The following is an excerpt from Mere Disciple, chapter 5: The Beautiful Risk.
Over the years, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the top relationship advice for dating Christians (or those interested in dating). The list has emerged through countless conversations and discussions, and offers some great ground-level wisdom on how the call of discipleship should steer our journey through romantic relationships. This is not a list where it’s all or nothing—that is, in order to be a disciple, all of these ideas need to be in place. It’s important to remember that discipleship is a process and a journey. Those who have taken to heart even one or two of these principles have told me that it has had a dramatically positive effect on their life, and has helped immensely in the process of controlling their negative sexual habits and impulses.
Keep your passion for Jesus central. It’s easy to give Jesus priority status when there’s no competition. When we start dating, however, it’s common for many of us to slowly channel the energy that we’ve been investing in our relationship with Him into our newfound love. But Jesus isn’t our relational back-up plan, someone we put first until someone better comes along. He needs to stay central for us regardless of whether we’re single, dating, or married.
Relationships flourish when Jesus and His kingdom are the priority of both people, but falter when they aren’t. When Jesus is our first priority, our view of love, sex, and relationships is enhanced and enriched. But when Jesus is relegated to being our second, third, or fourth priority, our entire view of love, sex, and relationships becomes distorted. Knowing Jesus intimately is critical if we want to know what authentic, life-giving expressions of love, sex, and relationships look like. If we’re not anchoring our heart’s deepest hopes and longings in Jesus, our romantic relationships will always end up disappointing and frustrating us. We’ll be placing unrealistic expectations on our relationship that can only be fulfilled by God.
It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love and find someone with whom we can share our lives. However, we need to be careful that even good, healthy dating relationships don’t become stumbling blocks that cause us to forsake our first love (Revelation 2:4).
Don’t rationalize an abusive relationship. It’s common for many people (especially women) to find themselves in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s a boyfriend who is physically abusive, or a girlfriend who is controlling and emotionally manipulative. Regardless, I often see the rationalizing of major dysfunction. Many of us would rather put up with abuse and dysfunction in our relationships than be alone, so we go to great lengths to minimize or deny any abusive behaviour.
“Well, she’s not like that all the time.”
“It isn’t really that bad.”
“It’s no big deal. That’s just the way our relationship is.”
No relationship is perfect. Each one has its fault lines and issues, but there comes a point when a challenging relationship becomes a destructive one, and when abusive patterns have emerged that line has been crossed.
Sometimes denial can run deep. If we don’t identify and end the abusive relationship until it has run its course, we will be heartbroken and devastated. Or maybe we believe we’re the one sent into this person’s life to do the saving, to make them a better person, and so we wear the abuse as a kind of badge of honour. Maybe it brings us some kind of self-righteous satisfaction that we’re suffering for a greater purpose and are willing to love someone so “complicated.”
Regardless of your particular situation, if you are involved in an abusive relationship—whether the abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual—you need to end it. You know it’s unhealthy, and chances are it’s negatively impacting every area of your life, including your relationship with God. You should talk to a friend, parent, or pastor you trust who can help you transition out of your relationship.
Don’t believe that romantic relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment. This piece of advice often comes from one of my high school students when we brainstorm relationship advice together as a group. All of us go through a stage where we assume we’re a boyfriend or girlfriend away from having it all. We believe that if we could find our “true love,” all the issues that bring us down will fade into the background. We believe that love, peace, and joy will flood into our lives and give us our “happily ever after.”
Falling in love and being in love is awesome, but if we think a relationship is what will save us from loneliness, low self-esteem, and purposelessness, we’re just wrong. No matter how good, godly, and healthy a relationship may be, it cannot fully satisfy the deeper spiritual hungers within you. To enter into any relationship with the expectation that it will be the key to a happy life is to place an idolatrous, unhealthy, and unrealistic expectation on it. This expectation will only suffocate any potential for the relationship to grow in a healthy way. We must never ask or assume another person can provide what only God can. When we stop looking to a relationship to be the key that will unlock the potential of our lives, we open up space for healthy relationships to emerge into what they are meant to be.
Only date someone who has a passion for following Jesus with their whole lives. “Christians should only date Christians.” That opinion is repeated in countless books on Christian dating, and yet from my point of view it’s just not a helpful way of approaching things. The statement is clearly well-intended, but like many things within the church the attempt to simplify in order to communicate things clearly has created new problems.
For example, the overly simplistic categories of Christian and non-Christian can be an enormous stumbling block. If the discussion centres on dating Christians vs. non-Christians, we can quickly (and mistakenly) substitute “people who go to church” with “Christian” and unintentionally lower our standards to anyone who shows up to church on Sunday. But should a Christian relationship be validated by something as trivial as church attendance?
I think it’s much better to frame the discussion within the larger context of discipleship. If we want our central passion to be Jesus and His kingdom, does it make sense to date someone who doesn’t share that same intention? If discipleship to Jesus is something we take incredibly seriously, does it make sense to date someone who supports us in our faith but isn’t actually committed to it themselves?
No, it doesn’t. That’s why I encourage people to pray for and seek out someone whose passion for Jesus is profound, undeniable, and inspiring. That is the kind of person, that kind of disciple, is someone you should pursue. Too many people settle for someone who’s churched instead of prayerfully holding out for someone whose discipleship commitment expresses itself in dynamic, passionate, creative ways. If you want your love for Jesus to deepen throughout your life, committing to only dating (and eventually marrying) someone with a strong and vibrant faith should be non-negotiable.
Never settle. Personally and professionally I’ve never seen anything good come from relationships that started with, “Well . . . you’ll do.” That being said, I’m not an idiot; I know how difficult it is to be the only person without a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the ache that situation creates. But we need to have the courage to move into and through that discomfort, trusting God to somehow satisfy what we’re longing for, even if we can’t anticipate how.
Make a list of qualities you want in your future spouse, then work backwards. If you want someone who is fun, spontaneous, spiritually intense, wise, and playful, that’s not going to happen if you date someone who is some of these things, some of the time. Obviously this means we’ll have to do a bit of reflection on our future marriage partner before we start dating, but isn’t that a good thing? We date in order to allow God to help us find a kindred spirit with whom we can become a soul mate through marriage. If someone told me they were ready to date but couldn’t articulate what they were looking for in someone beyond being attractive and funny, I’d tell them they just aren’t ready to date. If we don’t know what we really want in our dating relationships, the likelihood of us settling for something “good enough” is exponentially higher.
Before I met my wife, I spent a few months putting together a list of character qualities that I wouldn’t budge on. If someone only had three out of ten, I wouldn’t date them. eight out of ten? Sorry. I wanted a perfect score. Why? Was I some kind of unreasonable jerk with an inflated sense of entitlement? No. I knew what kind of marriage I wanted, and I’d lived and learned enough about myself to know the kind of person I needed to hold out for. That didn’t make times of singleness easy, but because I had a razor-sharp clarity about what I wanted and needed, settling for anything else became much harder.
Avoid the Romeo and Juliet syndrome. Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers who were so in love they could never be separated. They quickly melted their own identities into each other and made each other their entire world. This syndrome is all too common in dating relationships. We’ve probably all known a friend who started dating someone and then stopped hanging out with everyone except their new love. All their spare time was spent with their Romeo or Juliet, and the relationships and priorities that were previously very important were disregarded and pushed aside.
The Romeo and Juliet syndrome is closely linked to the assumption that was addressed previously in this list (i.e., romantic relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment). Out of this assumption we look to another person to be the emotional saviour we’ve been waiting for, and we do all we can to surround ourselves with this person as much as possible. This trap is easy for us to fall into, so my advice here is to put limits on the amount of time we’re spending with our boyfriend/girlfriend, so that we don’t (intentionally or unintentionally) make them the focal point of our daily routines and habits.
Set boundaries. It’s really important to establish boundaries before we enter into a dating relationship. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a literal free-for-all in terms of what is done, said, and experienced together, and this is always destructive to everyone involved. Healthy relationships need boundaries, and they need to identify and decide what boundaries are going to be in place as it relates to four dimensions of the relationship:
a. Physical. What physical boundaries need to be in place in order to protect each person’s dignity, reputation, and purity?
b. Emotional. What emotional boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure the Romeo and Juliet syndrome doesn’t take hold?
c. Social. What social boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure that each person is investing in healthy relationships outside of the dating relationship?
d. Spiritual. What spiritual boundaries need to be in place in order to ensure that each person is growing spiritually as individuals and not just focusing their spiritual growth on the context of their relationship?
Ideally, the couple should meet with a few older and more experienced couples to help them define what boundaries will be in place for them. These older couples can also play an important ongoing mentoring role in the new couples’ lives.
Learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes. As much as we parade around ideas of personal holiness, the biting truth is that imperfections and blunders seem to be the rule rather than the exception within our lives. Even during seasons where I feel an uncommon clarity of purpose, strong sense of conviction, and deep connection with God, I’m ashamed to admit how easy I’m seized by sins like lust, envy, pride, and idolatry.
But as I look back over my life, it seems to me that the only sinful slip-ups that have really cost me in the long run have been the ones I’ve stubbornly repeated, knowing precisely what I was doing. Proverbs 26:11 states, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” That’s the cycle that can destroy us if we’re not careful. So when we make a mistake, regardless of what kind or what severity, we need to realize that beating ourselves up is of limited value. Genuine repentance doesn’t always need to be a tearful exercise in self-pity. Sometimes it expresses itself with a clear decision and focused intention to put together a game plan to avoid repeating the mistake again. After reflecting on my own journey and many years of pastoral ministry, I’m convinced that God won’t let our mistakes define our lives if we’re willing to learn from them and seek restoration in Him.
Take three months between dating relationships to reflect and learn. The temptation to rebound with an immediate dating relationship after one has ended is enormous. Why? Because we’ve been in a relationship long enough that we’ve become accustomed to having someone to call, touch, and hang out with. To go from that to nothing feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us, and our first instincts are to get ourselves back into a relationship as soon as possible in order to avoid the awkwardness of readjusting to being single. But when we start relationships in order to avoid being single, we’re actually just using the new guy or girl for our own selfish ends. That foundation isn’t going to take us very far, and we should expect more heartache to come if we just rush into new relationships after ending old ones.
If a relationship doesn’t work (for whatever reason), it’s always important to take some time away from dating relationships and recalibrate our hearts and minds. We need to carve out time to reflect on what went wrong, and why. We should explore how we need to grow from our experiences in the previous relationship so that future relationships are healthier and more Christ-centred. Relationships teach us a lot if we’re willing to listen to the lessons. Be sure to carve out at least three months between dating relationships so that you can focus on learning whatever lessons God wants to teach you during your time of transition.
Break up well. This might be one of the most surprising and overlooked pieces of advice I share on the subject of building healthy relationships, but it’s so important. Nothing tests the genuineness of our discipleship commitment to Jesus than our willingness to refuse to blame, badmouth, or hurt the other person during a break-up.
A break-up usually results in a lot of hurt for everyone involved. Two people who once thought of each other as “true loves” now become enemies looking to strike back at each other. However, it’s exactly in this new and awkward context that Jesus’ challenge to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) comes into play.
If we’re the ones doing the breaking up, we need to do so in a way that minimizes the emotional damage for the other person. We’re going to cause hurt, so we need to be as gentle, reasonable, and kind as humanly possible. Being rejected is a horrible feeling, and we don’t need to escalate those feelings (even if we think the other person deserves it). We should strive to be gracious and kind, and after the break-up never speak badly about the other person.
If we’re on the receiving end of the break-up, the emotions that flood into our hearts are going to make it very easy for us to justify hatred and retaliation. We need to fight those impulses with everything in us. That doesn’t mean minimizing how much it hurts to have someone dump us, though; it just means refusing to let the hurt we’re feeling morph into a cancer of anger and bitterness. Getting dumped sucks, but striking back through hatred and retaliation won’t provide the healing we’re looking for. That can only be found when we pour our energy into our relationship with the One who is “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
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