I’ve been preaching through the Song of Solomon at the church where I pastor and through this work, my faith is being strengthened in the character of our wonderful God.
In my study, a key phrase for grasping the message of the whole book, as it turns out, is from Song of Songs 2:7, which says, in effect, “do not awaken love before its time.”
In the Song of Songs, this intriguing saying of the Shulamite woman precedes a situation in which she tells her Shepherd-King and husband-to-be to come back later–that the timing of his request (“come away with me, my love, my beautiful one!) isn’t quite right! He’s ready, and she’s not.
I can’t think of any more helpful counsel than this for young people who are pursuing dating relationships today. As I’ve both seen and experienced it, nothing is more frustrating and even heartbreaking bout the dating process than this matter of what appears to be “wrong timing.”
You know what this is like: “She’s interested in me; I’m not into her”; and a month later, I’m interested in her, but she’s not interested in me.”
In this essay, I want to sketch out seven thoughts regarding the “problem” of imperfect timing and the tension it can create in dating. My hope is to offer some encouragement to those who desire to honor God with this aspect of their lives, something that’s increasingly difficult in an age and in a generation where it seems like “anything goes.”
1. Maturity in Dating. I think the big factor of whether someone is ready to date relates to this notion of “imperfect timing.” So many young people today are very immature when it comes to waiting for anything at all. I think maturity in waiting comes from the experience of suffering; since there is no sense of suffering, there is very little progress made in the area of waiting and embracing the pain of some difficult situation.
So, if you want to know the answer to the question, “How do I know when I’m ready to date?” then ask yourself, “Am I emotionally and spiritually mature for the dating “scene” in which suffering and heartbreak are inevitable? You will have to wait, often ignorant or unaware of all the factors at work, and this will create suffering.
“Why didn’t she text me back?” “Where did he go the other day?” “I thought we were going to spend this afternoon together? Why do we have to be with your family?” “How come you can’t pick me up like we talked about?”
Can’t you see and hear the selfishness and pride just below the surface of these questions? The questions obviously aren’t wrong per se, but they reveal an immaturity that needs to ripen and season before it is put to the test of exploring a romantic connection with another human being.
2. Serious Dating. Another question related to dating is this: how do I know when “dating” becomes, or should become, serious? Our society’s commitment to biblical standards in this area is rapidly disappearing. We live in a “do whatever you want” culture when it comes to love, dating, sex, and marriage. But getting “serious” in dating directly flows out of this caution by the Shulamite in Song 2:7. “Do not awaken love before its time.”
There is a time to be serious in dating. And there is a time to just have “fun.” By “fun” I don’t mean the typical worldly party and sex scene, but more the picture of “fun” of hanging out with friends, getting to know lots of people, and not being weighed down too soon with an exclusive relationship that demands “time” and “commitment” that you may not be in a position to give it.
3. Sex in Dating. A third area that the Shulamite’s caution comes into play, and it relates to “serious relationships” is the question of “sex in dating.” But to orient ourselves, first a few thoughts about marriage.
One reason marriage is increasingly being attacked in the mainstream media as being prehistoric—or even superimposed upon the Homo Sapien species–is this matter of monogamy. The thinking goes like this: humans were never meant to be monogamous anyway—mono-gamy: One Spouse. One Sexual Partner.
Likewise, movies and television and reality TV and cable and the internet all seem to celebrate sex as de-linked from the covenant of marriage. But it isn’t just sex that’s de-linked. Its physical contact, its conversations (by text, by SnapChat, by Facebook, by IMs, by phone, by letter, by email; in the morning, afternoon, at midnight—all hours of the day by any conceivable media)–as I said, nothing, it seems, is “off limits.”
Modesty if it exists at all is strictly limited to the physical, and often we can’t even find it there.
Which brings me back to dating. Intimacy, it seems to me, is more and more encouraged at a younger age. What was an innocent “peck” on the cheek by a boy to a girl, in a different generation, in our generation seems to almost mean something totally different. So when it comes to actually “hooking up” and going on a date, there aren’t any rules whatsoever. “No rules, just right” as the motto of Outback Steakhouse used to be. Or Sprite, “obey your thirst.”
How different the message is here of the Shulamite woman: she is restrained; she is cautious. There is a time for sex between her and her Shepherd-king, but that time isn’t yet. She knows what we seem to have forgotten: once you’ve crossed the barrier or boundary of sex in a dating relationship, you can’t really go back. And try as you might to demystify sex as simply an “animal urge” it isn’t, and you’ll pay the piper sooner or later.
God made it for a purpose, and though I’m not Catholic, that purpose is more sacramental than experimental.
4. Idolatry of Marriage. Another area where the Shulamite’s caution comes into play is the issue of making an idol out of marriage. You know the situation: Susie (or Sam; male or female doesn’t matter in this example) wants to get married, and wishes she would have been married by now, but she isn’t. She’s 25, 30, 35, 40, or older, and feels that God has let her down. She’s been on dates before, but none have worked out for lots of different reasons. Heck, one time, she showed up late (talk about imperfect timing!). She feels her life is just slipping away.
I agree that marriage is serious. It should not be entered into (as the ceremony says) “unadvisedly” but “soberly” and “reverently” and “in the fear of God.”
But the struggle with God’s timing in waiting for the right one to marry is one of the tension between what seems to be imperfect timing on God’s part and discontent on your part.
Something akin to the “grass is always greener” principle, unmarried people must remember that there are great benefits to being unmarried, many hardships avoided, many pains (timing related and otherwise) which you are spared. Key to learning contentment in such a situation is seeing God’s hand in all your circumstances, and as the Scriptures say, “Rejoice always. I will say it again: rejoice.”
5. Postponing marriage. I also think that young unmarried persons, especially, ie, teenagers and those in college, should recognize a significant negative cultural force that exists in our world: postponing marriage too long into the future. A woman’s prime years for bearing children are her late teens and twenties. That’s not to say it is right to get married at eighteen, nor that it is wrong to wait till you’re in your thirties. But in general, the reasons that women and men are waiting to get married these days are not good: college debt, pursuing a “career” and “experiencing the world” are not biblical reasons by themselves.
6. A Positive View of Abstinence. Another way that the caution of the Shulamite to “not awaken love before its time” relates to waiting and the dating game is an image problem we have today regarding sex and marriage. Evangelical Christians have a bad reputation, perhaps somewhat deserved, of seeing sex strictly in a negative light. But notice she says “don’t awaken love yet,” not “do not awaken love ever.”
The thing that “imperfect timing” reveals here is what I’m calling a positive view of abstinence. In other words, we teach people who are dating to save sex till marriage because it is so good, not because it is bad.
Sigmund Freud, a twentieth century psychologist, became famous in part by hypothesizing that all stages of child development can be reduced to some aspect of the sexual impulse. Freud himself was a troubled man, and even secular scientists today have major issues with his proposals, but he at least had this right: we are sexual creatures. Here’s what he didn’t get: your sex, and sexuality, is not added on at some point in your development; nor is it merely a culturally (or evolutionary or biologically or environmentally) conditioned adaptation to the stress of life.
On the contrary, it is essential to your being made in the image of God.
Freud was perhaps overreacting to an earlier generation’s viewpoint which treated sex as if it were something dirty, unmentionable, or even non-essential to our humanity. But if he overreacted, by moving too close to the edge of the cliff, our generation seems to be headed at top speed right over the cliff.
But while the devil always wants to push our views to extremes, God deals with sex and love and marriage with genuine honesty and openness. First and foremost, the Song of Songs “is a love song describing with frankness and yet with purity” (thank you Ray Steadman) the delight of a man and his wife in one another’s bodies.
But the willingness for the woman to wait is not “repression” as Freud might say, but a positive view of what the full symbolism of sex really is!
This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Song, and one that, it seems to me, is often misunderstood. Many believe that the Song contains explicit images of the human anatomy and of sexual acts that make it inappropriate for “General Audiences.”
But the idea that the Song is obscene is silly; in fact, it is the opposite of obscene: it is poetry that is intentionally ambiguous, or veiled. In a word, it is modest.
This relates to the positive view of sex that I’m talking about. By abstaining, and encouraging modest dress, conversations, habits, and interactions between persons who are (or who might be) dating, we’re not being repressive. We’re helping them keep things festive, celebratory, reverent, and ultimately beautiful.
7. Defining Dating. Finally, the last implication for dating that I see in the Shulamite’s warning, “Do not awaken love before its time” relates to your definition of dating.
Today’s definition of dating is one that is fraught with problems. Evangelical Christians, as a fairly minority sub culture, talk about courtship vs. dating, arguing which is which. Usually the more conservative folks make a case for courtship, and the lines are drawn like that: if you’re really committed to the Bible, you’ll be a fan of courtship.
As I see it, there are points to be made on either side, but I don’t think there is a “rule” that can be applied to all young people in every case. After all, as far as biblical models for courtship, its pretty likely that my son isn’t going to wait for the first woman to ask him if he needs to water his animals, and then promptly ask that woman’s father if he can marry her.
But this one thing is for certain: whether you follow courtship or dating, doing so outside of the covenant community is not only dangerous, I believe it is sinful. The purpose of dating is to get to know the kind of person you would marry, and no Christian should entertain any combination of human virtues in another person that does not include the cornerstone of faith in Jesus Christ.