It’s funny the little details you remember when you look back on things. The first time I saw my future wife I recall thinking to myself, “Wow! I sure hope she’s a freshman or a sophomore so I have time to get to know her.” I also noticed that she was wearing what I thought was one of those black choker necklaces that rebellious kids used to wear in the ‘90s and thinking, “That’s a pretty unexpected accoutrement for a girl at a Christian Fellowship gathering,” but also secretly being kind of intrigued by it. It turns out that what I thought was a choker was actually a lanyard turned around backward and holding her room key and student ID card.
So I had Kelsey picked out from the beginning. And when it turned out that in addition to being a Christian she was also on the track & field team and played basketball, I knew it was meant to be. The problem is, it takes two to tango and over the last four years, Kelsey had been carefully and unceasingly practicing the art of turning guys down. In fact, she had turned so many guys down, she had developed something of an unconscious cold shoulder to all guys that subtly told you the answer was “no” before you even had to ask.
For my part, I knew how to take a hint. One time, I invited her to play some pickup basketball hoping that perhaps “pickup” could have something of a double meaning. I envisioned myself carefully standing behind her and correcting her jumpshot by delicately adjusting her balance hand. She, obviously, envisioned herself forcefully checking the ball into my stomach, stealing it from me during my crossover dribble, and then pulling up for a sweet eighteen footer. So, yeah, for two years not much happened on that front.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about my dating history and how even when I was “in love” with a girl I did not treat her lovingly, especially when my love was unrequited. I spoke about how I felt like I needed to take a step back from pursuing women as potential partners and see them first as friends so that God might be able to do some surgery on my heart. As a result, during my sophomore year of college I (mostly) abstained from flirting and pursuing and saying “hey you” and whatnot.
When junior year started, this was still my default mindset. My priorities were to capitalize on a solid summer of training and have a successful cross-country season, turn my dorm room into a prayer room, and hand out as many gelatos to students in the library as possible. To cement my intention to remain single, I showed up to college that year sporting a sexy pencil mustache I had etched into my facial hair in response to the San Diego Padres recent losing streak. As long as the Padres lost, the mustache stayed. As long as the mustache stayed, the girls stayed away.
For Kelsey, the preceding months had also been a time of reflection and transformation. As she read the book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Kelsey sensed that there was more to the Christian life than what she had heretofore experienced. Whereas I had been convicted about the need to honor God in my dating relationships, Kelsey’s conviction came as a call to serve the broken, lonely, lost, and hurting.
During that junior year, it was almost as if someone was behind the scenes orchestrating all these happy little coincidences. Kelsey and I were in a Religion class together that fall. We were assigned to work with one another for the major group project. When I needed a ride to campus from the airport, none of my cross-country buddies were available and Kelsey was the only person left who I knew had a car. Because of what God was doing in her life, she started showing up to a prayer group that I led each evening. And because of what God was doing in my life, I wasn’t trying to hit on her, which (she’s since told me) would have ensured that she wasn’t interested.
Our first of three DTR’s (Define the Relationship) took place in late October. As she was driving me to the airport she asked out of the blue, “Do your friends ask you if you and I are dating?”
“Nope,” I replied (therein revealing the manifest differences between men and women). “Do yours?”
“All the time,” she said.
One of those long, awkward silences followed. She wasn’t saying anything so I tried my best to be brave and said, “Well, we should probably talk about things, then. And I told her that I enjoyed spending time with her and being her friend and that I wasn’t ready to start dating just yet but definitely wanted to keep the possibility open for the future and some other long rambly thing about how C.S. Lewis differentiated between friends and lovers. She said she felt the same way. We continued to spend a fair amount of time with one another, mostly centered on nightly prayer and giving out gelatos in the library to poor, burdened souls studying for exams. We had a second DTR in early January in which we decided that we weren’t dating yet but wanted to move in that direction. Finally, on February 9th, while sitting together in a common area in my dorm and watching some college basketball, we decided that we wanted to be in a relationship. It sounds crazy to say but at that point I wasn’t really sure if Kelsey liked me as more than a friend. Even though we had been getting to know each other for the last five months, even despite all the DTRs and late night chats, I felt like I was really stepping out on a limb when I said, “I really like you and I want to be in a relationship with you.” I feared that perhaps she wouldn’t feel the same way.
That’s the thing—this relationship was vastly different from others I had pursued in the past. I wasn’t constantly wondering about what she thought about me and what I could do to manipulate the friendship into something more. What I really wanted to do, and what I spent my time thinking about, was honoring God in this relationship. I didn’t want to rush into things because I knew that that can easily lead to hurt feelings and broken hearts. And I wanted her to feel like she really knew me and my character before asking her to make a commitment to me.
Maybe that all sounds a bit serious but one of the things I believe is that a dating relationship should only be entered into if there’s at least the possibility of forever. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean you have to decide once and for all if someone is going to be your spouse before you can take them out to dinner. I don’t think you should put unnecessary pressure on the relationship. But at the same time, realize that all relationships that don’t end in marriage end in a breakup, and breakups almost always involve broken hearts.
To taking dating seriously is to say to the other person, “I value your time and your feelings enough that I won’t ask you to make an investment in me unless I can ensure that I will cherish the time I get to spend with you and protect your heart as best I can.” I feel like honoring God in your dating life means recognizing that a relationship is filled with sacrifices, and we shouldn’t ask someone else to make sacrifices on our behalf either in order to fulfill a lonely void in our own hearts or to enjoy the physical aspects of dating.
When you ask a woman to be in a relationship with you, you are implicitly telling them,
“I promise to know you better than any other person on the planet, including your best friends.
I promise to help you realize your dreams better than any other person on the planet, including your mentor.
I promise to take care of you better than any other person on the planet, including your father.”
You might be thinking, “That sounds more like marriage to me than dating.” And maybe you’re right. But implicit in this line of thinking is the idea that dating is what people who are attracted to one another take part in while marriage is what people who promise to love another take part in. Does this mean that we are not called to love someone (in the verb sense) to the best of our abilities while we’re dating? The true test of whether or not someone is special to you is if you love them selflessly, if you want what is best for them even if that includes a relationship with someone other than you.
Here’s another difference in our relationship. In the past, I thought holding hands and putting your arm around her shoulder and making out was basically what dating was all about. Like, that was the crème de la crème. Kelsey and I, on the other hand, did not share our first kiss until we had been dating for eight months. True story. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to kiss her. But I wanted to develop other aspects of our relationship before developing the physical part. I knew that would come easily enough. But it’s hard to practice being a good person to talk to on the phone when you’re miles apart, and hard to be a good listener, and hard to develop trust and emotional intimacy. Plus, we both felt like God’s plan for relationships involves only having sex after marriage, because marriage is a spiritual unity similar to that between God and His children. Not to mention you can only burn so much rubber on the proverbial racetrack before you run out of room.
Oh, but that first kiss! A brief walk out to a bench on Stone Hill. Candles I had set beforehand burning all around us. The sun laying down to rest behind the Berkshire Mountains and the glorious autumnal leaves holding on delicately to their branches. Definitely worth the wait.
Looking back on it, it wasn’t like I was naturally inclined to do these things—you know, not kiss this beautiful woman for eight months. Honestly, I didn’t really even feel like I was making a conscious decision to do or not do certain things at the time. But as I sought to follow God with my whole heart, it was like I was led down paths I normally wouldn’t go down. It was my life, and it was my decisions, but it didn’t really feel like my heart. My heart tends to lead to jealousy and manipulation and what’s-in-it-for-me. Experience shows this. But in my life I have found that as I spend time with God, and I try to follow Him, He gives me new eyes to see. A new heart to love with. A new way to be human.
I can’t prove this to you empirically, and there is no philosophical argument I can use to convince you of this. I’ll try to put it as simply as I can: throughout my life, when I have been close to God I tend to be more selfless; when I have been distant from God I tend to be more selfish. You may put your guard down here; I am not calling anyone out. I speak only for myself.
My parents divorced when I was ten. I know the pain of a failed marriage firsthand. And I also believe that despite our best intentions, we often do the same things our parents did. If we’ve grown up only knowing one way to treat our spouse, it’s hard for us to envision something else. My parents are good at so many things and they are incredibly loving people, especially toward their children. But they couldn’t make a marriage work. What should make me so sure I can have a lifelong marriage if a) my parents, whom I am most like, did not and b) my dating life up through college suggests that I put my own wellbeing before the women I professed to love?
This is why I’m sorry for the heartache I’ve caused but thankful for the heartache I’ve felt. I’m grateful that God didn’t leave me where I was at and that He cares to transform hearts. Because if I’m being honest, the person I was probably wasn’t fit to marry a woman as precious as Kelsey.
While we were dating, I was very careful not to lose Kelsey. I frequently came up with ideas to keep our relationship exciting since, you know, lips were off limits. On our two-week dating anniversary we ate two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. On our three week anniversary we danced to three songs. Every time we spent time with one another, we began by praying together. No favor was too big an ask; I was there to help in a heartbeat.
I’ve been reflecting: am I still the same way? Do I still go out of my way to serve Kelsey and make her feel special and come up with cute little ideas to show her I care? Or has the whole thing gotten kind of old-hat for me? I give her the same hug after I come home from work and we sit at the same table for dinner and go to the same places on dates.
I want to be the kind of guy who goes out of his way for his wife when he’s seventy, so certain that they will love each other for forever but acting like she might leave at a moment’s notice if his love runs dry. I believe that prayer can change not only our own hearts but also the future course of events. I want to be the kind of guy who prays earnestly and vigorously for his marriage so that it can be the best marriage possible. I want to have the best marriage on the whole dang street!
In the last book of the Bible, the author—a guy named John—has a vision of Jesus writing a letter to some of the early Christian churches. Jesus praises the church of Ephesus in particular. At the same time he notes, “But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first.”
Writing this has been sobering for me as I think about whether or not I love God and Kelsey as enthusiastically as I did when I first became a Christian. These are the two most relationships in my life, more sacred than anything—am I treating them as such? As humans inflicted with finitude and temporality, we have a hard time remaining constant and true. In one moment I’ve loving with all my heart and in the next I’m barely skating by. As I get older, and life starts to take its wearying toll, I don’t want the fire to burn out cold. Because we only get one try, and because we only get one life, and because time is never on our side, I want to burn out bright, living out my creeds at a million miles an hour and trying to love my wife as God loves His people.