We sat across from one another at a tiny table, in the midst of a crowded restaurant brimming with happy, chatty diners. It was a warm and sunny day for the most part—except the air was punctuated by a tiny dark cloud, and it was hanging directly over our heads.
I leaned in toward my friend to listen as she spoke. Her face was downcast and her eyes moist as she recounted the events of the previous week: “I’m not sure what happened, but he said we needed to take a break. He wants to pray about the relationship. He needs time to make sure he is following God’s will. He doesn’t want us to have any contact for a month.”
Just like that, my friend was sent into a tailspin. She hadn’t seen it coming, and neither of us knew what it meant. Was this just a cowardly way of breaking up? Or was her boyfriend genuinely seeking God? And why had God communicated something so different to him than He had to her?
As difficult as my friend’s experience was, her story is not unique in the Church. In my experience, Christian courtships are about as straightforward as the Cha Cha Slide: You take two steps forward, then one step back. You meet one another’s parents, then decide to limit your time together. You start talking about marriage, then you stop engaging in any physical contact. You start praying together, but you also begin “fasting” from one another.
Most Christian couples have their own version of this back and forth, and it’s somewhat understandable. New relationships are intoxicating. Falling in love is blissfully disorienting, so it’s easy to lose your true North. Everything, including God, can take a backseat to your beloved. Knowing this, many well-meaning Christians work hard to stay on the straight and narrow. In an earnest attempt to honor God and one another, many sincere couples take a circuitous route marked by pain, confusion and unnecessary detours.
However, these manic dating rituals are not the product of godly intentions alone. There is a second motive that exerts pressure on Christian relationships, one that is far more prone to lead couples astray. It is the desire for perfection.
After slogging through the world of dating, many couples yearn for that perfect relationship that makes it all worthwhile. For some, perfection looks like a fairytale—a romantic love story with a happily ever after. For others, the perfect relationship is a holy bargaining chip: As long as you can stay pure and keep Christ central, God will reward you with marriage. But this if/then approach can easily become an attempt at bribing God.
Here’s the problem with the perfect relationship: It doesn’t exist. Whenever you bring two sinners together, there will be brokenness. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Even the best relationships and the strongest marriages are marred by sin. My husband and I have a great marriage, but our dating relationship was not perfect. We hurt one another, we made mistakes and we have regrets.
But here’s the good news: the Gospel is not the story of our perfection, but of God’s redemption. When we screw up, when we sin against one another and against God, He is faithful still. That’s why so many marriages endure in spite of sin—of course sin is toxic in any relationship, but God is greater.
Does that mean anything goes, that we should “continue in sin that grace may abound?” As Paul responds in Romans 6, “By no means!” Christians should certainly pursue holiness and spiritual integrity in dating. When my husband and I dated, we set aside a day each month to retreat from one another, pray and re-center ourselves.
These forms of accountability and seeking God certainly have their place. But make sure you are doing it for the right reason. Are you placing expectations on your relationship that God Himself does not have? Are you pursuing holiness in order to earn the reward of marriage? Are you trying to perfect your love life apart from the grace and mercy of God? By trying to avoid idolatry of a person, are you idolizing the perfect relationship instead?
Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more: What would it look like to date in the freedom of that reality? What would it look like if the goal of dating was not the perfect marriage, but a better love of God and neighbor? Would that spell the end of random devastations like the one experienced by my friend? Not entirely, but perhaps Christian dating relationships would be a little less riddled with angst. And freed from the pressure to “get it all right,” we will find Christ’s yoke is so much lighter than the burden of perfection.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Before beginning her PhD in Educational Studies, Sharon earned her Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. Sharon is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and she currently lives in the Chicago area with her husband and son. She blogs at sheworships.com, and is a regular contributor at Her.meneutics.