When should young people begin to date?
Your answer probably hangs on why you think you (or anyone else) should date in the first place. Anyone can see that the costs are often high—crushing breakups, sexual sin, shocking betrayal, sudden rejection, devastating heartbreak—the pain of love that never walked the aisle.
So why do so many of us still dive so quickly into dating?
Well, in part, because Satan masks the risks so well (Revelation 12:9). He casts romance as a qualification for the good life, and projects anything else as empty, lonely and purposeless by comparison. He capitalizes on our desires and convinces us we must “love” in order to truly live, that all the highest pleasures and fullest experiences are found in a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend (or husband or wife). He brews heartbreak for breakfast, and sweetens every sexual sin with a beautiful but poisonous glaze.
Satan and his influence in and through the world leads millions of us to date too much and too early, because he loves what that kind of dating does to us.
I had my first “girlfriend” in the sixth grade, my first kiss that summer (different girl) and then a new girlfriend almost every year through high school. From far too young, I was looking for affection, safety and intimacy from girls instead of from God. I dated earlier than most, and more than most. My teenage years were one long string of relationships that were too serious for our age, went on too long and, therefore, ended too painfully. I said “I love you” too soon, and to too many. And the devil sat front-and-center, loving every minute of my early dating history.
Why Should Anyone Date?
The spiritual war for our hearts is real, and the stakes are high, so it’s critical to ask why we think we should date in the first place. Why did I have a girlfriend when I was 12 (and 13, and 14, and even 18)?
For many of us, we just want to be happy, to belong, to be valued. We imagine our deepest needs being met in the intimacy of being with a special young man or woman.
We all want our hearts to soar for someone or something. The romance and mystery of marriage seems to hold the highest earthly peaks of pleasure and friendship. We long to be known and loved, to belong with someone, in someone else’s story. We also want someone to join us in ours. And we all want our lives to count for something. We want to contribute something significant to a meaningful cause. We want to make a difference. We don’t want to waste our lives.
Many of us date because we’re trying to fill those needs in love. If you asked us, we might say we’re “pursuing marriage,” but a lot of us aren’t even close to marriage—in age, finances, maturity, education, stage of life. We’re really in pursuit of the happiness, belonging and significance we think we’ll find in romance.
What Would I Do Differently?
If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have dated in the 10th grade (or the 12th, or even my first couple years in college). I would have waited to date until I could marry.
The breakthrough came for me in beginning to understand the major differences between dating and marriage. A dating couple may feel married at times, but a dating couple is never a married couple. Understanding the distinctions between the relationships will protect us from all kinds of pain and failure in dating.
The greatest prize in any life, regardless of our relationship status, is to know Christ and be known by him, to love him and be loved by him. The great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy with a spouse—knowing and being known, loving and being loved by a husband or wife. The great prize indating is Christ-centered clarity about marriage (or toward marriage). Romantic intimacy is safest in the context of marriage, and marriage is safest in the context of clarity. If we want to have and enjoy that kind of Christ-centered intimacy, we need to get married. And if we want to get married, we need to pursue clarity about whom to marry.
Wait to Date
Legally, at least in the United States, we can’t marry until we’re 18 (except for Nebraska and Mississippi where it’s even older—19 and 21, respectively).
Beyond mere age, though, we should have serious questions of maturity and stability. Has our boyfriend or girlfriend matured enough to have any idea what they might be like as a husband or wife for the next 50 years? Have we really matured enough? Will one or both of us be able to provide for a family financially? Has his or her faith in Jesus been tested enough by trials to be confident it’s real?
Some, no doubt, will hate this advice—I’m sure I would have—but we all need to acknowledge that we can date long before we can marry—and that doesn’t mean we should. We cannot date toward marriage when marriage isn’t even on the radar yet. You may be dreaming about marriage already (I was), but is it realistic that the two of you could marry anytime soon?
Wait to date until you can marry each other. My advice—take it or leave it—is wait until you can reasonably marry him or her in the next 18 months. It doesn’t mean you have to marry that quickly. The important part is that youcould, if God made it clear this was his will and his timing for you. You won’t find 18 months anywhere in the Bible, and so you should not treat it as God’s law. But you can test—with the Lord, your parents and close Christian friends—whether that seems wise and safe for you and your heart.
What to Do While We Wait
Just because we are waiting to date does not mean we are sitting around and waiting. Life is never only, or even mainly, about love and marriage. Our life is about Jesus now—his love for us and his plans for us—whether we’re single or married, 16 or 60.
God has so much more in store for you than any relationship can offer. He wants to say something spectacular through you and your young life. He wants to use you and your gifts to change other people’s lives. If he wills for you to be married, he wants to make you into a strong and caring future wife or husband. He wants to show the world where to find happiness through your joy.
You don’t need a boyfriend or girlfriend to experience any of God’s dreams for these early years. So, if not date, then what?
1. Set a courageous and faithful example for others.
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12).
You may not be able to vote yet, or even drive, but you can live to say something about Jesus. Your speech—the language and attitude you use with your family and friends—says something about Jesus now. Your behavior—the decisions you make every day about what you will do or not do, the ways you fit in with the rest of the world or not—tells the world about your God. Yourlove—the way you treat the people in your life—says something about how you’ve been loved by God. Your purity—your commitment to trust God and his word, and to treasure him above every premature pleasure and experience—preaches the gospel to peers enslaved to their desires.
2. Live to serve, not to be served.
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 4:10–11)
Most young people are so consumed by their own needs and desires that they’re oblivious to the needs around them. But you are capable of so much more than social media, shopping and video games. Look, for instance, at what teenagers accomplish at the Olympics, 15- and 16-year-olds winning gold against the best in the world.
What if you decided to use the gifts God has given you to make a difference in someone else’s life? You could serve in a ministry at church, mentor someone younger or ask around about needs in your neighborhood. You are capable of far more than the world expects of you. Live in such a way “that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” through you.
3. Strive to become the future spouse God calls you to be.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:22–25).
Some of us might be born wanting to be married, but none of us are born ready to be married. The call to love a spouse is a call to live out the greatest story ever told—God himself coming in the flesh to die for his sinful bride, the church. Our natural instincts are not to die to ourselves for the sake of someone else, even someone we like a whole lot.
Until you are ready to date, God will be preparing you to love well when you do, transforming you from one degree of readiness to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
4. Stun everyone around you with joy while you wait.
We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may…walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy. (Colossians 1:9–11)
No one has to look far to find sour single people, young men and women bemoaning loneliness while everyone else is dating someone. It is much harder to find young people finding their identity, happiness, and security somewhere else.
Surprise your friends (and everyone else) by being content to wait to date until you can marry, because you already have everything you need in God.