By Michelle (Meesh) Franks, Assistant Director of Children’s Ministries at St. Stephen’s Church
We are living in a time where people in the world are expecting less and less of each other in dating relationships, and therefore, marriage. Even though everyone seems to be expecting that shift, God most definitely isn’t. That means that we, as Christians, are called to work harder in our not-yet-married relationships to preserve what marriage is supposed to be. As I began dating my boyfriend, that’s something that was impressed upon my heart by God – and it’s something that I believe we all need a constant reminder of because if we’re honest, dating is tough – but dating in a way that honors God is even tougher.
The recklessness of today’s dating culture and a plethora of mediocre advice causes us to settle for less than God intended. If you’re a part of a Christian community and/or the Church, you have probably heard dating advice from multiple people in your circle… advice that is often surprisingly wide and diverse, even though we’re following the same Jesus and reading the same Bible.
Personally, nothing in my life and faith has been more confusing and spiritually hazardous than my pursuit of marriage and the weighty opinions of those around me. Despite how intimidating it’s been for me, the vision of marriage we see in God’s Word makes it worth it to date, and date well. The world’s approach cannot lead to the life-giving Jesus after whom our marriages are to take their cues… and if we’re not careful, the Christian approach won’t be far behind.
For many of us, if we’re honest, it really doesn’t matter who’s offering us dating advice, as long as it confirms what we thought or wanted to believe in the first place. We think we’re wise for leaning on others as we wade into all the Christian dating articles, podcasts, books, etc. Often, though, we’re just trying to justify our own position or behavior. I’ve watched so many of the people I dearly love and respect merely make it through the dating season of their relationship – or if I’m blunter, they come dangerously close to having sex before marriage even though they swore they’d never get close. They compromise on their boundaries for cheap, temporary intimacy that leaves them wanting more outside of the proper context. They flirt with the gray area of what’s clearly stated in the Bible and what’s left to our discernment. Some even hide their actions and lie about their habits out of shame. Seeing this up close and personal has got me thinking… there has to be a better approach to this pre-marriage season than simply settling for haphazard dating relationships and hoping the Lord redeems them through a theoretical marriage that they so desperately desire.
From a young age, I longed for the affection, safety, and intimacy that comes along with a romantic relationship. I mean, most of us do! That’s because we were created for relationship with God and people – it’s literally hardwired in us! Unfortunately, my immature and unhealthy desires predictably did much more harm than good, even as someone who eventually began to pursue the Lord. I entered into relationships that were not stable, respectful, or safe. I stayed in those same relationships for way too long. I said, “I love you” too soon. I allowed my insecurities to drive my decision making and compromised on things I deeply regret. Some of which still give me a visceral reaction as I write these words.
Your story doesn’t look the same as mine, but something that’s true for all of us is that discernment is often not as hard as we make it out to be. I strongly believe that the Lord has ingrained in all of us a sense of what is right and what is wrong. We get a better sense of this as we grow closer to Him, so if you’re doing something in a dating relationship you shouldn’t be doing, you’re going to feel it. You’re going to feel that something is off and that that’s not what you were made for.
That being said, here are a few principles I highly value in dating relationships. Of course, practical suggestions will look different for different types of people. You must know yourself and be honest about your limits. If we focus more on who we are and who God is calling us to be instead of how close we can get to the line without crossing it, I think we could make dating a lot less complicated and, by God’s grace, maybe a little more holy.
1. Intentionality: The first point I want to make here is that I know not everyone is as straightforward as me. I’m an eight on the Enneagram. If you’re an Enneagram person, you know that my label is “The Challenger.” Basically, I just believe that there is power in being direct.
Whether you’re a guy or a girl, don’t be afraid to state your intentions or ask them of the other person. I actually advise people to have tough conversations before you start dating… instead of walking blindly into the first stages of a relationship, why not equip yourselves during the time that you are getting to know each other as friends?! That’s what intentionality is all about.
I’m not talking about knowing if you want to marry the other person after an hour-long coffee date. I’m talking about clarity. Giving the other person clarity during dating looks like letting them know where you’re at emotionally, never making them question where they stand with you, and letting them know what your intentions are with the relationship. If you do this from the get-go, you’re setting honesty at the foundation of your relationship, which can make things a lot less confusing.
Whether you end up committing to a relationship or staying “just friends”, communication is a whole lot easier when both people’s intentions are known. And secondly, marriage really is less about compatibility than it is about commitment. There is a reason the Bible doesn’t have a book devoted to how to choose a spouse. It was not an oversight on the part of the God of all history, as if he couldn’t see into the twenty-first century. That isn’t to say that compatibility isn’t important, because it is. Friendship is what makes marriages the sweetest – when your best friend is also the one you’re committed to, pursuing constantly, and pushing closer to Jesus, it creates an unparalleled beauty. But, in the end, it comes down to a choice: the choice to love and serve in the moments where we feel anything but compatible.
2. Leadership: This one is one of the hardest for me. Any other female enneagram Eights out there? Eights are known as the “powerful, dominating type: self-confident, decisive, willful, and confrontational.” So… basically the opposite of the stereotypical female. Eights are driven by and most fearful of not being in control. Not because we want to control others, but because we don’t want to be controlled. And in a dating relationship, there are A LOT of things that are the Lord has made clear to me that are out of my control. And, even further, as a female, there are decisions I get to step aside on because of the man I’m dating. I say get because it’s easy to view that as a burden from the outside looking in, and even sometimes from the inside. But the beautiful thing about dating or being married to a man who is following the Lord is that he leads me to the cross, intercedes on my behalf, calls me up out of my sin, and loves who the Lord has made me to be (whether I’m a stereotypical woman or not). No matter what personality you have, the Lord has outlined the roles of males and females in relationships for our benefit and His glory.
3. Boundaries & Purity: Know your heart. God designed us each uniquely. I have met people who are completely comfortable with casual dating, and I’d say for some of them, it worked. However, I’ve never been the type of girl who can casually date. I’m a nervous mess and need some level of investment/security in a friendship before I could even consider dating someone. Also, when you find someone worth dating, don’t let your body marry him before the rest of you does. What I mean by that is… dating is different than engagement and engagement is different than marriage. They require varying levels of vulnerability, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Each season will prepare you for the next and should build upon the other in a healthy way.
4. Accountability: Find your person (or a few). You will not always like what they have to say, but they will bring a critical dimension to your dating relationships: they know you — your past, your strengths and weaknesses, your successes and failures, your unique needs. We all need people who truly know us and love us, and who want what’s best for us, even when it’s not what we want in the moment. One of the best rules/guidelines I ever made for myself has been to think about if I could share a hangout or date night with some of the kiddos and teenagers who are dear to me. Am I okay with them knowing about the choices I made in a moment where nobody else was around? Or do I feel ashamed because I wouldn’t encourage them to do the same?
If Christian dating – the intentional, selfless, and prayerful process of pursuing marriage – sounds like slavery to you, I’d gently encourage you to look at it again, because I think you’re quite possibly missing one of the most beautiful seasons of your life.
If low-commitment sexual promiscuity is what you proclaim to be freedom, I’d ask you to reconsider if you actually are happy and empowered, or if you secretly and internally feel enslaved to others desiring and accepting you, only to wake up the next morning unfulfilled, shameful, and again feeling unwanted.
If our “Christian” dating turns into a pattern of conscious settling for less than the Lord challenges us to, we still aren’t quite getting it.
Is Christian dating perfectly safe? No.
Will it keep you from being hurt or disappointed? No.
Will it guarantee you never go through another breakup? No.
Will you do everything perfectly even if your intentions and your heart are in the right place, chasing after Jesus? No – because you are human.
The real purpose of dating, just like the purpose of everything else, is to draw you closer to Jesus… and to draw others to Him, too. By God’s grace, the challenges and the loveliness of dating may just prepare you to love your future spouse in a way that more beautifully and dramatically displays the truth and power of the Gospel. And that’s exactly why it’s worth it.
Michelle (or Meesh, as all her friends call her) Franks currently lives just outside of Pittsburgh, PA, where she serves as the Assistant Director of Children’s Ministries at St. Stephen’s Church. Meesh is an Eight on the Enneagram, which means she fiercely protects those who are important to her and she believes in the power of relationships, especially when they are centered around Jesus Christ. Meesh is dating her boyfriend, Caleb Vits, who she met when they both worked in children’s ministry at their church. After a year or two of friendship, now, together, they are a great example how to fight for “more” in a dating relationship, all while honoring God in the process. They love the children and families of their community so well. I may be biased (Meesh is my twin sister… yes, we’re identical!), but I really think Meesh is one of the best people you could ever meet and I love her heart for sharing this wisdom with us. a lot of which she has gleaned from the women of God in her life. She loves the dance floor, drinks a lot of coffee, and is a firm believer in the power of friendship, mentorship, and community.