In my years as a pastor, counselor and Christian leader, I have frequently worked with engaged and married couples. Here are a few nuggets of wisdom I've gathered from my experience.
1. God’s ultimate plan for the world is to bring everything together in Christ. (See Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:9, 10). His ultimate plan for each of us is that we be reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:21, 22; Romans 3:22–26) and that we be transformed day by day to be more like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29, 30). God is not going to ask at the judgment, “Were you married?” but rather, “How did you respond to my Son?” Dating and even marriage may or may not contribute to God’s goal for you. Don’t let dating or the desire for marriage become your god. In light of eternity, other things are far more important.
2. Finding the right person is not nearly as important as being the right person. Who are you becoming? What is the basis of your identity? your hope for the future? your security? Many people pursue relationships as the solution to their problems, such as insecurity, loneliness, lust, lack of direction or bad self-image. These are not necessarily solved by marriage. In fact, they are often enhanced. God’s solution is to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). (Note: Dating non-Christians is a problem if you haven’t clearly decided what you want to be in your relationship with Christ. It is easy for many to want marriage more than God, and so they are willing to compromise. How does the person you are dating enhance and encourage your growth in Christ? See 2 Corinthians 6:14ff.)
3. Cultivate transparency and honesty in all relationships. We build walls by assuming that we will be liked if we could only be different from what we are. We fear rejection, so we conform to what we suppose others prefer. Healthy marriages are never built on images or masks, but rather on openness. Similarly, dating, to be healthy, must be a place where we work at being who we really are. Learn to share thoughts, feelings, ideas, interests, faith, etc.
4. Seek friendship and wait on romance. Romance will grab you soon enough, but friendship requires careful development.
5. Live in the reality of where a relationship is in its development, not in the fantasy of where you would like it to be.
6. Enjoy each relationship and resist the temptation of constantly trying to discern where you are in it—and where the other person is. If need be, make short-term covenants, agreeing to relate to each other within a certain framework of expectations. Live the relationship day by day and try to not evaluate it too frequently.
7. Be patient. Nothing good happens fast. Allow God to work (and trust that he will).
8. Check your motivation for the relationship from time to time. Many people are in love with being in love, rather than seeking God’s best for the other. Think about what you put into the relationship, not what you want to get out of it.
9. Allow freedom in a relationship. Don’t so entwine the other person in your demands and expectations that he or she cannot become what all that’s possible in Christ. It’s easy to smother the other person rather than serving him or her. God always honors our decisions and we should honor each other’s. Jealousy is a key sign of our desire to possess another rather than to release.
10. Develop many lines of communication with your friend, especially in the areas of dialogue, problem solving, mutual interests, awareness of each other’s daily living patterns and habits, emotions, affection, service to others, spiritual life and family relationships.
11. Sexual expression is a powerful form of communication and should be carefully limited in order to allow other areas to develop. The physical can frequently and easily become a primary concern and become very difficult to control. Talk early and carefully within a relationship about guidelines in physical communication and be sure to agree on your goals in all areas.
12. Always be aware of the level of communication in relation to the level of commitment. It is easy to communicate more deeply than the level of commitment can support, whether that be in the area of interests, sexual expression or even spiritual concerns. It’s easy to assume more commitment than actually exists or to find that you have become more emotionally committed than you had intended.
13. Be open about all aspects of your relationship with others who love and care about you. “There is safety in a multitude of counselors” (see Proverbs 11:14). Let your relationship stand in the context of others.
14. Realize that whenever you care for, serve and love someone, you can (and probably will) get hurt. Trust God to bless each relationship as a learning experience, no matter what ultimately happens. Allow God to teach you through each relationship about yourself. Use your head as well as your heart as you discern the direction that a relationship is moving. Don’t immediately assume that a relationship which moves away from romance is an indication that there is something wrong with you. It could be for the best.
—Steve Hayner, former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship