be marriage, and they’re both good.
All this is to say that, biblically, I think, when it comes to being men and women, and male and female relationships, we actually hold onto a tension, biblically, I think. On the one hand, we long to be devoted to Jesus. Singleness should be a real option, and we must guard our hearts against the idolatry that says that marriage is the purpose of life or the be-all-and-end-all.
And yet, on the other hand, our created nature, made for desire and for sex and for multiplication and coupling up, means that for many many, if not most people in this world, there will be parts of time in our life when we long to be part of a couple. Most of us will experience the desire to be married, and the Bible never condemns it; it’s actually a good gift from God.
So whatever we say about dating, we need to start with the fact that God’s created us, he’s created us as sexual beings, he’s created us for marriage, and marriage is good and wise and right.
ii) Sex and marriage go together
But of course, as I’ve said all of that, the other thing that’s really important to acknowledge is that sex and marriage go together. As soon as we start to talk about marriage, I think biblically, we’re also talking about sex and its place in God’s created world. You see, come back with me to the beginning again—to Genesis 1:28: multiply, fill the earth and have dominion over it—sex is implied at the very beginning when God gives us the task to multiply and fill the world.
But not just is it implied, it actually starts to be spelt out in that passage that describes our creation:
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen 2:23-25)
While I think that “one flesh-ness” is about a lot more than sex, I certainly think that sex is on view all through these opening pages as God describes our created nature, and our nature as men and women.
And what’s interesting about that is that on the one hand, sex is incredibly positively portrayed in the Bible. Marriage is a great gift, the delight of having children is excellent, and there’s even those wonderfully rich songs in the Song of Songs that describe in a very erotic and deep and real way the nature of human attraction and the physical reality of love. When Song of Songs says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases”, it’s not just talking about emotional intimacy, but it’s talking about the drive and the desire that we have that leads us towards that whole coupling up process.
Sex is very good. It’s created by a wise God who has given it to us for our pleasure, but also for his purposes. And yet, the rest of the biblical story of sex also shows us that it lies very close and very deeply connected to our sense of self in a space that’s messy and deeply scarred, I guess, by our sinful rejection of God and by the way that we live with one another. Because as good as sex is, in many ways, it’s also the image of our ultimate tragedy. If you think through the prophets of the Old Testament, when they really want to describe the horror of people chasing idols and rejecting God, the image that they use is the image of prostitution—and not just prostitution, actually; “whoredom”, is the word. To describe what Israel does when she rejects God, God uses the image of somebody who’s been married, who leaves the marriage to go off and lie in the arms of another person.
This thing that we’re made for—this sexual relationship that is so much a part of human life—is also the site and the way that God uses to illustrate our deepest betrayal of him. And actually, for many of us, that’s also our experience of our own sexual nature, at one level or another. Because sex is so deep and powerful and emotional and personal, it’s also the space where Satan attacks us, leads us astray, and there’s something about it that lies so close to the heart of how we perceive ourselves.
In 1 Corinthians 6, when Paul says to “Flee from sexual immorality”, he also says this, and it’s a verse I’ve actually puzzled over lots in my life: he says, “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18). It’s not easy to untangle what Paul means here, but I think at the very least, there’s this sense of the reality of what happens when we fall over sexually. It affects us in ways that almost no other sin does.
And so, as we get to 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul wants to talk about sex, he talks about sex in the context of marriage and the significance of our sexual nature being expressed in and only in marriage. So 1 Corinthians 7:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Cor 7:3-5)
And then in verses 8 and 9:
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor 7:8-9)
Singleness is good. But God’s creation of sex and our sexual nature are powerful and deep. And so, the Bible says over and over again, sex is made for marriage.
I think because of its power—because of the hold that it has over us—because of what it does to us personally and emotionally—because of the way that it even shapes us and the way that we live our lives, God says, “Don’t just use sex randomly”. If you want to use sex according to God’s plan for our created nature, then save sex for the depths and intimacy of a relationship, where it’s actually protected by the security and help of public promises made in relationship with the rest of the community around about you, who want to help you protect it and use it wisely in the context of a relationship where sex is deep and bonding and real, but also in the context of a relationship that is about so much more than sex.
And so, the final thing that I want to say biblically is that sex and marriage go together. Sex is to be used within marriage. And marriage is part of God’s plan for the world. But please remember that as we’re talking about all of this, marriage is actually about so much more than sex. Because marriage ultimately is about that connection that we will share with Christ at the end. And in the context of marriage, one fleshness is actually a description to a commitment to each other—to care for one another, to guard one another, to serve one another, to lay down your lives for each other. To love and honour and respect and cherish. It’s a gift designed for bringing children into the world and living in a safe space. And it’s ultimately for our sanctification and the preparation of our eternal union with our God.
So I’ve said an awful lot. But if I was going to summarise, I want to say these things. We’re made for marriage—ultimately, heavenly, but that’s experienced and expressed often humanly. Sex and marriage are profoundly tied together in the Bible. They’re both good and real. But sex has its particular place in the context of marriage. But marriage is ultimately about much more than sex, and all of those things are going to need to come together as we think about what dating is. Dating, if it’s anything about a process that’s moving towards something that God describes in marriage, then it needs to take that into account, reflect on it and live it out.
Now, I’ve got lots of things to say about where it’s going to land. But a couple of big things first and foremost. I want to say to you that therefore, as Christians, even though we live in a world where I think dating is an end in itself, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, I think for us as Christians, dating is never a goal or an end in itself. It is actually a stepping stone towards marriage or to decide that marriage isn’t the goal. And that means that dating is not marriage. Now, I know that’s stating the absolute obvious. But I think it’s really critical, and we’ll see lots of the implications of that as we go.
But one of the things that that means is that dating is not just the thing that you do next in life. You know, you start growing up, you reach puberty, you hit sexual maturity, all of your friends start doing it and therefore it’s the thing that you do. Dating is not something that we should just fall into because everybody happens to be doing it. I think Christianly, to honour God and to love each other, we ought to think about ourselves and whether we’re fit to be dating, and if we are dating, what kind of relationship should that be, and will it be good for me and the person that I date? In fact, if I was going to say to you, “Ask any one question before you start dating”, my question would be this: “Would this relationship, if it goes forward, help me and the person that I’m thinking of dating to grow in our love for Jesus and in our godliness and holiness?” If we know that God has loved us enough to make us his children by the death of his Son, and we know that our bodies have not been made for us, but for his glory and honour, as we come to dating, like all the rest of life, actually, we want to do that asking, “Is this for my good and for the good of the other person that we might seek to honour and serve Jesus?”
Now, before we finish here, I have a second and a vital corollary of that truth. If dating is ultimately about marriage and marriage is ultimately
about our relationship with God through Christ, you must only and ever date someone who is Christian. I’m going to say that again: you must only ever and date someone who is Christian if you are Christian. If you know Jesus—if you love him and want to serve him—don’t start to develop a romantic relationship with someone who is not a follower of Jesus. And if you find that you’re already there, and I suspect with the number of people watching, maybe there are some of you who are already in that space, I just want to say to you as gently, but as clearly and firmly as I can, remove yourself emotionally and personally from that relationship, because it’s not going to help you towards godliness. Even in the New Testament, there is not much advice about who to marry. But the advice that is there states very clearly that marriage is to be within the confines of Christian belief. In 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul talks to widows about getting married, he says, “You should only marry in the Lord”. 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord”. And I really don’t know how to stress this strongly enough.
I spent many years on a university campus. I’ve watched lots of people date and I’ve been involved in lots of people go through the process of working out whether to get married or not. And I’ve conducted a lot of weddings. But I’ve also seen a number of people date people who are not in the Lord. And basically, it ends in one of two ways, neither of which are particularly happy: it either ends with a person who loved Jesus and was living that out slowly wandering away from their faith until they throw away eternal life, relationship with God as Father and a love for Jesus. And brothers and sisters, that is tragic! There is nothing more valuable that you could throw away. Don’t throw it away.
Now, I have seen some people who have managed to go through that, get married and then cling to being Christian in the context of being married to someone who is not. I have dear friends who are in that space. And if they could stand here and speak to you, and you are still in a situation where you have the choice to make about whether or not to get married, they will fall on their knees and plead with you not to do it. It is just so hard to raise children. But if your partner doesn’t want them to go to church, that’s tough. To go to church every week if your spouse doesn’t want you to be there is nearly impossible. And even if they give their blessing, their entire worldview is shaped in a different way—the things that they long for. They won’t pray for your kids. They won’t raise them to know and love Jesus.
And friends, marriage under God can last for a very long time: 20, 30, 40, 50 years. It is a very long time to share that depth of intimacy and companionship with someone who doesn’t love God and know God. I just want to say to you if you have any choice, don’t even start going there. Love Jesus and trust his good provision for you. And if you detect romantic attachment to someone who isn’t Christian, make yourself accountable to some people you trust, guard your heart and walk away from that relationship.
All right. I have said enough there. You may I’ve guessed, I think that’s really, really important.
4. The cultural context of dating
All right. So there’s a big picture of some biblical building blocks. There’s a few key implications of that. I’m going to just turn around for a minute now. We’re going to move on in this point in time to the cultural context of dating. I’m going to whip through this very, very quickly. But there are a few things that I want to say here about the world that we’re living in as Christians as we do this dating thing.
Now, first things first, the cultural context of dating, one of the things I want to say is I’m not particularly talking about whether you’re Korean, Chinese, Anglo, Australian, American, Irish, that kind of thing. I’m not talking about cultural background, although all of those things will have a massive impact on how we hear and understand each other.
But what I’m trying to say is that we live in a world where our media and the voices of our legal system, at least here in Australia, speak in certain ways that assume certain things about sex and marriage that are very different from our Christian worldview, and there are certain things about our current context that are important to understand as you think about dating. I have six of them and I’m going to talk about them very quickly.
i) Marriage is a social construct
The first is I think that our society has basically as a whole bought the idea that marriage is not from God, but a social construct. That is, it’s a human institution, we invented it, and we can change it to look however we like. I just want to say to you that Christianly, marriage is not something that we define; it’s something that we live in light of the God who has given it to us as a gift. But we need to remember we’re living in a world which believes that marriage is a construct, and therefore you can do it however you like. So Christianly, we need to keep holding onto the fact that marriage is not a social construct; it’s a gift from God.
ii) Sex is an appetite
Secondly, if I was to describe the overwhelming way in which sex is spoken about and engaged with in our world, I think it’s that we see sex as an appetite. It’s something that’s a bit like being hungry: if you’re hungry, you go and eat. If you feel sexual drive, you should go and do something about it. And as an appetite, sex is virtually morally irrelevant.
And what I mean by that is not that people don’t care; in fact, there’s a great outcry, isn’t there, about all sorts of unhealthy sexual practice and about ill-treatment of women—all that kind of stuff. And yet, we hold that together in our society with, “Well of course porn’s completely and totally normal” and “Doing sex with whoever you want and however you want; well, that’s totally normal, as long as they’re okay with it as well”. So the moral component of sexual activity is whether the other person agrees or not.
Now, I think Christianly, that is one part of a moral picture. But it’s only a very small part of the moral picture. And so, our understanding of what sex is and where it lies in relation to who we are as people and how important it is, is radically different from the world around about us.
What it means, though, is that if you’re Christian and particularly in relationship with your non-Christian family and friends, if you decide to live for Jesus in this space, you will be viewed as completely and utterly weird. I mean, we are at that point, where it’s completely and utterly weird. That affects us, whether we like it or not.
iii) Sex and dating are synonymous
Thirdly, then, I think the world has basically made sex and dating synonymous with each other. If you’re going out with someone, you’re having sex. Now, you can have sex with people that you’re not dating, but sex is certainly the outcome and the nature of dating, which makes dating, in fact, an end in itself.
I’m not sure when this changed culturally. It was sometime between when I was born and now. That is, I didn’t grow up with that. I know that I didn’t grow up with that as a picture. But I know that it’s now, that’s the picture of most of the world in which I live. If I look back, I have had the benefit of having three teenage and young adult children in my household for the last decade or so, and so, I have watched endless reruns of Friends, Gilmore Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I would say that at least from the early 1990s, the sitcom situation has equated sex and dating as being basically the same as one another, or so closely tied that there’s no difference. If you’re dating, you’re certainly having sex. But I want to point out that it’s the first time in human history, really, that those two things have gone together in that way socially.
iv) The mobile phone has changed the dating experience
The fourth thing: the smartphone has radically changed the dating experience in a way that you cannot comprehend if you’re under the age of 25. I’m going to tell you a story now about how old and decrepit and dated and sad that I am. But it will give you a little insight into the nature of how radically different your life is.
When I was young and dating, there was one phone in our house. That phone was drilled by screws into the wall in the kitchen, and it had a cord that was about a metre and a half long. When I was dating, the only place that I could have a phone conversation with the person that I was dating was on that phone in the middle of my house with all of my family around about me. Not only was that the only place that I could have a conversation, but when I was having a conversation, I had siblings and parents who all also wanted to use the same phone and therefore monopolising it for long periods of time met with cultural backlash at the level of my family in a way that encouraged me not to spend too much time with that person that I was dating.
What’s weird now is that the smartphone means that when you start dating, you are connected to the person 24/7. And I watch this over and over again: from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment that you go to bed at night, they’re there. They’re part of your life. Everything is shared. And so, the experience of separateness, as well as togetherness, has been radically changed. You don’t live life with yourself and then sometimes see them, get to know them, think about them and then have space from each other. Dating has become a space of constant connection.
And constant connection in places that you would never have been connected before. You can lie in bed and talk to each other. You can be in spaces that you would never have shared and, perhaps, your family would never have let you shared, but you now just do them as just part of the stuff of life. And your dating relationship follows you everywhere.
Now, I want to say to you, if you’re going to date sensibly as a Christian, you just need to realise the impact of that and actually think about being thoughtful in your use of the phone. And I’ll come back to that towards the end.
v) Porn affects dating whether you like or not
The fifth thing that I want to say is that our sexualised culture means that I think that porn affects dating whether you like it or not. I’m just going to be completely blunt here: after many years of ministry on the university campus and with young people, I expect that in any new dating relationship, at least one person in the dating relationship will have been affected by porn in the past, if not both of them. And it may not be the past; it may currently be happening. It is really, deeply tragic, and I think that we have been horribly exploited by our world that has foolishly thrown away God. And I think that the whole porn industry is deeply wicked and evil.
I think that it depersonalises sex. I think it makes sex self-centred and non-relational. I think it makes sex something that you do over the phone. And I think all of those things are really unhealthy and unhelpful. But I also know that because of being teenagers and because of having grown up in this world, and because of having grown up with our access to the internet and phones and all that kind of stuff, for the vast majority of people, it’s an experience that they’ve had.
And so, as it comes to dating Christianly, we’ve got to work out how to navigate that in a healthy way. And I’m going to talk more about that when we come to the end.
vi) We cannot comprehend how rampantly individualistic we have been trained to be
The last thing I want to say about our world and our culture is that it’s impossible to understand how rampantly individualistic we have been trained to be. There is just something about choice that has been used by every business in the world to make you pay money for stuff. From the personalisation of your ringtone to the wallpaper on your phone to how you look to the clothes that you wear to everything in life, it’s a choice. And so, dating is a choice, and it’s your choice.
Now, please don’t mishear me: I don’t think dating is just everybody else’s choice. But I do think that, again, we have reached a point in history where, for many people, dating is the choice that you make independently of your social sphere, and it’s a choice that you make independently of your parents and family. And I think that that’s actually unhealthy and unhelpful, and I don’t think that it’s very biblical. And so I’m going to say a lot tonight. But I think we need to learn to date in community.
Anyway, we’ll come back to all those themes, but I just wanted to put them on the table. They’re part of our context. What I said: marriage is a social construct; I think we live in a world where sex is an appetite, where sex and dating is synonymous, where the phone has changed everything, where nearly all relationships are affected by porn, and we’ve been trained to believe it’s all about our choice. None of those things are good for us, so we need to let God’s wisdom shape what we think dating will actually look like.
5. Getting practical: Who, when, and how?
Look, at this point in the talk, I want to shift gears a bit. We’re going get towards the getting practical. How does all this stuff actually relate to the reality of trying to do the dating thing?
But as we go there, I just want to say to you, this is actually, for me, the hardest talk that I’ve had to write in a long time. And I think it’s partly because as I’ve tried to think it through, the fact that the Bible doesn’t say lots of specific things about dating, but there are lots of deep and real truths about sex and marriage and who we’re made to be, but we’re trying to take all of that wisdom and then bring it into a space that’s really affected by who we are and where we’ve come from.
It’s affected by your cultural background. It’s affected by the family that you’ve grown up in. It’s so affected by past experiences and different things. And I just have realised that there are so many ways for this to be misheard or misunderstood.
So what I want to say is that as we get to the practical implications section, my aim is not to give you the last word on what every Christian dating relationship should look like. But I’m trying to help you to work out how you move from understanding those big theological truths about who we are and who God’s made us to be, to thinking practically in relationship with each other. I’m hopeful that some of these things will spur you to talk more with each other, to think more deeply about these things, and to work out what’s going to be helpful for you in terms of honouring God with the life that he’s given you. But please let this be the start of a conversation and a way of encouraging and helping each other, rather than just the last word.
So what do I want to do? I really want to look at getting practical under three headings: who to date, when to date and how to date, and then, once we’ve gotten through that, we’re going to get into a question time.
All right. So, three things.
i) Who should you date?
First of all, who should you date? These are obvious and straightforward, but I’m going to state them, because I think they’re important to be stated. You should only date someone who is a Christian. You should date someone of the opposite sex, which I know is not politically correct, but I think biblically true. And you should date someone who is not closely related to you. I think they’re the three things that the Bible would lay down as absolute criteria.
But with those criteria in place, is there anything else to say? Is there anything else that God would want to say to us? And so, I want to actually encourage you to think about these things—particularly the “Are they Christian?” thing—as more than a tick box, but as something that you’re actually thinking about, “Well, what does that look like and what am I looking for?” You see, I’ve had people who’ve been in situations—who’ve said things like, “Oh, he’s so funny and nice, and he likes me!” And I say, “Is he Christian?” “Well, he’s been coming to Bible Study regularly for three weeks now.” Or “She’s so cute and we get on so well, and she laughs at my jokes, and she thinks I’m amazing”. And I say, “Well, you know, is she a believer?” “Oh, she has come to church twice and I think she really means it.”
If marriage is the goal and marriage is a lifelong promise and commitment, it is really important to remember that the person that you marry, God-willing, is going to get old and wrinkly, and they’re going to smell different, and they’re going to change shape, and you’ll get to the point where every single one of their jokes you’ve heard about a thousand times. So whatever it was that caused the initial chemical rush of romance is going to disappear. Or, at the very least, be changed and transformed over time.
So when you start thinking about the question, “Are they Christian?”, what you’re actually looking for is character. You’re looking for deep conviction about who Jesus is—about the role that God plays in their life—and a willingness to wholeheartedly live under him as King and Lord. And so, if I was going to give you a Bible verse to think about in terms of thinking about, “What would it look like to be someone who was ready to date, and what sort of person should I date?”, I would say Galatians 5, which speaks about the fruit of the Spirit, would be a great place to start. See, the person who’s walking after the Spirit—who’s been forgiven and reshaped in the likeness of Jesus—what do they look like or what characterises them? Listen: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23).
Friends, 30 years into married life, kindness, gentleness and self-control are a lot more important than the hotness rating. And so, as you’re thinking about who to date, actually just be noticing how do people relate to other people? Where are they at with their pride? Are they self-promoting, or are they happy to honour Jesus? Are they someone who can say “Sorry”? Can they admit to mistakes that they’ve made? Do they serve others in ways that cost them? Do they keep their word? As you think about who to date, and you’re thinking about this question, “Are they Christian?”, I want to say to you, it’s much more than just, “Do they tick a box? Have they prayed a prayer or handed in a response card at some evangelistic event?” I’m saying, “Are they a person who loves Jesus and wants to live for him and will treat you in relationship as someone who wants to care for you as a fellow servant of Christ?”
And for that reason, and I’m going to say this all night for the rest of the night, can I say, “Date in community”. Don’t make your dating decisions on your lonesome. And by “dating in community”, I don’t mean tell your best friend who’s super excited that there’s someone new on the scene; I mean, date in community in a way that involves people that you trust, who have godliness and wisdom, and who know you and know others, and share with them. Be it older, wiser people at church, and particularly, might I say, and I guess there’s an element of self-interest in this, but talk to your parents as well. Talk to the people in your family—your siblings who know you—not about everything, but those are all people who will most probably have some insight. So ask people that you trust in community. Share “I’m interested in this person. I’m thinking about dating them. What do you think?” and get them to tell you not just about the person, but get them to tell you about you and about how that might work. As you think about who to date, remember that question: “Will dating them be good for them and good for me in loving and following Jesus?”
That’s enough about “who” for the moment.
ii) When should you date?
When should you date? Now, I’ve got a bunch of different things to say here. This was the hardest category—this is the collection category of other things that didn’t fit in places, but vaguely fit under the “when” category—but some of them are genuinely “when”. So, you know, hang in there with me.
a) Be careful if you’re young!
All right. My first thing that I want to say is be careful about dating young. Now, I have to just come completely clean with you about this: I started dating the woman that I’m now married to at 14 and I got married at the age of 20. So I have no moral leg to stand on here. I have broken all the rules that I’m about to give you. And so, hear clearly what I’m saying and not saying. And I also want to say as we start that statistics are not destiny. Okay? It’s important to understand that as well.
But I would say to you as a general rule for life, think about not dating while you’re at school. Now, why do I say that? You’ll see there on your outline there are some fascinating statistics around about divorce with age of marriage. So particularly if you look at divorce risk within five years of your first marriage by age, it’s much higher if you get married at the age of 20 and under. It’s still quite high between 20 and 24, and then it comes its lowest between about 24 and 35 or something like that.
Now as I said before, statistics are not destiny and the fact that you did get married at a young age or what—like, this doesn’t describe what will happen in your future. But it’s worth asking the question, “Why is it that people who get married very young often struggle to hold their marriage together?” At this point, I don’t have lots of statistical evidence. This is more my reflection as someone who’s done lots of pastoring of people in this space.
My biggest reflection is that good relationship requires two people who have a certain independence and understanding of themselves entering mutually into relationship with each other. And having a sense of self and who they are as people that exists outside of the relationship. The problem if you start dating at 13, 14, 15, even 16 is that as you seek to understand and make sense of yourself, you do that in this space where often the relationship, it just involves lots of really deep, real, significant emotions that happen at very raw levels. And often it’s hard to determine what you’re thinking and feeling independently of the relationship. It’s hard to work out how to disagree slightly about things. It’s hard to allow them to have space to have their own thoughts and opinions, because you’re desperate for them to like you and probably to agree with you. There’s lots of things about maturity that get amplified by being in relationship young that can lead to unhealthiness in your own development as you grow, I think.
So just as someone, again, who’s done 16 years’ worth of ministry on a Uni campus, one of the things I noticed over a very long time was the difference in wisdom and maturity between 18-year-olds arriving on campus and 22-year-olds leaving campus after four, five years. And I think a big part of that was just more life experience, growing up having more responsibility, more independence, and learning what it means to live faithfully for God. So I just want to say to you that being in close relationship very young can have a deep impact on who you are and who you become, and you have to learn how to be yourself outside of relationship, I think, to be healthy in relationship.
b) Beware of dating when you’re vulnerable
In terms of when you should date, then, there are few other things I would want to share. The next one would be I think in terms of “when”, beware of dating when you’re particularly emotionally vulnerable. So if you’ve just broken up, you’re vulnerable. And there’s something about the goodness of being in relationship that just wants you to be in relationship. I would say give yourself space between the end of one relationship and the start of another. I would say that you should probably wait six months. That would be my gut rule of thumb. Hear me: it’s a rule of thumb. It’s not a biblical truth. God hasn’t handed it down with the Ten Commandments. But I’m just saying give yourself some space.
I’d also say if you’ve just been through a really big life change or through a really traumatic event, then you’re probably emotionally vulnerable and you may not be at your wisest or clearest. And I think also if you’re longing to date just because of your grief or sadness about your singleness, remember that you’re vulnerable there too.
I’m not saying that any of these things mean don’t date. But I am saying that beware of your own emotional vulnerability and beware of the fact that the attention of someone else might just feel super nice. But it may not lead to you thinking very sensibly about whether you’re in a good position to date, or whether they are, or whether this is going to be good. So again, my rule: date in community. Involve some other people in your decision-making process.
c) Have the DTR conversation!
The final thing I want to say about when to date is you must have the dreaded “DTR”—the Define the Relationship conversation. I’ve just watched so many people who are attracted to someone else, they’re not sure if the other person’s attracted to them, they’ve been sending mixed messages to each other for months now, they’re not sure who is what, they’ve asked friends of friends to ask friends of friends to share messages with the person, and there’s all of that kind of stuff. At some point, you’ve just got to [Laughter]—just let me speak to the blokes for a minute—just man up and have the conversation. Stop, sit with each other and just be honest. “Look, I’m interested. I’d love to see some more of you. What do you think?” And, look, you’ve just got to be ready for either, “Yeah, that’s great! I’d really love to do that”, “Not sure. Still thinking about it” or “Not in a million years”. Those are all acceptable responses and you’ve got to learn how to live with that. But I do think lots of people delay the Defining the Relationship conversation out of fear.
I want to try and encourage you to take a little bit of the heat out of that. Acknowledge that sometimes there will be a sense of attraction. If it’s been there for a while and there’s been some encouragement, sit down, talk to each other and be clear. And if it doesn’t work out, that will be uncomfortable and painful, but it’s better than to die wondering. That’s my personal take.
However, I do think that defining the relationship, rather than leaving it ill-conceived, is really helpful. Talking a little bit about what your expectations are going forward—what you would like it to look like—what you think it looks like to be Christian in this space—I think all of those things are helpful to have in a conversation, and not wait forever to have it.
All right. Again, I’m sure there’ll be a thousand questions. We’re going to move on.
iii) How should you date?
Howshould you date? Here, I have more to say than all the rest of it. But hopefully useful things. We will see as we go. Here is my big, big principle: “Date as a follower of Jesus. This means that marriage is the goal, and it probably won’t happen.” Let me say that again: “Marriage is the goal. It probably won’t happen.”
Now, I’m being slightly cheeky and facetious at that point in time. But I think “it probably won’t happen” is a good principle to keep in your head alongside “marriage is the goal” as you walk into it.
Now, I want to talk about both of those things—why “marriage is the goal” is helpful and why “it probably won’t happen” is helpful.
a) Marriage is the goal
First off: “marriage is the goal”. Because who we are and our sexuality and being pure and honouring Jesus is really, really important, it’s good to think about the fact that we’re dating not just for the sake of hanging out and making life harder for each other sexually and whatever, you ought to date with at least the prospect of there being marriage somewhere in the not-too-distant future.
Having said that, I want you to think about when you say “Marriage is the goal”, what is in your head about that goal? What would you like marriage to look like? And if that’s what you wanted marriage to look like, how would that affect the way that you dated now?
Now in order to stir that conversation a little bit, I’ve included down here—there’s a point at which Marshall Segal in his book Not Yet Married talks about he and wife’s vision for what they want their marriage to be. I’m not sure if you’re a vision-statement-for-your-marriage person. That’s not the kind of guy I am. But I think this really helpfully describes some really deep things about relationship in the Bible.
And so, I want to read through this slowly and just think, “If this was where if this works out—and, God-willing, we get there; we would like to get to—what might some of these things mean for what it looked like to date now?” So listen to what he says about—and this may not be exactly your goal. But think of this as a helpful picture, perhaps, of the life that you’re aiming for. Here are his things:
- May we enjoy God more than anyone or anything else, including each other (Ps. 16:11).
- May we pray and pray and pray (Matt. 6:9-13).
- May we have and raise joyful, godly children, if God wills (Ps. 127:3-4).
- May we be bold ambassadors for the gospel wherever we go and always be winning worshipers for him (2 Cor. 5:20).
- May we meet God together regularly in his Word (Ps. 19:7-10).
- May we make our home a safe, inviting, and life-giving place for others (Rom. 12:13).
- May we be a blessing to the families God has given to us (Eph. 6:1-3).
- May we find ways to learn from marriages more mature than ours and to invest in marriages younger than ours (Eph. 5:18-25).
- May we live worthy of the gospel, cultivating shorter cycles of correction, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation (Heb. 3:12-13).
- May we develop, enjoy, guard, and model a healthy and pure sex life (Phil. 2:3-5).
- May we maintain a healthy rhythm of rest, knowing that God loves us and runs the world (Ps. 127:1-2).
- May we always love and invest in the local church (Heb. 10:24-25).
- May we disciple younger men and women and raise up leaders for God’s church (2 Tim. 2:1-2).
- May we support God’s global cause through world missions (Ps. 67:3-4).
- May we hold what we have loosely and overflow freely in generosity (2 Cor. 9:7-8).
- May we sing (Ps. 5:11).
- May we never stop pursuing each other, striving to know and serve each other faithfully and creatively (Rom. 12:10).1
Now that’s an interesting list, isn’t it. And it’s obvious that not all of those things are going to be things that you would necessarily [be] doing in the dating space. It is not yet the moment to raise joyful, godly children, if God wills; that’s not where we’re at.
But a number of those things are about when you picture marriage and think about what you’re heading to, might actually shape the way that you date and live now. So one of the ones that really strikes me is number 6: “May we make our home a safe, inviting, and life-giving place for others”. If at the point of getting married, as a couple, you would love to have a home which was actually outward-looking, that was hospitable, that invited people in, that invited people to share your space and your relationship, and build and encourage others up, what might it look like in your dating relationship to have that kind of openness, other-person-centredness and a view towards God’s mission and his purposes in the world? One of the things that often happens in dating is that there’s this kind of gravitation that draws us in and sucks us into the relationship with each other, and the exclusivity and intimacy thing—particularly the way we express it with others—can often lead to other people feeling very excluded around us. So as you think about what your dating relationship looks like, what would it mean to be gracious and kind and loving, and to use your relationship in a way that serves and cares for and is open to other relationships?
So what does it mean to be genuinely Christian with each other—to encourage each other to love what God loves and to hate what God hates? How could you be involved in God’s work together in his world or serve at church? What will it mean to be generous independently, but kind of together? All of these things here, if you’re thinking about what it looks like to date, I would have thought to sit down and talk through that list and think together, “What might some of these things mean for us if we were going to start thinking about making them a part of our relationship?” would be a really helpful thing for you to talk through.
Now before we finish here, I want to say that having marriage as the goal, therefore, can be a really good thing in God’s world. There are some reasons that having marriage as the goal is problematic for us. The first is, and you’ve all heard this before, but an invitation to coffee is not a marriage proposal. Okay? Because marriage is the goal, I know lots of couples who have this really intense “Is marriage a possibility?” conversation some time on the first date, and honestly, how do you know? Not to mention, it’s not helping anybody to get to know each other; it just creates an intensity and a kind of big [explosion noise] around the relationship that’s really, really hard to deal with. While we want to acknowledge that this is a real thing about being Christian and thinking about the future, on the flipside, say, it is okay to go and have coffee together and just talk and get to know each other a little bit without adding all the weight up front. And so, saying “Yes” to a coffee date is not saying “Yes, I will marry you in a year’s time on the 27th September” or whatever it is. We need to just [Laughter] and I say this—this is not my problem and so I understand. But just take a little bit of the heat out of stuff and be wise enough to go, “Yeah, marriage is the goal. But right now, we don’t know that, and we’re probably not going to know that for a while.”
Because the second thing that I want to say, and this is the thing I have noticed more than anything else: if marriage is the goal, the stakes in the relationship are very high. If the stakes in the relationship are very high, the question that everybody wants to answer is, “Is she the one?” or “Is he the one?” Now, what happens if the biggest question you have is “Is he the one?” Well, the answer is that you spend a lot of time watching very, very closely for everything that he does and says that might be a deal-breaker. And quite frankly, an analysed relationship is not a lived relationship. And actually, relationships that are analysed usually don’t end very well. If you spend your whole time trying to work out whether they are actually fit or appropriate, it’s like having your whole life lived under a microscope and surprisingly, people don’t tend to relate or perform very well when they think they’re under a microscope.
So my advice here, or encouragement, would be leave the marriage question on the shelf and revisit it once every couple of months—three months, four months, whatever it is. It’s not this constant question to be asked. Relate to each other. Get to know each other. Hang out a bit, and then at certain points, stop, ask some healthy questions and date in community. So invite some other people to give you perspective, share what you’re seeing is happening, and think through what potential issues might be. But don’t live your whole relationship trying to work out whether this is the one, because if you do, most of the time, it won’t be. That’s my overwhelming experience.
b) It probably won’t happen:
All right. On the flip side: it probably won’t happen. That’s a cheery piece of news, isn’t it! But the reason for thinking like that is because if you’re going to have a healthy, godly relationship and dating is not marriage and marriage is the goal, then you’ve got to, at least, hold open the possibility that it won’t work. And if it won’t work, what would you like the relationship to have been like if this person remains your brother or sister in Christ, but the relationship ends?
For me, 1 Timothy 5:1-2 has been a really precious verse—a memory verse for thinking about the nature of relationships, and there’s actually lots more going on here than just this, but “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity”. As brothers and sisters in Christ in a dating relationship, each other’s purity should really matter to you. And if the relationship is going to end and not turn into marriage, what would you want to be true of your relationship?
Now, obviously, there’s a number of key things here, right: firstly, Paul’s advice—1 Corinthians 6:18—would be to “Flee from sexual immorality”. Now, I think this is actually tricky in a dating space. I think that sexual attraction and sexual arousal is going to be a natural and normal part of a dating relationship. And it would be surprising, actually, if it wasn’t. You’re going to see them, that’s going to have certain physiological impacts, and you’re going to actually feel sexually attracted at various times and places. You’re not going to be able to stop that, and it’s actually part of how God’s made you.
What you need to do, though, is work out how do you flee from sexual immorality, rather than giving into it or growing it. And that’s why I think it’s really important for couples to talk about physical boundaries in their relationship—not because physical boundaries will save you from everything, ’cause they won’t, but physical boundaries and talking about them become a healthy expression of what you long for and want for each other in your hearts. And so, talk about why purity matters and why you want to honour Jesus, and why it would be really precious to guard and look after each other in this way. And so, I want to say, understand each other and be thoughtful. What forms of touching are comfortable or not, and what effect do they have? Is it holding hands or kissing or cuddling, or how do those things work? I don’t think there is an absolute rule on those things. But I do think the more that they happen, the more that your body releases the chemicals that lead towards arousal that’s inviting your body down the path towards sexual fulfilment. And so, being thoughtful for one another is really important.
Now, in this space, one of the things that I have experienced quite a bit is that often things like physical touch can mean quite different things for the guy than they do for the girl. And so, I know that for some women, like, just holding hands or a little cuddle or something—an arm around the shoulder—makes her feel secure and cared for. For some guys, that leads to a level of arousal that they find really uncomfortable and they don’t want to have, because they want to actually love and be pure with their sister. Realising that what expresses something for you may express something very different for the other person is really helpful to know and to work out how to communicate about. And I would say just work really hard at having godly relationships that don’t lead further and further down that path of intimacy, which drive you at a deep physiological level towards sex.
Now, it’s not just about physical contact; it’s also about how you dress: are you dressing nicely, or are you dressing to arouse? And where and how do you spend time together? How much of it is spent alone? How much in social groups? Do you spend lots of time physically close to each other, watching movies in the darkness or sitting in the car or—I know that lots of these things have now been been ruled out by COVID at the moment. But we will get back to a world where they, presumably, will happen again. I’m not saying you never need to talk to one another. I’m just saying be really thoughtful about the spaces that you do that in.
It’s really interesting: one of the things that I looked at a little bit was some of the history of dating—that dating—going out to a café or something—actually only began probably in the early 1900s at some point, when the nature of society and wealth meant that people could do it. And interestingly, part of what it did was it took that relationship out of the home context into a public context to provide privacy. So you go out to a busy space where there’s lots of other people around so that you can talk, but interestingly, you do that, right, in a space where there are lots of restrictions on what you can do that’s unhealthy with each other. And so, finding places to go and be with each other that help you to communicate, know each other, love each other and be part of community is really important. And being thoughtful about how you communicate more intimately and carefully, and avoid situations that arouse you.
So can I say particularly make yourself accountable to somebody else of the same sex as you and give them permission to ask you on a regular basis—weekly, fortnightly, whatever it needs to be for you—some very specific questions—not just how are you going, necessarily, but things like, “Have you been pure with him or her in the last two weeks?”, “What’s been the situation in which you have found greatest temptation?”, “What’s the thing that you’re struggling with at the moment?” Be honest about a few of those questions, pray with each other, and make sure you ask somebody who won’t wimp out, but will regularly come and ask you those questions to make yourself accountable.
Again, the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9). Making yourself accountable doesn’t guarantee an outcome. But tell yourself you’re making yourself accountable, because you know what God loves, you know what he wants, and you know what is good for you and the other person. So do it out of love for Jesus.
What I want to say in particular is if you are dating and you are currently experiencing some form of sexual compromise and you know that you are, please do something about that. And I’m going to be incredibly explicit here. If you are reaching states of nakedness with each other; if you are involved in unhealthy touching of one another in breast or genital areas; if there’s oral sex; if there are other behaviours—it is not just that intercourse is the end point and all these things are okay. I actually think Christianly, all of these things are about God’s space of sex and you need to move away from those.
If you are in the situation where you’re struggling with those things—and I want to add to that list if you are sending unhealthy pictures or messages to each other over your phone, whatever else, those things too are unhelpful—please find a pastor. Please find a trusted older Christian brother or sister. Confess your sin, seek Jesus’ forgiveness and seek someone’s help as a couple to work out how to change the habits and patterns. It will actually be good for you and good for the future of your relationship.
Now, at this point, it seems to me that I do need to say a little bit more about navigating the porn thing in relationship. I know that I’ve said this already: the reality is that the tragic nature of the world in which we live has so normalised porn that, for most relationships, at least one of the persons in the relationship has had some form of engagement with porn in the past. How are we going to deal that and how do we navigate that Christianly in relationship? I have a number of things that I want to say. I would say that you need to confess it to the other person, but please don’t do it as the first thing that you do in relationship. It is okay under God to get to know someone a bit, to go out a couple of times, to see where things are going. You don’t have to do that straight away. But if you have been out a bit, if you can see the relationship growing, if there’s been some sort of definition of the relationship, it is appropriate, I think, to confess what’s happened in the past earlier, rather than later in the relationship.
Now, some more things to think about. When you confess it, you will come, longing desperately for understanding and forgiveness, and with a heart full of shame and guilt, ’cause it’s really hard to do. You come confessing it clean, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Keep remembering how completely Jesus’ death pays for your sins. But realise that the way that God relates to you through the gospel and the way that others relate to you while being connected to each other are not the same. So God already knows when you confess it. And when you confess it to him, he’s already made you clean in Jesus.
But when you confess it to another person, they will have all of the normal human reactions to such things. They might be angry. They might be upset. They might feel betrayed. They might feel disappointed. Forgiveness in human relationship is a complex emotional process. And so, when you come to ask for forgiveness, realise it’s not your right to be forgiven, and realise that you may need to give them time and space to process for themselves how they think and feel about it, and what it looks like to appropriately offer you that forgiveness.
So I would say if you’re going to say to somebody, “This is my past”, you also need to say to them, “I’m willing you to give you some time to think about it”, and give them permission to talk to somebody else about it so that they can process their own response to it. I’ve seen lots of couples work this out and apply the forgiveness of the gospel and make real progress. But you have to have an understanding of each other, and of being human in the complexity of that.
I want to say, then, if you have struggled in the past, or even if you’re still struggling—particularly if you’re still struggling in the relationship with porn or other things—work hard at getting clean. But on the whole, I would say, don’t make the person that you’re dating your primary accountability partner. I don’t think, on the whole, that’s helpful. I think you need to be honest with that person. I think you need to confess. But I just don’t think it’s helpful for them to become your policeman. Find somebody else who will keep you accountable and help you to make progress. Don’t ask the person that you’re dating to be that person.
Be aware that, for some couples, confessing a past history of porn or of sexual involvement or experience sometimes makes sexual engagement between the two of you harder to resist. That’s at least in part because there can be feeling of jealousy and other things that are involved, and it can actually feel more right, at least, to be sexually involved with that person than to run back to porn or to overcome some of what’s gone on in the past.
So beware of the potential temptation there, and again, I would say, if you can do it in relationship with someone that you both trust—perhaps an older couple, or someone that’s there in your life—do that together and make yourself accountable.
I have a couple of more things to say there here—one to the person if you’re being confessed to, and one to the person confessing. If you’re the person who’s being confessed to about past sexual sin and you yourself don’t have a history there, you will be tempted to, perhaps, to want know lots of the details about what’s happened. Can I encourage you that that gut reaction may not be healthy for you or the other person. The other person should give you permission to ask whatever questions you need to ask. But you want to be careful about what you get to know and what impact that’s going to have, and how you will process that. Don’t out of your distress or anxiety ask all of the intimate details necessarily; think about what would be healthy and helpful for you and the other person.
I also want to say to you if you’re the person being confessed to, and this is going to sound weird, but it really isn’t about you. I speak particularly from the male perspective here, although I know that this translates. I think being a teenage boy in our world is really tough, because we live in a world where sex is an appetite, where marriage doesn’t matter and dating equals sex. So most of our teenagers are in school with lots of people who think that porn is totally normal and natural. And so, it gets handed around in the playground as a matter of course. As a young man going through the changes that happen in your body, with that kind of exposure, the internet and your phone, and all that kind of stuff, that anybody doesn’t see porn is a minor miracle. And the fact that, as a young man, with all the struggles with self-control and other things, you may have given in and made mistakes in this area. That is actually, although not good and you need to get rid of it, also understandable.
So I want to say to you, if you’re being confessed to, understand that, partly for this person, they are sinful, they are guilty and they need to repent and deal with it. But there’s also a sense in which they’ve been affected and trapped by the world in which they live, and it’s not about you personally.
Now, if I were to change sides for a moment and then talk to the person who’s confessing, I would say, “You need to understand it absolutely is about the other person. And you need to realise that when you confess it, it’s going to impact them deeply. And you have to work on getting clean and communicating well.” In the end, there’s a lot more to say here, but you’re really seeking for wisdom to help you apply the gospel, be gracious with each other and flee from sexual immorality.
All right. I got a couple more things to say and then we’re going to get to question time. The last one, at this point, is just around using the phone and the fact that [the] phone grows intimacy and exclusivity. Now, I’ve already talked about it a bit—the fact that you can wake up in the morning and the first thing you have is a text and the last thing at night is a text, and there’s messages and all that kind of stuff, and your whole life’s lived in each other’s pockets, and the fact that that’s the first time in human history that that’s ever been the case.
I want to say be careful as you date. I think the context of our phone use and other things means that intimacy and exclusivity grows much faster than it ever has before in history. And you have to understand that even if you marry the person that you’re dating, they will never meet all of your emotional needs. And so, going through that bonding phase where everything becomes about each other—really instantly, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got all this access to each other—creates habits in relationship that are unrealistic and unreal. Even in marriage, your spouse can’t provide for all your needs. They can’t solve all your problems. They can’t be the person that fixes everything emotionally and makes everything all right. And so, it’s unhealthy for the dating relationship to become that. And so, I’m going to suggest that you work out in your relationship how to do some things together by mutual agreement around the phone that helps you to have connection and disconnection from each other.
Here are some suggestions. You might want to decide that you’re going to set some curfews: no texting before midday. So we’ll only communicate in the afternoon, but have the morning free from each other. You might say, “We’re not going to communicate through that medium after eight o’clock at night”. You may choose to have a phone Sabbath: so there’s one day in the week that you’re going to set aside, and on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, whatever day it is, you’re going to say, “Actually, we’re going to have a day of not being connected. We’re just going to go through the day, do our own thing and connect again the next day.” Or you might want to make it a couple of days in the week. I actually think that the living in each other’s pockets and being so connected thing is just not healthy for your relationship long-term, because it doesn’t teach you how to be wise, mature individuals who are participating together in that relationship. It just creates unnatural closeness.
Now, I know that people are going to fry me and tell me that I’m stupid, and probably old and fuddy-duddy and grumpy and a dad, and I’m all of those things. But I’m okay with it. I just want to say be thoughtful about how you use the phone and don’t be constantly connected.
The other thing I want to say is make sure that you invest in each other’s families, friends, extended families—do stuff as a couple that involves the other people in your life. Sit and play games with siblings. Go and do things with friends in the park. Go to church. Be involved in those things. Don’t let your relationship suck you into a little ball and make it the exclusive thing. It’s not good for you, it’s not good for others, it’s not God-honouring and it’s not helpful.
c) How should you end it?
All right. Last thing under “It probably won’t happen” is that sometimes you need to end it. Again, lots of things I could say here. I only want to say a couple. If you’re in a relationship and you’ve gotten to the point where there are some things that are uncomfortable for you or you’re realising that for various reasons, it’s not going to work—for example, I’ve seen some couples who just naturally because of their own natures and the way they relate to each other, keep repeatedly hurting each other. And they keep hurting each other in response to hurting each other, and they can’t seem to get out of the cycle. It is okay to say, “This is not healthy for you or me. We need to get away from this.”
There are times when you’re in a relationship with someone and you know that you’re not in a space where you need to be in a relationship, and you need to say, “No”. And I want to say if we all believe that the goal is marriage, but it probably won’t happen, then we’ve all got to believe that there are right and appropriate times for Christians to say to each other, “This isn’t working and we need to move on”. And sometimes that will be just one person feels that and the other person doesn’t. I think that I want to say to you that in that space, relationships are a mutual commitment from each other. And if someone feels the need to end it, it’s right and appropriate to do so.
If you do, a few things: communicate clearly and honestly about where you are and why you think it needs to end. Allow the other person to express their thoughts and feelings and opinions as well. Secondly, I would say, work at, if it does end, actually separating from each other and not having contact with each other. I know that that sometimes is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. But I do think that that level of separation can help, just humanly speaking—particularly if you’re a party in that relationship that feels like they have been the one that’s been dumped, I guess. But for both of you, expecting that space will be necessary and granting each other space is a good thing to do. I think, thirdly, guard your heart against bitterness and anger and resentment, ’cause it’s very easy to go there. And I think, finally, trust that in God’s kindness, even if it’s come to an end, he’s a providentially good God and the relationship, although it’s been painful and uncomfortable in some ways, will also have taught you things about yourself and about life in the world that you need to learn going forward. So talk to someone that you trust. Don’t take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, but learn from what’s happened about yourself and about how you’ve responded.
Anyway, again, lots of things I could say there. But let me finish with God’s in control. The big thing—this is the thing I haven’t mentioned—have some fun. Please don’t turn it all into stodgy porridge. Just enjoy being together, hang out and do some great things. But remember: you’re dating with marriage as the goal. It probably won’t happen. Loving and honouring Jesus is the best thing that you can do. Cling to him. Act wisely. And in God’s grace, make good decisions.
Chase Kuhn: As we take a break from our program, I’d like to invite you to the 2022 Priscilla & Aquila Centre Conference. My good friend and colleague Dr Peter Orr will be giving the plenary addresses on “The One Another Commands”. I love the work of the P&A Centre, and find so much of the material they produce overlapping wonderfully with what we seek to produce here at the Centre for Christian Living. This conference will be no exception, as we all have a responsibility to think through what it means to live faithfully towards one another and in relationship with one another. In particular, Pete and others will be looking at how men and women should live in consideration of one another. You can find out more information and register for the conference at paa.moore.edu.au.
Finally, if you’ve benefitted from this episode, you might like to listen to the follow-up question and answer session from the event. Paul Grimmond sat down with Jane Tooher to discuss some of the complexities and issues related to dating. You can find this session on the P&A website. Again, that’s paa.moore.edu.au.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Jane Tooher: The first—actually, we’ve got a group of questions, really, to do with headship, submission, taking the initiative, so I think because of time, I might just read out a couple of them and then—
Paul Grimmond: Yeah.
Headship and submission
JT: —you give an answer. So to what extent should you start modelling Christian headship/submission while in a dating relationship? Is this something that should be reserved for marriage? What does Christian headship/submission mean? What if the relationship was one where the female is more mature in their walk with Christ than the male? Does male headship include taking initiative in dating? Would you encourage a girl to ask a guy out? Is that setting up an odd order of things at the start—i.e. should we wait for guys to take the lead, or is it all okay and helps him if he’s shy? Considering that God has created us with gender complementarity, how should this play out in our roles within a dating and, later, marriage context? And two more in this theme: what advice would you give for a young, working adults couple with an age gap of the man being 10 years younger than the woman, so not always that—the less usual thing? And can a man who is not a natural leader still display leadership qualities for marriage? If so, what might women look for when looking for a future potential spouse?
So that’s a range of [Laughter] different things.
PG: In 20 words or less!
PG: Okay. There are a lot of questions there, right? And, in all honesty, I think the headship and submission thing, we could take a whole another night just thinking about that.
I want to generally say I think that Ephesians 5, for me, has been really significant in thinking about the headship and submission thing. And if you look into that passage, what it says to the man about being the head is not that you’re the boss, but it actually says that you have responsibility to lay down your life for the good of the person that you’re married to in that particular instance. It means treating her—and language used is “as a member of your body”—that is, a man wouldn’t hurt his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, and must nourish and care for her as he does his own flesh (Eph 5:29). So the one-fleshness of that relationship is actually taken up in that passage to describe a commitment to the good of his wife at his own expense.
For the woman, that relationship is described in terms of submission, which I don’t think means doormat-ness or having no opinion, and in fact, I think the Scripture’s full of pictures of very strong, capable, able women who live wisely in submitting relationships with those around about them. But submission looks like being willing to care for, love and sit under a man’s leadership. Which means being able to express, declare and talk about what you think, feel, love or desire—all of that kind of stuff—but in a way that acknowledges a key part of the responsibility of the relationship lies with him, rather than you, and particularly choosing to let him make decisions and take control of some things and whatever without constantly badgering or harping or using manipulation in order to get the outcome that you want out of the relationship.
Now, the trick in the dating space is that you’re not yet married, and he is not yet your “head”, and you are not yet his “body”, and the relationship, therefore, hasn’t arrived at that point. I would say that because that’s the endpoint, you want to start to think about what those things look like and model them, to some extent, in the relationship. But that you’d be very clear and careful about some limits around that, and you don’t want to make that absolute.
So in terms of some of the questions that were asked, you know, “What if the woman is much more mature Christianly than the guy?” I don’t think that that’s particularly a problem necessarily. It becomes a problem if you don’t trust him or aren’t willing to let him take responsibility or lead in that space. Or if he feels really insecure about your maturity and finds it really uncomfortable to know how to take initiative or how to lead in that space.
Now, in terms of thinking about what that might look like, I just think it’s helpful to think about other relationships where leadership and submission takes place for a minute. If you think about, say, I don’t know, your workplace, where you’ve got a boss and the rest of the team members: sometimes the boss gets to make decisions about the place, because that’s their job. But if the boss spends all of their time ordering people around, they’re not actually respecting the giftedness or ability of the people who are part of the team, and really good teams work by the boss giving lots of freedom and engaging the gifts and the capacities of the people around about them. But taking responsibility for the hard things and the difficult things and the calls.
So I want to say to guys, take initiative and responsibility in the relationship. Be the one who takes responsibility for the fact that you’re going to church together. Or be the one who takes responsibility for praying with each other. Be the one whose willing to say, “No, actually we need to stop that thing physically. I’ve done the wrong thing. I’m going to repent and turn away from that.” Or “We need to act differently from the way that we’ve acted”. There are all sorts of spaces where it might play out.
But I also want to say that in healthy relationships, there’s not a lot of time being super aware of headship and submission. That is, in lots of those relationships that I’m a part of where I’m either the head or the one in submission, I don’t spend my whole time thinking, “Gee, he’s in control” or “Gee, I’m in control”. We live together in healthy relationship, but aware that the other person has more responsibility than I do.
So I would say walk towards that. Start to enact it in your relationship. But be very careful about remembering that you’re not yet married, and so, a whole lot of those images and pictures are not yet true of your relationship.
So even in terms of how you depend on each other and the way that that looks, that kind of stuff, just be thoughtful about that. And there are stuff that you want to leave until you’re at the point of that commitment and promise to each other.
I don’t know. Jane, do you want to ask anything else or clarify anything or—?
JT: No, that’s great. We can always add things with the extra session as well.
Older dating couples
JT: I want to ask a question about you’ve shared a lot of wisdom tonight, great advice, great wisdom, truths from God’s word. Would you add anything particularly if the couple were older—like, someone older thinking about dating?
PG: Yeah. It’s interesting in those marriage statistics, if you noticed: once you’re beyond, I think, about 35—at least in the general population—the incidence of divorce starts to increase again in the first five years of marriage, if you get married when both of you are a bit older. I think that part of the reason that that happens is that, particularly if you’ve lived that long in a space where particularly you’ve been—this is the wrong way of describing it, but there’s an element in which you haven’t had to be aware of or thoughtful of other people in the same way, and you’ve been in control of a lot of your own things in your own space. As we grow older, it’s easy to become more particular about things. It’s easy to want things done in a particular way, or to have a particular order or a particular neatness or a bunch of other things. Trying to integrate those things and understand those things about each other is really important and helpful. And so, in the same way that life experience brings a richness and a healthiness to a relationship, it can also bring habits and patterns that become harder to work out how to mesh together.
So I think learning how to laugh at difference, learning how to accommodate the differences and the strengths of opinion, and how we do that with each other. I think being aware of how particular habits that you have formed by spending a lot of your life as a single person can potentially affect the other person. And being thoughtful about reconstructing some of those things in the dating relationship is really helpful. And so, having conversations, but invite observations about difference, asking the other person, “What are some of the things that I do that you do find really frustrating? What would it look like to negotiate some of those things? I think they would be important things to try and work through.
JT: Great. Thanks, Paul! We’ll also, in the extra session, we’ll also be talking about dating following divorce. That was a question that was asked. But also we’ll also talk about after death of a spouse as well. We’ll talk about that. Think that would be great.
Being proactive in finding a spouse
JT: This might be the final group, ’cause there’s quite a lot in this group as well. It was around how proactive you should be in finding a spouse: is trusting God basically just waiting around and not doing anything? So can I trust in God, but also take the initiative? How proactive should I be? Yeah, or should I basically just be really happy being single? I don’t think I need to read the specific questions. I think—
JT: —you’ve got the general gist.
PG: Yeah, I’ve got the general gist.
PG: I mean, it’s a really good question, isn’t it, and really difficult at one level to answer this, I think. Although, at another level, quite simple. God calls us to depend on him in all things. But in lots of those things, he calls on us to be active as well. Right? So the Apostle Paul didn’t go, “Jesus commanded me to tell the gospel to all the nations, so I’m just going to sit here until the nations come to me and someone asks the question, ‘Good sir, what must I do to be saved?’” So God gives Paul a job. He says, “Here’s the responsibility”. He says, “Go and enact that”. And then Paul goes into the world and seeks to enact that.
So on the whole, I want to say, acting in the world is not in and of itself a sign that you’re neglecting God or you don’t care what he thinks, or you’re not trusting in him. Okay? So the same thing happens, I think, with godliness: Paul says, “Put to death what is sinful in you. Put on the new self.” He doesn’t say, “Just sit there and pray, and God will turn you magically godly”; he says, “Jesus has cleansed you, he’s the new life that you’ve been given, the Spirit’s at work in you now. Read the word. Put it on and put it off.”
So I think in our lives as Christians, God calls on us to act under him, trusting in his good provision, but in ways that pursue the kinds of ends and goals that he’s given to us. So I think that when it comes to—if you’re someone and you think that, for you, it would be good to be married, I actually don’t think that there’s any particular problem with being active at some level or another in that search. So actually, speaking with people, inviting someone out on a date, talking with someone, thinking that through.
Now, that said, the other problem that we have is the problem of idolatry or pursuing things for their own sake to the neglect of God. And so, you could foresee a situation where the desire to be married causes me to start making more and more decisions in that direction: I go to this church for a few weeks, but there’s nobody really there, so I move on to the next church for a few weeks, and there’s no one there, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And so I start to ignore some of the other good things that God says are important for me. So the Bible tells me that being part of a regular church community and being committed and serving there is a healthy part of my life.
So I want to say take active steps, if you think singleness is not for you, to healthily pursue relationships. But be aware yourself and invite others into that space to challenge you about whether that’s becoming an idol for you as well. Different ones of us engage differently. It’s not straightforward always. But that’s the thing—that they’re the things that you’re trying to hold in tension as you try to make that decision, I think.
Yeah. Be proactive. Avoid idolatry. And be thoughtful.
JT: That’s great. Thanks so much, Paul. Thank you so much for joining us tonight on “God’s wisdom for dating”. I hope you found it really helpful. I hope you found it helpful for your own life and as you minister with others as well.
Paul, would you close in prayer for us? That’d be great.
PG: Let’s pray.
Our precious Father in heaven,
We thank you that you are a good God. We thank you that you love us deeply. We thank you that you have created us, Father, with the end in mind, that we will one day be with you and with our precious Lord Jesus in perfect communion and enjoying all the riches of the new creation.
Father, we thank you that in this world, you have made us in your image as men and women, that you have made us for relationship with each other, that you have granted us the good gift of marriage, and that you have made us sexual beings for our good and for your glory.
Father, as we try to work out what to do with all of that in a culture that is opposed to you and does many things that are unhealthy, we pray that you would grant us insight and wisdom from your word. We pray that you would work in us by your Spirit to help us to delight in the things that you delight in. And so, we pray that you would help us to wisely pursue dating for those of us who are single and who feel that marriage is, perhaps, the goal that you have for us in a way that trusts in your good provision, that remembers your grace and kindness in the gospel, that seeks the goals that you have for us in our relationships with others, and that honours you in all things that we do with these bodies that you have graciously provided us.
Father, in the midst of that, with lots of tricky things to navigate, we pray that you’d help us to be quick to forgive, slow to become angry, patient and kind, and that you would make us like Christ.
Father, will you do all of these things please for Jesus’ sake and for your glory.
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1 Marshall Segal, Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness and Dating (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 194.