Navigating the Four Critical Seasons of Relationship
The vast majority of young people will still pass through the key phases of singleness, dating, engagement and marriage in their twenties. Yet they are delaying marriage longer than any generation in human history. Why?
For the first time in history, the average age for an American woman having her first child, 26, is younger than the average age of her first marriage, 27. More children than ever are growing up in fatherless homes, despite the overwhelming evidence that in every measurable way this is bad for the child. The Center for Disease Control also recently reported a dramatic rise in sexually transmitted disease nationwide. In Rhode Island alone, since the onset of online dating, reported cases of Syphilis has risen 79%, and HIV has increased by 33%. Though many young people can avoid early pregnancy and STDs, most cannot dodge the depression and feelings of isolation that characterize this modern generation. Studies show a dramatic rise in self-reported loneliness among the young. All of our technological connectivity has not made us feel more connected. In many ways, the very screens that are meant to link us to others have become shields blocking us from the deep intimacy we crave. Many have discovered that where there is a lack of intimacy,addiction often rises to take its place. How can a young person navigate such troubled waters? Is there hope out there?
Like a sailor on turbulent seas, we need to look up and see the North Star: the fixed points in the sky whereby we might navigate the objective realities in life. We need the skill-set to know how to journey through life and how to select the right people to journey alongside. In this book we will chart a course through the four relational phases that the vast majority of human beings on the planet will pass through in their twenties: singleness, dating, engaged and married. In each of these phases, we will look at what eternal purposes should be pursued in each stage, and how to pursue them.
Our desires for intimacy are powerful. This power can be constructive or destructive. Our satisfaction and our safety will be ensured if we can aim these powerful desires toward divine purposes.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
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About the Author
Ben Stuart is the pastor of Passion City Church, Washington D.C. Prior to joining Passion City Church, Ben served for eleven years as the executive director of Breakaway Ministries, a weekly Bible study attended by thousands of college students on the campus of Texas A&M. Ben earned his master’s degree in historical theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Ben and his wife, Donna, live to inspire and equip people to walk with God for a lifetime.
Read an Excerpt
god, guys, & girls
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
— 1 John 4:7
Several years ago a friend of mine went scuba diving in the Caribbean with some friends and family. They did one of those crazy-unsafe deals where you get an hour or so crash course on all things scuba, then swim out into the ocean. Before the dive she was paired up with a middle-aged man. They were to be scuba buddies — able to function independently, both had their scuba masks and oxygen tanks, but paired up to enjoy the adventure together and to provide support should something go wrong.
As long as they both had their scuba tanks on, air flowing, they were a real source of life for each other — enjoying the wonders of the ocean together. But then something went wrong with his gear. Oxygen ceased flowing. Panic set in. They knew the emergency protocol — a series of hand gestures, sharing of oxygen, then a slow, calm ascent to the boat above. But as soon as he realized he could not breathe, all of that went out the window. He quickly grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her and trying to yell. She tried to understand what he was doing but none of this looked like the emergency drill they had just learned! As she tried to calm him down, he suddenly yanked her aspirator out of her mouth. Desperation set in. Where there is scarcity, there's desperation. And where there is desperation, there is exploitation. As he struggled for air, he began to push her head down, almost as though he was trying to climb her like a ladder to safety. Of course, what he was actually doing was drowning her. In return she struggled violently with him in order to get the aspirator back and take a breath. Then, in a final act of desperation, he grabbed her and swam full speed toward the surface. In doing so, he forgot to pause and adjust the pressure, so when they arrived at the top they both got decompression sickness, also known as "the bends." They survived but, needless to say, they are no longer swimming buddies, or any kind of buddies for that matter.
The same principle holds true in all of life. When you have a source of life, you are a source of life. But where there is scarcity, desperation will set in. And desperation can easily become exploitation of others. If you are disconnected from a source of life, your "oxygen tank," then you will attempt to suck life out of someone else. You will be tempted to use people to try to get your sense of self validated. You will, in a moment, become a sucker of life rather than a giver of life. And this is how toxic relationships are born. This is why so many go wrong. When we bring God-sized needs to human beings, they cannot possibly succeed. Nor can we offer them unconditional love on the days they are struggling, because they are our source! If it feels like I am painting this in too dark of colors, let me show it to you in the "innocent" way I discovered it in me. When I was in college I yearned for a relationship with a woman. But I remember when I heard someone talk about how husbands sacrifice their wants and desires for the sake of their wives. This person spoke about how Jesus Christ had sacrificed his very life for the sake of his bride, the church. All of this sounded so heroic. I wanted to be a hero like that, so it seemed good to me. But then he talked about how sex is not the using of a person to meet your needs. The same logic applies. What a wife will need in sexually intimate moments will probably not look at all like what a young guy in his twenties imagines, particularly if he has grown up looking at porn. It was here that my selfishness was exposed. I had always imagined that sex was about gratifying me. I had thought about that aspect of a relationship purely in selfish, self-gratifying terms. I realized that there wasn't much love in my imagery of sex. From there I began to see how in many of my imaginings about romance and marriage, I envisioned me doing things that would make my wife, or others, think that I was heroic, impressive, caring, or otherwise amazing. The endgame was about me. It was an attempt to fill up my ego. I remember weeping thinking about how much selfishness had shot through every aspect of my imagination as it related to romance. I had to take a break from even thinking about a relationship with a girl. I realized I would be looking to her to make me feel as though I was somebody special. Sure, wives should make a husband feel that way, but if I bring a God-sized need for love and acceptance to any girl, no matter how impressive she is, she can't meet a need like that.
We must get a relationship with God right before we will ever get a relationship with a guy or a girl right.
As we look at the Bible, there are certainly a number of sections that address romance, sex, and marriage. We watch the first couple meet in the book of Genesis. We have the romantic songs of Solomon. We have the wise counsel concerning love in the Proverbs. The first letter to the Corinthians addresses single life. Ephesians and Colossians both contain beautiful descriptions of godly marriages. Yet if you were to add up all of these they would constitute only a small sliver of the content of the Word of God. The vast majority of the Scriptures cover the importance of a relationship with God. For some young singles I have visited with, this fact can seem hard to imagine. Dating is the largest issue in their view. What possibly could take precedence over finding the love of your life? I admit, when the desire to date is as close to you as your nose, it looks all-consumingly large. Yet if you can back up from the desire to date for a moment, you will see that there is a greater story playing out in history than the story of romantic love. Your relationship with a guy or a girl, though important, is not the most critical relationship in your life, and it is not the relationship that God is the most concerned with.
In chapter 4 of the gospel of John, when Jesus sat down with the woman at the well, he struck up a conversation with her about thirst and water. Then, in the context of this conversation about thirst, he said to her, "You have had five husbands and the man you are living with now is not your husband." He also said to her, "If you knew who it was speaking to you, you would have asked me, and I would give you living water." What Jesus was saying to this woman was, "You have been looking for satisfaction for a deep soul thirst in the arms of men and you cannot find it there. You have misdiagnosed your need." Many of us have done the same.
Before you seek a guy or a girl, you need to get on board with God. Before you marry a mate, you need to meet your Maker, because it's in the stability of walking with him that we have the resources to be a blessing to one another. We have to be connected to a source of life if we are going to be a source of life.
In 1 John 4, as John was talking to us about love, he said, "Beloved, let us love one another" (v. 7). He then moved on to give his readers motivation for why they should care for others. But in a fascinating twist, he did not motivate with a threat of punishment or a promise of reward! He did not say, "Love, or else God will be really mad at you!" There is no threat. He also did not say, "Love, because then you'll be blessed with great wealth." There is no future reward in view in the verse. So how did he motivate them? He did not point forward, but backward! He said, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). He did not point downstream to a promise or threat. He pointed upstream. Love! Why, John? Because love flows down to you from God. And when you know him, it is the most natural thing in the world to let that love flow from him, to you, and on to others. When you know you are "beloved," it is easy to love others. When you have an inexhaustible resource of love, it is easy to be a source of love for others.
Do you want to be a great lover of people? Do you want to be a source of life to your family, friends, anyone who you might date, and the person you will eventually marry? Then you need a source of life. This is how it was always meant to be. The beloved love. Love embraced becomes love extended. It is the natural outworking of being loved by God.
Some of you may say, "How do I feel loved by God? I want to feel loved. How do I feel it?" Let me declare a simple principle: our affection burns off the fuel of truth. If we want to feel loved, then we must begin with knowing that we truly are loved.
So let's take this out of the spiritual world for a moment. How do you know that you are loved by anyone? You can't see love. You can't hold it. What have you got there? "A little cup of love." It doesn't work that way. So how do you know love is truly present in a relationship? You might say to me, "Ben, love is like the wind. You cannot see it, but you feel its effects." And you would be right!
Though love is invisible, it is not imperceptible. Think about your favorite novels or movies. When a writer or director wants to show you that love exists between two characters, what is written into the story? I would submit to you there are three primary ways they show us that love is present.
First, love sends. It cannot sit still. Love moves. Love expresses itself in action. You know that love is present because the lover initiates. In the movie The Princess Bride the beautiful Princess Buttercup declares to her captors, "I know my Westley will come for me." How does she know? Because what they shared was "true love." The princess understood that the lover always moves to be with the beloved! Love initiates. Love sparks up conversations. Love breaks into song. Love writes poetry. Love sends letters. Buys flowers. Crosses oceans. I promise you, you will never see a young man after suddenly realizing he loves a young woman return to playing a video game. He will rise from that couch and move. Why? Because love initiates.
Second, love sacrifices. Love gives all for the sake of the beloved. Jack will freeze to death in the icy waters of the Atlantic in order to save Rose from the sinking Titanic. In Frozen, Anna will throw herself in front of Hans's falling sword in order to save her sister Elsa. Bruno Mars declares that he would catch an explosive device you. Why does he sing that? Because he knows that we know that true love will sacrifice itself for the beloved.
Third, love stays. Love delights in the presence of the beloved. And love will stay, even when the staying is hard. We declare this in our wedding vows: "I promise to love you for better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health." Why do we say this? Because we understand that true love willingly commits to stay with the beloved, even if life gets really complicated. This is why in the movie The Notebook, Noah stays long hours at the nursing home to read to Allie even though she has Alzheimer's disease and can't remember who he is. In 50 First Dates Adam Sandler's character will continue to romance Drew Barrymore's character every day, even though her short-term memory loss means she forgets him every morning and he must start all over again. True love stays even when it is hard. True love stays when everyone else walks out.
Love sends. Love sacrifices. Love stays. Movies and novels will continue to illustrate these attributes of love because we all know that when we see these activities, love is present.
You may be wondering, What does any of this have to do with whether or not I feel loved by God?
Don't miss this part.
In 1 John 4:9 John told us, "In this the love of God was made manifest among us." The word manifest means "brought into the light." John declared that when we saw something, it suddenly revealed to us that we were loved by God. What was it?
"... that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him." (1 John 4:9)
God did not send a note. A song. A list of to-dos. He sent his best. He sent his Son. You do not get better. You do not get a more precious emissary. There was no greater person God could have sent.
And notice when God did this the distinction John made: "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us" (1 John 4:10). God did not wait until we were worthy before he sought us out. He didn't wait until we were organized, sanitized, religious, moral, or good. He came while we were "far off," "enemies," "not seeking," "not interested," and "hostile." How do you know you are loved by God? Because "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The historic appearance of Jesus Christ in the world is exhibit A of God's love for you.
Not only did he come for us, he sacrificed for us. John explained that God "loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). The word propitiation carries the imagery of the temple in the Old Testament. An innocent lamb was sacrificed in order to cover the guilt of the people. Here John declared that Jesus' death on the cross fulfilled that Old Testament picture.
In my conversations with people from all manner of backgrounds and experiences, I've found most sense that they are not what they should be. Even the least religious people I have met sense within that there is something wrong with them. They feel a weight. A guilt. The question then becomes, "How do I feel okay? How do I feel right with the universe? With God? With myself?" John declared that Jesus took on our guilt, absorbed our shortcomings, and paid for them. He resolved them. He opened up the way for us to have peace with God. God's love propelled him to sacrifice whatever it took so that we could be fully who we were meant to be under God. Many people wonder what they need to do to feel okay. Here John declared that Jesus has done it for us. The weight of your guilt and shame does not need to sink you into the grave. Jesus took your guilt and shame and mine to the grave for us, and conquered it because that's what love does.
In my early twenties I had a roommate who was meticulous with his finances. He kept every receipt. He monitored his spending patterns with detailed spreadsheets. Honestly, I had never seen anything like it for someone under forty. Around that same time he fell in love with a young woman, and the prospect of marriage stood in the not-too-distant future. There was only one problem: through irresponsible spending habits in college, she had racked up a mountain of credit card debt. I could tell that shame threatened to extinguish all the thrill of potential engagement for her. How could I bring such a burden into a relationship? How could I ask someone to take on the responsibility of paying all this debt that is the direct result of the poor decisions I made? She also had a difficult family situation. Like, we-will-need-to-hire-security-at-the-wedding difficult. To her it seemed like far too much to ask for someone to take on. I watched my roommate count the cost: it would devastate his credit score. It would take years to repay.0 It would require navigating complicated family matters, potentially for the rest of their lives. But then I watched him consider this woman. And I remember watching him make the decision: I want to be with her. And if I have to pay a steep cost — I will gladly pay it. He never held it over her head or reminded her of it either. He just stood at that altar beaming on the day of their wedding. Gladly paying the cost to be with his beloved. Because that is what love does. Love sacrifices.
How do you know you are loved by God? Jesus Christ left heaven. Abandoned the prestige. Relinquished all comforts. Lived the life of a poor man. Took the form of a servant. And then sacrificed his life so that we could be forgiven, made clean, and brought into the family of God. Jesus himself declared, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). And that is exactly what he did! There is no more he could give.
In 2016 Sally Monsoor christened the largest, most sophisticated destroyer in the United States Navy. The 610-foot, 15,000-ton vessel was named the USS Monsoor, in honor of her son, Michael. Ten years prior, Michael Monsoor's Navy SEAL Team was tasked with rooting out enemy fighters from Ramadi, Iraq. While in a sniper position with two other SEALs, a grenade was suddenly lobbed into their midst. Without hesitation, Michael leapt upon the grenade, absorbing the blast and, in doing so, saving his teammates. When President Bush posthumously presented him the Medal of Honor, a teammate said during the speech, "Mikey looked death in the face that day and said, 'You cannot take my brothers. I will go in their stead.'" This is why the United States government presented him with the highest honor, and the navy wants to sail on a ship emblazoned with his name. Because he paid the ultimate sacrifice. And he did it out of love.
Excerpted from "Single. Dating. Engage. Married."
Copyright © 2017 Ben Stuart.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
first things first,
1 // god, guys, & girls, 3,
2 // the purpose of singleness, 19,
3 // a singleness case study // the apostle paul, 41,
4 // who to date, 57,
5 // how to date, 84,
6 // sex, 113,
7 // a dating case study // isaac receives rebekah, 131,
8 // how to know that you know, 153,
9 // becoming one, 170,
10 // an engagement case study // solomon + the shulammite, 184,
11 // marriage as a picture, 203,
12 // marriage as a pursuit: a case study // priscilla + aquila, 224,