Few things occupy the hearts and minds of modern young people more than dating relationships. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend strokes a lot of core needs. First, it strokes the need for significance. You can almost hear the cry for validation when you hear a teenage person say, “You’ll never guess who I dated this summer …” You feel secure, belonging, and in the “in crowd” when you have someone.

Romantic relationships also stroke a need for pleasure. It is highly thrilling and enjoyable to be romantically attracted. Few things arouse such strong feelings and emotions—hence the endless songs, books, and movies dedicated to the subject.

However, most modern reasons for dating are hopelessly misguided. Every one of the things I listed above is designed to put another person in a place that God needs to occupy in order for that person to really be fulfilled. In short, most modern dating is dressed up idolatry.  After the initial thrill is gone, it usually leads to needless drama, confusion, bitterness, and pain.

The purpose of dating

This is not to say I’m totally opposed to dating. Dating has its place, but the only legitimate reason to date is to ultimately find the person God has for you in marriage, when that time is right. All the rest of the reasons (socialization, experience, fun, or whatever) are misguided, and lead to more trouble and heartache than they are worth.

So I have four countercultural pieces of advice for young people as they date:

First, if you aren’t prepared to marry, don’t invest yourself in dating. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you have to know in advance you will marry the person, but you should be at the stage of life where marriage is a valid option. Otherwise, the relationship will, by definition, stop at some point, and one or both of you will end up hurt and confused.

Second, only date someone who is first your proven friend. This is contrary to the modern ritual where the boy looks across the dance floor or the bar at an attractive girl and makes his move. All he knows is that he’s physically attracted to the girl. The fact is that modern dating rituals prepare young people to have sex, not to be married. In a marriage, long after much of the erotic love has passed, you are still in relationship. If that relationship was first grounded in friendship and unconditional love, it can remain. If it was primarily rooted in physical attraction, the house will come crumbling down. And many do.

Third, don’t date someone who does not share your faith, priorities, and values. Some people seem to treat the “unequally yoked” principle as a rule without understanding the heart of it. They know we’re not supposed to date non-Christians, but they don’t appear to know why. Therefore, they try to find exception clauses when they are attracted to a non-believer. Simply put, a lover who doesn’t share your first love will always distract you from God. Even if her motives are sincere, you will find yourself compromising your faith for her, and you will increasingly worship God in name only. Therefore, when searching for a friend and companion, don’t look for a woman who gazes first upon men. Look for a woman who gazes first upon God, and you will be on the right course.

Avoiding sexual immorality

Finally, commit to purity. First Thessalonians 4:3-4 says, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.” During your lifetime, you will encounter a lot of encouragement and opportunities to violate this commitment to honor. You will be told that sex between two consenting people in a loving relationship is okay. You will be told that there is no way we can expect young people to wait for sex until they are married. You will be told that you need to “test drive a car” before you buy it. You may even be told that you are a loser if you don’t “make it” with a girl, and preferably with lots of them.

In this day and age, it takes no particular skill to sleep around. What does take particular skill is to be men of honor and integrity, who treat women honorably.

To many, marriage is simply a piece of paper, or a ceremony and big party to be shared with family and friends. To them, having sex beforehand is inconsequential. To the Christ-follower, marriage is a covenant where God stops looking at you both as individuals and, in a sense, starts looking at you and your wife as one. It is sexual union that consummates and celebrates this oneness. Therefore, how you treat each other beforehand sets the stage for how you will treat each other long after the ceremony has faded.

The modern world is obsessed with sex, but also treats sex, and sexual partners, as trivial. Even in “loving, committed, relationships,” people use each other to get their needs met until their relationships aren’t committed anymore. People think so lowly of themselves that they give themselves to strangers. People think so lowly of others that they take advantage of them for their own gratification. Sex is our greatest cultural idolatry. We pursue it to meet our significance, security, and pleasure needs, but we end up empty, dissatisfied, and self-loathing.

You are called to be higher men than that. You are children of the King—royalty, adopted by God. Your bodies are temples of the Spirit, to be treated with integrity and honor. Similarly, you are called to treat your sister and friend in Christ with integrity and honor. You are not called to use her just to meet your needs. You are called to elevate her and lift her up as one who is precious and valued.

Sexual purity is not just about following rules. It’s not enough just to say “no sex outside of marriage.” Following rules won’t take you very far. The only true path to purity is to see that purity is nobler, more honorable, and more joyous than impurity. Purity leaves you without regrets, without having to face the morning after, and without images that return to your thoughts and invade your marriage bed.

As backward as purity may be treated in our culture, like all of God’s commands, it will leave you with lasting joy and peace. Purity will save you from a great deal of grief.

I hope you never do, but someday you may find yourself in a place where you feel like the world is going to end if you don’t find that someone special. You may feel that everything is passing you by and God needs to hurry up and meet your needs. Some of my angriest moments at God came when I felt he wasn’t providing a partner fast enough.

Don’t be in a hurry. Keep your priorities straight, and everything will come in time. In my journeys, I’ve heard many Christian women lament that there aren’t any “good men” out there. Prove that they are wrong. Be patient, be deliberate, and be men of character. God will meet all your needs and desires in a time that He knows is ultimately best for you.

Adapted by permission from Letters to Our Next Generation, by Lane Cohee. Copyright 2011 by Lane Cohee.