Everyone knows that in most cultures dating is a prelude to marriage. But what many don't know is that how we date greatly influences the kind of marriage we will have. The way we conduct ourselves while dating is an excellent indicator of the commitment we will have to a future relationship and an indicator of the level of happiness we will enjoy.
In this chapter we're going to look at the godly way to find a husband or wife. We'll contrast the modern dating culture with godly dating practices. We'll share with you some frank answers about the consequences of premarital sex and popular myths about sex. And finally, we'll share some advice given by people who have committed their lives to godly dating.
God said, "It is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18) and that finding a wife is "a good thing" (Proverbs 18:22). The same principle holds true for women who find loving and responsible husbands. Marriage is good for us!
Marriages are not only a basis for happiness, they offer us longer and better-quality lives. They are also the building blocks of communities, societies and, ultimately, civilizations. A society is only as strong as its marriages and families.
The foundation for a good marriage is laid long before the wedding ceremony. It is established when two people begin dating.
Dating: Preparation for marriage
As we grow up, "When can I begin dating?" is a question we commonly ask our parents. Though the Bible gives no specific age when dating is appropriate, wise parents will teach their maturing children sound biblical principles that will help them follow God's standards of behavior.
Parents should determine when their children are ready to date based on their maturity and readiness to accept responsibility for their actions. Before parents allow dating, they should teach and encourage their children to follow biblical standards rather than turning them loose to do whatever comes naturally.
When we first begin dating, it should be for the purpose of social development-that is, learning about the opposite sex and the many differences in human personality, values and temperament. When we have our educations and an established career, we are ready to date more seriously toward marriage.
Of course, even dating for marriage often begins on a social basis of getting to know another person. It then may proceed to the next level if both individuals are prepared and willing. Let's begin with young people who are ready to start dating socially.
Teaching young people God's standards before allowing them to date may sound terribly old-fashioned and restrictive. But look at it this way: Most governments do not allow people to drive automobiles until they demonstrate the knowledge and ability to do so in a safe manner. No responsible parent would put his or her adolescent child in an automobile in the middle of a busy highway without having given that child instruction on how to drive.
Dating in our world is not without its dangers either. Without proper instruction, too many youth become promiscuous, contract sexually transmissible diseases, experience unwanted pregnancies and choose wrong paths that seem enjoyable and okay at the time but lead to untold anguish (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). Youth need instruction early as to why and how biblical values can protect them from such suffering.
Without this instruction, many young people make mistakes that hinder their potential for having a happy marriage. Loving parents would never wish misery on their children, but leaving them ignorant is a sure path to heartache. A thorough understanding of God's standards for dating and marriage is one of the greatest blessings children can receive from their parents.
Some people, however, are far past that point, having already reached adulthood, married and divorced. Teaching young people proper behavior for dating is obviously ideal. But what about adults? Do the principles change? Because adults are older, does that give them license for more liberties than adolescents may take? Are all things appropriate for consenting adults?
The Bible teaches that God's standards for dating apply to people of all ages. He does not have two sets of guidelines, one for adults and one for youth. Following the biblical laws is important regardless of one's age. And breaking God's laws is disastrous for people of all ages.
Modern standards of dating
To understand the difference between God's way and the world's, consider the dating practices common in Western countries.
Many assume that when people are dating, sexual intercourse is an appropriate demonstration of affection and a way to determine whether they are compatible. They believe that sex is simply a natural expression of love between two people and therefore the normal thing to do when individuals are "going together" or living together in an exclusive relationship. If the couple breaks up and the two start dating others, the common assumption is that they are then free to have sexual relations with their new partners.
This practice of serial monogamy-being sexually active with only one other person at a time-is widely considered to be a suitable way to date and find a future spouse.
In the United States, by the mid-1990s about two thirds of married women in their 20s had lived with their future spouses before getting married (Robert Moeller, "America's Morality Report Card," Christian Reader , November-December 1995, pp. 97-100). This dubious practice is followed by all too many young adults in the Western world. Sadly, most don't know the price they will pay for such conduct.
One of the first penalties of serial monogamy is emotional suffering. The sexual act creates an emotional bond between a man and a woman. When a couple breaks up after having had sexual relations, there is inevitable pain because of the severing of this bond. To ease that pain, the young man and woman typically move quickly to establish a similar relationship with a new partner-repeating the same mistake.
As people move on to one sexual relationship after another, not only do they have to deal with the pain of these broken bonds, they establish the habit of short-term sexual relationships-a way of thinking that is more often than not carried over into marriage. No wonder those who have sex prior to marriage have more divorces than those who don't.
Of course, most of those who have sex prior to marriage say their partners should disclose any sexually transmissible diseases (STDs) before intercourse so appropriate protection can be employed. By using contraceptives to help avoid disease and unwanted pregnancies (something that doesn't always work), couples believe that they are practicing "safe sex." These practices are so widely accepted that many educational systems, from middle school through university level, provide free contraceptives to students, no questions asked.
Although this approach may appear to be logical, it doesn't measure up to God's standards-which when practiced are always safe. The truth is that these so-called "safe sex" practices are not working very well at all.
Even though young people are receiving much education about sex, this education is not producing "safe sex." Instead, many young people are contracting STDs, some of which will be with them for the rest of their lives. The epidemic is so bad that in the United States, one in four sexually active teens contracts an STD every year (Stenzel, p. 67).
Paying the price for passion
When we fail to follow God's laws regarding sexual activity, we always pay a penalty. The physical penalties are well documented.
Today more than 25 sexually transmissible diseases afflict people around the world, a number that is steadily growing. Some STDs are caused by bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics- if they are detected. Others, like AIDS, are caused by viruses-meaning there is no cure for the disease.
Those who contract a viral STD such as human papillomavirus (HPV), commonly known as genital warts, will have it for life. This is the most common STD in America. Over a third of all sexually active unmarried people are infected with it, many of them unaware that they carry the virus.
Sadly, most Americans don't take the threat of STDs seriously. The Centers for Disease Control reports: "Despite the fact that a great deal of progress has been made in STD prevention over the past four decades, the United States has the highest rates of STDs in the industrialized world. The rates of STDs are 50-100 times higher in the US than in other industrial nations, even though rates of gonorrhea and syphilis have recently been brought to historic lows.
"In the United States alone, an estimated 15.3 million new cases of STDs are reported each year. Despite the fact that STDs are extremely widespread and add billions of dollars to the nation's healthcare costs each year, most people in the United States remain unaware of the risk and consequences of all but the most prominent STD-HIV, the virus that causes AIDS" (CDC National Prevention Information Network).
To help people understand just how likely it is to get an STD in the United States, Pam Stenzel writes: "Have you ever heard of Russian Roulette? It's a 'game' where one bullet is loaded into a multi-chambered gun. One holds the gun to one's head, pulls the trigger, and hopes to walk away alive.
"Compare playing Russian Roulette with a six-shooter to having sex. You're more likely to contract an STD from sexual contact than you would be to kill yourself with the gun. If someone said to you, 'Hey, how about joining us for a round of Russian Roulette?' I bet you'd say, 'Are you crazy!? Not even an idiot would do something that stupid.' And yet teens continue to have sex, thinking that if they can avoid pregnancy and AIDS, they'll be fine" (Stenzel, p. 68).
Bad decisions not limited to teens
Of course, it's not just teens that are making stupid decisions. Adults are too.
While some do beat the odds in the sense that they have sex outside of marriage and don't contract an STD, these people can still suffer emotional pain for doing so. People who have had premarital or extramarital sex report a host of consequences including worry that they will be caught, worry that they will get an STD, worry that pregnancy will result and guilt.
In addition to these things, there is always that first sexual experience when one ceases to be a virgin. Who better to have this first experience with than one's husband or wife for life?
One's virginity can only be given away once. Once given, it can't be taken back. After marriage, limiting all sexual activity to one's spouse also helps a husband and wife cherish each other. Sex outside of marriage destroys or badly hurts the relationship.
These consequences are the modern fulfillment of the scripture that says: "Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18, New American Bible).
What people seem to forget is that there is no need for anyone to experience these consequences! The way we can be absolutely guaranteed to not contract an STD or suffer emotional anguish is for marriage partners to have avoided all sex before marriage and, once married, to have sex with only each other-no one else. This formula works perfectly- every time!
History repeats itself
Historical records from the ancient city of Corinth reveal that in the heart of the Roman Empire, the most technologically advanced civilization of its day, the sexual values of the first century were similar to modern concepts of dating today. Standards were so skewed that sexual relations with temple prostitutes were not looked upon as scandalous but considered an appropriate form of worship.
Through the apostle Paul, God taught the Corinthians a much better way. After saying that sexual immorality is a sin against our own bodies, Paul said: "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit . . . and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
How could Paul dare to address others' private behavior? He was bold because he understood that God approves sexual relations only within the marriage relationship (Genesis 2:24; Hebrews 13:4). Sexual relations in any other situation were and are immoral.
Writing to Church members in Thessalonica, Paul addressed relationships between members of the opposite sex even more directly. Urging the brethren to live their lives in a way pleasing to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1), he wrote: "This is the will of God, that you should be holy: you must abstain from fornication; each one of you must learn to gain mastery over his body, to hallow and honour it, not giving way to lust like the pagans who know nothing of God; no one must do his fellow-Christian wrong in this matter, or infringe his rights.
"As we impressed on you before, the Lord punishes all such offences. For God called us to holiness, not to impurity. Anyone therefore who flouts these rules is flouting not man but the God who bestows on you his Holy Spirit" (verses 3-8, Revised English Bible).
The custom and practice of dating-which leads to marriage-should be conducted with honor. It should not be devalued into an excuse for sexual gratification. God expects us to enter marriage as virgins. This approach shows respect for God, our bodies, our future spouse and the divine institution of marriage.
God's way is the best for making marriage work. Sociologists have found that God's standard for dating is the one that produces marriages that last.
According to the Journal of Marriage and the Family : "After analyzing cohabitation and marriage patterns among some 13,000 adults, . . . sociologists have concluded that couples who live together before marriage experience higher levels of marital conflict and do not communicate as well. Such couples were less committed to marriage and saw divorce as more likely than those who had not cohabited prior to marriage" (Vol. 54, 1992).
Dating for sociability
How can concerned parents counteract pressure on their children to take part in immoral dating practices?
The first step, as noted earlier, is to teach them godly principles of dating and friendship. When their teens are ready, many families have found group dating (three or more people attending an activity together) to be a good way for youths to enter this stage of life.
Since teenagers are generally not ready for marriage-because of immaturity and the need for educational and occupational training-some of the pressures and temptations of one-on-one dating can be avoided through group dates. Social development and learning to have fun in the company of the opposite sex in a safe environment can be healthy experiences for teens.
Dating for marriage
When two mature people begin dating each other with an eye toward marriage, they must consider many things. What values does the other person hold? Does he believe in God? Does she obey God? What is this person's background, personal standards and values? What are his preferences, dislikes, character and personality? Will this person be a complementary match? Can I love and respect her?
Often in modern dating little thought is given to a potential partner for life-other than whether the two enjoy their sexual activity. Yet when two people refrain from the emotionally charged arena of sexual relations as God instructs, they can much more rationally consider the values and traits of a potential mate.
Finding a mate with similar religious values is an especially important consideration. The ancient nation of Israel repeatedly lost its spiritual moorings when its citizens intermarried with people with different religious convictions and practices (Numbers 25:1-3; Nehemiah 13:23-26). Marrying within one's faith is still just as important.
Ideally children should have two parents who believe, practice and teach the same religious principles. When children have parents with different values, they are confused. Even if children are not involved, clashes between two competing value systems can be painful.
Through bitter experience, many wish that when they were dating they had followed the apostle Paul's advice against being "unequally yoked together" with an unbeliever or someone of different religious beliefs (2 Corinthians 6:14; compare 1 Corinthians 7:39). There is wisdom in selecting a mate who is compatible in the religious, philosophical and ethnic dimensions, among others. Of course, God is always pleased to give us the wisdom we need when we ask (James 1:5).
As two people consider marriage, if they are wise they will also seek premarital counseling. Such counsel can help couples understand their strengths, weaknesses and differences before marriage. In addition to an objective review, they can learn communication and relationship skills that will help them in the future.
Although the decision to marry is a personal one, this kind of information can help couples make wiser choices about whom they marry. For those who choose to proceed with marriage, insights gained through premarital counseling can lay a foundation for a relationship that will last.
Physical contact before marriage
Biologically, God created us to respond to skin-to-skin contact with someone to whom we are attracted. Holding hands, hugging, kissing or other similar contact can be exciting.
But is such contact good, upright and moral? Is it in our best interest to engage in these practices before marriage?
How does one decide? For those who have adopted the standards of behavior endorsed by so much of today's popular culture, these are stupid questions. In fact, they are nonquestions-meaning they just aren't asked. When people believe it is okay to have any kind of sex with any other person before or outside of marriage, a little (or a lot of) touching doesn't really mean anything.
Consider the blockbuster movie Titanic. In this movie, two young people meet, fall in love and then slip away to a private place to have sex-ignoring the uncomfortable fact that one of them is engaged to someone else.
Even though current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that the majority of high school students in the United States don't have sex, many movies present scenes like this as the norm for young people. The way it unfolds is true to life. It all starts with physical contact-touching, hugging and kissing. And then comes full sexual intercourse. But this goes against what the Bible teaches.
As we've already seen in Genesis 2:24, God explains how and when a sexual union between a man and a woman should take place: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."
"One flesh" means to have sexual intercourse (see 1 Corinthians 6:16) and, according to God's instructions, this is to take place after a man and woman have been joined together in marriage. Having sex prior to marriage is immoral, and according to God's Word, we are supposed to "flee sexual immorality" (1 Corinthians 6:18). Flee means to run away from or avoid. So we're supposed to run away from premarital sex and things that could entice us to be immoral.
An important point to note in God's instruction is that abstinence doesn't have to be forever. We simply must wait until we are married. Then, God says, sex is good (Hebrews 13:4). Because abstinence has been described in such negative terms, some educators are now choosing to use the word postponement to describe the process of delaying sex until marriage.
How to decide
Many of you reading this have already decided to wait to have sex until you are married. Some have also decided that they are going to stop having sex prior to marriage. That's great! These are good decisions. But what about touching? Are you going to hug, kiss, hold hands or more?
While the Bible doesn't specifically address these areas, it does clearly say that we aren't to have sex before marriage (1 Corinthians 6:18) or to even lust after another person (Matthew 5:28). Love should not be stirred up or awakened until the appropriate time (Song of Solomon 2:7, New Revised Standard Version).
Years of human experience show that these types of touch often lead to lustful desire and sex. Regrettably, many young people have engaged in these forms of physical contact and then lost their virginity because their emotions overwhelmed their sense of judgment. They just couldn't stop because it felt too good. Of course, adults are similarly affected by physical contact.
So how can we decide what we will do? Some have asked, "Just how far can a Christian go without sinning?" The time to make decisions about physical contact is before we get in a touchy situation. Making a decision on the fly with no forethought is a recipe for going too far.
Planning for sexual happiness
As individuals, we choose whether we will live sexually pure lives or whether we will ignore the instructions that lead to happiness and satisfaction. Making a commitment to parents, friends and God to be sexually pure in word, thought and deed is an important first step in living a full, complete, sexually happy life.
We can determine that we will not use filthy language of any kind-including the type that degrades sex. We can also determine that we will not watch movies with inappropriate sexual content or listen to songs with sexually explicit lyrics (because they can and do influence us).
We can determine that we won't bow to peer pressure to go along with those who disrespect sex. We can determine that we are willing to be mocked for our beliefs and that we won't succumb. We can choose to associate primarily with friends who share our convictions. And we can make it our daily practice to pray to God for strength to honor Him in the way we live our lives. All of these things will help us live an abundant life (John 10:10).
As we've seen, God intends for dating and marriage to be high-class, honorable experiences. Treat sex as God's honorable gift to be awakened only in marriage, and you can reap the sweet reward of a happy, godly life.