Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come…Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. 1 Timothy 4:8, 12
It is tragic how casually, and with what selfishness and naiveté, young men and women today plunge into relationships and even into marriage. Yet how should young people handle the natural attractions and friendships that develop between them? What is the godly approach? How can young men and women stay clear of the superficial eroticism of our time and find truly free and natural relationships? And how can they best prepare themselves for the responsibilities and demands of marriage?
Conventional dating cheapens the meaning of commitment.
We should rejoice when there are friendships between young men and women, and when there are opportunities for positive mutual exchanges in their daily lives. To have fear of what might go wrong among them is often unwarranted, and a sign of mistrust. Young people need opportunities to relate to each other in group settings where they can work, share, sing, or relax together. To pair off or form exclusive relationships is unhealthy and out of place: in the church, young men and women should get to know each other first as brothers and sisters in Christ. They must have the freedom to be seen together without being subjected to all sorts of gossip or speculation about their friendship. The pressure caused by such talk inhibits freedom. It skews and undermines everything that is good in a relationship.
It is typical of the immaturity of a young person to “fall in love” first with one and then with another, like a bee going from flower to flower. It is only natural to want to search for “the right one”; but the church cannot tolerate the continual forming and then dissolving of new relationships. The casual attitude of a young man or woman who flits from one partner to the next is never right. It dulls the conscience and cheapens the meaning of commitment. The waves of emotional attraction that accompany every friendship between a boy and a girl are perfectly normal, but if they are not placed under Christ, they can leave wounds that may last a lifetime.
Because of this, my church rejects conventional dating. For the most part, dating in our society has become a game – a ritual of pairing off with a boyfriend or a girlfriend on the basis of physical and emotional attraction. It is built on a false understanding of friendship and often has little to do with genuine love or faithfulness. In many instances, dating is centered on an unhealthy preoccupation with personal “image.” And when it involves physical or sexual intimacy, it can leave a conscience so heavily burdened that it takes years to heal.
Vanity and superficiality go hand in hand with conventional dating. So does flirting – drawing attention to oneself so as to sexually attract another person. Flirting demonstrates inner insecurity and unhappiness, and it is an insult to God.
In recent years more and more parents and churches are seeking alternatives to conventional dating. Some, for instance, are reviving the “old-fashioned” practice of courtship, which emphasizes mentoring, familial involvement, and character-enriching activities.
Unfortunately, while statistics show that dating on college campuses is on the decline, an alarming number of students are simply “hooking up,” engaging in casual sex for instant gratification with no strings attached. This should spur parents, pastors, and church leaders to become even more active and involved.
Mutual feelings are not sufficient for building a lasting relationship.
How should a young man or woman find the right person to marry? For a Christian the decisive factor should always be unity of heart and soul in the Spirit. Both individuals must feel that their relationship leads them closer to Jesus, for his will alone can bring together two people who are meant for each other. Without Jesus and the special unity he gives between two people, a couple will very likely not survive the storms and struggles that are a part of every marriage, especially once they have children.
Even when a couple is sure that they want to enter a more committed relationship, through engagement, for instance, they should test their love for a time to see whether it is merely the straw fire of romantic attraction, or whether there is something deeper. Again, physical and emotional attractions are natural, but they do not provide sufficient ground on which to marry or found a family, and can never be the deciding factors in making a commitment. A relationship based only on these is a shallow one, and eventually it will go to pieces. The real question should always be, “What does God want for our life and future together?” His will is the surest basis.
All of us have heard the saying, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” but whether we truly believe it is another matter. Consciously or subconsciously, we have all judged other people on the basis of their physical appearance. In a culture where it is normal to hear someone say, “She’s a very attractive young lady,” or, “He’s the good-looking one,” and so on, it never hurts to think about the subtle message we are sending to those who are not described in this way.
The issue of judging people by their looks is especially important for young people considering marriage. A young woman may single out the most handsome guy around; or a young man, the prettiest girl in the bunch. But what about their relationship ten or twenty years down the road? Will they still love each other when he goes bald, when she gets wrinkles or gains weight? Certainly physical attraction is a part of every relationship, but it can never be the basis for a life-long commitment of loyalty and love. As Isaiah put it, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… ”(Isa. 40:6–7 RSV).
It is not easy to see with the eyes of the heart, particularly when we are young. Yet we must ask God to give us this special sight. If we open our hearts to his wisdom, we will see beauty in every person we meet, and love each one as a fellow being created in the image of God.
I have known Rose ever since she was a young girl. As an adult, she met and fell in love with Tom. Tom is severely crippled by cerebral palsy and has spent his entire life in a wheelchair; all the same they married and now have two lovely children. To Rose, Tom is the most wonderful man in the world. Others may see only his disabilities, but Rose sees the beauty of his soul.
Victor and Hilda, a British-born couple from my community, lived into their nineties. Married in their twenties, they remained deeply in love to the end. Hilda was not beautiful in the worldly sense: by her seventies she was severely stooped, and a nervous twitch disfigured the right side of her face. Yet to Victor, she was always “my princess.” Their love was grounded in something far deeper than appearance.
During the forty years I have spent counseling young couples, many have shared their joys and struggles with me, but I am still touched every time a young person turns to me in trust. Not long ago a young woman wrote to my wife to tell her about her deepening friendship with a certain man. Kate and Andy are both members of our church and participate in our young-adult group. They are not special people, but as their relationship continues to develop, a special gift is being given to them – a firm footing for their shared seeking. Kate writes:
From the start this has been an intensely inner experience, and we have grown very close, especially through reading the Bible and praying together. I would say, though, that the biggest struggle has been to give up our romantic, emotional idea of love, because it really has so little place. Occasionally our conversation has gotten on the level of human attractions, and the effect of that is devastating because it undermines what we have experienced together on an inner, spiritual level…But when we keep God in the center, we find each other’s hearts much more deeply.
As we learn to know each other better, and know each other’s day-to-day struggles and failings, we are also able to admonish and encourage each other. As a result, we both feel closer to God. More and more clearly I see how a relationship is not established once and for all, but that it must be built on a daily basis – brick by brick – and with a faith that is constant. I am so thankful for the time Andy and I are sharing together, so that we can really establish a firm foundation. And I am also grateful that it has not all been smooth sailing, because nothing worthwhile comes without a struggle.
Andy and Kate’s story is heartening: even in our time it is still possible for young people to take their relationship to each other so seriously that they seek to find God above all else.
If faith is the only firm foundation for Christian marriage, it follows that each partner must make a commitment to Christ and the church before making a commitment to each other. Here the importance of baptism cannot be emphasized enough. As a confession of repentance for sin and as the covenant of a clear conscience with God, baptism is one of the greatest gifts a person can experience. I would even say that without it, there is no secure foundation for a Christian marriage.
Of course, no one should be baptized for the sake of husband, wife, or children (Luke 14:26). Nor should the desire for baptism be mixed with feelings of desire for a potential marriage partner. If baptism is to have real meaning, it must be the seal of deep repentance, conversion, and faith.
A healthy relationship needs time and care.
Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). He teaches us that when we trust God alone, and trust him completely, he will provide for all our needs, including the need for a partner. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). This advice is important not only for those who might be preoccupied with the question of marriage in an unhealthy way, but for all of us.
I would never expect any person to give up marriage like the Apostle Paul did; the call to celibacy must be felt from within. But unless marriage is God’s will (and this is often difficult to discern), every one of us should be willing to give it up (Phil. 3:8). When the light of Jesus breaks into our life, we will find strength to surrender to him so radically that everything will find its true proportion.
Contrary to the widely accepted belief that the healthiest relationship is the most private one, I have come to see that engagement and marriage are concerns of the whole church, not just of the individuals involved. Therefore, when young men and women in my church feel drawn to one another, I advise them to turn first to their parents, and then to a pastor. From this moment on their relationship is placed under the care of the church. Our young people do not regard this step as an imposition, nor do they feel they are being chaperoned. On the contrary, they are grateful for the possibility of guidance in an area where immaturity and impurity bring misery to many.
Naturally, this approach will only work in a congregation ruled by love and trust, and every couple must decide how it applies to their situation. For some, it may be hard to understand the purpose of seeking guidance. Others may shy away from the idea completely. Yet the simple lesson of opening up to people one trusts deserves serious attention.
Ray and his fiancée, Helen, met at our church a few years ago. Below, Ray shares their story:
Saturday nights, when I wasn’t working late at Armani Exchange, I’d go clubbing with a handful of friends. Or maybe head for Third Street in Santa Monica, or just drive down to the pier and hang out. The scene rarely changed. Only the girls. Nothing serious, never anything “going on” – just someone to split the tab on a few rounds or hit the dance floor with. Sometimes I’d meet someone I thought was special, someone I wanted to see more of. We’d trade numbers, and maybe arrange for the dinner-and-movie thing. It was all so harmless, so effortless.
At least that’s how I viewed it then, nearly three years ago, before I got to know Helen.
Both of us grew up in the same church. We met as teenagers, but though we both had feelings for each other, we did not disclose these. After high school, we moved apart. She headed for college, and landed a teaching job; I left for “the world.” But after a six-month stint as a volunteer overseas, a couple semesters of college on the East Coast, and a year spent running around Southern California, the nagging sensation that my life was a farce finally cornered me. I had to admit what I had tried to deny for so long – that an intense emptiness and listlessness was masquerading behind my party-hard attitude. My lifestyle did nothing to satisfy my desire for wholeness. My encounters with others, particularly with women, were at best superficial. Often, they were damaging.
For the first time in my life I realized how much I needed the healing power that Christ alone can give. I knew I could not find this on my own, that I needed the support of others I could trust, so I returned home to my parents. Convinced that I wanted God to be the center of my life, I committed my life to him and to the members of my church.
By then I’d made my parents and my pastor aware of my feelings for Helen, and they advised me to let things develop naturally, in God’s time: “If your relationship is God’s will, it will happen, and no one will be able to stand in the way of it.” But they encouraged me to go ahead and talk with her.
I did. It didn’t take long for us to realize that something was happening between us. Neither of us would have dared call it love at the time – it was too new, too precious. But as weeks became months, we felt a deep connection growing between us. We spent time together, sometimes with each other’s families, sometimes on our own. We would mull over issues of faith, read from the Bible, pray, or just sit quietly together. Later, when my job necessitated a move, we wrote to each other almost every day.
As our friendship deepened, our openness grew. But trust, we learned, takes time. At first, it was something of a revelation to realize that we both had shortcomings.
We could hurt each other, and at times even betray the love taking shape between us. Yet whenever we became entrenched in our own narrowness, our parents and pastors were there to help guide us through.
Of course, opening up to someone was sometimes painful, even embarrassing – especially when things weren’t going smoothly. And the advice our parents or other church members would give didn’t always sit well with us. But once we discovered the incredible value of having trusted people to confide in, we realized we were being granted an opportunity for our relationship to unfold within a supportive environment.
Now, as our wedding nears, we are grateful for the help of others who have steered us toward Christ. Without them, Helen and I would most likely never have found each other’s hearts. In our era, we know what a rare gift it is that our relationship has been able to deepen without the pressures caused by revolving around sex. And we know that no matter what our future brings, Christ will remain our guide.
Ray and Helen’s story illustrates how vitally important it is for a couple to take plenty of time to get to know each other inwardly before making any commitment. When two people seek marriage, it is essential that they first strive to discover all there is of God in each other. There are plenty of wholesome activities a couple can find for this purpose: reading, hiking, visiting each other’s families, or participating in a community service project together. Writing to each other is also a good way to become acquainted on a deeper level. In my experience, it is best if such correspondence starts out in a non-binding way – as if from a brother to his sister and vice versa. This is because emotional appeals about romantic love and belonging together, far from providing a foundation for the future, do the opposite: they obscure the clarity needed to discern whether or not a future commitment is really God’s will.
My church encourages young couples not only to correspond, but also to share what they have written with either a parent or pastor. Such openness may seem extreme, but it allows for support and guidance. One can only wonder how many marriages might be saved if young couples everywhere had the humility to turn to their parents (or any other married couple they trust) for advice, even if not in this specific way.
Again, a healthy relationship cannot be rushed. Like a flower, it must be allowed to open in God’s time, not forced in hopes of an early bloom. If a marriage is to last, it must be built on a carefully laid foundation.
What matters most, in the decision to marry, is God’s will.
Honesty is fundamental to every healthy relationship. If a couple does not feel that they are growing closer to each other and to God, they must be open about it. Here the church, too, must care enough about its members to be honest with them – to help a couple discern if they are really meant for one another, and to consider whether their friendship is bearing good fruit. Even if no promise has been made, ending a relationship is painful. But better a painful end than the endless pain of a relationship that leads nowhere.
Only when two young people, independently of each other and with the input of their parents and minister, feel assured over a period of time that they really belong together for life are they ready to become engaged. Only when they feel in the depths of their hearts that this is the person meant for them, and that it is God alone who has led them together, are they truly ready to make a bond for life.
Once engaged, most couples want to participate fully in their love and express it actively in giving and receiving. Their hearts are set on making each other as happy and fulfilled as possible, and they feel ready to do anything to bring this about. All the more, such couples must realize that the powers of love are much greater than they themselves, and they must ask God daily for the strength to discipline themselves.
Long embraces, caressing, mouth-to-mouth kissing, and anything else that might lead to sexual arousal should be avoided. The desire for physical closeness is natural, but instead of revolving around this desire, an engaged couple should focus on getting to know each other more intimately on a deeper level and nurturing each other’s love to Jesus and the church.
When two people are getting to know each other, sexual involvement inhibits the development of a well-founded relationship. As soon as sex is on stage, it steals the show. Sexual excitement is progressive in its nature: once you begin you are never satisfied in going back. When two people intentionally arouse each other, they are engaging in a form of foreplay. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they are preparing themselves emotionally and physically for intercourse. They are left with only two choices: to go all the way, or to stop short and experience the emotional frustration of being aroused and not satisfied. The desires kindled within them cannot be appeased without sinning. “Going halfway” is therefore harmful, because it interferes with building lasting intimacy.
A marriage that starts with a conscience burdened by unconfessed sin is a marriage without a stable foundation, and it can be set right only through confession and repentance. The health of a marriage depends on the ground in which it grows. If it is sown in the soil of purity and faith, it will bear good fruit and have God’s blessing.
Try to grasp the spirit, not the letter, of what I have written. If you are considering marriage, seek to understand each other’s inmost heart, and turn to Christ in trust to find his answer to every question. He will never fail to lead you clearly.