Christian Courtship

April 26th, 2011 § 3 comments

Contemporary “Christian” models of dating are unable to address the reality of the modern courting environment. Many Christians rightfully bemoan how the current freedom in dating has led to innumerable mistakes and hurts, and that this has led to problems in later relationships and in marriage. Most of the less fundamental-ish Christians haven’t seen this as a deep problem, merely the way things are. Kids have to grow up—they get hurt along the way, and they learn to deal with it. Much of the over-fundamental-ish Christians have viewed this as a problem for solving. What can be done to address this situation so that our children, unlike those of the current age, are not baggage-stricken, scar-riddled, and relationally overwhelmed?

Now, I think that the more correct side so far is the side of the fundamentalists. This is not an acceptable situation. We shouldn’t just “let kids be kids.” If possible, we will want to find a relational framework that, as much as possible, minimizes these problems. But in some sense, I agree with the solution of the less-fundamentalist camp.

I say this because I believe that the fundamentalist solution to this problem is, in some sense, basically dishonest: it pretends that dating is not what it is.

This problem becomes particularly clear to me when I consider a conversation a very long time ago between me and a girl I had just started dating. C (as she will be called) and I were both skeptical of the Joshua Harris model, but we came from circles heavily influenced by it. We were young. We were happy. We needed to write down some dating standards.

[Side note: Congrats to C, who is to be married this very weekend, I believe.]

We both had our thoughts on how this should be done. We each had our ideas for standards. One of the “standards” she thought was in regards to gifts. I was only allowed to give “consumable” gifts. Not consumable in the sense that they could be eaten, but in the sense that they could be used, and used up. I was only supposed to get her pens, pencils, and notebooks, for example. Things that would last—things of sentimental value—were excluded.

The more I think about the implications of this “dating standard,” the more I am convinced that, though well-intentioned, it was an attempt to make dating into something other than what it truly is.

In gift-giving, it is always said (in half-jest) that it’s the thought that counts. The value is not in the thing itself, but in its giving, that it was thought of and prepared, it was searched for with care, all the while, the giver was considering how the other will think of it.

Of course, this is why the gift actually does matter; because it shows whether any thought actually occurred. The thought is what the other does truly value, but it is most tangibly measured by a gift that shows it did received significant thought, time, and affection.

This standard of gift-giving was intended to remove all of the deep value from a gift. In some sense, these sorts of gifts become money saved by the giver, not something of true worth to be treasured by the other. Gifts could only be minimally thoughtful. There were significant handicaps for creativity or expression of any sort of sentiment.

Sure, non-married couples should be limited in the degree and means by which they show affection, but they must feel some affection, or they are in an unhealthy relationship. And if they have some affection, they must show it in some manner, for not to express it is in some sense dishonest; it is a denial of the true nature of the relationship.

Dating couples should have some degree of affection. Otherwise, they shouldn’t be dating. People who have affection, and that rightly, should have some means of expressing it rightly. When people do care, their external actions should line up appropriately and honestly with their internal state.

Now, the reason for this particular gift-giving standard, and the reason for a whole host of dating standards out there today, is definitely well-intentioned. Young (and not-so-young) people tend to emotionally invest beyond the level of commitment. Couples who are not married should be acting and talking (and, for sure) giving as though they are not married. (Otherwise, they are being, in some sense, dishonest about the real nature of their relationship.) These standards are rightfully designed to curtail and limit the emotional engagement that can lead to needless pain, and then bitterness, sinful thinking, and harmful baggage for future relationships.

But I still say that many (though not all) such standards, when codified and rigidly enforced, are inherently dishonest about the nature of the relationship. When people care, they show it. When people care, and they show it, and the relationship doesn’t end in marriage, people will be hurt. That’s just the way it is. If two people are dating, and they break it off, and no one is hurt, then they had no good reason to be dating to begin with.

People get hurt, they get scars, they get baggage. That is the way things are. This happens because things are wrong and people are sinful, but that is, simply, the world we live in. If we construct a dating model that attempts to escape that reality, we’re doing something wrong. If you are in a relationship, and you are not vulnerable to that person, you are not in a relationship.

The Christian life (and by extension that season of life where we seek a husband or wife) is not to be characterized by over-avoidance of scars and hurts; indeed, these are typically the means of our sanctification. Rather, it is characterized by a wisdom that, while avoiding needless pain (we are not dating ascetically), is willingly vulnerable to significant harm and, when such trials are encountered, uses the pain as a means of sanctification. Though not recklessly so, there must be a real vulnerability for a real relationship, a sort of vulnerability that cannot but be hurt if the relationship ends in disappointment.

Baggage is not to be embraced. Much wisdom should be used to ensure that the emotional engagement is no deeper than the level of commitment. But baggage and “failed” relationships are not relational bogey-men. Indeed, for most of us, our failures and hurts will be redeemed magnificently to turn us into someone who can be a better husband or wife than we would be without those painful experiences. And the baggage of our significant other merely becomes another opportunity for us to show them mercy.

The solution, then, is multi-fold:

  1. Increased wisdom and counsel (for which I applaud the Joshua Harris model).
  2. No denial of the right place for affection and emotion within the relationship (appropriately).
  3. A recognition that baggage, though painful, is not a burden, but a platform for sanctification. It is not to drag us down, but to be redeemed by God so that it builds us up into the image of his son. It is not something to be fearfully avoided but joyfully redeemed.

Do I have baggage? Oh, sure. I have to fight battles constantly, battles that I’m sure I wouldn’t have to fight if I didn’t have my past. But I have knowledge and wisdom I wouldn’t have. And what battles I still face only continue to be used by God to make me stronger. I have baggage, probably more than if I followed a Joshua Harris model more closely. But by God’s grace, I will be a better husband for it.

§ 3 Responses to Christian Courtship"

  • I commend those for following “models” in life – after all, without standards, then what is there to achieve/accomplish. But when certain things in life that generally were created mysterious are then forced into standards set by models (like a corset, you see), then I start to wonder if that is also when baggage starts to appear.

    You said that we shouldn’t embrace baggage, but I’m going to say that life IS baggage, and you have to accept the burdens of being alive and breathing. Unless you are in a padded room, well, heck…

    I only say this because, sure, we all could kiss dating good-bye, or whatever has been thrown at us in the past five years, but I feel like if I had held my relationship up in the standards and rules of whatever dating trend I’d adhered to, then there would be a lot more baggage to deal with: stress, guilt, shame, frustration, exhaustion.

    All of this just to say, generally I agree.

  • David says:

    I think we’re saying the something with different language. I wanted to be careful that I don’t end up reacting so strongly against a viewpoint I disagree with, that I end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Historically, there have been Christians who say that, if trials and sufferings are what God uses to sanctify us, then we should intentionally enter into trials and sufferings. These have been the ascetics, some of whom would go so far as to flog themselves or remain in silent meditation for years on end.

    I don’t think we should be an ascetic in the way we date, recklessly or even intentionally opening ourselves to as much pain and suffering as possible. I do think that Mr. Harris is right in saying that we should seek to properly and appropriately minimize baggage. This is what I mean when I say we shouldn’t embrace baggage. It is not something we should pursue.

    But I agree with what you’re saying: when we over-react to the idea of baggage and decide that we must seek to eliminate all baggage possible, then we’re going to end up being worse off.

    So baggage is not to be embraced in the sense that it is not to be pursued. It is to be embraced in that we are unafraid of it, and when we have it, we recognize that it is for our benefit.

  • Fair enough. I prefer a good self-flog, myself, but “that’s just me,” amiright?

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