January 2, 2018

Dating

Gary Thomas — 

Should singles date someone only if they think they would like to marry them?

One of the more common comments I get after a seminar, or after someone has read The Sacred Search, is this: “Should dating be reserved only for someone you think you want to marry?”

The following email excerpt is typical:

“My parents did not allow us to have boyfriends growing up unless we were sure we wanted to marry them. So I grew up with the mindset of viewing guys through the lens of marriage material. When you’re in your early 20s and men are all over the place, it was easier than it is now, being 28 years old, single, a professional, not very experienced and facing family and community pressure on not being married… I had started to lose hope that following Christian values was not working…”

I so wince at that leap in logic: “I had started to lose hope that following Christian values was not working…”

An entire generation of Christians has grown up with the thought that dating is dangerous at best, and many are now in their thirties re-thinking that strategy, fighting not to become bitter and even questioning their faith. Let’s not assume, however, that what they were taught necessarily constitutes “Christian values.”

Joshua Harris has made headlines admitting that he might be in the process of re-thinking his message from his popular 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  I actually quote from Joshua’s book in The Sacred Search and while I’m pleased he’s re-thinking certain aspects of it, I have to confess that my dating lifestyle was not healthy, and I can imagine I could have benefitted from drifting more toward Josh’s teaching. Yet many are now telling me that their “non-dating” lifestyle wasn’t healthy, either. I believe Josh tried to thoughtfully counter many abuses in his (and my) day, and I’m grateful for his heart and courage (both then and now). Attacks on books usually take a few provocative statements out of context, make leaps in logic the author never intended, and often try to extend the logic to points that are absurd, and I have no interest in doing that to Josh.

But it’s fair to raise the question: what’s “responsible dating?” How serious do you have to be about each other before you become “exclusive?”

I talk with an increasing number of singles who were so fearful of making a mistake in dating that they never really did, and now feel like they have fewer choices than ever. Beliefs have consequences. If you fear dating, you may be closing the door on a primary avenue of finding someone to marry.

I’d like to throw out a few observations, and let you all react as you think it’s appropriate. This blog is more about opening up a conversation than it is about providing answers. I’ve said much of what I thought in The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not About Who You Marry, but Why?

  • The cultural reality of the Old and New Testaments were so radically different than today’s environment of choosing whom to marry that trying to find an authoritative “biblical pattern of dating” is a fool’s errand. We can (and should) apply biblical principles about how to treat each other, but there is not a true biblical method to follow, and talking as if there is one is hubris.
  • The frequent, very emotionally-involved dating cycle with many women that I grew up with was unhealthy and not conducive to finding a mate. We became exclusive as soon as we had feelings for each other, and when the feelings faded, we broke up. This created much hurt and wasted much time. Removing dating from any thought of potential marriage took me away from a more productive use of those years. Joshua might have over-done it when writing about courtship; I certainly over-did it when, in practice, I dated exclusively as soon as I felt like it.
  • One of the limitations of “courtship” is that you get locked into a relationship and are determined to try to make it work (since it does seem more serious than dating) when it may not be a wise match. A pseudo-engagement may receive more effort than it deserves or more commitment than the relationship can support. I implore singles to be very cautious about the first use of those two famous words “love” and “marriage.” You can’t take those words back, and I’ve seen a premature expression of them sap the joy out of a couple getting to know each other.
  • It’s healthy for young people to spend time with the opposite sex; it can also be helpful for young people to spend time with the opposite sex in a one-on-one setting. But how can we do this in a way that protects our emotions and doesn’t lead to a series of sexual relationships?
  • A godly person will not be quick to declare their emotions when they know infatuation is intense and fleeting. They will want to protect their heart and the heart of the person they’re interested in, more than they’ll want the immediate satisfaction of having an infatuation returned.
  • The “process” of dating does matter, as it turns you into a certain kind of person—one who takes selfish advantage of others or one who learns to serve and protect others. My unhealthy attitudes toward dating carried on into my marriage and nearly destroyed it in the early years. I hadn’t exposed the lies and selfishness behind dating and wasn’t emotionally or spiritually prepared for marriage. Thank God for his grace and Lisa for her perseverance.

A lot of singles come to this blog when we raise topics like this, so if you’d like to add some of your reflections in the comments, feel free. And singles, please let us know what it’s like out there!

When you subscribe to Gary’s blog, you will receive blog posts directly to your e-mail inbox. You will be one of the first to learn about the latest in Gary’s writing.

62 responses to Dating

  1. I had to learn the hard way in my recent and only long-term relationship. Though I wasn’t taking the approach of a Christian. I wanted to experience having someone to date, enjoy laughs and activities together. In my mind, I would casually date and enjoy experiences together. I knew this person wasn’t as interested in God as I was, but more worldly. In my mind, I wanted casual dating, not a long-term relationship. What I failed to notice, is how fast my feelings for her were growing. That is something that even being consciously aware of, is very hard to break from.

    She was a sweet and loving girl, but like every human being had her dark sides.

    We just recently broke up, and one thing I learned from this is not too invest your time in people who don’t have the same values, someone isn’t as passionate as you are in your spiritual growth.

    Once you bond with the person, it is very easy to sidetrack from your values… I found myself compromising things I wouldn’t have had I not been so blinded by love. Emotions can be powerful, so invest time with those that are in alignment with your values.

    Nevertheless, we learn from everything.

  2. My first comment did not address the question Should singles date someone only if they think they would like to marry them?

    Question would age of the single be of concern in limiting dating to want you think you would marry. My gut response is the older you are the more likely one should probably limit you’re dating to one you’re likely to marry.

    When younger you are still figuring out who you are and changing more and maybe not being so evaluating of is the person marriage material makes sense.

  3. I’m 53 years young , never married, no children, not the way I imagined my journey. I chose early on to wait for my husband to be the first. I know the Lord encourages this for my protection but to maintain a relationship or courting in today’s culture to the point of engagement and/or marriage seems impossible. Even dating men that are believers. This may be a stupid question and it is shortened but how do you spend alot of time with a man, enjoy sharing affection without worrying about being a tease or in a situation where calling a halt at whatever point. One thought is alot of activities to fill time but the evening still comes to an end. This is all in the context that I have a passionate personality, I’m passionate about faith, service, loved ones, health…even beautiful weather and my favorite teams. Hope this makes sense….I would appreciate feedback.

    • Dear KB, you have answered your own question when you say “enjoy affection without worrying”. It depends on what you’re exhibiting in sharing affection. A man may read certain actions as an invitation to intimacy but that wasn’t your intention. Certain things will excite a man, therefore, re-evaluate how to present yourself in the gentleman’s pressence. See Proverbs 6:27.
      Hope this helps, from another passionate Sister in the Lord.

  4. I loved reading this article because it deeply resonated with a lot of the feelings I had growing up and trying to figure out dating in the Christian world. What I loved about Joshua Harris’ book was the intentionality and wisdom he introduced. I appreciated the idea of not approaching dating glibly or carelessly. However, even as a teen reading that book, I felt like it was a bit of a heavy weight, although I truly think his heart was in the right place. Reading this article and listening to some of your talks about “The Sacred Search” after getting married has been an interesting experience because (by the grace of God alone!) my husband and I both approached dating seriously, but with fun in mind.
    We went on a date without knowing each other very well, and we had lots of fun talking and getting to know each other. I ended up moving away immediately after, which introduced long-distance into the picture. This did make it more difficult to keep things “light” when we first started out. But I still feel we worked hard to learn about each other and date even from a distance. On my end, I had decided years before meeting my husband that I would not marry someone solely based on the fact that I loved him. I don’t think David (my husband) had that exact revelation, but he is a very pragmatic man, and we walked through the steps of learning about each others’ values and characters throughout our dating process. The long-distance certainly kept the physical aspect of holding hands and kissing from clouding our judgment! By the time we started visiting each other and spending time together, the base of character and friendship had already been formed, and we were simply testing out what it was like to be together “in real life.” While long-distance is difficult and frustrating for a number of reasons, I see it now as a true gift in helping us become friends and learn about each other before the infatuation completely took over or the physical aspect of our relationship started.
    All that to say, I would encourage every individual who is single to first pursue contentment with their current relationship status, and then to be willing to go on dates and get to know people. However, I would STRONGLY ADVISE resisting most physical contact for at least a few dates until you get a better idea of who you’re dating. It will give you more time to get to know someone before that heavenly, eye-clouding, love-blinding first kiss and second kiss and hand-holding, etc., happens. Also, before you jump in head-over-heels, honestly ask for feedback from your closest friends and family about how you have been since you started dating this person, and what they think of the person if they’ve already met them. LISTEN without being defensive. These people know you–and they may know the person you’re dating!–and they want the very best for you. They may not be 100% right, but there’s a good chance they may be seeing something you’re not. Oh, and pray and ask God for wisdom DAILY. Just my two cents.

  5. As a young adult who grew up in a sexualized culture and made so many worldly mistakes in college- I can say that “I kissed dating goodbye” was EXACTLY what I needed…For Christians who grow up in an biblically focused Church And faith community (which I did not), they may not have needed a lot of the practical wisdom from such a concept…For those who say the book is too extreme I want to encourage to remind yourself of the words of Jesus as it relates to marriage in Matthew 19 and the value of the covenant and how God seed sexual immorality….and the apostle Paul writing the the Church at Ephesus about not entertaining even a “hint” of sexual immorality. I have been a follower of Christ for some time now and have led and discipled a great deal of youth and young adults alongside my husband- and I can assure you- this generation needs radial messages like what Joshua Harris wrote. We are filled with too much anxiety around getting married and even in my case at one point it became an idol. Many of us fail to admit that We are willing to compromise our emotional and sexual purity far too easily when we are single as if It’s not a big deal to our Jealous God. Books like I kissed dating Goodbye are so helpful to this generation that has NO emotional boundaries and few sexual ones as well. I am also first generation American and that book encouraged me to study American and other cultures and dating or courtship practices. What I realized was that the book also challenges how you think about dating- it is a cultural construct. The church simply imitated it and deemed dating as normal. Jesus came to preach a message of the kingdom that usurps and challenges our cultural practices- dating included. We should be showing the world how to approach men and women “in all purity” Now the problem comes when we read a book like “I kissed dating goodbye” and make it the Law and use it to judge one another (or ourselves) like it is holy writ. The books should simply challenge men and women of ANY age to apply Romans 12:2 which I love in the message version “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
    My hope is that if Joshua Harris revises the book he would not change His zeal and be weary of those who deem the concept “legalistic” We all can struggle with legalism when reading any book that calls us to radical change for Jesus whether it be dating, finances, etc. Legalism is a heart issue more than a topic issue. This area is EPIC…and Satan is devouring many in and out of the Church with temptation surrounding sexual immorality. When I read the book my friends saw me as a extreme most of them wish they would have been more extreme with their purity because I can honestly saw almost everyone fell into compromise either through committing sexual sin In serious ways. Do I believe that they needed to follow every single thing in the book- no that would be legalistic- yet we all desperately needed to challenge how we viewed sexual and relationships. I reflect back and think of reading books like that and crying out to God as a young person asking him to help me walk in purity! It wasn’t about a bunch of rules at the heart of it all- I really just wanted to please Him! I am so greatful for books like that as it taught me to take seriously what God says about sexual sin in a world that is screaming the opposite!…
    As for older individuals- now that I am older my perspective has Not changed. I am finding amongst the more seasoned brothers and sisters in the faith there is a lot of rampant compromise. I believe that Satan would love to use being of an older age to lure many into a trap and snare. We ALL- young and old need accountability and community. My older friends will go on dates and not tell anyone and think because they are older they don’t need accountability and can control themselves (or their date) and find themselves in sometimes greater traps of immorality than younger believers because living a life with so many “secrets” is truly most fertile ground for the works of Satan to manifest.
    Any person who reads the book and struggles with applying things legalistically should hopefully have the accountability of other WISE and MATURE believers in the local church to help them learn how to walk in holiness AND discernment!

  6. I think a good example of dating in the Bible is Solomon and the Shulamite woman. They dated prior to getting married and they did not have premarital sex. Dating is the opportunity to see if two people are both compatible, spiritually and mentally. Just because a man and a woman are both born-again believers, doesn’t mean that they are compatible. My dad used to tell my sisters and me that dating allows you to experience different personality types. Dating also allows you to have a flourishing friendship, which is definitely pertinent to a successful marriage.

  7. I’m almost 50 and have been married 3 times. Twice to the same guy. I waited on God to open the door of opportunity, when i pursued the guy I’m currently dating, waiting 18 months. Just shy of 3 yrs later, I can honestly say it’s been a journey. It started off in a lie but quickly exposed. He has been growing his spiritual life, fully, for the first time. However, he still uses his desire for sex, as a tool for us to deeply connect. I’m standing firm that he is correct, sex is meant for that deep connection ….in a marriage. We don’t talk about us getting married, but I have stated marriage is harder than one realizes till they’re in it. He’s never been married nor has kids and knows he was just living, but meeting me and believing he was to pursue me, he still stands to reason our relationship should include sex to grow our relationship deeper and closer.
    Being married before, I deeply miss that connection, so it’s a struggle for me.
    From a man’s view, can this relationship thrive or will he get so sexually frustrated he’ll fall into other reliefs patterns and I’ll be back in my past marriage?

    • Hello dear sister! If this many you are dating is pressuring you to have sex- please do yourself a favor and end the relationship…if he is willing to compromise now, he will definitely compromise as a married man. Please do not ignore the signs! Trust in the Lord-He will meet you desires and needs…Turn to the Lord
      Until you find someone who does not compromise and is integral!

      • I totally agree with Kaylee!! Especially, since you jave aaid that there hasn’t been any discussion of marriage. Do you really want to be married to a person who wishes to wear down your foundational and vital position? I have been where you are my dear sister, the level of stress that came because of dealing with that wasn’t worth it. Prayers for your sucess in making the right decision to honor yourself and your faith.

  8. I am 46 but look 32 which is awesome but not so great for meeting men as the ones my age must think I’m too young for them. The younger ones approach to converse, do some math and vanish. Literally! So I’ve turned to Match.com for the last few months. I’ve observed too much of a passivity in men to the point that they can’t even suggest a first date activity. I like Robert Lewis’ definition of a real man: he rejects passivity, takes responsibility, leads courageously and expects the greater reward -God’s reward. I’m looking for this but not finding it but I haven’t lost hope as it takes just one!

  9. I love this topic! Here is my experience with Being a Christian and dating. I am a widow three years now. At the 2 year mark I knew I was lonely and really wanted a companion with whom to go through life. My last “first date” was in 1983! So as you can imagine I had a lot to learn! To get organized and focussed I made a chart of all the attributes I was seeking and gave them values. I also (with much soul searching) made a list of deal-breaker attributes that, if spotted, would cause me to say no thank you to a guy. My #1 characteristic was that HE HAD TO BE A MAN WHO BELIEVED IN GOD; who would willingly go to church and Bible study with me. I did use dating websites. The pastor assured me that it was ok; just a vehicle for meeting people.

    I explored five sites/apps actually, and learned a lot about myself. I discovered that I needed to freshen up my appearance and I needed a bright positive attitude about the dating process. I knew there would be rejection. But I figured that was God’s way of saying, “he’s not the one, keep going”. And yes, I prayed my way through it. Before I logged on, before I met someone on a date, as I was getting ready, as I was driving, on my way home – the whole way through. And the good Lord blessed me greatly.

    I also learned about meeting men, what to say & what not to say. It was not always easy to draw the line with some of the guys I met. They most often wanted to get physical far too soon. But if I am looking for Christian man then I had to present myself in that attitude and behavior as well. As I explored this world of dating I found that I became less focussed on the “packaging” and more tuned in to his heart.

    I am happy to report that after 6 months I have found a wonderful man with whom I am very compatible. I say all this to offer encouragement to those females out there in their 50’s, who may want to give up. It is possible to find a good Christian man!

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thanks for your honesty. I am a widow of five years and have not dated since 1989. I would love to meet a man of God but am not sure how to go about it. I believe I heard God speak to my heart and say that “He would bring me to my Adam”, but after five years of not meeting one single man, I a wondering if their is something I should do? I have a naive weakness to believe what people are telling me, and little discernment on how to date. I thought about dating sights but am concerned about which ones are legitimate. Just because they have ‘Christian” in the title means nothing. Would you consider revealing which sites you used and more of your experiences? I have advanced degrees, which may frightened some eligible men.

  10. Very much enjoyed reading this article. I wanted to bring attention to a project Josh Harris is currently involved with. He has teamed up with Australian-Canadian filmmaker Jessica Van der Wyngaard to film a documentary called “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. The project website is http://www.isurvivedikdg.com/. It speaks a tremendous amount to Josh Harris’s character as a man of God when he is willing to go this far in taking a second look at an idea he became so well-known for, but he is realizing may not be completely correct.

  11. I love discussions like this because I can voice my opinion without being looked at funny. 🙂

    I grew up going to Church with different family members in the Caribbean and looking back I’m grateful because it paved the way in how I think about certain aspect of life. One being relationships for that matter.

    Anyway long story short. I’ve always thought I’d be married by the age of 25. But for reasons that were out of my control; having a relationship would be very difficult and distracting. So I spent the last part of my teenage years focusing on myself; my studies, travelling, finding out what I’d like to do with my life etc. Now that I’m 29 years old. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life about anything than finding a relationship. I’d get asked when are you getting married? Where’s your boyfriend? But all I can say is I don’t know. Because as a woman I feel as though it’s not for me to be chasing after a guy. It’s natural for me to take control of other things but with this area of my life I feel that a man (when he’s ready) should be the one chasing me. Until he’s ready, I’m willing to be patient just a little bit longer for him to arrive.

    At this point in my life I’d rather be alone than unhappy and wished I was single again. I love my single life. I love Jesus too. And I won’t be disheartened by my age anymore. Yes, I’m getting older but also because of bad decisions I’ve seen in my immediate family regarding marriage and love life, I don’t want to make the same mistakes. I want to get it right from the start. In it for the right reasons from the start, with the help of intelligent love and faith in Jesus, it is still possible. But I will not give up on my faith. No matter what.

    • Tracey- I am married for 3 years and wanted to share my gut reaction to your story. That is totally understandable that you don’t want to be the one “chasing”. And guys do love the chase aspect of relationships in my experience, But I think you should also be proactive in initiating opportunities to get to know guys better. Such as asking coworkers or acquaintances to casual coffee or lunch.

      • Thank you Alison. 🙂

        I’m actually a Rep at my Church’s Love Talk Seminars for both Singles and Married and in between.

        I used to shy away from the dating scenes because I used to think that I was too young to make such commitment along with the thought ‘how do I know I’m marrying the right person?’ I’ve overcome those thoughts now so now I’m definitely putting myself out there now and meeting a lot of different guys and girls too who share the same faith.

        So I’m really excited about 2018. It’s the year of discovery for me. Sentimental speaking. 😍😍

  12. I am a 45 year old never married female believing God for marriage since my 20s. My parents tried marriage to each other twice, but could not make it work, so I cultivated relationships with a few older married Christian women. These are women with more than 100 years of marriage experience between them. In all my years of gleaning from them, I would say two pieces of their “dating wisdom” have CONSISTENTLY proven to be at the heart of any marriage I have seen weather this thing called “Life”. One, find a man that knows what God has for him to do so, you can be honest about whether or not you and your personal calling are equipped to support him. As a woman, you should not place too much focus on “love” and “feelings” because you can grow to love a man that you can support because of this “thing” that God has given us to bear and unconditionally love our children. This is why I could not stop until I finished reading Sacred Search because this piece of wisdom basically sums up Matthew 6:33. The second piece of wisdom is to marry a man that sacrifices while you are dating because the way God has things set up , the woman will probably do more sacrificing in marriage as she supports what her husband has been called to do. The sacrifice a man makes in paying for dates, seeing after your well being, not pressuring you into a pre-marital sex, protecting, cherishing you, etc speaks volumes about his ability to be disciplined and self-controlled when it really matters in life.

  13. Carrie Koperski January 2, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    I agree that it’s best to wait until after high school and then to have male female friendships but not rush into times alone together or making the relationship exclusive.

    There are too many expectations when you become a couple and have dates. This should be saved for someone you are seriously considering for marriage after getting to know them in a larger community.

    I can relate to jumping into a relationship too deep too soon in college. It’s important to have healthy boundaries and a secure identity in Christ to avoid becoming unequally yoked.

    Blessings to everyone in this generation! May you make wiser choices than many of us did!

  14. I think that common sense is essential when approaching dating.
    I don’t believe that we should date everyone we are attracted to, it is wise to look seriously at the person in order to see if there are serious red flags or deal breakers; if I ask myself “would I ever want my children to be like this man” and the answer is “definitely no”, maybe I should not go out with him. It is also a good idea to ask for advice.
    On the other hand, I would never want my parents to “screen” my suitors before me or decide for me what my boundaries are (it is a different thing to ask for advice, which I recommend).

  15. All too often I see the focus on how to date or how to find a spouse, but no one actually has a problem with that. We buy books on it because the thinking is: if i buy this book and read it I’ll find the love of my life.The problem is, far too many are focused on finding “the one” rather than finding contentment in being alone. When you are content in being alone (not that you wouldn’t like a spouse), you’ll be more discerning about who it is you’re dating or marrying. The pressure to date and marry SOON brings with it pressure to pick someone rather than people working hard to be healthy and in healthy relationships, outside of romance. The world is full of all kinds of relationships, dating or marriage, but realistically how many of us would want to be in those relationships? Healthy people are becoming harder and harder to find to even consider dating and marriage. We all have to start with ourselves though.

  16. Being in the “Over 50” category, do you believe dating should be handled the same?

    • Kelly, yes, I do, as far as putting the others’ feelings/welfare ahead of your own, and seeking wise counsel (though of course that might not be your parents)

  17. It’s interesting: My takeaway from my history was that I wished I’d dated far less, or none at all, in high school, but more in college. It’s very rare that someone marries a person they dated in high school, and at that age most of us would be better off investing in growing ourselves and friendships. That said, once I was of a marrying age, I wish I’d gone out with more men to get a feel for what I wanted and didn’t want, but without all the pressure of “Is this The One?” If nothing else, I would have learned more about males generally, which would have given some good insight. I do agree with you entirely, though, about not getting exclusive too quickly — which we tend to do. In our search for love, we can create false intimacy and confuse it with the real thing. Perhaps one of the hard things about giving advice for dating is that no one approach works for everyone. Just like in the Bible, there were various ways in which people became married, maybe that’s how it can and should work now.

    • J, it’s funny you said that about marrying someone you date in high school. In my graduating class a fair number of my peers married their high school sweethearts!