For many Christians who are dating or hoping to date and get married, the task of “defining the relationship” can be daunting, frustrating or unnecessary. And there are obvious reasons for this. Some of these reasons have to do with the influence of our wider American culture, some with church culture and some with good old human nature. But anyone who wants to get married needs to overcome these reasons. Let’s take a look at them:
Reason 1: American Culture has undefined marriage
I think it’s safe to say that our grand American experiment in redefining—or more accurately, un-defining—marriage (along with sexuality, gender and family) hasn’t done many favors for Christians and dating. Many believers struggle with confusion and baggage because they have tried, or are still trying, the world’s version of dating and marriage, which is almost totally opposed to the Christian covenant of marriage.
One of the core differences between our culture’s version of marriage and Christian marriage lies in the fact that they are built on completely different definitions of freedom. It didn’t always use to be this way, but today, society’s version of freedom is basically, “If it makes you happy, do it. If it doesn’t make you happy, drop it.” As long as a relationship makes us feel good, we are free to stay, and if it makes us feel bad, we are free to go. This explains the confusing picture of marriage we see in Hollywood and pop culture. Marriage is highly desirable—until it doesn’t make you happy.
Christian marriage is built on the Christian definition of freedom—and of happiness—which is that both come from living within God’s design for things. We are free to be ourselves in marriage and enjoy its goodness when we honor what God made it to be—a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. Yes, living within the limits of marriage may not always feel good, but it always is good. Until we believe this, however, we won’t do what it takes to live out God’s definition of marriage.
Reason 2: The church has under-equipped marriages
In my observation, the church loves to bless weddings, but we don’t always do a great job of preparing couples to build healthy marriages. Many leaders who officiate weddings sidestep premarital counseling or rush through it.
If you have read Keep Your Love On, then you know that Sheri and I came into marriage out of two families with multiple broken marriages. Over ten years into our marriage, we had a part-hilarious, part-shocking experience in which our pastor, Bill Johnson, told us that our premarital compatibility test had come back with a handwritten note that said, “Do not let these two people get married!” Now, on the one hand, we are forever grateful to Bill for believing that Sheri and I would beat the odds and build a lasting marriage. On the other hand, we continue to create resources to help couples prepare for marriage, because hindsight is 20/20—we think many marriages can be healthier and happier much sooner if couples learn some of the lessons we had to learn in marriage before marriage.
Reason 3: Our (unredeemed) nature struggles with marriage
This is the deeper issue for all of us—and the problems in American and church marriage culture are just symptoms of it.
Marriage is a lifelong journey of covenant love. A covenant can only be made through sacrifice—the giving of our very lives. We must be willing to die to our own selfishness and learn to live out selfless love. This is the only way we can experience the real, deep joys of marriage—the experience of being known, accepted, delighted in, respected, trusted and cherished. And more.
Deep down, we know that real covenant love will require us to change, and something in us is terrified by that. Every powerless, irresponsible, cowardly, victim-minded impulse in us has to be hunted down and shot if we’re going to get through this thing. I can’t tell you how many times in the early years of my marriage I heard my guy friends tell me, “Humble yourself,” when I shared my struggles with them. It was frustrating. “Isn’t there any other answer you can give me here? What about her?” Thankfully they were good friends who knew that “Humble yourself” was the only answer. I had to face my fear. I had to repent. I had to become a powerful person, move toward my wife and choose to serve her, again and again and again. This is what makes marriage awesome—if you do it right, you will become more like Jesus and the best version of yourself.
But many people who are dating today—Christians included—are avoiding this reality. They aren’t looking for a partner for this covenant journey, someone who also knows how to lay down his or her life. They are looking for someone with whom to share what I call the “La-la-la.” “La-la-la” is fun and intoxicating and even deeply satisfying. But it’s mostly about what the other person makes us feel. This feeling is great, but there are a few things about it that many are so reluctant to face:
- “La-La-La” is not a permanent state.
- “La-La-La” is often based on physical and emotional attraction, not on character.
- It can be tempting to enjoy “La-La-La” without acknowledging that a connection is being formed, which comes with responsibility.
I have met a lot of Christians who seem to think that being in “La-La-La” means that God is blessing their relationship and that they are perfectly fine to blow past the red flags and other relational and spiritual health checks on their way to the altar. I see other Christians moving through dating relationships or avoiding them altogether. In all these cases, I see the need for leaders and resources to equip these individuals and couples to learn how to get to know someone, build a healthy emotional connection at a healthy pace, and protect it as they move toward covenant.
Eight years ago, I developed the Defining the Relationship pre-marriage course. I believe it has helped many couples step into marriage with a healthy connection and a plan for strengthening that connection over their lifetimes. It’s also helped other couples recognize that they needed to change their marriage plans and either part ways or wait until they had worked on various areas of their live. I am happy with all of these outcomes!
This year—I’m excited to announce that we will be releasing DTR as an e-course on the Life Academy! Whether you are single, dating, or engaged, I urge you to take advantage of this resource. I truly believe it will help you align your expectations with God’s definition of marriage and live it out. That’s a beautiful thing!