Love in a time of courtship

The Dating DilemmaBoy and girl meet.

Boy and girl fall in love.

Boy just knows girls is ‘the one’.

Girl just knows boy is ‘the one’.

So boy buys ring.

And girl says ‘yes’.

They live happily ever after and never argue.

Just how God planned it.

Really?

That’s how Rachel Gardner and Andre Adefope start their book The Dating Dilemma. It’s a myth and we all know it, but it’s still how we often end up thinking relationships should work out. And we judge our performance in the light of our failure to match up to this illusive standard.

It’s not just a myth based on what we want to happen, it is also rooted in theological misconceptions, and that makes the problems run deeper, become more entrenched and require considerable effort to shift. The idea of ‘the one’ finds support in the idea that God is in control of our life, which often veers toward thinking of God as a master architect with a blueprint for our lives. Roger Olson talks about this: “The idea that God has a detailed, blueprint-like plan for every individual Christian’s life is not biblically supported, nor is it reasonable”. He goes on to say: “God is a loving person and not a computer who spits out unalterable equation … There’s a special quality to personal relationships that is lacking in a relationship between a person and a computer – care, concern, flexibility, interaction, communion.”

When we rely on the idea of ‘the one’ we are demanding of God something we do not want him to do. We only want him in complete unalterable control when it suits us, when it makes our life easier.

When it fits to our blueprint.

The second thing that feeds into an unhealthy approach to dating among Christians is a distorted and often neutered understanding of beauty and sexual attraction. We are told that because sex belongs within marriage you’re not to think about it. And that girls are more than just their looks so guys shouldn’t decide who to date based on that (and vice versa for guys). Physical attraction is considered unhelpful and potentially sinful so it is removed from the equation. This either represses our understanding of sexuality, and creates further problems if we do get married, or encourages duplicity to hide something we think shouldn’t be shown.

But it is not that simple, or that easy to define as right or wrong, it is messy, it is confusing, it can be infuriating. It is not a trial to endure, a phase to get through, it is not one of those obstacle courses to navigate without spilling a cup of water. It is part of life, it is part of learning how to relate to other people, and hopefully in the midst of the chaos find a relationship of beauty where we find love and in which we commit to learning how to love.

It’s why two years after I first addressed the question I still think the Church has a problem with dating. I think it can be good in parts, I think it can try to dispel these myths, occasionally banish them in practice, but they have a tendency to return if we are not diligent. How easy it can be to slip into wanting the complicated parts of our life directed by divine force. And berate ourselves for lusting and respond by denying our desire for sexual intimacy. And that’s my introduction to a review of a book I did not think could be written.

Last summer I wrote A Guide to Christian Dating. And not everyone realised I wasn’t 100 per cent serious. It was the only way I could think of addressing the dysfunctions of this peculiar activity, I thought about a short story, I thought about a parable, a serious post, but in the end satire was all I had to give.

Rachel Gardner and Andre Adefope have done what I thought was not possible. Write a book about dating that is practical in its advice without being prescriptive in its guidance.

It is a book grounded in reality and not in optimism and expectations. It’s not about what we all should do, but what we all can do. It recognises the likely challenges and discomforts that will crop up as you read the words, and try to put the principles into practice. It is realistic but also hopeful. It paints a vivid picture of what stronger dating relationships can bring to the life of the church.

I opened the book looking for faults. I wanted to find the principle or idea that would resonate with readers but when worked out in practise cause more harm than good. I wanted to write a gentle but powerful critique of a well intended book. But I can’t.

That doesn’t mean the book is perfect, but the ideas are strong and they are not presented in a way that suggests if you do these 4 things in your dating life you’ll be walking down the aisle next July. At points the writing is a bit dry and sections don’t always flow particularly well into each other, and the attempts to be casual with deft asides in the text come across as hackneyed rather than ease the reading. Some of the quotes used from people they interviewed display a reliance on Christian expectations of sexual purity as the defining feature of relationships. It’s not echoed by the authors but could place a weight of expectation to get it right by acting the right way, and the potential for shame among people who may not have met those expectations is not dispelled with sufficient force.

I watched UP for the first time the other day. The charming and sad tale of a couple with their sights set on a dream which was dashed by the realities of daily life. Who longed for a child who never came. Who knew disappointment as the perpetual underbelly of love.

Is falling in love, as Gardner and Adefope suggest, finding the person with the faults you can live with for the rest of your life?

It’s not the picture painted by Hollywood, or the story told by testimonies of God directed romance. But maybe it is an idea that gets closer to reality. Not every date will be perfect, your girlfriend or boyfriend will disappoint you, they will get jealous and they will look at another. And marriage doesn’t wipe the slate clean, you will not always wake up gushing with compliments about your stunning spouse.

Love means that we care, and it means that we are committed to each other. It means we commit to working through our friction, and it doesn’t just mean bearing with it for a while until it goes away and everything works out. It certainly doesn’t mean ditching one person in the hope that the next will be friction free.

After all, what would it mean for love to be patient, love to be kind, not envying, not boastful, if our relationships were never in need of those things? As part of a series on the fruit of the spirit Andy Tilsley recently said that love requires community, confession, commitment and confidence.

We cannot do it alone, by it’s very nature love requires others. We cannot do it without being honest otherwise who is it who is falling in love with who? And we cannot do it without commitment because the place of confession and honesty is a vulnerable one and we need to know we will not be abandoned.

Although we mess things up, although we feel disillusioned, although we will in this world struggle to put aside our childish ways. We can have confidence in God, and confidence in his love for us.

I think most people in the church want to take dating seriously, but do we sometimes take it too seriously? We want to treat the person we are interested in with respect, but does respect sometimes become replaced with silence?

Do we shun dating for courtship, and take part as frequently as we’d like to see the inside of a courtroom? While we may not want the disposable nature of dating often publicly displayed, we probably don’t want to go back to arranged marriages that took away out liberty. Love in a time of courtship might seem like a good idea, but courtly love was not a model to inspire us, it saw wives become trophies and still restrained by appropriate social pairing.

When it comes to dating have we created an illusion for what the perfect relationship looks like that makes us run away from the possibility of getting it wrong? I think we do. I think I have.

Question is, how can we change this?

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13 thoughts on “Love in a time of courtship

  1. I enjoyed reading this Danny, thanks. I wonder if this is the gloomy sentences I’ve read in a long time; ‘Is falling in love… finding the person with the faults you can live with for the rest of your life?’ Goodness me if that’s what love is I’m sure I don’t want it. Perhaps I’m idealist to a fault.

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