Editor's Note: Names have been changed to protect anonymity
Last year, one of the world's largest online dating sites released results of a survey they took of 5,200 singles. Said to be the most comprehensive poll of its type ever taken, the survey of 21- to 65-year-olds (and older) reported that (i):
• 72% of singles would live with someone in the future without marrying.
• 36% of singles are open to a casual "hook-up" in the near future, and 54% reported they have had a one-night stand.
• 76% of single men and 77% of women ages 21–34 were no longer virgins.
The results plainly portray the challenging cultural terrain today's Christian singles navigate when dating. Carolyn was one such sojourner. Hurting and confused, she called me on "Hope in the Night" a few months ago, explaining that she was involved with a man who was in the "process of getting a divorce." In other words, she was dating a married man.
As our conversation progressed, it became clear that Carolyn, like so many Christian singles, didn't understand the true meaning of love. In fact, her concept was completely backward.
While the English language has only one word for love, the Greek language features multiple words with multiple meanings (ii). Understanding what love truly means is critical in order to enjoy a healthy, Christ-centered dating relationship. Let's look more closely at three types of love expressed in the Greek language.
1) Eros is passionate, romantic love, but it can also represent the feeling of strong emotion without a romantic focus. Eros within marriage is designed by God for physical and emotional pleasure. Eros within a dating relationship is designed to be morally pure and without passionate lust. You can have passion for a person without passionate lust, aware that physical purity is necessary for spiritual purity.
2) Phileo is affectionate love, brotherly love, and mutual enjoyment. Phileo is true friendship—the love of "liking." When Jesus wept following the death of His dear friend Lazarus, the onlookers remarked, "See how he loved (phileo) him!" (John 11:36). It can also refer to love for another that is as deep as the love for oneself. For example, I Samuel 18:1 says, "After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself."
3) Agape is unselfish love, unconditional love—a commitment to seek the best and highest good for another person, regardless of any response. Agape love originates with God. First John 4:10–11 says, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Here's the problem. Most dating starts with eros. In fact, many couples never move beyond this phase. Those who do move past "romantic" love typically move to phileo, the affectionate love of genuinely liking. This route, however, rarely leads to agape—unconditional love that seeks what is in the best interest of the other person—because it's hijacked along the way by selfishness, lust, or any number of other relational roadblocks.
The eros-phileo-agape progression of most dating relationships is not only ineffective . . . it's unbiblical. All relationships, dating and otherwise, should begin with a love that seeks the highest good for the other person . . . agape love.
God's plan for dating relationships is just the opposite, progressing from the inside out—from agape love to phileo and then, possibly, to eros. Following this "inside out" progression helps keep a couple from being consumed by erotic emotion.
Carolyn and I talked at length that night about the real meaning of love and the need to back out of her bond with her boyfriend. I readily acknowledged that taking this difficult route would be painful. But, in reality, Carolyn would face pain either way—whether she left the relationship or didn't. Only by departing, however, could she later experience God's lasting inner peace and position herself for His guidance in relationships that would be healthy and pleasing in His sight.
If a country were populated solely with America's single adults, it would be the world's 14th largest nation (iii). This explains why we all have "Carolyns" in our lives—single friends and family members looking for love, but in all the wrong places. To minister to this great need, it's important to:
• Hold fast to Biblical standards. Though we no longer live in a society where purity is revered—and, in fact, is often mocked, especially for "consenting adults"—we must proclaim Scriptural principles, regardless of their popularity.
• Model lives of authentic love, sexual purity, and integrity. Loving "from the inside out" is something God calls all of His children to do—not just those who are in dating relationships. Opportunities to practice this kind of love present themselves daily in each of our lives…in our homes, churches, workplaces and with our clients.
• Help the singles in your world embrace the hope that they, too, can begin "loving well"—despite their past. Our culture overflows with hurting people who have "blown it" in the areas of dating and purity. It's easy to for them to lose hope and feel like damaged goods. We have the extraordinary privilege of reminding them that, "with God, all things are possible" . . . including a fresh, new beginning of "dating with Christ at the center."
Single years are the ideal time to focus on becoming the person God intends you to be. For many, this journey will someday end in marriage. For others, it will not. But, when done God's way, dating will help singles grow in Christ-like character—confident the Lord will meet all their needs "according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (iv).
Learn more about June and Hope for the Heart by visiting hopefortheheart.org/CP. Here you can connect with June on Facebook and Twitter, listen to her radio broadcasts, or find much-needed resources.
ii. For this section see Diane Eble, The Campus Life Guide to Dating (Grand Rapids: CampusLife, 1990), 105–10.
iv. Philippians 4:19