This article, while biblically-based, contains material best appreciated by mature readers.—Editors.
Fire is a two-faced element. It can support life or destroy it. Without fire in the form of the sun, the planet would descend into a terminal ice age, with every form of life freezing instantly and irrevocably. But while we need the sun, we need it in tolerable doses. The globe that bathes us in warm light, growing our crops and blushing our cheeks, has been greatly subdued in the process of reaching us from 150 million kilometers away. The blazing reality is that she emits about 5 million tons of energy per second, energy that is continuously absorbed and reemitted at lower and lower temperatures, lest the cruel queen of our solar system swallow us whole. In other words, the sun brings life instead of death to our planet simply because its raging heat (15.6 million kelvins at her core) is kept at a safe distance by a loving Creator.
ASSION. SEXUAL PASSION IS LIKE fire. Every erotic urge that pulses through us, body and soul—whether it be the delicate flower of puppy love or the florid blossom of sexual desire—brings life or death, depending on how successfully it is managed. Our world is reeling from the effects of uncontrolled passion, with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in its train. Beyond bodily maladies, there are incalculable losses on a psychological and spiritual level as human beings live outside the protection of God’s design. And perhaps the most tragic fallout of this state of affairs is the bum rap sex has gotten. That which was created by God as a metaphor of the love of Christ for His church1 has come to be thought of as the seductive foe of virtue and bringer of tragedy.
Nothing could be more unreasonable. Sex is God’s gift, and thoughtful Christians know that. So do scientists. Moderate sexual expression, particularly in a stable relationship, has been correlated with health benefits, including better sleep and less depression, better cardio health, and even pain relief!2 Long-term sexual and emotional intimacy actually enhances the production of a hormone called oxytocin, which is called the “cuddle hormone,” and is correlated with emotional intimacy and happiness.3 Done right, human sexuality is a beautiful thing.
The focus of this article isn’t sex, and yet, at the same time, it is. It isn’t about sex because this article is about dating. This is a Christian magazine, read (mostly) by Christians who (mostly) agree that sex outside of marriage is a really bad idea. But this article is about sex because sex begins many miles before the bedroom. When we refer to the physical act of sex, the standards generally understood by Christians are fairly straightforward, black and white, right and wrong. But when we muse on the mystical, marvelous dance that begins with locked eyes across a room and ends up with the physical act, things get a whole lot more complicated.
The mess of romance has been handled through two main institutions: dating and courtship. Before either, marriages were arranged by parents on the basis of practical considerations. Even when parents weren’t involved, marriages past were often more about function than feeling. In the mid-1800s an Arkansas man placed an ad in the newspaper that read: “Any gal that got a bed, calico dress, coffee pot and skillet, knows how to cut out britches and can make a hunting shirt, knows how to take care of children can have my services till death do us part.”4
When the growing industrialization and mechanization brought blossoming wealth in Western societies, the new phenomenon of leisure time gave young men and women the opportunity to get to know each other before marriage. Courtship was born; and a formal affair it was. Generally taking place in the home of the woman, where she was safe and carefully watched over by her family, the suitor pursued feminine affections through conversation, wit, and written messages.
In the late-nineteenth century courtship morphed into dating as poorer women who had no parlor in which to chat with a beau began to meet with men in public places. Gradually, public dating became the norm, desired by rich and poor alike. With this change, the balance of power shifted away from the female—who was now out of the protection of her home—to the male—who was usually paying for the socialization. The involvement of parents was minimized. Over time, temporary romantic thrill rather than level-headed planning for marriage became central to the experience.
The vicissitudes of less-industrialized cultures frequently starved the process of cultivating romantic affection, but today’s dating scene expends it to the point of meaninglessness. A sensible yet spiritual approach calls for the cultivation of a carefully reigned-in form of affection that neither ignores nor prematurely expends the romantic urges. The same God who inspired Solomon to breathe: “You have made my heart beat faster . . . with a single glance of your eyes” (S. of Sol. 4:9)* also commanded: “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you” (Eph. 5:3).
Of all the approaches to the cultivation of romance that I’ve mentioned so far, courtship comes closest to this biblical ideal. But can someone please come up with a new name for it? I keep seeing men in tights and ladies in pointed hats! Seriously, courtship has gained popularity of late among Christian young people. In 1997 a 23-year-old named Joshua Harris authored I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Since then, a plethora of anti-dating books, many authored by youth, have amplified the trend. Sweeping through churches, high schools, and college campuses, the courtship revolution has begun to put the brakes on romantic attachment outside of marriage.
Maybe it’s time for a little personal confession. I found Jesus at 19, after a high school career of looking for love in all the wrong places. Determined never to stray again, I embraced the idea of courtship with gusto, and shortly after began my own courtship with Michael. Looking back, I wish we had allowed ourselves to “fall in love” a little more. We were probably overregimented and cautious, but the longevity and happiness of our marriage hasn’t been compromised by our quiet beginnings. And if I had it to do over, I’d err on the side of caution rather than throwing it to the wind.
So what’s so bad about a little dating romance? Let’s go back to the fire to answer these questions. Dating as it is practiced today releases that fire of passion prematurely. Even some “Christian dating,” which allows for emotional and physical involvement but stops short of sexual intercourse, is incendiary business. “Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” (Prov. 6:27) inquired the wise man.
“Oh, come on,” someone is saying. “What’s wrong with a little harmless fun as long as we don’t have sex?” As a woman, a mother, and a mental health researcher, I can’t help noting how naive that attitude is. It’s naive because research shows that the vast majority of Christian young people who take abstinence pledges break them.5 It’s easy to underestimate the intensity of temptation, especially for young people. They have it hard! For one thing, delaying marriage into the late 20s and 30s has put young adults in the position of needing to restrain their urges for longer and longer periods of time. This is no small task. One step toward compromise can create an almost irresistible momentum. Pop singer Jennifer Lopez has said: “I am a strong believer in kissing being very intimate, and the minute you kiss, the floodgates open for everything else.”6
Beyond the temptation to have premarital sex, emotional and physical bonding of any kind has consequences. One study showed a correlation between a high school crush and a lifelong tendency toward depression.7 Other research correlates suicidal tendencies with frequent bonding and breakup.8 But it doesn’t take academic brilliance to know that breakup is damaging! The human heart wasn’t built for uprooted affections, but for longevity in love. When the fire of passion burns outside of the boundaries of marriage, it leaves its troublesome legacy behind. The very fire that God intended to bring life brings destruction when not managed properly.
Fortunately, the Bible is a life manual that expounds principles for conducting romantic relationships. Especially useful for identifying these principles is the story of Isaac and Rebekah. Significantly, it is the one recorded Old Testament marriage in which there was no polygamy. Here is a distillation of the lessons I’ve found in this beautiful love story in Genesis 24:
Be Intentional. Abraham’s trusted servant was sent from Canaan to Mesopotamia for the express purpose of finding a wife for Isaac. He persevered in prayer for God’s leading, and Providence unfolded a plan before him like the petals of a flower. The partners and their families traced the unmistakable hand of God and were united in marriage. It was a simple, elegant story of divine principles operating upon two people within the framework of custom and culture. The same is possible today.
The Bible provides no legitimate examples of romantic intimacy outside of marriage. Samson is probably the Bible’s foremost single playboy, and his serial “dating” resulted in a total compromise of his faith. This is not to say that eventual partners did not meet and get to know each other within the body of believers in both Old and New Testament times, but as to the mechanics of that process, there is profound silence. The “coupling” phase of a marriage union wasn’t hot press. Contrast that with the fact that most movies and television feature romantic and sexual drama. The world is obsessed with attraction and lust, but the Word says much more about how to cultivate love within the confines of a marriage commitment. The takeaway lesson for us is that we should screen and manage our attractions by the criterion of who we could be happy with on a long-term basis.
Remember Boundaries. As counterintuitive as it seems, love has boundaries. “The love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). That “control” implies limits. All life has structure and form. Without law, without boundaries, there is only anarchy and ultimate death. God’s boundaries are about beauty, grace, and life. His boundaries for human sexual passion limit its expression to heterosexual marriage.9
Beyond this, His Word instructs believers: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). Isaac’s wife was to be chosen from Abraham’s extended family rather than the Canaanites. This wasn’t snobbery, but godly sense; the blending of two lives is difficult even when basic life trajectories are identical. Rarely is an unbelieving spouse converted. Typically, the believer compromises his or her faith or lives in constant conflict. God in His mercy would spare us this dilemma.
Consider the Big Picture. Marriage is not just a union between two individuals; two families unite at the altar. The Isaac-Rebekah love story reveals a constant conferring between God, fathers, mothers, uncles, bride, and groom. Everyone was involved with the decision, because everyone would be affected by it.
Occasionally there are parents whose attachment to their children is neurotic, overcontrolling, or downright selfish, and they can’t be trusted to guide in the choosing process. But in most cases, parents can be safely and beneficially consulted. Age makes a person a better judge of character. Often a parent’s objective eyes can see what love-blinded eyes cannot.
Mind the Character. When Abraham’s servant prayed for a bride for Isaac, he specified a woman who would gladly serve him at the well.10 She was beautiful, but that was a fringe benefit. A trait of character was chosen as the mark of Mrs. Right. Probably one of the most primal fears of the young heart is being mated with someone we find physically unattractive. I once shared the story of Isaac and Rebekah with my then 10-year-old. She became noticeably agitated and said, “I don’t want Jesus to choose my husband for me! He’ll pick someone ugly!”
“Why do you think that?” I asked. “Because Rebekah covered her face!” she said. She had mistaken the cultural custom of veiling the face for an expression of disgust at Isaac’s physical appearance. What my little girl didn’t realize is that the same God that created sexual chemistry won’t run roughshod over our tastes. She also couldn’t comprehend how time can give a person X-ray vision. Through the years, physical beauty fades and character becomes the glue that holds affections in place.
Anticipate the Main Attraction. Isaac was 40 years old before he found the companion of his dreams. This meant that he experienced his sexual prime as a celibate. Not only did he live through this experience, but he learned self-restraint that made his marriage the only one among the patriarchs not to descend into polygamy. The most touching verse in his story is the last one: “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her” (Gen. 24:67).
How comforting to those of us sickened by the current trend of shallow, sensualized relationships! Some might feel inclined to react to prearranged marriage with, “How unromantic!” This verse shows, however, that dating and courtship, while apparently luxuries of modernity, aren’t indispensible. Like luxuriant roses growing out of rich soil, the most gorgeous love affairs have their roots in a deeply committed relationship. That’s when the real excitement starts, and it puts all the puppy-love drama of the dating game to shame.
God didn’t give us a precise, step-by-step manual for conducting our relationships, but He did give us principles. I’ve tried the romance thing both ways, and I can heartily recommend God’s way. I’ve also found that far from taking the thrill out of romance, God’s principles preserve it in its most artful and exhilarating form. “He requires us to perform only those duties that will lead our steps to heights of bliss to which the disobedient can never attain” (Steps to Christ, p. 47).
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is a writer, speaker, singer/songwriter, and founder of Michael Ministries, a company that proclaims the gospel message through word and song. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two college-age daughters.