From DesiringGod.org.

Is dating in high school harmful? Here is today’s email question.

“Hi, Pastor John, my name is Josh, and I’m a high school student. I desire to date. Most people who I value as close friends and God loving people say that it’s mostly pointless and dumb to date in high school. Yet many strong and godly couples I know who have been married for many years met and dated in high school! So, is dating in high school foolish but occasionally fruitful? Or is it potentially a good place to find a strong and godly spouse? What would you say about dating in high school for today’s teens?”

Before I say anything about dating in high school today, let me say a couple of things about the older generations that he may be talking about. Once upon a time, young people married much more commonly at age seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, or even earlier in some cultures. My parents were nineteen and eighteen when they married.

There was a time when the cultural expectations and the cultural supports were in place, partly to prepare young people to marry that early and partly to provide the structures and help after they got married. That’s not as true today in America as it once was. That’s the first thing.

The second thing I want to say about the older generation (my generation perhaps) is that many parents today who did marry quite early would still counsel young people today not to pair off in dating relationships during high school. In other words, it doesn’t follow that because godly people you know married early, that dating early is a good idea. That needs to be decided on other grounds. Whether you see dating at age fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen as wise will depend partly on your view of sexual relations, partly on your view of the meaning of dating, and partly on your view of the relative maturity of teenagers. I think the Bible settles the question of sexual relations for us clearly — namely, sexual relations are for marriage.

The Proper Place for Sex

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:2, “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” In other words, sexual relations are for the marriage covenant, not for the engaged couple and not for casual dating relationships.

That view will, of course, set a Christian young person wonderfully and wildly apart from the view that is pervasive in culture and in media — namely, that it is perfectly acceptable to have sex outside marriage with one provision: that it be consensual. That’s not what the Bible teaches, and it’s not what God’s design for man and woman is. It will bear tragic fruit in your life.

The Thrill of Being Liked

There is something else to know about sexuality, and we know it from experience. We know it from history. Namely, one of the most powerful forces in human life is the awakening of a peculiar happiness and desire that comes from being liked by a person of the opposite sex. I have watched otherwise strong, wise, and seemingly mature Christian young people completely lose their moral bearings when they find out that they are liked — that they are attractive to an unbeliever. It’s as if every switch on the mainframe of their moral life gets turned off while one massive desire button is alive and well. “I want, want, want to be with this person who likes me so much.”

It’s a frightening power to watch because of how blinding it is to wisdom, Scripture, and Christ, and how it has such long-term implications. It’s a kind of moral insanity (I feel sometimes). This is true for people in their twenties and thirties and forties. I don’t assume that teenagers are any more equipped than these folks in their maturity and life experience to encounter that kind of power and risk.

What Is Dating?

The question needs to be asked: “What is dating? What’s it for?” I assume what Josh is asking about is young men and women in their teenage years like fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen years old doing things together one on one because they especially like each other. So that’s the meaning of dating I’m assuming he has.

As soon as they have done a few things together — homework, ball game, went out to eat — and since they’ve done a few things together for that reason, the feeling arises that there should be a little bit of specialness in the relationship. A specialness that implies he doesn’t do this with a lot of other girls, and she doesn’t do this with a lot of other boys.

In other words, pretty quickly people who are doing things together because they like each other are going to feel some sense of proprietary action here, some possessiveness, a kind of desire for some special focus or qualified commitment, not marriage, not engagement, but something else. We’ve invented words for that. My generation said, “going steady.”

Now that seems to imply something that to me is absolutely natural. I mean, that sequence is almost inevitable. Such relationships seem perfectly natural and good. That’s how relationships move from acquaintance to dating to engagement to marriage. It’s normal, not evil. That’s more or less the way our culture does it.

What Then?

The question becomes, “Is it wise for a sixteen-year-old to step into that river that flows towards marriage?” My answer is no, I don’t think it is wise. I’m going to make an exception here. I can imagine an exceptional situation in our culture where two young people are extraordinarily mature and spiritual and marriage is planned for age eighteen — right after high school.

That would be, it seems to me, a remarkable exception that proves the wisdom of the rule — namely, that the maturity level of teenagers is not great enough to make such massive decisions. Marriage at the early age of eighteen can create enormous burdens on the couple that they may not be ready for — namely, schooling, vocation, childbearing, childrearing. The principle, it seems to me, that wisdom calls for is to postpone dating to the point where there is a significant measure of spiritual maturity and life experience and a readiness to move toward marriage.

What I think that implies for high school is that young people should be encouraged to do things in groups that include both young men and young women, but that they hold back from pairing off. I would encourage Josh and other teenagers who might be listening that if they don’t see the wisdom in this, you should listen carefully to your parents and follow their counsel.

Falling in Love

Falling in love is one of the greatest experiences in the world. I was just rereading a letter I wrote to Noël from seminary three months before we were married. Good night, I had forgotten how massively I loved her in a powerfully sexual and romantic way. It is a beautiful thing.

It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love. What makes it so great is that God has blessed it with an appointed and thrilling consummation called marriage. If you turn that process into a high school pastime with revolving relationships, you are robbing yourself of the very best you can have.

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