Some time ago, a couple in their twenties came to chat. They had been dating for a while, and wanted to discuss their relationship. This was a bit of an unusual situation: most of the time, couples do not come to talk to me as a pastor about their relationship until after they are engaged. I have a program for pre-marital counseling, but this couple wanted to talk about healthy dating. That set me thinking--how do we evaluate the health of a dating relationship even before it approaches marriage?
The world rarely challenges us to ask more than a few superficial questions, like “Am I attracted to this person? Do we have ‘chemistry’ with each other? Do I feel good about him or her?” Sometimes, a thoughtful observer will add some better questions, such as:
While these are important, even deal-breaking, questions to ask, a Christian relationship is much more than good communication habits and a sense of trust.
One of the most basic questions a Christian couple can ask is this: what distinguishes marriage from any other relationship? In the Bible’s view, marriage is a covenant, a deliberate decision to be bound with another person before God, even when it doesn't immediately benefit me. It is that intentionality which gives marriage its start.
By contrast, the wider culture insists that marriage is about the benefits to me, which can be best assured by compatibility – personal and sexual. These ideas about the purpose of marriage show up in a couple’s attitude toward pre-marital sex and cohabitation. Our culture barely questions these practices, assuming that these things are a normal part of preparing for marriage. Marriage is then a piece of paper aimed at reflecting the feelings and practices a couple already has towards one another, rather than the beginning of a new kind of relationship which glorifies God.
Before asking, “Will you marry me?” couples should ask, “What does it mean to be married, anyhow?” God desires that married couples be married for a lifetime, always growing in physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional intimacy. The sexual union between a man and a woman is the outcome of a marriage (Gen. 2:24), not a practice that leads up to marriage. When a couple commit to maintaining sexual purity and separate residences while they are dating, they say something powerful to one another about the nature of marriage and the uniqueness of the relationship they hope to create someday by their wedding vows.
A Christian couple should ask, “What does it mean to honor God as a couple?” Though God created marriage as a place of joy and pleasure, Christian marriage has a higher purpose than just human happiness. Gary Thomas puts it well: God created marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy. If the desire to honor God is not present, a Christian couple should consider whether their dating relationship has the right foundation for marriage.
Christian couples could also ask these kinds of fundamental questions about their relationship before they get engaged:
In the end, there was nothing earth-shattering about my conversation with that couple who came to talk to me. But I did have an opportunity to affirm their commitment to asking the right questions, which is a good foundation for a God-honoring engagement and marriage.