When Matthew, my now fiancé, first asked me to enter a relationship with him, I said no.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like him (I did), but deep down, I knew I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I was six months past a breakup that had shattered my heart and put me on a major learning curve. I was learning to heal, to forgive, and to trust God with my past, present, and very uncertain future. I was also learning the mistakes I’d made in that past relationship that had ended so abruptly and rocked my world so completely. I was nowhere near ready to try again.
Six more months passed. God continued his deep work in my heart and Matthew graciously accepted my rejection and remained a faithful friend. And then, I started to feel ready.
My perspective on romantic relationships had shifted over the course of that year and my own mistakes had become glaringly obvious. As Matthew and I moved forward in our relationship, I looked back numerous times with wonder and thought, “It’s so…different.” The way we went about getting to know each other, the purpose our friendship held, the way it pushed me toward God instead of pulling me away—all completely different. It was purposeful, intentional, and Christ-focused.
It was purposeful, intentional, and Christ-focused.
The mistakes I’d previously made aren’t unusual. The world gets countless things wrong when it comes to love, dating, and marriage. The standard displayed in every show we watch, song we listen to, and celebrity we follow is riddled with unbiblical messages that have heartbreaking consequences. Frequently, especially for Gen Z, these messages are the most powerful educators in our lives on these topics. We learn how to date from rom-coms. We learn the purpose of dating from sappy love songs. We learn how dating should make us feel from TikTok. Unfortunately, we’re learning all the wrong things.
The culture tries to tell us what dating should look like, but the culture’s standard is broken. To have godly, purposeful, and healthy romantic relationships, we need to fire the culture as our teacher and submit ourselves to a new teacher—the One who created relationships in the first place: God himself and his holy Word. As the designer of love and marriage, God is the only one who can help us get relationships right.
But first, what does the world get wrong?
1. The World Makes Dating (and Marriage) About You
The world’s system of dating has a priority pyramid that places self at the top. We look out for our wants, needs, and emotions first. Selfishness is given room to thrive in dating because dating usually has no objective purpose. What’s the point? Fun? Fulfillment? The intoxicating chemistry of infatuation? These are often driving reasons, but they’re self-based reasons.
News flash: Godly relationships are not about you. They’re about glorifying God and finding a spouse.
Godly relationships must have an objective purpose. They’re fueled by intentionality and selflessness and a three-fold goal to glorify God, honor the other person, and find a spouse. Instead of fun, the primary aim of dating should be marriage (with fun being a healthy by-product!). This radically changes both how we date and who we date.
Godly relationships invert the world’s priority pyramid and place God as the first priority. Instead of asking, “What can I get out of this?” we should ask, “How can I honor, glorify, and exalt Jesus Christ? Am I following God’s standards for purity, sexual morality, and godliness? Does this relationship pull me closer to Jesus or further away?”
Godly relationships invert the world’s priority pyramid and place God as the first priority.
With the priority of God firmly at the top, the other person is placed next on the priority pyramid. How can I value them as an image-bearer of a holy God? How can I honor and respect them? How can I protect their heart and emotions and care for their needs? How can I help them draw closer to Jesus?
This selfless, Christ-focused, “God and you above me” approach radically changes the way we date because it radically changes how we value the people we date. Every man or woman we know is highly loved by the God who created them, so how we treat them matters not only to them, but to the God who calls them son or daughter.
Who we date also changes. If the goal is a godly marriage, then we’re not primarily looking for a fun person to hang out with. We’re looking for a man or woman of godly character we can labor alongside, building the kingdom of God and raising a family.
We often ask questions like, “How can you know you’re compatible? Should you find someone with the same personality and interests?” While similar interests or personalities can be a benefit to a relationship, they’re not the most important thing to look for in a future spouse.
Want to know what is? Character.
The strength of an individual’s relationship with God and the strength of their character is directly tied to the strength of the marriage they will be able to have. In looking for a spouse, look for a man or woman who:
- Loves the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).
- Seeks first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).
- Knows and loves the Word of God (Psalm 119:97).
- Is growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
- Is growing in humility and seeks to put others above themselves (Philippians 2:3-4; James 4:6).
These qualities are nonnegotiable and the foundation of a godly marriage. If you wouldn’t marry someone who doesn’t have these qualities, why would you date them?
2. The World Makes Dating About Intimacy
Dating is a fast-track to intimacy. Bodies, hearts, and lives become intimately connected prematurely, because once again, there is often no objective purpose for the relationship. With marriage no longer the goal, the secondary by-product of intimacy is elevated as a primary objective. In the most extreme cases, physical intimacy is disconnected even from relationships, as hookup apps grow in popularity and the question, “Should you have sex on a first date?” is asked.
But it doesn’t have to be that extreme for intimacy to be given a premature and disproportionately strong role in dating. Again, look at what pop culture promotes. Boy and girl meet. The sparks fly. The attraction is strong. What comes next? Physical and emotional intimacy soars through the roof as suddenly the two are inseparable, their lives knit together in countless ways and their closeness sealed through their physical relationship. While intimacy can be a good thing in its proper place and is the natural result of a growing relationship, a crucial step is entirely neglected. That step is investigation.
Author Debra Fileta says, “The dating stage isn’t about intimacy—it’s about investigation.” When we look at dating through the lens of finding a godly spouse, it makes sense. The process of dating should be about discovering whether or not the person in question will be able to join you in having a godly marriage. You need to figure out the answers to fundamental questions such as:
- Will this person make a good spouse?
- Are they a genuine follower of Jesus?
- Are we on the same mission?
- Do our core values agree?
- Do their lives reflect their beliefs and claims? (i.e. do they practice what they preach?)
- What is their relationship like with…God? Their family? A local church? Their coworkers?
Unfortunately, the entire set-up of dating is not conducive to uncovering these answers. There’s only so much you can discover about a person’s relationship with God or how they react under pressure by sitting across from them at a restaurant or watching a movie. Intentional investigation throughout the relationship is key, by seeking out real-life situations to experience together, interacting with a wide variety of individuals, and by asking good questions.
Early in our relationship, Matthew and I went over dozens of questions. We went through the book 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged and the Dear Young Married Couple’s Realizations card deck which contained numerous meaningful conversation starters. I browsed countless question lists. These resources provided structure and intentionality to our conversations, guaranteeing that we were using our time together in a productive way even while enjoying each other’s company. Asking deep and meaningful questions doesn’t have to look like interrogating one another, but rather getting to the heart of who they are in an intentional, but still organic way. A few great questions to ask are:
- How has Jesus changed your life?
- Can you explain the gospel to me?
- How has your relationship with God changed recently?
- What does your relationship with the Bible look like? What about prayer?
- How important is church to you? What makes a good church?
- In what ways do you want to grow spiritually? How are you moving toward that?
- What are the roles of men and women?
- How would you describe your relationship with your dad? Your mom? Your siblings?
- What does sexual purity mean to you? How can we practically live that out?
- What have been your experiences with pornography?
- How do you handle conflict? How have you observed others handling conflict?
- What are your thoughts on children? Do you want children? How would you raise them?
Prioritizing investigation over intimacy also helps bring clarity to the common question, “Where do you draw the line with physical intimacy?” Navigating physical boundaries can feel murky and complicated: How much is too much? How far is too far? Is holding hands okay? Hugs? Kissing? But here’s a simple key to keep in mind: Your physical intimacy should not surpass your level of commitment…and your level of commitment should not surpass your knowledge of the other person’s character and suitability as a spouse. Intimacy should come only after the hard work of investigation and within the protection of commitment.
3. The World Makes Dating an Ultimate Thing
Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of pop, country, and rock music revolve around the themes of love, sex, and breakups? Walking through a store one day, the music blaring into my ears, it hit me: romantic relationships have become our God substitute.
In our rebellion, humanity has cast God from his rightful throne, leaving an empty God-shaped hole within every human heart. We are all wired to worship; we must worship something. The thrilling and powerful emotions of attraction, sexual intimacy, and infatuation have become one of humanity’s chosen objects of worship.
But sex and infatuation make very poor gods. They never satisfy. Set loose to rule and reign over us, they only bring heartbreak and hurt. Attempting to fill the God-sized hole in our souls with relationships or sex carves out a deeper emptiness because none of it is big enough to fill up the corners of our greatest longings. Instead, every time we look to earthly and temporary substitutes, we’re confronted head on with their insufficiency to fill the void—and the unfulfilled craving still within us. No human on earth has the ability to play the role of satisfier, provider, savior, and sustainer—in short, the role of God—that we’re all seeking. As C.S. Lewis quotes in The Four Loves from Denis de Rougemont, “Love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god.”
No human on earth has the ability to play the role of satisfier, provider, savior, and sustainer—in short, the role of God—that we’re all seeking.
That’s what’s so amazing about God’s plan and design for marriage. It pictures something greater. Marriage is God’s gift to us and it’s a glorious tool he uses to display a far greater relationship. A relationship that can satisfy every longing and meet every need. A relationship that is, in fact, the most ultimate thing in all the world. The relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
We will never be satisfied or fulfilled in a relationship if we’re not first fully satisfied in Jesus Christ. Godly relationships look to Jesus, not a person, to satisfy every need and longing in our hearts because we know that he alone is the One who can.
Sara Starkey is the Editor-in-Chief of theRebelution.com and the author of Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call to Bold Faith in a Confused Culture. Connect with her on her website SaraBarratt.com.