‘Well, I’m in a relationship now.’
After over 15 years in ministry to college and (now) graduate students, my wife and I often hear this when we ask how they’re doing. Our first response is to rejoice, remembering how thrilled we were on our first date. Very few things in life are more exciting than a relationship that’s heading toward marriage!
At the same time, relationships are anything but easy, so we need to learn from those who have gone before us. While my wife and I don’t have anything like a perfect marriage, we’ve had a little experience (since 1998) now. Many older couples have poured into us. And – somehow – a number of couples have told us our marriage and counsel about relationships has benefited them. So, as promised, this is the first post in a new, monthly series about important topics to cover as you think about saying ‘I do’.
(To make sure you don’t miss a post, you can sign up right here.)
Before we dive into those key areas, though, we need to pause and ask a more foundational question:
Is this relationship one that you should even be in?
Let me get right to the point. Although a word search in Scripture for ‘dating’ won’t give you any results, it has plenty to say about it.
For example, Paul tells widows that they can marry anyone they like, but ‘only in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:39). In that passage he also gives advice to unmarried men and women, and it’s fair to assume he would apply that same standard to them.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul says, ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers’. Although he’s not specifically speaking about marriage, it’s not hard to see that this is one possible application.
Dating Versus Marriage
You may be thinking, ‘OK, I get it. As a Christian I shouldn’t marry someone outside of the faith, but I’m just dating. Why is that such a big deal? Are you a right-wing evangelical or something?!’
OK, no need to get feisty there. Anyway, Paul channels an image from his agricultural setting to answer your question. At the time, farming tasks were often performed by animals, like oxen, who were joined by a ‘yoke’ that went around their necks. When animals are first put into the yoke, they (surprise) hate it and pull in different directions. Nothing gets done until they submit to the yoke and learn to work together.
Although dating isn’t marriage, it’s the first clear step toward it. And while God designed marriage to give us joy, on an even deeper level he created it to reflect his relationship with us (Ephesians 5:22-33). If you marry someone who doesn’t know the Lord, you will always be like two oxen pulling in opposite directions. Which will frustrate you both, and torpedo the foundation of your marriage.
How It (Often) Happens
In my experience, most Christians already know that dating a non-Christian is wrong. It’s not like they’re oblivious and just waiting for someone to clue them in.
More commonly, guys begin seeing a woman outside the faith because she’s physically attractive and they start to develop a relationship. Let’s be honest: our culture places a huge premium on physical appearance, and guys, being visually-oriented, are especially susceptible to falling off the wagon here.
For most women, it’s a little different. This is somewhat anecdotal, but there just don’t seem to be that many godly men around. (Which reflects a deeper crisis, but that’s another post.) So, many women who said they’d never date a non-believer start to give up hope. She meets a genuinely nice guy outside the faith, he treats her well, has a good job and some confidence. She finds they share some common interests, and before she knows it, they’re several months in.
As time goes on, and the conscience becomes muted, emotional and (usually) physical attachments form. And it gets harder and harder to see clearly and get out.
Ripping The Band Aid Off
I want to be sympathetic here. I see why men and women who are ultimately not compatible end up together. If you’re in a relationship with an unbeliever, please know I’m not judging you or looking down on you (or the person you’re dating).
At the same time, I believe God’s word and I care about you. In twenty years, I’ve never – not even once – seen it go well for either person.
So, I want to urge you to rip the band aid off. To end the relationship. I know that may be the scariest thing you can imagine, but apart from being in relationship with Jesus, it’s one of the most important decisions you can make.
Will you pray about it and ask God for help?
When You’re Ready
When you’re ready, here are some steps that should help.
Do it now. I’m not saying you have to text your boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance(e) before you finish this sentence. But reading this post is an opportunity for freedom, so commit – to yourself – to end the relationship and decide when you’re going to do it.
Get support. Whenever we do something hard, we need help and support so we follow through. So reach out to some believing friends. An old mentor. Your pastor. Pour out your heart, your fear and ask for prayer. Tell them when you plan to end the relationship and invite them to follow-up with you.
Have a plan. After you end the relationship, there’s going to be a huge vacuum in your life. Everything will be pulling you back in, away from the freedom you’ve just begun to taste. Surround yourself with people who will remind you that you made a good decision. Go out and have fun with friends. Make sure you go to a solid church each week, and find a way to have meaningful relationships outside of Sunday morning. Find ways to give and serve so that you’re focused there instead of on what you’ve lost.
Lean into the Lord. I know this can sound like a cliche. But you have a Savior who understands. His closest friends ran away at the end of his life when he needed them most (Mark 14:50). His own Father ignored him while he hung on the cross (Mark 15:34). Yes, it was for us, but the closest relationship that ever existed was broken for three horrific days. Jesus knows what you’re facing, and then some. And he invites you to ‘cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7).
More could be said, but I’m going to stop there. Please know that I’m praying for you to have courage, and to experience Christ’s love for you in a very real, practical way.
I can’t promise you that making the right decision will magically lead Mr or Mrs Right to appear out of the ether. But if you will trust God with this area of your life, you will be rewarded with freedom and a growing closeness to God that you haven’t experienced in quite some time. And you’ll be on your way, again, to being the kind of person another godly person will want to marry.
Your turn: If you’re in a relationship with someone outside the faith, when will you end it? What will help, your plan and leaning into God look like specifically for you?
Next time in the series: I’m going to cover dating relationships where both people are Christians, but one is significantly more mature than the other. After that, we’ll dive into the meat of this series with a post on what marriage is all about. Reminder to sign up