Tuesday, February 12, 2008
[Joe is the College Pastor at my church and is a gifted teacher and preacher. He wrote this up to help college students to evaluate their relationships. It is a little long, but it is a good read. Pass it along.--Mike]
By Joe Lechner
From my experience, the number one topic among college-age people is the topic of relationships – and everything that comes with it – dating, courtship, boyfriends, girlfriends, marriage, sex. And among Christian college-age young people I don’t think there is a topic that generates more confusion and questions than the topic of courtship. So here are some questions – some, perhaps, you’ve asked and some you should be asking – and hopefully a few answers as well.
This is only a guide. It is not meant to be exhaustive. It’s only meant to point in the right direction. At the end is a list of resources that will help you continue the journey.
“What is courtship?”
First of all, what is courtship not? Courtship is not casual dating with a Christianized name. Most of us are aware of this, but we need to be careful of not going to the other extreme either. Courtship is not a kind of pre-engagement. It’s not the rubber stamp of the certainty of a future marriage. So what is courtship? Josh Harris in his book Boy Meets Girl defines courtship as a special season during which a man and woman seriously weigh the possibility of marriage; it’s purpose is to discern God’s will for marriage; it’s a season of deliberate, open and careful consideration of the possibility of marriage.
Because it’s deliberate, open, honest, intentional, and has a clear goal – it’s much more than casual dating. But because it’s the consideration of the possibility of marriage – it’s not pre-engagement, and those in the courtship and those outside the courtship, must resist the temptation to assume marriage. God’s will is what’s being sought – that may mean marriage, it may not.
In courtship, no promise about marriage has been made – only the promise to pursue it as a possibility.
“What is a successful courtship?”
Two things top the charts in answering this question. The first is God’s glory. The goal of any relationship and what determines whether or not any relationship is successful is whether or not God is glorified in the relationship. God’s glory is the greatest goal in every arena of life and this must be the highest priority and starting place as two people pursue courtship. The couple involved in a courtship is seeking to glorify God inwardly through their motives, thoughts, and intentions; and glorify God outwardly through their obedience to God in the way they relate to each other.
The second key element in a successful courtship is that it is wisdom-guided. Given our immaturity, sinful hearts, and selfish tendencies, young men and women interested in pursuing one another in courtship are in desperate need of wisdom! Wisdom is crucial so that you will experience courtship at the right time and at the right pace with a clear purpose and with a clear head able to make an intelligent, informed decision about marriage. Therefore a wisdom-guided relationship will be submitted to the rule of God’s Word, it will be submitted, guided and approved by those in authority over the couple (namely parents and pastors) and it will be pursued in a time in life when both individuals are mature enough to consider marriage (physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even financially).
In a God-glorifying, wisdom-guided relationship there are two central priorities that emerge in the courtship: To treat each other with holiness and sincerity and to make an informed and wise decision about marriage. The goal in courtship is not to get engaged. The couple in the courtship is seeking to grow and guard. They are seeking to grow closer so that they can truly know and be known, and at the same time trying to guard each others hearts because the outcome of the relationship is still unknown. The couple in the courtship need to observe and relate to one another, but treat each other with the kind of integrity that will allow them to look back on their courtship without regrets regardless of the outcome. The ‘growing and guarding’ of courtship is a balancing act – it takes a lot more effort and work, a lot more faith and trust in God than a casual, purposeless relationship. It’s a balancing act between considering marriage while fighting that urge to assume marriage.
The finish line of courtship is not a big ribbon that says, “Engagement”, but a big ribbon that says – “Glorified God – Walked in wisdom and humility - Treated each other in a godly manner – and made the right decision about marriage with a clear conscience!” That’s why it’s possible to have a courtship not end in engagement and be more successful than one that does. A courtship that is successful is not necessarily one that ends in engagement, but one that ends with God being glorified, both individuals growing in wisdom and grace, and walked out in purity physically, mentally and emotionally as to have no regrets.
“How do I do courtship?”
In one sense this is the wrong question to ask – at least initially. If we start here, then we bypass the heart and our motives. The right kind of questions to ask are: What’s my motive for being in a relationship? What are my intentions? What matters most to me when I think about this relationship? Is God’s glory the highest priority in this relationship? How can I tell? These kinds of questions are crucial because the answers have implications for every facet and detail for how the relationship will be walked out.
Moving beyond motive and intentions, it’s important to ask yourself questions concerning character: In the ways that I relate to this person now (in word and action), am I guarding this person’s heart or am I selfishly and prematurely seeking to draw their affections to myself? Are the choices and decisions I make in this relationship genuinely serving the other person or serving my own desires and wants? A relationship where two people are committed to God’s glory is a relationship where two people are fully committed to biblically serve one another above themselves. Michael Lawrence in his article Stop Test-Driving Your Girlfriend says, “Instead of asking if she’s the one, you should ask yourself ‘Am I the sort of man a godly woman would want to marry?’ If you’re not, then you’d be better off spending less time evaluating the women around you, and more time developing the character of a disciple.”
Furthermore, because our sinful hearts are deceitful and we are experts in charitable self-evaluation, we’d do well to not just answer these kinds of questions for ourselves, but pose the questions to godly, wise counselors who we trust and know us best (pastors, parents, etc) and allow them the opportunity to weigh in with their evaluation and perspective.
With these things in mind and regularly re-evaluated, the “how” of courtship becomes much easier to determine and is guided and regulated by a commitment to seeing God glorified in the relationship. And so, although not every courtship will look identical in the manner it is walked out, if God’s glory is the primary focus of the relationship and a commitment to pursue wisdom is present, than there will be “essential ingredients” that should be characteristic of every God-glorifying relationship. The following are adapted from Josh Harris’s book Boy Meets Girl.
Joyful obedience to God’s Word –
o Does your relationship reflect joyful obedience to God’s Word – even in the details?
o When our relationships are characterized by obedience to God’s Word, we are saying that God’s commands are good and that he deserves to be obeyed – and thus God is glorified.
The selfless desire to do what’s best for the other person –
o In this relationship, am I fully committed to sincerely serving the other person and not my own selfish or emotional desires?
o Am I fully committed to trusting God and allowing him to draw us together, if it be his will, rather than trying to manipulate the emotions and desires of the other person by excessively flirting or saying and promising more than I am ready to commit to?
o A selfless desire to do what’s best for the other person is the natural overflow of a genuine love for God. To love God means you’ll love others, and you can’t truly love others unless you genuinely love God. This is why understanding the goal of courtship and what makes a courtship “successful” is so important.
The humble embrace of community –
o If God’s glory is our passion in a relationship, we won’t be too proud to admit that we need help.
o Are you willing to submit yourself to the voice of wisdom and embrace community?
o Are you openly and humbly submitting your relationship to the inspection, evaluation, and scrutiny of others whom you trust?
o Do you have parents, pastors, a circle of wise, godly friends who are covering your relationship – who you are being open and honest with, who are asking you probing questions, and who you are asking questions of?
o Are you willing to open your relationship up to the observation, wisdom, counsel, input, correction, and adjustment of others and submit yourself to their counsel and guidance?
The commitment to guard the sacredness of sex –
o Are you abstaining from all temptations to and manifestations of lust and impurity?
o Are you tempering your passion with your desire to glorify God, or is your passion tempering your desire to glorify God?
o Are you willing to submit yourself to God’s Word, the wisdom of others, and the best interests of the other person’s moral purity in regards to giving expression to your romantic feelings?
o It is very important, without the fear of legalism, to have clearly defined boundaries and guidelines regarding the physical realm of your relationship that both of you clearly understand and are being held accountable to.
A deep satisfaction in God –
o Is your ultimate hope in God or each other?
o Are you trusting God? How can you tell? What would be signs that you weren’t?
o Only God can satisfy the deepest longings of your soul. If you’re looking for another person to do that you will be sorely disappointed and potentially harmful to the other person.
About these five “essential ingredients”, Josh Harris writes, “These five characteristics are important parts of living to bring glory to God in our relationships. These are the issues that really matter. When we each stand before God, he won’t ask you, ‘Did you date or court?’ What will matter in eternity is whether or not our lives and our pursuit of romance brought glory to our Father.” Instead of the relationship being your reason for living, it becomes an expression of the fact that you’re living for something greater: God.
“What do I do with my feelings?”
There is nothing that is quite so variable about us as our feelings. Though emotions are a gift from God, I would emphasize the danger of putting them first, making them central, and ultimately being led by them. When we put feelings first there is the tremendous tendency to begin to interpret reality by them. What’s real is determined by how we feel. When that happens not only will we have a distorted view of reality, but we then begin to make decisions based on how we feel. That can be extremely risky business especially when it comes to relationships. What we need is for our romantic feelings to be tempered and checked by wisdom and truth.
Josh Harris describes this dynamic by using the analogy of a kite and a string. He writes, “The relationship between wisdom and romance is like the one between a string and a kite. Romantic love is the kite that catches the wind and tenaciously heads to the sky; wisdom is the string that holds it back. The tension is real, but healthy. Without the string, the kite would quickly come crashing to the ground. In the same way, romance without wisdom will soon take a nosedive… Like a string on a kite, wisdom enables romance to really soar. It anchors it, disciplines it, and brings it to its highest potential.”
Here are three areas in which the string of wisdom needs to pull against the kite of romantic feelings:
· Romance says, “I want it now!” Wisdom urges patience.
o Relationships begun prematurely are a recipe for disaster. Many relationships are ruined by impatience. It leaves many broken-hearted and with many regrets.
o Wisdom calls us to slow down and to be patient because we know that God is good, faithful and sovereign.
o Patience in pursuing a relationship is not only an exercise in wisdom, but an active expression of trust toward God in both his character and his promises.
o The rewards of trusting God are immeasurable: grace, peace, contentment, joy, etc.
· Romance says, “Let feelings decide what happens.” Wisdom leads us to pursue a purposeful relationship.
o Are you living by your feelings? Is your decision to pursue this relationship based on how you feel, or is it guided by wisdom, counsel, and the clear intention to discern God’s will for marriage?
o Men, are you allowing your feelings to plot the course and direction of the relationship rather than wisdom and the goal of God’s glory?
o Wisdom calls us to pursue romance only when it’s part of the clearly defined purpose to pursue God’s will for marriage.
o Foolishness calls us to enjoy ourselves without concern for the good of others; to seek intimacy without responsibility.
· Romance says, “Enjoy the fantasy.” Wisdom calls us to base our perceptions in reality.
o Passion based in ignorance or haste can invite disaster (Prov. 19:2). The emotions involved in pursuing courtship can set you up for just that.
o Feelings need to be based on accurate information not just raw emotions.
o For those currently in a courtship: In what ways are you purposefully seeking to discover the “real person” – their values, motivations, goals, dreams, passions, likes and dislikes, their past history, present state and future aspirations, their strengths, joys and victories, their weaknesses, temptations and sins – with whom you are pursuing a relationship with? Are you being open, honest and vulnerable and allowing the other person to truly discover and know the real you, or are you “putting on your best behavior” so that the “fantasy” can continue? Are you acting and speaking in a manner that would be completely different than if you were hanging out with your best friend? If so, why?
I particularly appreciate Josh Harris’ discernment here. Every person who is currently interested in a relationship, hear this: So many dating couples are driven by impatience (which is often rooted in a much deeper failure to trust God for the future); are driven by feelings (and so couples begin relating to one another in ways that only tie emotional knots with no clear direction); and are living in fantasy worlds (which ultimately end in hurt and regret).
Josh goes on to say, “Courtship is a time to ask probing questions, to talk and discover who the person really is – his or her values, motivations and goals. We need to move beyond the superficial dating activities and observe each other in real-life settings. Courtship is a time to see the good, the bad and the ugly…Then our emotions and decisions about the relationship can be based on fact.”
Because of the tendency to be driven by our feelings, we need those feelings to be tempered and checked by wisdom and truth. But let’s be honest, left to ourselves wisdom will often take a backseat to feelings. Therefore, you can’t do this by yourself. So whether you are considering pursuing a relationship or are currently in one, here are a couple more questions for you: Are you actively and purposefully pursuing wisdom in the midst of pursuing this relationship or are you, either ignorantly or arrogantly, pursuing this relationship in your own strength, wisdom and discernment? Are you pursuing this relationship against the counsel of wise, godly and trusted people? Can you identify at least three wise, godly, trustworthy individuals with whom you are regularly going to who are evaluating, asking questions, giving input and holding you accountable in your relationship? Do you have a circle of individuals (parents, pastors, godly friends) to whom you are openly and honestly taking all your questions and concerns and cares to as it relates to your relationship?
And perhaps one final question here. Whose voice is loudest: Your feelings’ or wisdom’s? Are you willing to submit yourself to the voice of wisdom?
Here’s another important fact to remember: God is interested in the journey, not just the destination. You might just want to get married; God might want to reveal idols in your heart. You might just want to be in a relationship; God might want you to submit your emotions to him. If you’re frustrated by this whole discussion, you need to realize that it’s a huge mistake to view this process as something to ‘just get through’ so you can move on to courtship. God’s not in a rush. His interest in all this is not limited to you getting married. As Josh Harris writes, “He wants to use this process, and all the questions and uncertainties it involves, to refine us, sanctify us, and increase our faith.” Don’t despise the process!
“Can I ask one more question?’
Let’s say that there’s somebody out there that I’ve really got my eye on – somebody I really like. Let’s say that my greatest desire really is to see God glorified in the way I pursue relationships. Let’s say that I really am committed to pursuing wisdom with all my heart. Let’s say that I am in a season of my life where I legitimately could consider marriage. Let’s say that I’ve invited the input of my pastor and parents and a couple really close, godly friends and they are all in faith that I have the kind of character and am in a season of my life that I really could pursue this person that I like. And let’s say that this same circle of wise, trusted and godly counselors are also in faith that this person I like is the kind of person that I should pursue. So, everything kind of checks out and we’ve started a relationship. So, my question is: What now?
Earlier I mentioned that a couple involved in a courtship is walking the tightrope of “growing and guarding” – seeking to discern God’s will for marriage while resisting the urge to assume marriage. So what does that growing and guarding look like?
Well, again, I’m relying on the good counsel of my friend Josh Harris. Here are three categories (along with some more questions) in which courting couples should be growing and guarding in as they seek to discern God’s will for the future.
· Friendship –
o The first and most important thing to do in a courtship is to deepen friendship.
o Look for different ways to share the different parts of your life – the fun, the mundane, and the in between. Work together, play together and serve together.
o As you seek to deepen your friendship, how are you allowing the other person to see the real you – what you love, what captures your imagination? Are you inviting the other person into your world and are you asking them to invite you into his or her world?
o In what different contexts are you relating?
o In your conversations and questions, are you seeking to simply learn about each other?
o What are you purposefully doing to deepen friendship and to learn about each other?
· Fellowship –
o The spiritual foundation of the relationship is the most critical element of the relationship.
o For your foundation to be strong, love for God must be the common passion of your hearts.
o Courtship is the time to grow in your ability to share this passion for God and encourage one another in your faith.
o Growing in and guarding biblical fellowship means increasing your love for God not your emotional dependence on each other.
o Your goal is to remind each other to find your soul’s satisfaction in God alone.
o What are you specifically doing to foster an atmosphere of biblical fellowship in your relationship?
o Are you sharing with each other what God is teaching you and revealing to you in your personal walks with him?
o Are you regularly pointing each other back to God in your conversations?
· Romance –
o This should be happening ONLY when friendship and fellowship is deepening.
o The essence of romance is pursuit: A man showing through appropriate words and actions his care and affections and a woman responding in kind.
o The most romantic things are the little things.
o In courtship, these are to be pure, non-physical expressions. Never express more than you are committing.
o Our affections should not be squashed or squandered, but submitted to God and submitted to the authority of those covering the courtship.
o Are you paying attention to the “little things” that might bless the other person?
o Are you seeking the wisdom and counsel of others as to what expressions of romance might be appropriate as your relationship progresses?
o Are you submitted to God and to those in authority covering your relationship in regards to “romantic expressions”?
One Final Word
Lastly, let me have one final word with every person who ever reads this. I am writing this just after having celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary. I thank God every day that I am married to the girl of my dreams. I simply could not be a more blessed man! My wife definitely got the raw end of the deal!
So as a married person with a tad bit more experience then the kind of person I imagine will read this, let me say to you: Only God can satisfy the deepest longings of your soul. If you’re looking for another human being to do that, you will be sorely disappointed and ultimately your relationships will turn selfish and sour. Marriage is a gift. But you were not created for marriage, you were created for God. Get that backwards and you are doomed to be unhappy and disillusioned. I pray to God that you hear that– for your own sake! Instead of the relationship being your reason for living, let it become an expression of the fact that you’re living for something greater: God himself. Get that right and you will have the happiness that you are looking for and more.
Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris (In particular chapters 1, 2, 3, and 5; these were referenced in the above article; Multnomah Publishers; 2000)
With One Voice by Alex Chediak (Christian Focus Publications; 2006)
"What Does a Biblical Relationship Look Like?" by Scott Croft (excerpt from Sex and the Supremacy of Christ; 2005)
"Stop Test-Driving Your Girlfriend" by Michael Lawrence