Last week I sat with a group of college men as they were talking about relationships, personal purity, and marriage. In the context of the discussion, one young man asked, "Is it wrong for me to desire marriage? Is it alright that I think about marriage and hope to get married one day?"
I found the question itself to be illuminating. Is it possible that we Christians, in our zeal for purity, have communicated that all sexual and relational desires are somehow wrong? If so, that's tragic, because the absence of desire is not a Christian concept. It's true that certain passages in the New Testament tell us that for some people in some contexts, it's better to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:24-35). However, the Bible simply never says that a desire for marriage is wrong. The Scripture speaks highly of marriage as a gift from God (Gen 2:18-25; Prov 18:22; 19:14).
What is wrong, of course, is misdirected desire. When we desire marriage (including its emotional, spiritual, and physical components) as an opportunity to display Christ's love (Ephesians 5:21-33), it's perfectly legitimate. God made us with a desire for intimate relationships with others; we see that desire displayed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve. However, when we begin to seek marriage -- or any other relationship -- for strictly selfish reasons, we have a problem.
In other words, if I'm seeking marriage solely as a means to satisfy my sexual cravings, or to fill an emotional void in my heart, then I'm not looking at it as God intends. But the desire for sex or love or emotional intimacy, in a relationship that is centered on reflecting Christ's love, is perfectly legitimate.
Desire turns into sin when we seek the fulfillment of the desire for our own purposes, rather than for God's purposes. That principle holds true whether we're talking about money, sex, physical health, success on the job, or anything else.
Often, our problem is that we believe that the fulfillment of a particular desire will satisfy us in a way that only God can satisfy. We seek earthly treasures for their own sake, rather than seeing them as mere reflections of the much greater treasures promised to those who know God (Matthew 6:19-21). C.S. Lewis put it well (see The Weight of Glory, pp. 3-4):
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord fins our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is really meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Far too easily pleased, indeed.
Do you struggle with the concept of desire? Where does legitimate desire turn into sin, and how do you avoid going down that path in your own life?
A friend alerted me to a recent story about a young man who faked his own death as part of a disturbing marriage proposal to his girlfriend. I've heard of bizarre proposals, but this one tops the list.
Men, don't try this at home. If you are so insecure in her love for you that you need to fake your own death, your marriage is starting off on the wrong foot. What could you possibly do to reassure yourself the next time you wonder if she really loves you? After all, pretending to die only works once.
Ladies, if a man ever does this to you, run the other way. I mean that quite literally. Don't stop to say, "Why did you that?" Don't try to convince him it was a bad idea. Turn around, run to your car, and just drive in the opposite direction. You will never fill up his needy soul, so there is no real point in trying. Marriage is challenging enough without a spouse who fakes injury and death to make sure you're still interested.
What is the strangest marriage proposal story you have ever heard? Do you think men should shoot for the biggest and most elaborate proposal possible, or should they just ask nicely?
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If you're involuntarily single, you've almost certainly asked yourself that question at some point. College students and young singles regularly tell me they struggle with insecurity. I remember struggling with it myself during a prolonged period of singleness (with no apparent prospects) in my early 20s. "Why can't I find a date/significant other/spouse? Am I too short or tall or quiet or loud or unattractive or intimidating or picky?" It doesn't help that those around you often ask the same questions. "Why are you (still, after SO long) single? Are you not trying hard enough? Do you think you should get out more and stop being so picky?"
We all know people who are clearly wonderful -- attractive, godly, normal -- and yet remain single for a long time. (For that matter, we also know unattractive, worldly, and strange people who get married young). From a logical perspective, most of us understand that singleness isn't always -- or even often -- caused by a person's defects. There isn't any discernible rhyme or reason to who gets married at 22 and who remains single at 35. You probably know that in your brain, but it's hard to apply personally when you're sick of being single. The temptation is to try to isolate what's "wrong" with you, thinking that once you can isolate the problem you can fix it.
The truth is that human relationships are complicated and often mysterious. They don't lend themselves to simple evaluation or pat answers. Every relationship involves the personalities, feelings, and desires of two complex human beings. Not only that, but as Christians we have to take into account the work of God in each person's heart and mind and life. We don't always understand God's plans, and sometimes we don't even like them. That's a hard truth, so it's easier at times to seek out factors we think we can control -- maybe if I lose 20 pounds or tell funnier jokes or just stop being so picky, I can fix this pesky singleness problem.
But relationships with God and others just don't work that way. Seeking change and growth is appropriate and good and a necessary part of the spiritual life. However, it's not a guaranteed means of finding a spouse, and as long as you view it that way you'll be in danger of minimizing or missing the real work God wants to do in your life. For all of us -- whether we're waiting for a relationship or a better job or a child or something else altogether -- God is simply more concerned with our character than with giving us the life circumstances we would prefer.
So is something wrong with you? Sure. Me too. Lots of things. We're sinners in need of God's grace. But your personal deficiencies probably aren't the reason you are single. I don't know exactly why you're single, but it probably has something to do with God, who arranges the circumstances of your life so that you can know Him and pursue Him (Acts 17:26-27). So instead of agonizing over questions that can't be answered, turn your eyes toward Jesus and follow Him with everything you have.
(And as a postscript, those of you who are married can certainly help your single friends in this regard. Resist suggesting easy "fixes" for their singleness or implying that if they would only do x or y or z then they could make everything better. Although we usually mean well, such advice is rarely helpful, often demoralizing, and always distracting).
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We tend to think of loneliness as something we need to escape. Many of us have ideas about what would truly cure us of loneliness once and for all. College students and single adults often think that marriage will cure loneliness. Married people often think that a better spouse will cure loneliness. From time to time we all believe that popularity or fame would cure our loneliness. In the words of Adam Duritz, "When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely."
Except, of course, you can. To be honest, some of my loneliest moments have been in the presence of crowds, people who know my name but don't really know me. Maybe you can relate to that. I think loneliness is often most acute when we finally achieve what we believe would be the cure for our loneliness -- a spouse, a date, popularity -- yet we realize we're not cured after all.
What if we're thinking about loneliness incorrectly? Maybe we shouldn't try so hard to avoid loneliness, but should instead carefully consider what it means. Perhaps loneliness isn't located "out there" somewhere but is really located "in here," inside our hearts and minds and spirits. Loneliness just might be God's way of reminding us that the ultimate source of acceptance and comfort isn't found in anything this world can offer.
Don't get me wrong -- we're designed to be in community with others, and to some degree we even need it. We aren't made to walk through life totally alone. On the other hand, we aren't made to be completely satisfied with the sort of imperfect relationships that this present world provides. Even in the most intimate relationships, people still hide from one another and hurt one another and fear one another. Until Jesus returns and makes us new and perfect and complete, we just won't be able to avoid the pain of loneliness.
But when Jesus returns, loneliness will disappear. We'll have perfect relationships, free of sin and doubt and fear of abandonment. Free of the need to hide from Him and from one another.
So right now, our loneliness serves as a sign to remind us that all is not well, but one day it will be. Instead of trying to escape it, let's allow it to draw us closer to the One who can remove it permanently. Let's also use the loneliness to remember that others are lonely too. Just like us, they need to hear the life-giving message that it won't last forever.
How do you handle loneliness in your own life?
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Many (if not most) Christian young adults enter into dating relationships with some baggage from their past. It's quite common for people to worry about how their past sins will affect their future relationships, especially as they approach the point of marriage.
Should you tell your current boyfriend or girlfriend about your past sexual sins? If so, at what point in the relationship is it appropriate?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, since every couple is different and every person has different needs. However, I think some general principles apply:
First, past sexual sins ought to be discussed at some point prior to marriage. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, marriage requires trust. It's hard to enter into a relationship of trust if one or both parties are hiding information about themselves. As painful as it may be, honesty is the best policy. Second, the possibility exists that your potential marriage partner could find out about your past anyway. It's much better if they hear it from you rather than from a third party.
Second, choose your timing carefully. Don't unload everything on the first date. That's awkward and unnecessary. On the other hand, you don't want to spring the information on your fiance the night before the wedding. That's unfair and overwhelming. Simply wait until the relationship is seriously progressing toward marriage. That doesn't mean you have to wait until you're engaged. Again, every couple is unique. As a general rule, though, once it's clear that you're both seriously contemplating the future, go ahead and discuss your past.
Third, you don't need to share every graphic detail. Be truthful without being explicit. Don't paint a high resolution picture for the other person. That isn't helpful. Just share the basics of your past in an honest and tactful way. Ask forgiveness for any behavior that could negatively impact your future marriage and commit to being faithful to your future spouse and to God from this point forward.
The result of this conversation ought to be increased closeness and trust between you and your potential marriage partner. By the way, if you happen to be the person on the receiving end of this conversation, remember that we're all sinners in need of forgiveness. Assuming we're talking about sin that is truly in the past (before you two were dating) I strongly urge you to offer forgiveness and acceptance. If necessary, take some time to think and pray before you respond.
Would you add any suggestions or ideas to what I've written here? I'd love to hear your input!
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Over the past 60 years, the average age of first marriage in the United States has been steadily climbing. In other words, people are generally waiting longer before getting married. In 1950, the average man was 22.8 years old at first marriage, and the average woman was 20.3 years old. In 2011, the average man was 28.7 years old, while the average woman was 26.5 years old.
Most of the reasons for the change are obvious. First, in the past six decades, people have extended the length of their education. It wasn't uncommon in 1950 for a woman to get married shortly after high school. Today it's much more common for her to pursue an undergraduate degree and even a master's degree prior to getting married. Second, young adults tend to express more of a desire to "experience life" a bit before getting married. Third, the high divorce rates of the Baby Boomer generation have convinced young adults that they shouldn't be in a big hurry. Waiting and trying out different dating partners is viewed as a way to make sure they marry the right one.
However, all of this poses a challenge for young adults who want to get married young. Sometimes college students ask me about the benefits and drawbacks of getting married before completing college. Those who choose that path often receive resistance from their parents, their friends, and society in general. So is it a bad idea? Should everybody wait until they're 25 or 30 before pursuing marriage?
If you're thinking of marrying during college, how do you know if you're ready? Here are a few things to consider:
- Have you prayed and sought advice from your parents and other trusted advisors? This is necessary at all ages, but particularly if you're young. Don't rush into a lifelong commitment based on a few awesome dates. Take your time, pray about it, talk to some wise people, and make sure you're thinking straight. (Actually, you're probably not -- the hormones and emotions that accompany attraction muddle everybody's thinking. That's why this step is so critical.)
- Are you prepared to be financially independent of your parents? Your parents might be extremely generous and willing to help support you after your marriage. Nonetheless, marriage ought to entail what the Scripture calls "leaving and cleaving" (Genesis 2:24). If you're not prepared for financial independence if necessary, then you should wait to get married. Why? When push comes to shove, if your parents are still supporting you financially, then they have the right to exercise authority over you. If you get married, you and your spouse might need to make decisions that conflict with your parents' desires. You'll need to listen to them and to honor them, but ultimately you'll need to be free to decide before the Lord what's best for your family. You can't do that if Mom and Dad are still paying the bills.
- Do you have a plan to finish school without incurring an enormous debt load? Massive amounts of debt can prevent you from pursuing the path God has for your future. Getting married during college might require one or both of you to work full-time in order to make ends meet and avoid debt. Spend some time thinking about how you'll finish school and move forward after that. Plans can and will change, but a wise person will at least try to prepare a bit.
- Are you prepared to shoulder the responsibility of a child if pregnancy occurs? I'll be direct: There's no such thing as birth control that's 100% effective. Whatever you believe about the ethics of birth control and whatever you plan to do, be prepared to have a baby. Trust me on this one.
- Are you generally prepared to spend the rest of your life living with this person and caring for him or her? Marriage often presents unexpected challenges. Conflicts pop up about family relationships, financial decisions, sexual intimacy, career choices, and a host of other things. I would strongly recommend pursuing premarital counseling at your church prior to marriage. An experienced and wise older couple can get to know each of you and help you spot potential red flags before you move forward.
If you can answer yes to these questions, then you might be ready to get married. Everybody's experience is different and every person is different, so these are just general guidelines. On the whole, I don't think 21 or 22 is way too young for marriage. I would simply urge caution and prayer.
What have I left out here? Also, do you disagree with any of my points above?
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So Mark and Grace Driscoll just released a new book about marriage and sex, and it's #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. It's generated a good deal of controversy because of one chapter, in which the Driscolls answer graphic questions about what sort of sexual behavior is permissible in marriage.
Pastor Ed Young also released a new book with his wife Lisa, called Sexperiment (yes, that's the real title), based on the highly publicized challenge they issued to married members of their church to have sex every day for seven days. In conjunction with the book's release, the Youngs staged a "bed-in" on the top of their church building for 24 hours. I think the idea was to generate buzz around the concept that sex is a good thing created by God. Something like that.
All of this has raised the question of how we should talk about sex in the Christian community. The Bible talks about sex and marriage a lot, and in today's sexually obsessed culture we can't ignore the subject. As a college pastor, I'm solidly convinced that it's a critical topic to address, especially with young people.
But are there boundaries we should set around how we discuss the subject? Let me suggest a few principles for how to discuss sex in a straightforward yet productive way:
1. Treat it as a sacred subject. Why? Because sex is sacred. Paul tells us that the "one-flesh" relationship in marriage represents the relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:31-32). So sex isn't something to snicker at or sensationalize. Every pastor knows that talking about sex is an easy way to fill the room. Our world is fascinated with the topic. So it's quite tempting to talk about it in a way that's certain to generate attention and controversy. But that's a mistake. The Bible treats it as an important and serious subject, and I think we should as well.
2. Treat it as a deeply personal subject. Every person has different feelings and attitudes toward sex. Some are addicted to it, some are afraid of it, and some are repulsed by it. Some people have been abused, used, or neglected. And of course some people have perfectly healthy views about it. I don't think it's wise to give everybody the same advice when it comes to specific expressions of marital sexuality. For some couples, having sex every day for a week is a good idea. For others, it's a terrible idea. In fact, some couples should probably be advised to abstain for awhile, to work on other areas of their relationship first. Because every person is different, every marriage is different and should be approached that way.
I also think some things are meant to be private. The details of one's sex life in marriage aren't meant to be shouted from the rooftops or sold in the local bookstore. I don't think this is prudishness. Instead, it's an acknowledgement of the deeply personal and sensitive nature of sexuality. We need to be careful not to make others feel unnecessarily ashamed or inappropriately curious or deeply disgusted. A good question to ask is, "Why am I sharing this detail? Even though sharing it isn't a sin, is it productive and beneficial?"
3. Acknowledge that sex is more than a physical act. Because our bodies and spirits are so closely connected, sex is much more than the union of two bodies in a bed. My sexuality is deeply tied to my sense of personal identity. When people engage in sex, they are opening themselves up to another person in more ways than the physical. Even those who have never engaged in sex recognize that their sexual desires touch on issues much deeper than the physical body. So when we talk about sex, we need to discuss it in conjunction with other critical issues, like how we relate to God and to other people. Crude discussions about what positions or activities are acceptable from a physical standpoint tend to miss the point. The bigger issue is how we ought to approach sexuality from the standpoint of discipleship -- in other words, what does my sexuality have to do with how I follow Jesus? The Bible seems much more concerned with that question than about the specific details of how and when and where to engage in marital sex.
Like I said above, we have a responsibility to address this critical subject from a biblical standpoint. I think most Christians would agree. But I wonder sometimes if we cross the line from biblical teaching to sensationalism. Or from discussing sex to idolizing it. "Everything is permissible -- but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible -- but not everything is constructive" (1 Corinthians 10:23). I pray we'll have the ability to discuss the topic in a way that is both permissible and constructive.
What would you add or take away from my analysis here?
The other day I ran across an article about an online dating service that promises to "find God's match for you." Of course, that raises the question of whether God has just one match for you, one "soul-mate" whom you're intended to be with forever.
There is no doubt that God arranged the circumstances of our lives (Acts 17:24-28). The case of marriage is an interesting one, though, because it seems to involve a combination of God's sovereignty and my personal choices. However, I've really no doubt that God knows if we'll get married and to whom, and I've no doubt that in some sense He arranges it all.
But the question of "soul-mates" is another matter entirely. I find the concept troublesome for a couple of reasons.
First, there's simply no guarantee you or any person will get married. The Scripture says that some people aren't meant to marry (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7). So if everybody has a soul-mate who completes them, what does that say about single people? Are they incomplete? Do they somehow bear less of God's image (Genesis 1:26-27)? Of course not.
Second, I think the concept of one perfect soul-mate creates unrealistic expectations. What if I marry a person who has emotional problems, who has a "past," or who is less than ideal? What if I'm less than ideal? Does that mean I'm not qualified to be somebody's soul-mate? After all, I can't complete another person if I'm messed up myself. What if problems emerge 5, 10, or 20 years after we get married? Are we no longer soul-mates? When my partner doesn't seem to be my soul-mate, won't I be tempted to abandon ship and find my true match?
The Bible doesn't command us to go find our soul-mates. It does command us to love the mates we already have (Ephesians 5:21-33). I'm not saying we should forego discernment in our choice of marriage partners. Instead, I'm saying that we can't so accurately discern God's hidden intentions about whether somebody is our secret soul-mate.
Finally, the idea that an online dating service promising to "God's match" for you is not only silly and ridiculous. It's offensive. An online dating service can be useful to connect people. It can even tell you whether you're likely to get along with another person. But it can't tell you God's will. In the South we have a word for claims like that: hogwash. (Well, there are other words, but I can't print them here). To set people up with the expectation that you're acting as God's matchmaker is false advertising at the highest level.
OK, there's my two cents. I'd love to hear your thoughts!
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One of the most common questions single students ask is, "How can I make the most of the time between now and marriage? How can I use the waiting time well without wasting it?"
Waiting is tough. No matter what stage of life you're in, the odds are good that you're waiting for something.
Waiting to graduate...waiting for a date...waiting to get married.
Waiting for kids...waiting for the kids to grow up...waiting for grandkids.
Waiting for a job...waiting for a promotion...waiting for retirement.
Sometimes it feels like our lives are spent waiting, and waiting is difficult. But patience is a critical skill for spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22; James 5:8; Col 3:12). It reflects the character of Jesus, who waits so patiently for us (2 Peter 3:9).
So how can you use your waiting time well? Here are a few ideas:
- Deepen your walk with God. Focus on learning His Word and growing in prayer. Ask for patience and faith as you wait for Him to provide for your needs. Remind yourself that you're ultimately waiting for Christ's return, so your short waiting period right now is just building your endurance muscles. Remember that God knows you perfectly and has promised to provide what you need if you seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:33). That doesn't mean He'll always give you what you want, but He will provide everything you need in order to do His will.
- Practice intentional gratitude. Rather than focusing on what you don't have, focus on what you do have. Make a list of God's blessings. Start with the fact that your heart is beating and expand from there. You'll almost certainly run out of paper before you finish the list. Each morning read your list and thank God for what He's given you.
- Develop friendships. Investing in other people is critical for our spiritual growth (John 13:34-35), but it's also a great way to divert our attention from the things we don't have. When I'm genuinely concerned for others, it's harder to feel sorry for myself. Organize a game, set up a coffee date, or help a friend with a project. Find ways to engage in the lives of others and learn about their struggles and joys. Ask what they're waiting for, and pray together for God's patience.
- Serve other people. Service reminds me that I'm not the only one with unmet needs and desires. Service also reminds me of Jesus, who commanded His disciples to serve others (Matthew 20:26-28) and modeled it in dramatic ways (John 13:1-17). So visit the local nursing home, go on a mission trip, mow a neighbor's lawn, or set up the chairs at your church. There are thousands of opportunities, so it shouldn't be hard to find avenues of service.
- Learn something new. Take a graduate course or pursue a degree. Read a good book (or two or three). Pick up a hobby. Acquire a new skill. Why spend your days sitting at home pining away for the day when your waiting is over? Follow the example of Jesus, who kept learning and growing in every area of His life while He waited for His public ministry to begin (Luke 2:52).
Are you in life's waiting room right now? What are you waiting for? What is God teaching you through the waiting process?
Every so often I run across an article discussing the problem of young Christians engaging in premarital sex. One recent example comes from Relevant Magazine, a cutting-edge magazine geared toward young adults.
Typically the information presented runs along the following lines: nearly all young Christians are having sex before marriage, despite intense efforts by the evangelical church to convince them to wait. (The Relevant article says that 80% of young Christians are having sex outside of marriage). In nearly every case, the writer characterizes the popular True Love Waits program as a colossal failure, because only about 12% of the students who sign purity commitments during the program actually keep their promises.
Despite the compelling statistics, though, I think articles like this are alarmist at best and misleading at worst. Why do I say that?
First, they often portray sexual sin as something new to Christianity, as if everything was a great deal better in the "good old days." But that perspective is inaccurate. Go read any of Paul's New Testament letters, and you'll see repeated exhortations against sexual immorality, usually because members of the church were in sin. In some cases he provides specific examples of Christians who were failing in this area (for example, see 1 Corinthians 5). The Church has struggled with the issue of chastity for thousands of years. In certain eras and in certain cultures it has done a better job of forcing people to conform to external standards of purity (usually by shaming or punishing those who disobeyed), but I wouldn't say that sexual purity has ever been the norm. Even if people managed to control their outer behavior, there were usually struggles boiling beneath the surface.
Second (and I really think this is key), articles like this make no attempt to distinguish those who identify themselves as Christians from those who actually possess a Christian worldview. In Ronald Sider's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, he laments how the behavior of evangelicals is indistinguishable from that of the culture around us. He cites some of the same troubling statistics about sexual sin, violence, and racism in the Church. However, toward the end of the book he makes a critical distinction that I think is worth noticing (pp. 127-128).
He mentions that George Barna did a study to determine the effect of a biblical worldview on a person's behavior. Here's how Barna defines a biblical worldview:
For the purposes of the research, a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.
Guess what? Only 9% of "born-again Christians" actually have such a biblical worldview! And among that smaller group, the statistics relating to sexual activity are much more encouraging. While 1 out of 8 born-again Christians had sex with somebody other than their spouse in the month preceding the survey, only 1 out of 100 of those with a biblical worldview had done so!
So on a practical note, what does this mean? It means that sexuality cannot be discussed as a separate issue apart from the holistic calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Parents and youth leaders, take note: if you tell your kids to "just wait" without explaining to them why they should wait or integrating the discussion of sexuality with robust training in the spiritual life, your efforts will most likely fail.
On the other hand, the students who wait until marriage are concerned first with knowing Jesus and following Him. Their approach to sexuality is not disconnected from their spirituality, but is an integral part of it.
And here's the really good news: there are students who are waiting. I know many of them in my own ministry. Yes, it's difficult, and yes, they are constantly tempted and no, they don't always make perfect choices. But they are waiting and they do see the value of sexual purity as a part of their spiritual life.
So let's not be too alarmist or fearful, but instead let's be diligent to make disciples, recognizing that the way we use our bodies is a critical aspect of walking with God (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Why or why not?