Not long ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. with two things on my mind: taking advantage of a promising career opportunity and finding a woman to spend my life with. Despite the fact that I had previously lived in cities that seemed better suited to my intentions to get to know a quality Christian woman — Dallas, Tulsa and Colorado Springs — I remained hopeful.
My first year in the nation’s capital city was difficult; both job and dating scene didn’t click for me. I faced what many young adults seeking to date a person of character experience — a lack of prospects and no clear path forward.
In his new book “Cheap Sex,” Dr. Mark Regnerus paints a bleak portrait of America’s dating marketplace. Using social research, he observes that young adults have an “obsession with romance, yet stability seems increasingly elusive.”
Despite the setbacks, I had this sense that God had led me to D.C. for a larger purpose. At a crossroads in life, I tried to gain my bearings. What would be the constant as feelings and external events shifted? Seeking insight from Scripture, I came upon a verse from an Old Testament story that seemed to resonate: “My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land.” (Numbers 14:24)
The context may seem odd in relation to dating, but hear me out.
The Path Toward a Promise
Caleb was one of 12 spies Moses sent to survey the Promised Land. Of the 12, only he and Joshua came back with a good report. The other 10 focused on the giants and strongholds they believed were insurmountable.
In my journey, this applied to Washington — a big, unknown city with factions always at war. I desired to “make a difference” (don’t we all?) and also build relationships, including one that would lead to marriage. I wanted to be intentional but could not see past turns in the path ahead.
While I hardly think I’ve been the best example, maybe my steps and missteps can illustrate something about the “different spirit” God calls us to in dating (and other areas of life).
1. When I acted selfishly, I missed the obvious.
As I headed into my late 20s, I felt I had to “make something happen” on the dating front. Several failed, awkward, sort-of relationships revealed areas in my life where I was lacking maturity.
I remember tagging along with a girl on a road trip to return her car to the family ranch. She did not reciprocate my feelings, but I chose not to see this. An enduring memory of this excursion is waking up surrounded by cats after a restless night in a sleeping bag (I hate cats to this day). I even exchanged sharp words with the woman’s mother. Ignoring clues of mismatched interests led to my poor decisions.
Another time, a woman invited me over for a “group dinner.” When I arrived, I realized it was just going to be the two of us. Later I regretted that I had not been clearer upfront about how I viewed our friendship.
I came into situations barely understanding my own intentions, much less anyone else’s. As I charged in, my selfish bias gave me selective vision. I assumed I knew others’ thoughts and motivations. As it turns out, people are complex, driven by many different factors. I discovered that listening with a stance of mercy was a good first step. Trying to lead without truly perceiving the other person isn’t really leading at all.
2. I needed to let faith, not fear, rule the day.
If I’m honest, those situations where I was graceless and even hurtful were in part the result of fear and comparison. At that point, four of my siblings had already married. I was filled with doubt. Had I missed God’s good plan? Was I incapable of sharing the mystery of romance and sexual desire with someone?
Fear results from not knowing and relying on the voice of God. Think of the Israelite spies: They saw giants and strongholds, and shrank back. Now, not everyone is called to marriage. Men and women I know who are pursuing God’s best without a life partner bring incredible creativity, joy and truth to me and those around them.
But I knew I desired marriage. During an altar time at church, a trusted pastoral voice had spoken things about a future relationship that resonated as a promise. The trouble came when I disregarded what I’d heard from the Lord, or believed it was up to me to fulfill that promise. Like the spies in the Promised Land, I didn’t feel bold to pursue what God had placed on my heart.
God had stated, “I am giving this land to Israel” (Numbers 13:1), and yet 10 of the 12 pioneers sent feared the hostile forces they saw more than they believed the vision God had presented of their future.
Reflecting on Israel’s journey centuries later, the book of Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you …” (41:10). Knowing the One in whom we believe, we can confidently engage in relationships and see where possibilities go.
3. I needed to discover what I could give rather than look for what I could get.
God had some work to do in me. Sure, I held to a biblical view of sexuality and desired to be married. But I realized the condition of my heart and mind wasn’t marriage-ready. It took strength to admit I needed help.
I needed to work through past hurts. I needed to rewire thought patterns that would objectify rather than honor. Most importantly, I needed to reject lies that were fueling those cycles — agreements that marred the identity of who God said I was. I committed to a discipleship program that involved biblical principles, intensive small-group sessions, corporate worship times and tough dialogue, including confession.
The path forward wasn’t just learning what to do, but discovering more of who I am in Christ. All the way back in Genesis 3, we see that it is the enemy who casts doubt on God’s good intentions for man. The world, the church — indeed, all of us as fallen people — spread guilt, shame and inferiority. Misery loves company. Only through the mercy of God, the giver of perfect love, did I discover the goodness and rest of being a son who is known and loved.
At the end of this season of crash-and-burn, sorta-relationships, I remember a conversation I had with my younger brother. “I’ve learned that I’m not really good at reading women,” I admitted. “Right now, I am seriously content pursuing good friendships whatever they look like. No need to try desperately to spark something, because that doesn’t go well.”
It was later that evening I met the woman who would become my wife.
A Good Risk
My brother and I were on our way to a small basement space in downtown D.C. for a weekly prayer meeting of mostly 20-somethings. This meeting had become a source of respite in the fast-paced city. That night, all seats were taken and some even craned their necks from the staircase.
Following a few worship songs, the leader invited people to pray out loud while others joined in agreement. I didn’t have an immediate epiphany when I first saw Terri. I recall the passion in her voice when she prayed. I’d never seen this striking blonde before and decided to become a welcoming committee of one. When the meeting broke up, many headed over to a nearby burger joint.
By that point, I had come to think of building friendships as a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, I was intentional to sit near her — at that Friday after-party and others to come — but we just enjoyed the conversation. Instead of immediately developing feelings for her, I lingered in curiosity about who she was. We asked each other a lot of questions, heard each other’s experiences and discovered we shared many things in common.
She and her friend lived blocks away in the dark downtown area, so they welcomed me walking them back to their apartment. As our friendship progressed, I remained fascinated by Terri’s background, school years, purposeful work in the city, nomadic cross-country journeys, likes and dislikes.
A question presented itself: Would I take another chance and risk rejection? Even if I asked her out, it might not to lead to something more. But I knew how I felt, valued how unique Terri was, and sensed greater possibilities. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
She agreed to an evening date. By that point, we had developed enough trust that we could venture into deeper topics. Gradually I learned she too had faced a personal growth process, one that had prepared her for dating.
We began a relationship, talking through boundaries early on. Six months later, we were engaged on a wild day that involved cross-country travel, a last-minute ring pickup, and getting her on a stage without guessing the reason. Terri and I have been married five years now, which is its own journey of discovery.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Our generation views the current dating marketplace as a wasteland. I’m not saying social and cultural trends are easy to overcome. Yet shrinking back is what the timid spies did. A whole nation faced consequences from their doubt, wandering for many years before entering the place of God’s promise.
God has a good plan for your life. Maybe it’s in singleness, a compelling calling we see many biblical leaders embrace. If a serious relationship is a desire, then take steps to reflect a different spirit than what we see in our culture. Start from a place of faith rather than fear or comparison. God can overcome big obstacles.
Believe God’s promises in Scripture, and pray into them. Take a bold stance of faith, knowing that God works on your behalf. Consider if you have hang-ups, addictions or past issues to work through. A complimentary call with one of our Boundless counselors through Focus on the Family can help you begin to navigate those waters.
Take risks in relationships. Being open to new friendships and possibilities often leads to growth. Listen to the stories others tell. Even when a date didn’t go perfectly, I found it could be a positive experience when I engaged and just enjoyed the unique personality across the table.
Caleb’s “different spirit” came from possessing real knowledge of what God promised and wholly following the mission set before him. Focused more on becoming someone rather than finding somebody, I’ve seen how taking one step of faith at a time results in good things.
Copyright 2017 Josh M. Shepherd. All rights reserved.