We were eating lunch at the Corner Bakery when my friend asked, "Did you hear about Wes and Jenna?"
"No," I answered as I poked at my salad. They were two singles from our church who had recently become a "couple." "What's the news?"
"They decided to end their courtship," he said.
I halted a bite midway to my mouth.
"Are you serious? Who broke it off?"
"I guess it was mutual," he said with a shrug. "They felt that God was leading them out of it."
"Bummer," I said.
Wes and Jenna were good friends. I thought that they'd make a perfect match and that engagement was imminent.
"It's just too bad when courtships fail," I said wistfully.
"Yeah," my friend agreed.
I was about to continue my melancholy remarks when it dawned on me how wrongheaded my thinking was. What was I saying? Wes and Jenna's courtship hadn't failed. Its purpose had been to find an answer to the question of whether they should get married, and evidently God had shown them that the answer was no. Just because that wasn't the answer I preferred didn't make the courtship a failure.
"Let me revise that last statement," I said.
"How's that?" my friend asked.
"I should have said that 'It's just too bad when courtships don't turn out the way I want them to.'" Well aware of my bad habit of matchmaking, he smiled and winked knowingly.
"A toast," I said as I raised my glass of Coke in the air. "To our good friends Wes and Jenna at the conclusion of their successful courtship."
What's your definition of a successful courtship? It's an important question to answer before you set out on the adventure of seeking God's will for marriage. Often we act as if the only successful courtships are those that culminate in a sparkling diamond ring and the words "Marry me!" But careful examination reveals how limited and foolish this idea is.
Think about it. Engagement isn't necessarily a good thing. Today many couples base their decision to become engaged solely on emotions or temporary passion instead of on reality and wisdom. Can a courtship that leads to an unwise union be considered a success? No! Or what about a couple who gets engaged after having had a courtship that was rife with selfishness, sexual sin, and manipulation? Successful? I don't think so. We can hope that their marriage will be better, but it's impossible to call this kind of courtship a success.
Growing and guarding
It's clear that we need to refine our definition of success in courtship. Getting engaged should not be our overriding goal. What should be?
I believe that in a God-glorifying, wisdom-guided courtship we have two central priorities. The first is to treat each other with holiness and sincerity; the second is to make an informed and wise decision about marriage.
In courtship our goals should be to grow and guard. We want to grow closer so we can truly know each other's character, but we also want to guard each other's hearts because the outcome of our relationship is still unknown.
At the beginning of a courtship a man and woman don't know if they should get married. They need to get to know each other, observe each other's character, and find out how they relate as a couple. This is what it means to grow closer. But the fact that the future is unknown should also motivate them to treat each other with the kind of integrity that will allow them to look back on their courtship without regret, regardless of the outcome.
Second Corinthians 1:12 sums up what every Christian couple should be able to say at the end of a courtship:
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God's grace.
Instead of making engagement the finish line of courtship, our goal should be to treat each other in a godly manner, make the right choice about marriage, and have a clear conscience about our actions.
My friend Leonard, a single man in his thirties, was disappointed when Rita broke off their courtship. But because he had acted appropriately towards her, he had the peace that comes with clear conscience.
"Sure my pride was hurt," Leonard says. "I asked myself 'Why?' and 'What went wrong?' many times. But I consider our courtship a success because I was able to walk away from it praising God that I had served and honored my sister. I treated her with the respect a child of God deserves. To the best of my ability, my motives, thoughts, words, and actions were in the right place."
Maintaining the priorities of growing and guarding make courtship something of a balancing act. You have the clear purpose to consider marriage, but you also need to fight the urge to assume that you're going to get married.
It reminds me of a high-wire circus act. Have you ever watched a performer traverse a wire a hundred feet in the air? If you have, you know that the secret to their safety is the balancing pole they carry. Holding it horizontally with both hands keeps the performer from losing balance and falling off the wire.
You could say that in courtship we're walking across the high wire stretched between friendship and marriage. The two priorities of growing and guarding are like the two ends of our balancing pole. We need to hold our pole in the middle for success. If we're too guarded, we won't move forward in the relationship; if we grow close too fast, we risk emotional injury or unwise choices later on.
There's a tension you want to maintain. Just remember that it's a good tension. If God leads you into marriage, you won't need to guard your hearts—you'll belong to each other completely. And believe me, you'll cherish the memories of your courtship walk across the high wire as an exciting, one-of-a-kind time in your relationship.
I'll never forget Valentine's Day during my courtship with Shannon. How wonderfully awkward it was! On the holiday for lovers, I wasn't sure how to address her. She was my friend, but then we were more than friends. So we were more than friends, but not quite lovers. I felt like I was back in seventh grade agonizing over the meaning of the words on valentines!
In a card I spent hours writing I asked, "How do you guard a girl's heart while attempting to tell her how special she is? Can you give her a rose as you thank her for her friendship?"
My questions captured the healthy tension of courtship. Can you give her a rose as you thank her for her friendship? It sounds funny, but I think you can. It's part of the process of letting romance blossom slowly under the watchful eye of prudence and self-control. You're more than friends, so you can determine whether you should join your lives in marriage, but you're also less than lovers—your hearts and bodies don't yet belong to each other.
Enjoy it. Don't rush. Don't despise or hurry the in-between time of courtship, even though you often feel the tension. Instead, treasure the season. Balancing the need to grow and guard during courtship is a necessary and fulfilling part of making the journey towards marriage wisely and with holiness and sincerity.
Adapted from Boy Meets Girl © 2000 by Joshua Harris. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.
FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.