I was in my late 20s and unmarried when I began to think something might be wrong. I had imagined that I would marry in my early 20s and start a family soon after, but instead, the years slid by with few potential husbands and fewer dates.
On the surface, it seemed the problem was that the Christian guys I was interested in dating didn’t seem to be asking anyone out. Often they were engaging in buddy relationships instead. And while the guys seemed noncommittal (or the other extreme — desperate), my female friends and I were accused of being overly picky. We wanted strong Christian men who possessed leadership qualities and were attractive. Was that too much to ask? I sometimes thought so.
Then I met my husband, Kevin. Things just fit, and we got married after knowing each other a little over a year. That didn’t stop me from grappling with the dilemma I described above as I watched it continue to play out among my single friends. Something is broken with Christian dating. I know far too many single women and men who desire marriage but seem to be blocked from … well, getting married.
Two Roads Diverged in a Wood
It’s helpful to consider the influence “what not to do” has had on a generation of Christian singles. Let’s face it — the world’s road to marriage is not really an option for the serious believer. In 2011, Susan Olasky interviewed college students about relationships.
She discovered that among non-believing young adults, hooking up and cohabitation were commonplace, and marriage was merely one road among many to achieving personal happiness. As we know, the Bible advocates a much different philosophy. Designed by God, marriage eases loneliness, provides a context for sex and children, and offers a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.
The question I think today’s Christian singles are asking is: “What does the path from singleness to marriage look like for us?” There doesn’t seem to be one effective method for getting from Point A (singleness) to Point B (marriage). And as the world’s perspective on marriage has drifted further and further from God’s plan, the result is even greater confusion about what to do.
During the ’90s, I experienced the surge of the courtship movement. What I took away from this alternative to dating was that young people interested in marriage should group date to get to know one another and avoid temptation, involve their families, and not enter into a romantic relationship unless the guy was being “intentional,” essentially committing to the woman.
I’m pretty sure this trend scared some guys spitless. All of a sudden, they had to decide on a group date if they were interested in marrying one of the ladies in their crew. Then they had to have a scary “singling out” conversation with her (or maybe even her dad). This created a lot of pressure to know she was “the one” without a lot of relationship happening first. (This pressure was probably responsible for creating the “burning bush” phenomenon of Christian guys waiting for a supernatural moment of clarification before asking a girl out on a date.)
I think girls were scared, too. I remember having a fear of “leading on” guys who were showing even a hint of interest in me, because I hadn’t decided (gasp) if I could marry them!
Those who encouraged intentionality meant well, but I think their philosophy inadvertently promoted a consumer mentality. Guys thought, If I have to choose a wife based on very little information, I’m going to ask out the most beautiful, smart, funny girl I can find. Similarly, women thought, I’ll only go on dates with the most handsome, smart, financially stable guys who ask. I noticed many of the best-looking guys and best-looking girls effortlessly found each other during the courtship era, while the rest of us kind of stood on the sidelines.
Hyper-intentionality created division between Christian singles as we sized each other up, hoping to get the “best deal” we could. And in the process, we abandoned some basic principles of Christian relationships, such as loving one another, building each other up and considering others better than ourselves. I was as guilty as the next person.
I often observe Christian singles consumed by expectations of perfection in their future spouses. They may even demonstrate a certain disdain for those who don’t embody these ideals. Recently I heard a woman making fun of a guy who once asked her out — a guy I know to be a wonderful husband and father today. And while I appreciate the hard-hitting truth contained in an article like “Brother, You’re Like a Six,” in a way, it reinforces this idea of rating one another and treating each other like commodities.
As Christians, our relationships should not be about labeling one another worthy or unworthy. We are all unworthy apart from Christ, and we are all made worthy through Him. As we engage in relationships, we need to remember that truth. Romans 12:2 says:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I think the key to transforming Christian dating lies in allowing God to renew our minds in how we view and relate to one another. Here are three ways to get started:
1. Learn to see.
When I was single, I often found myself evaluating people rather than really getting to know them. Remember that children’s picture book, Are You My Mother? Sometimes I felt like I was walking around in groups of singles silently asking each guy, “Are you my husband?” Instead of viewing men as individuals created in God’s image, I interacted with them based on my own agenda.
Jesus was great at seeing people. Matthew 9:36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.” In another account, Mark tells us of the rich young ruler, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (10:21a).
As we look beyond what other people can do for us and appreciate who they truly are, we allow Christ to dwell richly in us. Instead of zeroing in on the top “possibility” in a group, get to know everyone and see if someone captures your attention based on less superficial and more meaningful characteristics.
2. Learn to value.
Our culture has trained us to gravitate toward those who seem to be winning at life. She’s hot. He’s engaging. She’s popular. He’s got a good job. The checkmarks add up in our brains as we evaluate whether someone is worth our time. This keeping score is the opposite of what God tells us to do, which is, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
God wants you to view each person as valuable and keep a humble estimation of yourself. This opens up the opportunity to get to know others in an authentic way. Instead of viewing intentionality as the “buying process” to secure the best spouse possible, see it as a characteristic to be applied evenly to all areas of life. If you wish to marry, pray regularly for God to provide a spouse. Study what His Word says on the subject. One young woman told me that as a single she read as many marriage articles as possible to prepare for that future relationship, should God provide it. Now she is engaged and on the brink of putting that knowledge to work.
3. Learn to serve.
In many ways, singleness is a season of unprecedented freedom. And culture encourages you to live it up, indulging in every pleasurable experience that you can.
Galatians contains a powerful little verse that challenges this notion: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13). My experience as a single taught me that we’re bad at serving each other. Sure, I served at my church, but most of my time revolved around me and thinking about what I wanted. (Marriage, and especially parenthood, were a rude awakening!)
Thinking about how we can serve others changes the way we treat people. Do men serve women by looking at pornography and holding women to an impossible physical standard? No. Do women serve men by failing to respect them and undermining their God-given leadership? Of course not. We serve others by embracing the values of purity, love and sacrifice God calls us to in His Word.
One area of service God challenged me to grow in was how I engaged with others relationally. Going back to the “worthy or unworthy” thing, I used to only invest encouraging words and meaningful conversations in guys I was interested in. God challenged me that instead of judging the worthiness of the men I knew, I should be looking to spur them on in love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). That was a way I could serve them.
Maybe Christian dating isn’t broken so much as our thinking is. As we learn to see, value and serve one another, we quit being consumers and begin to truly emulate Jesus Christ. I can’t think of any more valuable preparation for God-honoring marriages.
Copyright 2015 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.