When Dating Isn’t the Problem

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 7:9I 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.


  1. Hi Joshua,I saw so much of myself as I read this post. Thank you for summoning the courage to be yourself… to show vulnerability… to show your brokenness.Vincent


  2. Thanks for your kind response.


  3. I've followed your blog for some time and never fail to be moved by your mix of uncanny perception, self-awareness, feeling and regard for others. It's also that rare talent of finding words that describe the feelings while at the same time being able to put feelings into those words…I used to take for granted kindred spirits like yourself until I realized how singular they are.


  4. I don't understand why you relented in your opposition to the things mentioned in the article.Regarding television and movies, there is so much anti-God filth with both that this seems entirely sound. Don't get me wrong, I don't see any scriptural basis for suggesting television and movies as a mode of communication are in themselves wrong, total abstinence from these means would do many people a world of good, given how much filth they contain. As a child, I watched too much T.V., but fell out the habit during my university years. I wouldn't place on people the religious obligation to do this, but given the filth on television and in the movies, I doubt it harmed me. Ditto the pop industry, notable for its worldliness.Time Magazine I don't know well, so I can't comment, but I'm guessing some liberalism has seeped into its content.I don't have a problem either with courtship rather than what Paul Washer terms "recreational dating". I think it is unchivalrous to intimately interact with a woman one doesn't intend to marry or no plans to make a decision on marriage with. I recall you also criticised this in a post about "friendgirls". I would counsel women to avoid what I understand "dating" to be, as it allows the man intimacy without the required commitment. I also have no problem with your abstinence from relationships in college (regrettably, I had one college relationship myself). If you weren’t ready for marriage and the responsibilities thereof, you weren’t ready for a relationship either.As for talking about marriage on the first date and over-eager phone calls, I find it hard to fault you here. I think a man should be thinking of marriage as soon as he makes overtures to a lady. If he sees no reasonable possibility that he will pursue her all the way to the altar, he should not waste her time. Over-eager phone calls I suppose can come across as harrassing, but I think today's men are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Today's men are criticised for being both over-eager and not eager enough (i.e. not looking towards marriage or initiating).How did you conclude that the idea of every date being a possible prelude to marriage is a wrong idea? I find it entirely chivalrous and sound. If a man knows he will not consider marriage to a woman, he should not waste her time with even one date. I am not a woman, but I have the feeling that if a woman goes through an endless stream of single dates with false hopes that they will go somewhere, she will become forlorn and despondent, possibly declining dates with genuine men because she erroneously believes it will be a waste of time.I know I've mentioned this before, but even if the height of one's standards when it comes to one's choice of spouse is excessive, I would find it questionable to pursue a woman I wasn't really interested in. Maybe things will all come out in the wash and there would be a family unit to God's glory. Some might be inclined to tell me I have grossly overestimated my own attractiveness amongst the women around me, but I simply couldn't bring myself to approach a woman merely because I thought I would never do any better. Firstly, if I tell her this openly, the relationship will never go anywhere, though maybe in times gone by, people were more willing to enter into marriages of convenience. Secondly, if I keep it quiet, then I am living a lie: – I would have to tell her lies about how attractive I find her, which is unchivalrous and dishonest. I cannot fault you for staying away from women you had no real interest in. If a lady openly says she does not mind a marriage of convenience, then one's conscience is clear (provided if one does marry her, one loves her as required by God), but otherwise, I think your strategy was sound.I’m sure you have faults just like the rest of us, but you fault yourself for decisions I don't see as faultable.


  5. Thanks for your feedback. Reasonable minds can disagree.


Comments are closed.