(Part 2 in our series on dating and relationships)
“There is so much conflict and confusion over “when the right time” is to date someone. And it makes sense, since so many of us experience dating by stumbling into it. So is there really some kind of line, some kind of initiation moment that tells us now is the time to start pursuing a relationship?”
Growing up, I had a lot of conflicting ideas of dating and relationships being thrown at me constantly. At home, my parents were mostly laissez-faire about the whole dating business; as long as my grades didn’t suffer, I could basically do what I wanted. At school, there was pressure everywhere to not only date, but date as many people as possible, and be up on the latest news on who was with who. At church, my youth pastor had a pretty strong anti-dating stance that he communicated almost constantly to our group: don’t do it. I remember when I was still in middle school, he had all the upperclassmen in our group read through I Kissed Dating Goodbye in an effort to steer boys and girls away from each other. I never had to read the book (I did anyway… I mean, come on, it’s a pretty dang compelling title), but my people-pleasing self took everything my pastor said pretty seriously.
Don’t date until you’re a sophomore in college.
Okay, before you think, “wow, that’s random… and dumb” just think about where this comes from:
- Dating isn’t just to mess around with someone just because you want to.
- Dating someone maturely is to grow in depth of relationship with someone potentially leading to marriage.
- Therefore, why start dating before that potential is even possible?
So I held on to this idea that dating too early was stupid and the “right time” was sophomore year of college. Yes, I’m aware that I did in fact date someone all through high school (and technically most of middle school) but I justified it saying that we were “different” and “exceptional.”
There is so much conflict and confusion over “when the right time” is to date someone. And it makes sense, since so many of us experience dating by stumbling into it. So is there really some kind of line, some kind of initiation moment that tells us now is the time to start pursuing a relationship?
In fact the question of restriction is really the wrong question. For most of us growing up with vague restrictions meant people basically just dated whoever they wanted whenever they wanted, and doing it all in secret. Dating doesn’t have to be painful or destructive, but doing it the way most of us did most certainly was.
The challenge for us who desire to live well and honor the Lord with our lives is that dating itself isn’t addressed in scripture. The modern concept of dating just wasn’t a thing in the ancient near east. It wasn’t like young Israelite men were asking girls to the movies in 1500 BC.
Instead we’re told generally in Song of Solomon:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.
Song of Solomon 8:4
What does this mean? It means we’re called, warned even, to exercise caution and patience when it comes to romance. No hard line. No absolutes. But definitely an attitude and perspective that encourages a healthy pursuit of love.
So how can we apply that to our modern sensibilities? Well, again, no absolute rules… As I said before, putting a hard line on things like this typically just drives people to hide their behavior rather than seek counsel. However, there are a few things we can consider when it comes to pursuing romantic relationships with caution, patience, and wisdom:
Dating works best when we have an honorable purpose.
Dating in the modern sense really only ever has two possible purposes: either you’re looking for a good time or you’re looking for a future spouse. Now this doesn’t mean the second can’t include the first; dating to pursue a possible husband or wife should be fun and exciting. However, you can definitely do the first without any intention of the second.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you can’t go on dates with people to see how well you get along. It does mean, however, that dating someone, labeling someone as yours and engaging someone in a significant level of intimacy (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually) is serious, and needs to have a clear and honorable purpose.
Unfortunately, dating without any intention of pursuing someone beyond the pleasure of emotional or physical intimacy is, at it’s core, extraordinarily selfish. It steals life from someone else so that you can satisfy whatever need you have in the moment.
I remember teaching some kids at a summer camp how to fish some years ago when a camper managed to hook a fish on his line. Instead of bringing the fish in, he just dragged it through the water, pulling it out of the pond, dunking it back in, over and over again. I walked up to him and asked, “are you going to eat that fish?”
“No,” he replied.
“Then let it go. Don’t torture the poor thing.”
If you’re thinking about dating someone without any intentions of a future, just get a group of friends together and go bowling. Don’t torture some poor person by dragging them along. And if you’re not in a place either in your maturity or in life circumstances to seriously engage someone with that level of intent, stick to spending time in groups.
For some of us, that means we start pursuing a relationship sophomore year in college, others might be ready to start in high school, others might wait a decade or more. If you can’t afford to pay rent because you don’t have a job, you may want to consider stabilizing your life circumstances before you take someone out on a date. If you’re in middle school and you have to ask your mom to take you and your ‘girlfriend’ to the movies, and oh, also can I have some money for popcorn… consider the possibility that you’re not quite ready to be responsible for someone’s heart. If you’re in a spiritually dark place and haven’t been emotionally healthy in a long time, you may want to consider a time away from pursuing a romantic relationship and instead intentionally pursue the Lord in community. The important thing is to be honest with where you’re at in life, and whether you’re actually willing and able to finish something you start.
Dating works best when we’re already running well.
Do you remember field day in elementary school? It was the absolute best day of the year; we spent the whole day outside, we played games with our friends, and we ate watermelon on the soccer field. It was great. Well. It was great except for the part where everyone lined up in pairs, got lashed together and were forced to publicly humiliate themselves as they stumbled around like a drunken elephant.
I hate three-legged races.
Seriously, at some point, it’s just easier if the one person just drags the other guy behind him.
Dating, and marriage, it turns out, is just like that for many of us. We get matched up with the biggest kid in school and we get thrown around like a rag doll. Or maybe you were the biggest kid in school and you’re literally dragging someone as you hobble your way to the finish. This is what we call being “unequally yoked,” and the Bible actually talks about this.
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
2 Cor 6:14
Dating, when done well, is about two people of comparable strengths, passions and pursuits running a three legged race together. Perhaps that race becomes a marathon (marriage), or perhaps your paths diverge after some distance. Either way, the question you have to ask yourself is is this someone who can run with me? Am I actually running the race myself, or am I in a place in my life where I’m barely able to stand up… am I spiritually healthy enough to run with someone?
This is why I’d make a terrible jogging partner. Anyone I would aspire to run with (like Jayson Cole… that guy is ridiculous) would quickly find me out of breath after a few hundred yards. If I really want to run a race well with someone I enjoy running with, I need to be honest with myself and start training. What does this look like in dating?
-Do you enjoy regular time in the word? If not, you won’t when you’re dating someone… they’ll just be a giant distraction.
-Is your prayer time intimate and meaningful? If not, you’ll lean on your partner more than the Lord for intimacy and comfort.
-Is your attitude towards life Christ centered and full of joy? If not, you’ll find yourself being dragged around by whatever emotion your partner is feeling towards you that particular day.
-Do you love spending time with your brothers (if you’re a guy) or your sisters (if you’re a girl)? If not, you’ll find yourself isolating away and crossing serious boundaries with your partner.
-Are you filling your life with ministry, caring for others, serving your church and your community? If not, you’ll find yourself growing more and more self-centered and self-seeking in your relationship with your partner.
Pursue these things, and as you start running your race well, look around and see if there’s anyone running the same direction near you.
All in good time
The reality is, most of us will eventually end up married. Statistics bear that out. The question is whether you trust that the Lord will provide this need for you, or if out of fear, anxiety, or impatience, you’ll take it upon yourself to make something happen. The truth is it’s the person who has grown to be secure in their identity and self worth enough not to need to date that is in the best place to start a relationship. It’s not about when as much as who:
are you the kind of person who can date with honorable intentions and noble character?