Friday, July 27, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Desire and Denial

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: A few weeks back, I was sent a list of questions asked anonymously by a group of teenagers attending a Christian summer camp. This one sounds like it’s worth thinking about:

“Do you think that we should wait to date until we are more prepared to be married, i.e., financially responsible, able to cook and clean … OR date younger?”

There’s a hot potato, IC. I’m actually impressed that a younger person is open to considering the options, given that our society operates in a very predictable fashion today where young people are concerned. What do you think of the question?

Defining Terms

Immanuel Can: I think maybe we ought to ask what is meant by “date”. I know it’s a common-use term, but it gets applied to everything from 5-minute “speed dating” to arranging intimate sexual relations. So we’d best narrow it down.

Tom: And let’s not forget internet “dating”, where having a virtual relationship is now considered as legit as a real-world one, or so I am unreliably told by millennials.

Okay, fair enough. Let’s assume because it’s a Christian kid asking that we’ve eliminated the virtual reality, the speed dating and the modern hookup nonsense. Let’s say we’re talking about the more “traditional” view of dating that went on in the seventies and eighties, where teens and twenty-somethings would go out on the town in pairs and spend time together hoping it might lead to something more permanent (or hoping it would lead to something else, depending on the person). It could include “going steady”, but not necessarily.

Adults On Hold

IC: Well, we’ve got a huge problem today — created entirely artificially by our society, and with absolutely no regard for biology, morality or even common sense — and that is, large numbers of young people who are indefinitely “on hold” relationally, from puberty to their early thirties. During this time, they are both supposed to be celibate (if they are Christians) and to be essentially alone in their process of finding a mate, as they are likely to be away from their former communities, at work or in school. And it’s in this weird milieu that we find the invention of “dating” of the kind you mention.

Tom: Right, and I am totally not endorsing it. It’s a recipe for sexual frustration, especially on the Christian male side. You wind yourself up several times a week and then try to keep from going “all the way”, all the while constantly subjecting yourself to extreme temptation. Nobody bats an eye anymore when two young people go off somewhere together and close the door on the rest of the world, but it’s the worst possible thing you can do. It’s not a big surprise so many Christian couples end up sexually involved before marriage, which complicates the future union tremendously.

IC: Of course. And add to that an internet culture with porn-on-demand all the time, and a social ethos that celebrates “hooking up” often and indiscriminately, and you’ve got a serious problem for anybody.

The Internal Firestorm

A couple of starting points are important, I think: firstly, sexuality is good, God-ordained and right. But secondly, our society is structured so as to turn this God-given impulse into a constant internal firestorm between desire and denial, a firestorm which Christian young people are expected to endure well beyond the natural time. Therefore, anything that makes this situation more dangerous and dysfunctional than it already is, is bad idea. Ideally, what we’re really looking for is a solution that allows young people to pair and mate wisely, at the divinely-intended stage, with the support and help of their families and community. Any disagreement so far, Tom?

Tom: Nope, that works for me. And actually, I know of a few young Christian couples that have gotten married in their late teens or early twenties recently. I’ve never asked if this was part of their thought process in deciding to marry so (comparatively) early, but so far, so good. These are either kids from farm families or young men who are in the trades. Getting married at that age might not work so well for men who have decided to be doctors or lawyers and have six or seven years of education to put in before they are able to make a living wage.

IC: Sure. And people mature — especially emotionally — at different rates and times. So there isn’t one magic number here.

Start Early

But what I’d suggest is that the serious search for a life partner should begin earlier than it does for most people today, and progress by a more intelligent, consultative and spiritually-focused method than is usually practiced today. So, “I’ll date when I can afford it, and figure it out all by myself” isn’t a method I’d suggest we should be advocating.

Tom: I agree with your first suggestion there, but is there really any point in beginning the serious search for a life partner when you have seven years of medical school looming in front of you?

IC: This is another reason why there’s no magic number. If a young person is of that steely disposition that does not require a partner immediately, or even not at all, then there are different possibilities: he or she may have a gift for that others do not. But what I’m suggesting is that educational and career requirements that are established by the world and without regard for biology or spiritual values cannot be the first criteria.

Be Careful Little Feet Where You Go

Tom: Right. Let’s go back to this whole concept of “dating”. Assuming you are at an age where you could potentially marry and have the resources to support a wife, and the potential resources coming down the pipe to support a family, what should a Christian “date” look like, if we must call it that?

IC: We should start by looking at how to meet people. I know a young Christian who married a roaring alcoholic. Where did he meet her? In a bar. I know another that paired up with a drug addict. Where did he meet her? At a rock concert. Do you see a pattern, Tom?

Tom: I do indeed. The problem is often maturity. You can be quite enthusiastic about the Lord but terribly unwise about what you do with your heart, and after you’re emotionally involved, it’s awfully easy to rationalize just about anything. This is where older Christians come in, even if our advice is all too infrequently heeded …

But say you have a serious young man from a Christian home who is determined to marry the sort of girl that would please the Lord. Where is he going to find her, and how is he going to relate to her as he pursues her?

IC: The key is this: he’s going to find the right kind of girl in the right kind of place, already doing the right kind of things. He can reasonably expect her to continue being what she already is. And she can expect him to do the same.

Tom: Fair enough.

The Best Version of You

IC: So here’s what I’d say to a Christian young person: stop looking for the right girl or guy, and start focusing on becoming the right kind of partner for the right kind of girl or guy. You’re not in control of them: you’re in control of you. Be in the right places, doing the right kinds of things, and being the best version of you. To find a worthy partner, you’ve got to be a worthy partner.

So seek the kingdom of God first, and leave the “adding to you” to the Lord. That’s primary.

Tom: That’s good. So you’ve met a girl, and you think she has the spiritual qualities you’re looking for. You’re interested. How does a “Christian” dating process play out? What does a date look like?

IC: I’m arguing for a different process than that.

Tom: Excellent.

A Different Process

IC: I’m trying to suggest that the best way to learn about each other is through serving together, and working in the company of significant others, in a church, at camp, in a ministry, and so on. In that way, the young Christian couple gets a sense of a number of important things, such as: how potential partners work, what their priorities are, how they treat other people — especially those from whom they can expect no return — how they act when tired, what sort of families they come from, how compatible they are with each other’s friends and families, how they handle money, what their general life-projects are, and how fast and in what ways they are developing spiritually. That’s a lot of information you don’t get from conventional “dates”. And that all needs to be built up before a romance is seriously entertained … that is, if putting spiritual values first, rather than mere romance, is what they’re doing.

Tom: How can churches encourage that sort of “quality observation time”?

IC: One thing the church can do is get young people involved in serious, sacrificial, cooperative service at an early point in their development. It can see the cultivating of this kind of relationship among young people as an important work. I’m not saying that churches need to get into the marriage business, but that providing young people with active service opportunities together is very key to supplying them with the information they need in order to make better, more spiritually-based relationship decisions.

I’m not keen on the just-find-someone-who-turns-you-on-and-start-dating idea. So let me suggest that anything that resembles modern “dating” is a late, not early stage of good courtship practices. Getting that cart before the horse is part of our present problem.

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