Having grown up in the church, I knew the rules about dating long before giving out my first phone number. First, and most important, I had to find a Christian to date. When I found one in youth group or young adult Bible study, we would both abstain from premarital sex while we built the foundation of a healthy relationship that would carry us through marriage. At worst, it would end in an amicable breakup because God was leading us elsewhere. It seemed so straightforward.
Looking back, I find that idea laughable not because I don’t think that’s a good plan, but because that wasn’t my experience. Dating was complicated, especially when the Christian label was just that: a tag for people, including me, to wear to look like we were doing the right thing. For me, it got even more confusing when I found dating non-Christians easier and safer. Yet by the time I decided I had to get serious about finding a Christian spouse, I was sure most Christian guys I pursued would find me too bitter and heavy with emotional damage to risk a date.
As mentioned previously, I always knew I was supposed to date Christians, and committed ones, too — no rookies. I thought being “equally yoked” meant finding a cradle Christian who knew Bible stories and went to church camp (2 Corinthians 6:14). Non-believers, naturally, were out of the question. Despite believing this, I mistrusted it before I was allowed to date. At 15, I discovered the hard way that too many Christians aren’t all that different from non-Christians, and it disappointed and frustrated me to know that I wasn’t safe around someone just because he said he was a believer and played in a worship band. If a Christian would take what he wanted from me without my permission, why would I differentiate him from the vast group of potential mates out there?
For most of high school I was too scared to date, and I felt more comfortable playing the role of prude freak to my unchurched friends. When I chose to date someone my senior year, it bothered me that we wouldn’t share the same faith, but it mattered more to me that he was willing to respect me and wait for any physical intimacy — even a quick kiss — because he knew what I believed and why I approached relationships with such trepidation. He might not have afforded other girls that courtesy, but for some reason I usually got the respect and friendship I wanted.
We dated off and on for four years. I loved him, and I had gotten myself into a mess, trying to convince myself that either his ambivalence to faith wouldn’t matter that much to me or he’d eventually come around and become a Christian. Neither was true, and it wasn’t healthy for me to hold a nonbeliever to Christ’s or my own list of standards, especially when I wasn’t meeting them myself. Moreover, it was detrimental for me to start compartmentalizing to the point where I had my idealized Christian guy friends who would hang out with me but never date me. They would pray with me and worship alongside me, but my boyfriend was the one who would stay up late talking with me, spend time with my family, and hold me when I cried. It taught me to divide and reserve portions of my heart and body, making it harder to give both to my husband when the time came.
Throughout our time together, my first long-term boyfriend became interested in Christianity, but eventually it came out that he just wanted to make me happy so I wouldn’t leave or start any arguments. Despite the suspicion I had for males in the church, I still wanted to share the deepest part of my being, my soul, with someone who loved Christ. My boyfriend wasn’t stupid, and he knew he had to play the part or walk away.
To this day, I regret that I am probably the Christian he’s known at the most personal level.
When our relationship dissolved, I went on a sort of dating spree for almost a year. I didn’t care if the guys were friends or strangers, if they were younger or older, if they hunted or wrote poetry in their spare time, or if they were attractive or not. If we could communicate, I’d accept a date. I could write a very humorous and self-incriminating book of essays about the experience, and the takeaway would be that my all-too-stereotypical post-breakup serial dating didn’t ease any of my pain. My limited understanding of “Christian” dating didn’t help me too much either.
At campus church services, I casually scoped out the single guys and eventually scored a date with a pastor’s son. The afternoon when we were supposed to meet for a walk and some coffee came. He never showed up or even reached out to apologize for standing me up. Perchance someone clued him in that I was on the rebound. He could have picked up that I was on a desperate quest to find meaning and value, too. I wanted to prove, once and for all, that I was “Christian enough” to date a church boy, and I’d picked him out to help me with that.
Let down again by the prototypical Christian guy, I tried to understand why I couldn’t seem to catch one of those squeaky clean types I was supposed to date and aspired to impress. I didn’t get it, at least not until I acknowledged that holding onto that illusion of attainable perfection for myself and others was sabotaging my chances of finding someone who didn’t take Christ’s salvation and grace for granted.
God only knows where I would be if I hadn’t found Tim during the fog of my compulsive dating season. Tim was a smart, funny, good-looking, and athletic guy I considered out of my league; but he’d no idea that it wasn’t OK to cuss in church. Tim was a brand new Christian, and I worried about getting too excited because he didn’t know the Holy Spirit from Casper the Friendly Ghost. Although I respect the wise caution that love at first sight doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be trusted, I know something happened rather quickly when I was getting to know Tim. The sparks burned so hot that I knew we were poised to fall hard for each other and be destroyed if we started a relationship and it fell apart. As I contemplated committing to dating Tim exclusively, I thought it would have been so much easier to date one of the cute coffee-loving seminarians in town. I wouldn’t have to catch him up on all the Christian subculture he didn’t know, and I wouldn’t have to worry about those “f” bombs dropping at church or at the family dinner table.
I asked my parents and siblings frequently what they thought about guys I liked. To my surprise, they all approved of Tim but none of the guys from our church. They didn’t have anything against the lifelong churchgoing men, but Tim stood out to them as someone who would complement the uniqueness of my strengths and my shortcomings. Whereas I was searching for “Mr. Right” because I wanted to minimize my chances of screwing up, my family helped me to see that if I were to marry, I needed to be with someone who encouraged my understanding of the Gospel because of his character and the way he related to me. Choosing to date someone merely because they were my “right” kind of Christian wouldn’t honor God; that veneer of love would slander him.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians about marriage, he advises that singleness is the ideal because it allows Christ followers to focus on the work of the Church. To those who burn with passion, he provides marriage as a solution to keep Christians from sinning (1 Corinthians 7:9). In that passage, Paul doesn’t address what generally desperate, lovesick people who aren’t necessarily lusting as much as they are seeking validation should do. The problem for people like me, however, usually lies in not following the greatest commandment that requires us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
For a decade, I spent most of my energy trying to find a guy to make me feel wanted and safe, even if that meant sacrificing what I knew was right. Guilt, regret, fear, and shame kept me from trusting that my life could be joyful with or without a romantic partner.
While I took time figuring that out, Tim waited. I thought I knew how to love people and love God, but I was lost. We spent months going on dates where I kept my distance. In fear of getting too attached, I wouldn’t hold his hand or get too close. Early in our conversations, I learned that Tim wanted a relationship with God more than he wanted me, but he made it clear that he’d prefer both. He told me that he understood that he had no real experience in any kind of love, but he wanted to learn with me. Tim’s honesty about not having it all figured out refreshed me; his commitment to seeking holiness in love finally persuaded me. For the first time, I could be human, broken while pursuing healing with the help of someone else who was doing just the same.
One of Tim’s friends suggested reading C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” and even though I’d already read it, I wanted to reread it. We read it together and talked on the phone while we spent the summer apart. As Tim learned more about God, I got to rediscover so much of what I’d forgotten or ignored about my faith while I searched for fulfillment elsewhere.
When I finally broke my own “no touching” rule and ambushed him with a kiss after a baseball game, my knees buckled. Panicked, I told him I wasn’t into friends-with-benefits relationships, so we needed to figure out where we were headed. He said he’d already made that choice, and he wasn’t into flings, either. Two years later, we were married and fighting cockroaches in our first apartment together.
Tim laughs, knowing it sounds ridiculous when he tells me that when he first saw me years before we ever dated that I had a “glow” around my head that he can’t explain. My red hair might account for some of that. I don’t know if God picked us out for each other because I don’t know if I agree that matches are cosmically arranged. I am, however, paired with someone who knows how to kneel before His God and that’s the disposition of heart I need in my life.