I believe that I have found the perfect “formula” for a successful dating relationship and marriage. Skeptical? You should be. Authors and speakers have been providing Christian readers with a plethora of relationship tips and advice, yet statistics indicate that romantic relationships among Christians are characterized by high rates of fornication, unfaithfulness, divorce, and even abuse. Why is this?
Perhaps in our search for quick fixes, easy solutions, and catchy phrases, we have overlooked clear and basic truths. Relationships are, after all, extremely complex, and it is unreasonable to assume that we can break them down into a few simple, easy-to-follow steps. In spite of this, Christians seem fanatically open to any relational advice or strategies, so long as we can avoid the biblical mandates of self-sacrifice, persistence, and total dependence upon Jesus Christ. Instead of allowing our relationships to dynamically embrace individual differences and uniqueness, we try to plug ourselves into specific roles and scripts, especially when it comes to gender. We tell men to open doors for women and women to avoid pursuing men, believing that this will “light the fire” and contribute to healthy relationships. We try to force our exterior behavior to fit into a given model, hoping and expecting our feelings and personalities to fall in line. Yet, Jesus was quite critical of this sort of an “outside-in” approach to spiritual maturation, particularly one founded upon human rules and precepts (see Mark 7, Matt. 23:25–27, and Luke 11:37–46). No matter how skillfully authors and speakers package it, such an alternative form of legalism is no less binding or less destructive to wholesome Christian living than the rules and regulations presented by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.
So, having questioned the formulaic approach of so many other relationship “experts,” what’s left for us to do? Perhaps a return to the universal principles found in Scripture and the conduct modeled by Jesus is in order. These ideals are not market-designed for a majority of couples or created to line up with cultural norms, expectations, or gender roles. Instead of offering glitzy clichés, a biblical and Christ-centered approach challenges all Christians, regardless of marital status, to pursue long-term objectives and forsake quick fixes or formulaic thinking. In essence, this alternative involves embracing a life-long pursuit of incremental character growth. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Just as bodily hunger and thirst require daily or nearly daily sustenance, our spiritual growth mandates that we regularly consume God’s Word and pursue the Spirit’s presence. It is only through this patient, continual process that people, whether they are dating, married, or contentedly single, can learn how to truly relate with one another.
There are several areas of character growth that are important for all Christians—both men and women—to pursue, but I feel that the ones listed below are particularly relevant for couples.
Self-control. This might seem surprising, given that many people seek relationships partially because they “burn with passion.” Although their situations are different, married couples and single adults both must continue to cultivate the discipline of self-control. For one thing, self-control relates to more than just sexual temptation but involves all sorts of bodily appetites. In regards to the human desire for sex, for singles, seeking self-control is a constant part of life. For married couples, during times of illness, separation, or other situations, one or both partners will need to abstain in order to remain faithful. It is also possible that one spouse will desire physical intimacy more often than the other (I would like to emphasize that both women and men are capable of being the more amorous partner). In this case, the desirous spouse, if he or she is primarily interested in the other person’s wishes, will practice self-control on behalf of their partner. Self-control enables the desirous person to refrain from being demanding or, even worse, forceful in pursuit of their selfish interests. Ideally, the less desirous spouse will grow in generosity (see below) and the two will learn how to join together in mutually agreed-upon and Spirit-led communion.
Generosity. Learning to give joyfully is important for those who desire relational health. This is true not only in regard to physical expressions of love but also in regardsto finances, chores, and a host of other areas. As roommates, friends, dating partners, and spouses grow in this area, arguments regarding supposed obligations or duties fade. The need for keeping score (i.e., I did laundry last week, you never help out with vacuuming) gives way to mutual assistance, acts of service, and joyful sharing of resources. In the context of the dating relationship, generosity can involve both men and women offering to pay for a meal or doing the work of planning a date. Asking or expecting only men to do these things denies women the opportunity to show love and denies men the chance to receive it. Just as Jesus gave everything upon the cross, both men and women should strive to forsake selfish pleasures and desires in favor of meeting the needs of others.
Longsuffering. While it should never be used as reason to tolerate abuse, being in close relationships requires a willingness to suffer. Think of all the disappointments Jesus endured in his relationships. Denial, betrayal, misunderstanding, and false accusations all characterized Jesus’ experiences. Yet he chose to remain in those relationships for the long haul. He deliberately sought out people of different backgrounds and opinions and loved them. He embraced the discomfort and awkwardness that surely existed within his diverse community of women, tax collectors, fishermen, and others, and helped everyone move beyond it to true intimacy and love. Learning to accept and appreciate the uniqueness of others, weaknesses and all, is essential if we are to become the gracious and loving people God desires us to be.
Gentleness. It is inevitable that conflicts will develop within relationships. During these conflicts, it is likely that at least one person will want to voice their complaints and criticisms about someone else. This is not necessarily sinful. Indeed, it is better to confront a person directly about a conflict than to develop hidden bitterness or gossip about them (see Matt. 18:15–17). Gentleness does not equal conflict avoidance. Indeed, for those in dating relationships, practicing conflict resolution is essential preparation for married life. Too often, couples put off conflict resolution before marriage, only to find the same issues cropping up again and again after vows are exchanged. Gentleness places helping the other person and loving them above our own need to express our own feelings and satisfy our own desires. We want the other person to change and grow for their sake, not for ours. It requires kindness toward those who are suffering and an attitude of grace toward struggling sinners and imperfect people.
Patience. Waiting for something we want is difficult. Whereas longsuffering involves handling pain in a mature and gracious manner, patience is more about the capable endurance of deferred desires. As illustrated by the stories of Abraham, David, and Hannah, God often touches us in the deep and sensitive areas of life. It is often those realms where we drift closest to idolatry—wanting something so desperately that it competes for our affection with God—that God touches us most profoundly. In relational terms, patience enables a married couple to deal with a difficult and sensitive problem, such as infertility, without recrimination or bitterness. It allows couples who are dating to maintain high levels of purity without pushing against another person’s boundaries. It helps friends and spouses defer certain purchases in order to meet one another’s financial needs. It can even mean calmly waiting for tardy guests at a social event or gently correcting employees or co-workers who are late.
There are certainly many other areas in which character growth can empower our relational skills. The core principle is that the universally applicable goals and concepts found in Scripture are more useful than clichés and “tips” targeted only for specific audiences. Pressuring ourselves to fit into certain roles or behaviors for which we are unsuited, in terms of personality or gifts, is nothing more than glitzy, repackaged legalism. The complex realities of life often preclude following simplistic scripts or gender-defined roles. Should a man with a broken arm feel obligated to open the door for his girlfriend all of the time? Should a woman who is normally assertive spend years waiting for an excessively shy but kind man to ask her out? I say no. Too often, we try to wriggle our way out of the difficult-to-the-flesh precepts of the Bible and instead invent complicated but supposedly easy-to-the-flesh rules to follow. Taking a single Scripture verse out of context and simplistically applying it verbatim too closely resembles the exegesis applied by the Pharisees. The whole counsel of the Bible suggests that God cares more about the long-term growth of our hearts and souls and less about following precise scripts or culturally defined roles. In essence, the same core values that enable us to relate effectively with strangers and friends enable us to relate effectively with our spouses or dating partners as well.