My senior year in college, I met a girl that blew me away. She was beautiful. She shared my passion for ministry. She shared my theology and understanding of the local church. And I suspected we had a lot of other things in common as well. We had lunch to talk about some areas of ministry we were both involved in on campus. A few days later I saw her again at our campus prayer meeting. I told her how much I enjoyed our lunch, and that we should do it again.
And then it hit me. That cold, gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. A weakness in my limbs, a dryness in my mouth. You know what I’m talking about. Fear. Powerful, primal, inescapable, fear.
I saw her often — at prayer meeting, our IVCF meetings, around campus. But all I could muster at those chance encounters (and some not so chance encounters!) was an earnest “We should do lunch again sometime,” followed by awkward avoidance of actually setting it up.
Thankfully, she had mercy on me. She took the initiative and found an excuse to set up a meeting. I was in charge of small group Bible studies on campus and she was leading one. So she could pull it off without too much trouble. Once again we had a great time. Once again, at the end of the lunch, I suggested we should get together again. And once again, fear gripped me and I failed to act.
Unbeknownst to me, she had already confided in her friends that she liked me, but wasn’t going to bail me out again. If anything was going to happen, I was going to have to step up to the plate, initiate, and define the relationship. In short, I was going to have to be a man and lead.
It took a while, and she began to think I’d never do it. But a month or so later, I managed to initiate a conversation at our annual fall beach retreat. When we got back to campus, we took a walk one evening. I told her many of the things I liked about her, how much I enjoyed being with her, and that I wanted us to date exclusively. I’m not sure what we called it back then, but in today’s parlance, I had finally had the DTR — Define The Relationship
It wasn’t the last difficult stage in our dating relationship, nor was it the last time I was nearly paralyzed with fear. But nearly 17 years of marriage later, I am so thankful that Adrienne found that excuse for a second lunch. Had she not, I’m not sure we ever would have made it to the DTR, or the altar!
A Small Talk That’s Not Just Small Talk
So why is it that guys like me and you tend to wait so long to have the talk? After all, chances are, you’ve already talked quite a few times. You like talking to her. That’s why you want to have the conversation. But this conversation isn’t like all the others. Even if it’s just the initials DTR, there’s a whole lot more riding on the outcome than whether or not you start dating. Your entire self-image is on the line.
Basically, it comes down to what the Bible calls the fear of man. It can take many different forms. Maybe we don’t want to risk her rejection, because we’ve invested a lot of ourselves in what she thinks of us. Maybe we don’t want to risk failure, because our self-image is wrapped up in success, including relational success. Maybe we don’t want to risk the ridicule of the guys, who’ll tease us for not landing someone “better.” Maybe we don’t want to risk commitment, because we fear being that exposed to another person.
Whatever form it takes, fear of man causes me to avoid doing anything that puts me at risk, and that includes the DTR. Instead, I either wait for a risk-free scenario (like pumping her friends for information to find out how she’ll respond), or I manipulate her into taking the risk for me (which is basically what flirting is all about — can I lead her on just enough to get her to reveal her true feelings first?).
Trusting God With Your Manhood
Many people think that for guys, being a Christian means giving up being a man. Nothing could be further from the truth. God created us as men to lead and take the initiative. And that means taking risks.
But there’s no way I’ll ever take a real risk as long as my sense of worth is tied up in what others think of me. And that includes a girlfriend, or even a wife. It’s only as I put my trust in God and his unconditional acceptance of me through the atoning death of Jesus Christ that I can ever take up God’s calling to be a leader. It’s only when I’m confident of God’s love for me that I can stop manipulating the woman I’m interested in, and instead love and honor her by shouldering the risks of the relationship myself.
And guys, while risk-taking leadership may begin with the DTR, it doesn’t end there. From Genesis 2 to Matthew 1 (Joseph’s concern for Mary), to Ephesians 5 (Christ’s love for the church), the Bible consistently portrays the man’s responsibility to initiate and lead in the marriage relationship.
Maybe the most often overlooked example of this is in the very first relationship, Adam and Eve. Genesis 2:22 tells us that after God made Eve, he brought her to Adam. Now what we might have expected next was for God to say something: explain the purpose of marriage, assure Adam that after all the disappointment of not finding a suitable helper (2:19-20), here she was, encourage him about her willingness to marry. But God doesn’t do any of that. He simply brings her to Adam and says nothing. The silence is deafening. The next move is all up to him.
What does Adam do? He doesn’t flirt with her. He doesn’t ask her if she likes him. Instead, he shoulders the risk, steps up to the plate, and declares his intentions for the relationship. When Adam says in Genesis 2:23, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he’s not just describing where she came from. And he’s certainly not flirting, or putting out feelers. He’s laying it on the line and declaring his intentions for marriage.
Guys, the woman you marry is going to depend on you to lead her. She’s going to look to you to sacrifice your own comfort and convenience for the sake of the family. She’s going to look to you to back her up when your teenage children, or the in-laws, come down on her. She’s going to look to you set the pace spiritually. She’s going to look to you for leadership when hard decisions about career, or parenting, or aging parents, or any of a host of other issues arise. She’s going to look to you to set the example in admitting when you’re wrong and asking for forgiveness.
In all of those situations, you’re going to feel the fear again. The fear of making a wrong decision. The fear of being exposed. The fear of being rejected. And then, as with the DTR, the only way you’ll be able to step up and lead as the man God made you to be, is if your trust is in God, not in the outcome of the conversation.
Note to women: if the guy you’re dating isn’t leading well now, don’t think that a ring on his finger is going to change anything. You should be extremely wary of prolonging that relationship in the hope that you’ll be able to change him. At this point, humility, realism and the Scriptures are your best friends. Humility reminds you that you’re not the Holy Spirit; you can’t change another person’s heart. Realism tells you that what you see is generally what you get. A poor leader may improve in his leadership skills incrementally over time, but he’s unlikely to metamorphose into a great leader on your wedding night. And the Scriptures warn you that your heart does not have your best interests in mind (Jer. 17:9). It will betray you. Thus the repeated warning in Song of Solomon, “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, 8:4). So if you want to be married to a man who will lead well, don’t date a man that doesn’t.
Swallowing Our Pride, Not Our Words
Since marriage is all about self-risking leadership, it makes sense that that’s where we need to start in dating. Guys, we need to swallow our pride, which is unwilling to risk failure or embarrassment, and then open our mouths and initiate the relationship.
What should the DTR look like? There’s no one right formula, but it should at least include the following:
- What do you like about her? What qualities and attributes have attracted you to her? What have you observed that makes you want to pursue this? Tell her! And don’t just focus on the romantic things that are likely to produce an emotional response. Talk to her about the biblical qualities and virtues that you’ve observed that make you think marriage is worth considering.
- What are your intentions? If you’re serious about obeying 1 Timothy 5:2, “Treat … younger women as sisters, with absolute purity,” your intentions should not be recreational or experimental dating. You wouldn’t want someone treating your sister as a means for a little fun, would you? So if you’re not in a position to get married, you shouldn’t be having this conversation or the relationship! If you are, you don’t need to tell her that you want to marry her, but you should let her know that you want to start this relationship in order to find out.
- What’s next? Regular dates? Getting involved in ministry together? Meeting each other’s close friends? Give her a sense of how you intend to go about this, so she’s not left wondering the next day why you haven’t called. This might even include a sense of how long you think it will take to decide if this is leading to marriage or not.
Some of you men are thinking at this point, “Wait a minute. Are you saying that all the risk is mine?” Yes I am. “Doesn’t that mean that she can just tell me no and leave me twisting in the wind?” Yes is does. Welcome to leadership. Welcome to trusting God. Welcome to being a man. Your cards belong on the table. Your intentions and your feelings, to the extent that you can discern them and it is appropriate for you to share them, should be clear. Part of your role even at this early stage is to protect the woman of your interest from unnecessary risk and vulnerability by providing a safe context in which she can respond.
Twenty years ago, when I finally worked up the courage to have the DTR, I didn’t do everything right. I wasn’t clear enough on my intentions. I certainly didn’t give her a sense of what was next. That led to problems along the way. And additional DTRs. But by God’s grace, I did risk myself. And I learned that God can be trusted, with my love life, with my manhood, with everything.
All that, from just one small conversation.
Copyright 2007 Michael Lawrence. All rights reserved.