[Part 2 of the blog adaptation from yesterday's message at The District Church: "How Do I Know? Relationships Edition." Read part 1 here.]
How do I know whom and how to date? Our city has one of the highest percentages of single people in the country; and our church is about two-thirds single.
Before you read this, you may want to read part 1 because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our dating lives. And that’s because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our lives, period.
It’s easy to think of romantic relationships as their own separate category: school, faith, work, friends, dating. But that sort of compartmentalization can be dangerous because faith is supposed to be interwoven through everything else. As theologian Abraham Kuyper said:
There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’
So what does it mean for your dating relationships—or, taking a step back, the way you look at romantic relationships—to belong to Jesus? Last summer I preached a sermon on what it means to be single (July 28, 2013)—you’re welcome to go back and listen to that too, if you want. But this week, I was reading a book and a line in it jumped out at me:
Jesus was the greatest Lover who ever lived.
My first reaction was to get defensive—What do you mean? Jesus was single and celibate his whole life—and if you’ve been following the latest news, the so-called fragment that said that Jesus was married was shown to be a fake. How can you say he was the greatest Lover who ever lived?
And I realized that I’d made the mistake that’s so easy to make, the mistake that the world around us makes all the time: confusing sex with love; thinking that in order to be a lover, in order for you to know what love is (and I want to know what love is), you have to have had sex or at the very least, been in a romantic relationship.
But Jesus lived the fullest life any human being has ever lived, he lived the most loving life any human being has ever lived, and from what the Bible tells us, he was never in a romantic relationship. So maybe we need to reevaluate our understanding:
- of what it means to be human,
- of what it means to be in relationship, and
- of what it means to experience life to the full.
You are not incomplete without a romantic relationship.
You are not any less because you are not married.
You are not barred from life to the full until you’ve had sex.
Your worth and your value are not based on your relationship status.
Your identity is not found in how many boyfriends or girlfriends you’ve had, whether you have one now, or whether you will ever have one.
We are all incomplete, flawed, and broken human beings; and none of us will find our completion in another incomplete, flawed, and broken human being. The early church theologian Augustine wrote,
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
We are made for God, and God alone will truly satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Our problem is that we often put the expectation of a need that only God can meet on the shoulders of another person—with his or her own baggage and needs and sin—and in doing so, we fall into the trap that C.S. Lewis describes, where: “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” When we put all of our emphasis on romantic relationships, it can become all-consuming.
Now I’m not telling you to kiss dating goodbye. We are created for relationship, but not necessarily for romantic relationship, though we may get to experience that too. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13, the passage where Paul talks about love, the passage that’s so often quoted at weddings:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Two quick things I want to point out. First, Paul isn’t talking here about romantic love—yes, love in the context of romantic relationships should look like this, but all love should look like this. Loving your friends, loving your parents, loving your siblings, loving your roommate, loving the folks in your small group, loving your colleagues, loving your boss, loving your neighbor … and loving your enemies. Jesus commanded that too. This is what love looks like in every situation.
We often approach marriage knowing that it’s going to be about sacrifice and commitment and putting the other person first and love in that sense; but we approach dating thinking it’s all about me and who fits best with me and who is most compatible with me.
I realized a couple years ago that, with that approach, I was basically looking for a person exactly like me but female and much better looking—she’d fit right in to everything I was already doing: love the same TV shows, the same books, have the same political stance and the same life experience. That would require the least effort and the least change. And I realized that that would also mean the least growth. So when Carolyn came along and was different in what felt like almost every way, apart from the fact that she loved Jesus as much as I did and she loved me like I loved her, I had to decide whether I wanted to stick with it and to grow, knowing it would be hard.
Here’s the second thing I want to point out about 1 Corinthians 13: it takes maturity to practice this kind of love. It takes self-control and sacrifice. It does not come easy. You can have many years under your belt and not practice this kind of love because you’re still living like a kid; you think the world revolves around you.
One of the ways God grows us is through relationship, through community: by bringing us into contact with other people. It reminds us that God is far bigger than just our experiences of him and it challenges us to keep growing, to keep being transformed to be more like Christ. So, if you want to know how you’re supposed to know whom and how to date, think about it in this way:
What will help me to become more like Jesus?
This question is applicable not only to romantic relationships, but to life and to every single “How do I know?” question you’ll ever have.
In the realm of dating, the odds are that you’ll meet someone who’s different from you, and you’ll have the opportunity to grow because you’re different. Sometimes the question you ask may be the one Carolyn and I asked: “Are we different in a way that complements each other or are we different in a way that drives us apart?” But if we try to look at it in light of the goal of becoming more like Jesus, the question may become more like:
Is this relationship helping both parties to do that or are your differences so great that you spend more time arguing than you do praying, more time defending your corner than you do serving each other, and more energy recovering from your reactions than moving together toward Christ?
Maybe what will help you become more like Jesus right now is to stop treating people as simply a means for fulfilling your needs—whether emotional or physical or sexual. Maybe you need to step back and step away from dating for a while because you’ve been bouncing from date to date, from person to person, hoping that you’ll meet “the One” as long as you keep churning through. Maybe God wants you to stop looking for the one you think you want to be with, and he wants you instead—and we’ve said this before—to be becoming the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.
And that person that you’ll want to become is probably patient and kind and not boastful or envious or arrogant; that person is probably a 1 Corinthians 13-type lover; that person is probably not actually worried whether he or she will end up with anyone because that person will know that it is God alone who satisfies; that person is probably very similar to what Jesus is like—that’s the person God wants you to be because that’s who you were made to be, because that is life to the full.
I’d encourage you to start letting God do some work in you now, because unless you take action to make changes—to allow God to be at work in you—what you do before you date is probably what you’ll do when you date, which is probably what you’ll do when you’re engaged and probably what you’ll do when you’re married. And that applies to everything: checking out good looking women or men whenever they walk by, turning back to old addictions when things don’t go the way you hoped, using dating relationships to fill the void in your life and distract you from the deeper issues or from the fact you don’t feel like you have any control. God has given you control over certain things in your life, including the direction you walk in, the person you model your life on, and the God you choose to trust.
There is no formula to know whom and how to date—though there are principles you can follow: treating each other with honor and respect as image-bearers of God, for instance; or treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. There is no formula to know the ‘right’ friends to hang out with or how often—we are all wired differently and so are the people God has placed around us.
Formulas don’t help us to become better people; formulas don’t help us to develop character; formulas don’t help us to grow because formulas don’t force us to wait or to figure out who we are choosing to become rather than just looking for what we think we need right now. Formulas don’t help us to become more like Jesus.
Relationships and community can help us to become more like Jesus; that’s why God intended for us to be in community—and specifically in the community of faith—worshiping together and praying together and weeping together and supporting each other on the path toward God and Christlikeness—not just the path toward marriage (which is only part of the road, though we often make it the whole).
Community is not just meant to be something you pay lip service to—“Yeah, I love community”—but when you make big decisions about where to live and where to work and where to go to school and whom to pursue and whether to move away from DC, you make that decision on your own and then just “brief” everyone. It’s in community that we encourage one another and challenge one another and submit to one another and sharpen one another, like iron sharpens iron; it’s in this community—the body of Christ—that we help each other—regardless of our relationship status—become whom God intended us to be.