Dating Paralysis and the Christian Student

I’m about to open up a can of worms, but here goes…

Last week, a friend of mine sent me this article from World Magazine about the challenges faced by Christian college students as they approach the subject of dating. While the culture around them encourages random “hook-ups” and sexual immorality, Christian students often retreat to the opposite extreme, refusing to date until they are fairly confident they’ve found The One. The reasoning is something like, “If I avoid dating, I can avoid immorality, heartbreak, and insensitivity toward others. I’ll just wait until I really, really like somebody — enough to probably marry her — and then ask her (and her parents) to consider beginning a serious relationship that’s headed toward marriage.”

In the past ten years that mindset was most notably popularized by Joshua Harris in his book  I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The book is referenced in the article as one of the factors causing the current confusion many Christian college students have about dating. As a college pastor for the past seven years, I’ve observed that many, if not most, Christian students do in fact take an approach similar to the book. Even if they don’t agree with its principles, guys and girls are afraid to simply go on a date, for fear it might be construed as the prelude to something much more serious. And it isn’t only men who are guilty — men often don’t ask, but I’ve known women who won’t go on a single date unless they feel confident that the guy is their one true love.

This paralysis troubles me for a few reasons:

The Bible never addresses the subject of dating. Before you write that angry comment, let me clarify. The Scripture does talk about male/female relationships quite a bit. It draws clear boundaries around sexual behavior — not even a hint of sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3). The only appropriate context for sexual activity of any kind is marriage (Hebrews 13:4). The Bible is also quite clear that Christians are to marry only Christians (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14-18).

But the Bible never prescribes a certain way to find your mate — that wasn’t the concern of Scripture, since arranged marriages were the cultural model. Before you advocate returning to that model (and as a father of two daughters it does seem attractive to me at times), talk to a Christian woman from a strictly Muslim background and ask her if she favors arranged marriages. Every model has its drawbacks. My point is simply that the Bible does not provide a clear statement for us regarding dating vs. courtship vs. arranged marriages.

Dating does not always lead to immorality or emotional heartbreak. It is true that in our culture, dating is often accompanied by sexual immorality, deception, mindgames, and emotional devastation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to have lunch with a person without leading them on, sexually misusing them, or playing emotional games. Sin is not so much a consequence of a particular model of dating as it is of sinful people who hurt and misuse other people. Notice that the people in the article who are practicing courtship are still playing deceptive games — trying to show up at the right times in the right places, flirting, lurking, etc.

How can we avoid those outcomes when we date or court? I think there are a couple of ways. First,  young men and women should involve their parents in the dating process, if possible. I realize that not every parent is a wise one, and not every parent is even a Christian, but if you have godly Christian parents I’d encourage you to ask their feedback about your dating life. When my kids reach dating age (around 47 years old), I plan to meet their dates, help them set boundaries, and assist them in evaluating marriage prospects. If your parents are non-Christians or won’t give good input, seek wisdom from the Christian community: pastors, godly friends, mentors. Second, use the Scripture as a model. When I preach on dating, I use Proverbs 3:3 as a guideline: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.” Are your actions toward dating partners straightforward and truthful? Are they consistent with Scripture? Are they kind, seeking the best interest of the other party? If so, you’re probably doing alright.

Finally, I think the way many students are approaching dating right now is born out of fear rather than trust in the Lord. As I read the article in World, I got the impression that these students were crushed by pressure and fear. Particularly interesting was Brett Harris’s comment intending to defend guys who don’t initiate — these men are afraid of rejection so they simply avoid the risk.

Avoiding dating will certainly help you avoid certain kinds of pain, but it will lead to other kinds of pain. There is simply no way to avoid pain if you’re interacting with other people — we don’t seek it out, and we do all we can to keep from hurting others, but it happens. Learning how to deal with conflict, misunderstanding, and even rejection is a part of the sanctification process. We don’t want to be reckless, but relationships do require a degree of risk. No way around it. The upside is that risk can often pay off — I can’t tell you how glad I am that I risked asking out Shannon. And that she risked going out with me in the first place, even though she felt a bit uncertain whether I was really marriage material.

I do agree that the purpose of dating is ultimately to find a mate, but you can’t really know in our culture if a person is a suitable mate until you spend some time together. Especially in college, most people don’t live with their nuclear families. We don’t live in small towns where we’ve known the same people for 20 years. A different culture might require different models of dating than we saw in 19th century New England or 1st century Palestine. That’s not bad, as long as you follow the clear Scriptural commands about sexual morality and Christian marriage.

Bottom line: I think fear of mistakes and lack of trust in the Lord has led Christian college students to withdraw from developing healthy and godly relationships with the opposite sex. Men, I’d challenge you to take a few risks and go out on a few dates. Be clear with your intentions and above reproach with your actions, but don’t operate out of fear for your reputation or what everybody might think about you. And ladies, don’t be afraid to say yes, even he’s not your picture of the perfect mate. There might be more in there than meets the eye.

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How Christians Responded to Harold Camping — A Few Thoughts

By now everybody has (hopefully) come to terms with the fact that the Rapture did not occur last Saturday. The world is still turning, we Christians are still here, and Harold Camping and his followers are disillusioned and confused.

Most American evangelicals did not believe Camping’s predictions, although the majority do believe that Jesus will return one day. It’s not that May 21, 2011 was particularly unlikely to be the date of Christ’s return. It just wasn’t any more likely than any other day. As one commenter pointed out in response to my previous post, Matthew 24:36 clearly says that nobody knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return.

What was interesting to me, though, was the variety of responses from those Christians who did not align with Camping’s views on the end of the world.

Some responded with anger. One notable Christian leader tweeted that Camping should publicly repent for misleading his followers. Early on Saturday, he also expressed dismay that Camping had “embarrassed Christians.” I’m reading reports this afternoon that Camping plans to make a public statement — perhaps for the purpose of repenting. For some, stern rebuke is the best way to handle a man like Camping.

Some responded with cynicism. One popular blogger and Tweeter (under the handle JesusNeedsNewPR), wrote a thoughtful piece for the Washington Post last week about Camping and his followers. He explained that people like Camping can do a great deal of harm, even unintentionally, and that his followers should  not be mocked but pitied. He promised that he would not make wisecracks or jokes poking fun at Camping’s sect. However, on Saturday he issued several Tweets supposedly from heaven, as if the Rapture had occurred. He claimed he had learned that John Calvin was gay, that the Pope thought Martin Luther was a pervert, C.S. Lewis was asked to leave, and Gandhi is in heaven but in therapy. He avoided directly mocking Camping — but in the process came across as if he was mocking the very concept of heaven, the Rapture, and Christianity in general. Jesus Needs New P.R., indeed. For some this was an opportunity to give free reign to cynicism and mockery, to prove that nothing is sacred and everything is a joke.

Some responded with sadness and concern. This was my first reaction. I was sad for Camping’s followers who blew their life savings overnight because they believed him. I was sad for Christians everywhere who were being mocked and ridiculed because of one misguided man and his incorrect theories. And I was a bit sad, frankly, that the Rapture didn’t occur on Saturday. Don’t get me wrong — I never placed any stock in Camping’s date-setting. But still — if you are a Christian and some little part of you didn’t at least hope it might happen on Saturday, perhaps you’ve lost sight of hope. For that matter, I hope it happens today!

Finally, some responded by staying faithful and continuing to serve the Lord. Those with level heads and faithful hearts kept doing what they were already doing — sharing the Gospel, making disciples, and seeking to know the Lord. They woke up Sunday morning, like every morning, and kept living as if Jesus might come back today. They prayed for their friends, their church, their family, and even Harold Camping. They refused to get caught up in speculation, anger, or cynicism. They just kept trucking along, convinced that Jesus will come when the Father decides it’s time. Until then, they have a job to do and plan to keep doing it.

And those people — the faithful ones — those are the ones I want to be more like. What about you?

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Will May 21, 2011 Be Judgment Day?

If you’ve been following the news, you are probably aware that a group called Family Radio is predicting that the end of the world will be this Saturday, May 21. This isn’t the first time that a group like this has arisen — the world has a long history of religious groups setting a particular date for the end of the world and the return of Christ. One of the more interesting groups popped up near my hometown of Dallas in 1998. They moved to Garland, a nearby suburb, and began proclaiming that God would take them to heaven in flying saucers on March 31 of that year. No saucers materialized.

It’s always possible that the world will end on Saturday, although the biblical justification for this group’s belief system is quite thin. They are missing the simile in 2 Peter 3:8 — a day is like one thousand years. It’s not literally one thousand years. My guess is that Jesus is not going to come back this Saturday.

Many blog posts and articles have explained the damage this group might do to Christianity’s public image, and others have deconstructed their biblical arguments. In the midst of the discussion, though, I’ve decided to take the opportunity to reiterate some biblical truth that tends to be forgotten when groups like this emerge.

First, judgment day is coming for everybody. It might not be this weekend, but God has established a day in which He will judge the world through Jesus (Acts 17:30-31). The day is coming — we don’t know when, but it’s on the way. The Scripture calls us to trust in Jesus in order to escape the devastating judgment that is on its way (John 3:18). While we might discount Family Radio’s date-setting, the concept of final judgment is a biblical one.

Second, your judgment day could be closer than you think. I can say with confidence that one of the following things will happen in the next 100 years — either I will die, or Jesus will return. Either way, my moment (and yours) to be judged is coming relatively quickly. It could be very quickly, for all I know. In fact, for more than 100,000 people, judgment day will in fact be this Saturday.

Third, we are called to keep serving Jesus and proclaiming Him right up until the moment of our death, or His return. Several reports mention that followers of Family Radio have sold their homes, quit their jobs, and generally dropped out of life to await Judgment Day. There have been other groups throughout history who have taken the same approach. In fact, it’s quite possible that this is what was going on in the church of Thessalonica, which motivated Paul to tell them to keep working and to avoid idleness (2 Thess 3:6-12).

The appropriate response to the coming judgment is not idleness or withdrawal, but faithfulness and proclamation. The only way to be judged favorably — on that day or when we die — is to trust in Jesus. Those who know Him have a responsibility to keep proclaiming the truth, serving His people, and worshiping Him. That way when Judgment Day does arrive, God will find us hard at work fulfilling His purposes in the world.

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Life After College: What Now?

Congratulations to everybody who graduated this weekend! Finishing college is a major accomplishment — you should definitely take a day or two to rest and celebrate. You’ve earned it.

After that, what comes next? Some of you have jobs lined up, some are still looking. Some are married or getting married, others are still solidly single. Some are moving into new homes, others are moving back in with Mom and Dad. Whatever situation you find yourself in, here are a few words of friendly advice as you move into the “real world”:

Know your priorities. Decide now how you want to invest your life. If you want to spend your days knowing and proclaiming Christ, then arrange your life accordingly. Don’t take a job that requires so many hours that you have no time left for things that matter. Don’t marry a person who has radically different priorities than you do. And plan your schedule so that you can pray, read, serve, and proclaim the Gospel. If it means you have to go to bed at 9 PM in order to wake up at 5 AM and spend time with the Lord, then do it. Arrange your life according to your values.

Don’t fall into the trap of simply seeking a comfortable life. Aim instead for significance, for a life that promotes the kingdom of God.

Quickly find a good church. Get some recommendations, visit a few, and commit to one within 2-3 months of moving to a new town. (See my previous post about how to find a church after college). Don’t just attend on Sunday morning — get involved in service and community so you can continue to grow.

Watch your money. That seemingly enormous salary will feel a great deal smaller within a few months. A major temptation will be to outspend your income in order to quickly increase your standard of living. The resulting debt can limit your life choices down the road and create considerable strain on you and your family. If you are single, live well below your means in order to give (to the church and to missions) and to save for your future. If you are married, and both of you work, try to live on just one income. This keeps your options open if one of you loses a job, or if one of you decides later to stay home with the kids.

Never stop learning. Your formal education might be over, but in a broader sense your education is just beginning. Do not allow yourself to stagnate — keep learning about the Scripture. Read at least one or two books a month. Engage in discussions about important issues with friends and mentors.  Men and women of influence and impact are those who keep learning.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of principles, but just a few to start out.

Question: Any other advice you would give to a recent college graduate?

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Is Marriage Dying?

Movie star Cameron Diaz recently made a splash by insisting that marriage is a dying institution. Fox News then posted an article by psychiatrist Keith Ablow arguing that Diaz is correct. Ablow provided four reasons why he thinks Diaz is right and suggested that we need to find a “replacement” for traditional marriage. Like many attack articles, he  provides no constructive suggestions to go along with his assertions. His goal (and Diaz’s) is merely to deconstruct — let somebody else figure out how to move forward.

I would argue that none of his reasons for killing marriage actually amount to valid arguments for destroying the institution. Of course most married people he speaks with are unhappy in their marriages — the man is a psychiatrist! They wouldn’t be talking to him in the first place if nothing was wrong. It’s like a podiatrist who says we should replace feet because “everybody I run across has foot problems.” Silly.

Perhaps the solution is not to do away with marriage but to help people create better ones. Ephesians 5:21-33 discusses marriage as an amazing human reflection of Christ’s love. It only works if I am willing to pursue unselfishness and set aside my own desires in order to serve and love another person. It only works if I change my mindset from, “How can this person meet all of my needs?” to “How can I reflect Jesus by seeking to meet the needs of another?”

The power of marriage lies precisely in the very thing that makes it hard — it’s a lifetime commitment to a person who is imperfect and sinful. There’s no real power in loving somebody as long as I feel like it. God’s grace is shown when I love somebody unconditionally — even when I don’t like the person all the time.

I’m not worried that Cameron Diaz is going to kill marriage once and for all — it’s lasted for thousands of years and was instituted by God. Fiona from Shrek isn’t likely to destroy it, but maybe that’s just me. God is more powerful than the problems of marriage in our culture, and He is capable of creating strong and healthy marriages even in a society that denigrates it.

Questions for you: If you are unmarried, do you still see the value of marriage? Why do you hope to get married, even in a culture that devalues it?

If you are married, why do you stay that way? Is it simply convenience, or because you really love your spouse, or something else?

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Why Your College Major Doesn’t Matter (Much)

It’s not uncommon for college freshmen (and sophomores and juniors, for that matter) to be stressed about their choice of major. Some stress comes from the belief that one’s major will lock a person in to a particular career for a lifetime. Stress can also come from parents who insist that a student should major in nuclear engineering when she really wants to pursue psychology.

I recently ran across a short article from the New York Times suggesting that one’s choice of college major makes little difference in employability, earning potential, or even career choice. My own experience seems to anecdotally confirm that article’s conclusions.

I was a mechanical engineering major in college, but by the time I was a sophomore I knew I didn’t want pursue a career in engineering. I finished the program, though, since changing majors would have cost me valuable time. I decided it was better to finish in four years with an engineering degree than in five years with a communications degree. Most seminaries didn’t really care about my major too much, anyway.

My younger brother was a psychology major; now he’s a software developer.

None of my three college roommates are now working in their field of study.

Most of us change careers several times, and many never even take a job in their chosen field of study. Studies show that employers are much more concerned with your communication skills, experience, and GPA then they are with your major. There are some fields, engineering for example, where a related major gives you a distinct hiring advantage. But even in those fields your major is not always a deal-killer.

So is a college education a waste of time? Is there any importance to your classes and your choices about your major?

What do you gain from your time in college, and how does your major make a difference?

College teaches you to study and to think analytically. Regardless of your major, your classes teach you to find information and to critically evaluate it. These are essential skills in any highly skilled job, whether you’re an engineer, architect, or English teacher.

College reveals your work ethic. This is why many employers value your grades above your major choice. You don’t have to be the smartest one in the class to get a decent GPA — you just have to work harder than most people. In fact, GPA is strongly correlated to future earning potential, to a much greater degree than SAT scores or college major choices. I’d rather employ a hard worker with a modest intellect than a brainiac who spends his days playing Halo 17.

College provides a chance to explore what you enjoy and what you excel at doing. The reason many students change their major repeatedly is because they are trying to discern their strengths and weaknesses and their loves and hates. (Of course some switch because they’re hoping for an easier road — see the point above in that case). That process of learning often continues after college. Few people are in the exact same career at 50 as they were at 25, especially in this day and age of rapid technological change.

So what to do? Choose a major that you enjoy and that might lead to a job where you can use your gifts and abilities in God’s service (Colossians 3:23). Choose a career path in which you can heartily and joyfully work for the Lord’s glory. And don’t worry to much about “the rest of your life” right now — most people in their 30s and 40s don’t even know what they will be doing for the rest of their lives. Prayerfully and faithfully pursue the path God has for you now, and trust Him to lead you each step of the way.

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Justice, Mercy, and Osama bin Laden

In the past few days, Christians have discussed and debated (mostly on Twitter and Facebook) our proper response to the death of Osama bin Laden. Should we rejoice that an evil man is dead or should we grieve the destruction of a fellow human being? Should we support the actions of our government in bringing about his destruction, or should we caution against vengeance and violence, even if that violence was provoked?

Just a few thoughts:

Wicked men and women deserve punishment, and God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; Ps 73:18-20). You don’t have to read the Bible for long before you recognize a clear pattern — God will decisively judge the wicked. If they are not judged now, then they will be judged in eternity. It is appropriate to rejoice that justice has been done (Psalm 58:10-11). Justice ultimately means freedom from the effects of wickedness and sin — those who would deny the ultimate destruction of the wicked also unwittingly deny the final salvation of the righteous.

The death of bin Laden provides a limited but real sense of justice for the thousands of people who lost friends and family members, or who were permanently damaged physically or psychologically through his violence.

Governments are established, in part, as God’s (imperfect) agents of justice (Romans 13:3-4). At their best, human governments act as enforcers of God’s will to punish evil-doers and reward righteous people. However, governments are established and run by people, so they are always imperfect. As hard as it is to believe, it’s possible that my own government could make a mistake in its execution of justice. Just because God uses one nation to punish another does not mean that the avenging nation is more righteous — otherwise He never would have used Babylon to judge Judah!

However, the justice effected by human governments will never be enough. We await a final and decisive judgment (Revelation 19-22). The justice brought about through human means may temporarily appease our need for justice, but will not fully satisfy it. For that reason, human justice can even make us grieve because it reminds us of how much remains to be done. How many really believe that the death of bin Laden constitutes decisive judgment on all acts of terrorism and violence?

Finally, God does not delight in the death of the wicked, so neither should we (Ezekiel 33:11). Even as we rejoice in the accomplishment of limited justice, we recognize that a tragedy has occurred. A man made in God’s image found himself in a position worthy of severe and deadly judgment. It would have been better, much better, had he turned to Jesus and found eternal life. So yes, we grieve at the death of Osama bin Laden even as we rejoice that he will do no more harm. We grieve because apart from Jesus, millions more will spend eternity separated from God.

And we pray that we can be vessels of God’s mercy, to extend His grace to the next potential Osama bin Laden before justice has to be served.

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Demons, Drugs and Disorders

I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed counselor.

However, that does not stop people from asking my advice on a variety of emotional, spiritual, and even psychiatric problems. Many people seek help from a pastor before they go to a professional counselor or psychologist, partly for spiritual reasons and partly for financial reasons. So we pastors often find ourselves trying to sort out personal problems and provide sound input. We also face the challenge of whether a person’s problem needs to be referred to a professional counselor or not.

I did take one counseling class in seminary, I’ve read a few books, and I’ve talked to enough psychologists to know that there are a few major schools of thought on how to deal with psychological and psychiatric issues:

Some hold that problems are essentially spiritual. On the extreme end of this view are those who hold that every case of distress is directly the result of demonic influence. If a person is angry, cast out the demon of anger. If she is anxious, cast out the demon of anxiety.

Many, however, hold a more moderate view that most or all problems are spiritual and therefore require spiritual solutions. Scripture meditation, obedience, prayer, and other disciplines ought to be the primary (if not the only) responses to psychological issues.

Some hold that most problems are physical. If a person is anxious or fearful or delusional or angry, they are experiencing the effects of a chemical imbalance or a brain malfunction or even a blood sugar malady. The solutions are therefore physical — medication, exercise, sleep, etc.

Some hold that problems are primarily mental or emotional. These people hold that distress is due to one’s personal background, or traumatic events, or wrong patterns of thinking. The solutions, therefore, are counseling and behavioral modification.

So where do I, as a pastor, stand on the question? Are psychological and psychiatric issues primarily spiritual, mental, or physical?

Yes, they are.

There are sound biblical reasons for believing that our problems do not fit into neat categories, because of the complicated relationships between our mind and body and spirit.

Separation of body and spirit is not natural (2 Corinthians 5:1-4) — it happens when we die, but our ultimate hope is to be resurrected and re-embodied. Our body and our spirit are intertwined to the point that it is impossible to tell when one begins and another ends.

Consequently, spiritual and emotional problems often have physical causes. Conversely, physical problems often have emotional and spiritual causes.

Demons are real and they are capable of inflicting physical and emotional distress (Mark 5:1-13; Mt 12:22). On the other hand, we are capable of creating sin and pain in our own lives without the help of demons, because we have a sin nature (Romans 7:7-25).

It is often extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the physical, emotional, and spiritual causes of a psychological problem.

So what can we do? We can investigate all three. Many times I begin with spiritual issues — is the person a Christian, are there patterns of sin in his life, is he consistently walking with Christ? For example, anxiety is first and foremost a sin problem — a person is failing to exercise trust in God. In some cases Scripture meditation and prayer eliminates or significantly reduces the problem.

I also explore physical issues — is she eating, sleeping, and exercising? Is she using prescription or recreational drugs? If necessary I refer the person to a physician for further evaluation. I’ve actually seen one or two people who seemed to have serious psychiatric disorders — delusions, hallucinations, and other problems — who turned out to be experiencing strong side effects from prescription drugs. I’ve also known people who go willingly to these rehab centers but secretly cheat the system and continue using.They do this because the truth about the Whizzinator is that it works and it is rather easy to use. It can be hard to find the people that are hiding from themselves.

And finally, I explore psychiatric and psychological issues. Frankly, these areas are not my expertise — is a person suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder or a severe anxiety disorder? Often it becomes apparent that this person needs to talk with a professional counselor in addition to a pastor and a doctor.

What’s my point? Human beings are incredibly complex creatures, made in God’s image. Unfortunately, the image has been marred by sin and there are a variety of ways that problems can start and manifest themselves. As a pastor (and as friends and family members), the best way to help is to try to evaluate all options before jumping to a conclusion. And if necessary, seek help.

Questions for you: Do you tend to look at psychological issues as primarily spiritual, physical, mental, or emotional? Do you basically agree with my conclusions or not?

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