I entered my freshman year of college terrified of God and women – especially women. I wasn’t sure if either of them liked me, and I knew I had plenty of flaws that would make both of them want to reject me.
The solution: I decided to abstain from dating.
To be clear, dating wasn’t the only thing I abstained from at the time. I deprived myself of pretty much every non-churchy activity possible: movies, television, secular music, food, school functions – you name it. Naturally, dating fit the bill as well.
The whole deprivation drama was inspired by my desire to show God how much I had changed since my rebellious days of high school. And with dating in particular, it gave me the feeling that I was a culture warrior for Jesus – a modern-day martyr of sorts who wasn’t afraid to live in self-assured holiness while everyone else played the field. But more importantly, though I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, it gave me an easy, admirable way to avoid being rejected by a woman.
I Kissed Loneliness Hello
It didn’t help that most of my new church friends were following the dating philosophy of 21-year-old sage Joshua Harris, whose book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was taking the evangelical world by storm. Most of us hadn’t even read his book, but we nonetheless embraced its general thesis: that we ought to avoid dating altogether and strictly embrace courtship, which we interpreted to mean that we couldn’t pursue someone until God offered His audible approval.
In an effort to stay on the safe side, many of us began to avoid even the most harmless opposite-sex interactions. This made dating – or courting, or whatever you want to call it – practically impossible. Even trying to have friendships with women was frequently awkward.
I remember one day when I was sitting in the cafeteria and invited a church acquaintance named Rebecca to eat with me. When she and her friend sat down, I panicked, fearing they might think I was coming on to them. I decided to clear things up.
“Ladies,” I said, “before we pray over the food, there’s something I want to make clear: When I invited you to my table, I wasn’t hitting on you or trying to turn this into a date. We’re just three people having lunch, OK?”
They looked at each other, then at me, and then Rebecca began nervously stuttering and stammering, trying to clarify that, indeed, they only wanted lunch – just lunch – nothing more.
By the time Rebecca married my brother Caleb, I had written off marriage, believing it was just a heavenly Band-Aid for those who were too spiritually weak to practice celibacy. And I pitied Caleb and Rebecca, thinking they could have done so much more for God if they had remained single forever. Oh, well, I thought, remembering the words of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I guess “it’s better for them to marry than to burn with lust.”
And it should come as no surprise that this rigid, fanatical mindset – one that I maintained throughout college – only led to one somewhat romantic relationship during that time. It lasted a grand total of three weeks, and when it fell apart over some slight imperfections in the relationship, I was relieved. Being single was a lot easier than learning how to care for a woman.
Dating Can Be Scary
In the two years after graduating from college, my view of God made a change for the better. I started to believe He had forgiven all my sins – past, present and future – and therefore, I figured He wasn’t keeping a ledger of how badly (or how well) I behaved. I relaxed a little.
I started watching television again, reading Time magazine at the barbershop, enjoying the pop music playing at the gym, and thanking God I had chosen law school instead of foreign missions.
But I still wasn’t dating – not because I thought it made me holy – I just didn’t know where to start after hardly going on any dates in my adult life. But finally, over two years into law school, I threw caution to the wind and asked out an attractive college student from church.
She said yes, but on the date, I successfully freaked her out when I began our dinner conversation by asking when she planned on getting married. In the days following our date, I made one too many over-eager phone calls, and our last conversation ended shortly after she said, “You’re scaring me.”
Embracing Serial Dating
I was discouraged, but not deterred. I began asking women out, one after the other, and most of them said yes. I treated them well, didn’t do anything to lead them on, and when I asked them out, I kept expectations low by politely clarifying that it was “just a date.”
I also let go of the idea that every date was a possible prelude to marriage. As a result, I was more open-minded about who I went out with. And I stopped treating my dates like job applicants and just saw them as someone’s lovely daughter. I felt less pressure, they felt more comfortable, and both of us usually had a good time.
This boosted my confidence and helped me overcome my fear of female rejection, especially because so many women accepted my invitations to go out and made it clear they wanted to go out again. I was relieved, thankful to have come so far since my early, clumsy dating experiences. But unfortunately, with all the positive feedback, my confidence turned into a sense of entitlement, the unspoken belief that God owed me a near-perfect wife.
Quite frankly, I believed I was the answer to any single woman’s prayer – and then reality hit.
The Face of Real Love
At the height of my arrogance, I made a handful of foolish choices that left my goody-two-shoes identity in ashes and convinced me that it would be a long while before an emotionally healthy Christian woman would want to marry me.
And yet, in the midst of my implosion, I met the woman who would become my wife. She was bright, attractive, fiercely devoted to Christ, and – in light of my recent failings – I thought she was far too good of a woman to be spending time with me.
After we went out several times, my attraction to her grew and so did my familiar fear of rejection. I was certain that if she learned how foolishly I had behaved just before meeting her, it would be over. But as things became more serious, it seemed unfair to hide it from her, especially in light of the recentness of it all. So one afternoon, I interrupted a romantic conversation to unload my story, which I ended by inviting her to break up with me.
Instead, she looked me in the eyes with kindness, told me she wasn’t going anywhere, and thanked me for being willing to share my brokenness and shame with her. Then she paused and asked if she could pray for me. I quietly said yes and didn’t have much more to say for a while, because I was too choked up to say much of anything at all.
A few hours later, she went out on a limb and revealed the painful details of her own messy life season. She had her own self-inflicted wounds that had since healed up, and she understood the toxic power of shame. It was such a relief to hear her story, to realize I wasn’t the only broken person in the relationship.
After she shared her story, I was reminded that we’re all broken by sin, and the reason she could accept me as I was and offer forgiveness so easily was because she had already received it for herself. And her acceptance was critical for me – not just because of the shame of my recent past – but because all my life, I had been running from the rejection of God and women. But in the moment when I least deserved a good woman and had done nothing to earn one, God gifted me with one who would love me as I was. That gift, like my salvation, came freely, right in the middle of my messiness.
As I said in my wedding, eight months later, “If I ever question again whether God loves me based on my performance, all I have to do is look at my wife.” Because it is from her that I learned that a good marriage, like God’s love, is an act of grace.