The Three Stages of Committing to a Community

 “People enter community to be happy. They stay when they find happiness comes in making other people happy.” — Jean Vanier

One of the hardest, yet most important, tasks of your 20s is finding and joining the right communities. Whether it’s at school, church, or just a group of friends, choosing and committing healthy communities will make or break your life. Too often young people either join the wrong communities or give up on the right ones too soon, leading to unnecessary hurt, bitterness or scars.

That’s why it’s important to understand the three main steps to joining a community; if you’re unaware of this process, you’ll likely bounce around from community to community, frustrated that you can’t find the perfect one for you. 

stage 1: the idealization phase: you’ve found your dream community!

The first stage of joining a community is the idealization phase. After bouncing around and trying different communities, you finally stumble across your dream one. You’ve finally found the friend group, workplace, or church community that gets who you are and the kind of person you want to become.

These people are like you but even better, and exactly the kind of person you imagined spending your twenties around. They wear similar clothes, enjoy the same activities, and are passionate about the same causes as you are. You can’t believe you’ve finally find the perfect community!

During this phase, you find yourself saying phrases to yourself like:

  • I never thought I’d find a community like this!

  • I’ve finally found a group of people who get me! 

  • These people are incredible; they care about all the things I do and more!

  • With these people in my life, I’m going to be able to live the dream life I always imagined.

Life in this new community is great, and you can’t wait to see what the future holds for and your new friends!

stage 2: the disintegration phase: your bubble is burst

Many young people join a community expecting stage 1 to last forever. But it doesn’t. It’s actually just the honeymoon phase, when everything feels perfect and you haven’t had any fights, yet. This honeymoon phase of community will last from a few months to a few years, but eventually it will give way to stage 2 of community life, the disintegration phase.

This happens because during the idealization phase, you were so enamored with your new community’s strengths, you assume that just because you couldn’t see any weaknesses, they must not exist. But given enough time, every community will start to show weaknesses and flaws.

Why does this always happen? Because every community is broken, since it’s made up of broken people. And as you spend more time around them, you’ll become more aware of the community’s brokenness. Eventually, someone will do something that hurts you or someone you care about. Whether that’s an insensitive comment, a harmful action, or a decision you disagree with, you’ll find yourself at odds with your once ‘perfect’ community. 

“It’s not supposed to be like this!” is the common phrase of this stage. Many young people are shocked by this stage. They thought this community was the utopia they were looking for, and now, after having observed or experienced its shortcomings, they feel hurt and betrayed by the community, especially by the leaders. 

The initial sheen of the community is long gone, and now you feel tired, disappointed, and let down, by part or all of your community. They aren’t meeting your needs to the degree you expected, and you begin to wonder: did I choose the wrong community? During stage 1 you saw everyone as saints, but now they all look like demons.

At this point, many young people leave the community, hurt, angry, and feeling burned. “I must have joined the wrong community!” they assume, and restart their quest for the ‘perfect’ one. And so the cycle repeats itself over and over: idealization and disintegration, until they eventually give up, either disengaging from community as a whole, or only joining ones so large (like a megachurch) that they never have meaningful contact with others.

stage 3: the commitment phase: staying when things get hard

But if you ever want to have a healthy community life, you have to fight through the urge to leave during stage 2, and enter into stage 3: committing to a group of people, despite its imperfections and flaws.

David Brooks defines a commitment as “making a promise to something without expecting a reward.” This is crucial. It’s so easy to view community transactionally, always asking, “What will this community give me?” But commitment only happens with you move from thinking transactional approach to a servant-hearted mindset: how can I serve this community?

This switch in how you approach your community will only happen, though, when you begin to realize: 

This community is broken not just in spite of me, but rather because of me. 

You’re not all of the problem, of course, but you’re part of it for sure. And if you keep jumping from community to community in search of the perfect one, you’ll always be disappointed, because you’ll never be able to escape your own flaws and weaknesses that you contribute to every group. At some point, you have to commit to a community. Not because it’s perfect and not because it will give you your dream life, but rather because this is the place where God wants you to work through your own junk. 

If you just stay in a community to fix other people, though, it won’t change. Why? Because you can only change yourself, and if everyone’s busy pointing out the other person’s flaws, no one will ever think they need to change, and so nothing will happen. The only way to see a community grow is not by pointing out other people’s flaws, but by coming alongside each other in weakness and grace as you encourage each other towards healthier behavior.

can I ever leave a community? 

You’re probably wondering at this point: then can I ever leave a community? Of course. While it’s good to commit to your communities, there are times when it’s wise to move on. A few of these times are:

Toxic communities: while every community has problems, toxic communities are ones where their problems affect and degrade everyone’s lives to such a degree nothing healthy can grow. It’s often better to let these communities die on their own accord, rather than getting sucked into the mess. 

Hardened hearts: while every community has problems, be careful in the ones where the leadership or key members won’t admit that something’s wrong, much less do anything to change it. Leaders with hardened hearts will deny that any problem exists, and will usually insist that the only problem is you, for having the nerve to bring up the issue. While you shouldn’t flippantly move on, sometimes communities are not ready to change in ways they need to. 

God’s leading: Sometimes God will lead you to be a part of a difficult or even dangerous community and make it a part of your call to serve him there. But if you feel no leading or call from God to serve in that way, it may be wise to reevaluate if this is a good place for you to invest. 


God uses communities to bring people of different backgrounds and giftings together to serve him and work through their sin. While it’s okay to explore different communities in order to find where God would have you live and serve, be careful that you don’t get caught in a never-ending cycle between community idealization and disintegration, always looking for a utopia on earth. God wants you to find a community and commit and invest in it, and promises to bless you and grow you through the difficult yet joyful work of living life together. 

The Unwritten Rule of Choosing Community

While everybody wants their life to go well, many young people don’t know how to make sure that happens. You focus on going to the right college, landing a great job, and moving to a fun city, but none of those things are as important as the community you choose to be a part of.

It’s easy to obsess over the ‘big’ choices in your twenties, but then forget that the people you live with, work with, and hang out with are the ones who will influence your life the most. Because of that, you need to learn this unwritten rule of community:

You create your community, and then your community creates you.

You need to take responsibility for choosing the right community, because these are the people who will create the person you become, either for good or bad.

the effects of this rule

When I moved to New York City, I didn’t fully understand this. Sure, I knew not to hang out with the wrong crowd, but I didn’t realize how important it was to create the right crowd. That’ s the key. You can’t be passive when it comes to making friends. 

I was, so I ended up hanging out with whomever was around or reached out to me. While this isn’t always bad, being passive means you just have to take what you can get, rather than reaching out to the more quality people who are often not in as much of a need for friends. 

Because I just hung out with whomever was around, I ended up in a community that didn’t value many of the things that I did. I wasn’t too worried at first, since I thought I could hold my own. If anyone was going to be doing the influencing, it would be me towards them. 

But that’s not how humans work. Individuals almost never change groups. You’ll always adapt yourself to fit in and become like the people around you. You can’t NOT do it. 

Every community is its own microculture, with unique views about money, sex, work, time, alcohol, and God. And as approval-seeking beings, we all tend to adapt to our peers in order to be accepted and keep the peace. Because of that, how your friends, roommates, and coworkers live and what they choose to value will rub off on you.

To put it simply: you’re friends values will always become your values. Not explicitly, and not all at once, but it will happen. No one will ever directly tell you to change, they’ll just subtly goad you to go along. Eventually the subtle comments and gentle teasing will wear you down:

  • Quit being such a bore; live a little!

  • It’ll be okay if you skip once; it’ll still be there next week.

  • It’s just one more round; everybody else is staying. 

You might be able to resist these for a while, but eventually you’ll get tired of holding out and you’ll adjust your behavior until you fit in. 

The Apostle Paul says we shouldn’t be surprised by this. He writes, “Do not be misled, bad company corrupts good character.” Who you spend your time around, and who you allow into your inner circle will influence your thoughts, values, and behaviors, on everything from Christianity to money to alcohol to your general outlook on life. This is how it always works, no matter how strong or independent you think you are. 

After a year in my new community, I realized I was different, and not in a good way. I’d never decided to change, but among my new friends I’d drifted: I was drinking more alcohol, living above my means, and has let my relationship with God dry up. 

how to create a healthy community

It was then I knew, I needed to find a new group, one that likewise would influence me, but towards healthy and holy behavior. Then, instead of passively accepting whomever was available for friends, I was more proactive in creating community, by asking myself:

Who do I want to be like? 

As I asked myself that question, knowing that the community I created was going to change me for better or for worse, I set out to find a community that: 

  • Prioritized following Jesus: healthy communities don’t just go to church, but prioritize their relationship with Jesus and following him, even over things like work, comfort, and having fun. 

  • Could solve conflict, show grace, and work through problems: every community will have friction points, but the ones you want to be a part of are able to work through their problems and continue, or even strengthen, the relationships before they turn into major rifts.

  • Were generally emotional health: healthy communities are able to weather the ups and downs of life in healthy ways, rather than responding in unhealthy or destructive ways.

  • Showed wisdom: healthy communities possess an age-appropriate amount of wisdom, and generally make mature and responsible decisions about their lives. People don’t make decisions impulsively, but ask for advice and come to a wise choice. 

On the flip side, I knew I wanted to stay away from communities that:

  • Were full of drama: some communities are in constant petty conflicts, which damages friendships and makes it hard to grow relationally.

  • Fixate on superficialities: some communities only engage on superficial topics, things like TV, gossip, or complaining about coworkers. This kind of culture will only cause you to stagnate.

  • Lacked financial discipline: some communities have a culture where many or most of the members are living beyond their means, which will cause you to do the same in an attempt to keep up.

  • Drink excessively: some communities take a good thing like alcohol and make it the main thing, drinking too often and too much. Most bad things in your twenties can be traced back to excessive drinking, so be careful who you spend your weekends with. 

  • Little or no interest in God: lots of communities may consider themselves Christian or even go to church, but they aren’t interested and pursuing Jesus and become more like him. 

Creating healthy community took time, effort, and patience, but it’s been so worth it in the years since. I’m now around people who are helping grow and improve in every area of life. No matter where you’re at today, whether it’s in a healthy community, toxic community, or no community at all, work towards creating the kind of community that will help you grow into the person you want to become.

You Are Now Dead To Us: The Story of Silvanus Bhandari

This essay was written for the Southern Baptist 2019 Pastors Convention in conjunction with Shades Mountain Baptist Church, about Silvanus Bhandari, a pastor in Queens, NY originally from Nepal.

Silvanus Bhandari climbed through the rugged mountains of eastern Nepal, making his way to his home village for Dashain, the largest Hindu festival and national festival in Nepal. The 19-year-old was coming home not to celebrate, though, but to do the unthinkable: to tell his family he’d become a Christian. As he stepped into his village, he braced himself for the coming storm, reminding himself, “No matter what my family does to me, they can never take away my heavenly reward.” 

Silvanus grew up in a remote Nepali village, raised by his grandmother after being abandoned by his parents. His grandmother taught him the Hindu rituals, and as Silvanus learned to read at school, they bonded over his ability to read her the sacred Hindu texts. 

His belief in Hinduism was shaken at age nine, though, when his great-grandmother died. His family gathered to mourn. “Where’s Great-Grandma?” he asked, wondering what came after death. If she had good karma, they said, she’d reincarnate into one of the 8.4 million lives she needed to pass through. But if she had bad karma, she’d become a demon spirit. “Don’t worry, Great-Grandma’s a bird, now,” his family assured him, an answer that didn’t satisfy his questions. 

At 13, Silvanus moved in with his aunt and uncle in a nearby city to continue his schooling. However, his uncle enslaved him in his restaurant, forcing Silvanus into hard labor. Every morning, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. and work until 11 p.m., when he’d try to study before falling asleep. He tried to study before falling asleep, using a textbook he’d bought with some leftover rupees. 

The worst part wasn’t the work; it was his uncle. His uncle repeatedly tortured, physically beat, and verbally abused his nephew, even in front of customers. The abuse continued for years, until it finally pushed Silvanus to a breaking point. One night, tired and broken down, he wrote a vengeful letter to his uncle and in the morning set out for the jungle, prepared to kill himself. 

As he walked through the jungle, his still unanswered questions around death kept coming back. What really happened when you died? Will I become a bird? He spent the day in the jungle, unable to end his life, and quietly returned to his uncle’s that night. 

His difficulties continued until one day a local teacher saw Silvanus at the restaurant. After hearing about his self-education, the teacher secured him a spot in the local school and dormitory. Silvanus was ecstatic. He was finally free from his uncle and pursuing education.

Life in the dormitory changed Silvanus forever. One day after lunch, while wiping down the tables, he came across a tract titled, “Aanadit Jeevanko Baato,” or “The Way for Joyful Life.” He recognized the Christian cross and picked it up. If you wrote to the organization in Kathmandu, the tract promised, you’d receive a correspondence course about Jesus, and upon completion get your own Bible. Intrigued, Silvanus wrote. 

When he received the course, the material captivated him. He learned about the Gospel, our sin, and need for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Silvanus was shocked; if this was true, it meant he didn’t have to become a bird. Several months later, two men visited, delivered him a certificate of his correspondence, and invited Silvanus to church for the first time. On April 25th, 1992, Silvanus gave his life to Christ. His life, however, didn’t get any easier. In fact, it was then the real trouble began.

When his uncle found out about Silvanus’ new faith, he confronted his nephew. “If Christianity is true,” his uncle shouted, “then prove that Jesus was God!” “I can’t do that,” Silvanus responded, “you have to believe.” His uncle scoffed at him, spat in his face, and destroyed Silvanus’ prized Bible. 

Prompted by Jesus’ command to love his enemies, Silvanus knew he needed to tell his family about his faith. As he approached his family’s home, his father, mother, and two siblings waited outside, tipped off by his uncle about their son’s conversion to Christianity. The night was chaotic, with his father growing more and more angry at his now-Christian son. “You are lower than a jogi,” he yelled, the name for homeless beggars who occupied the lowest caste in Nepal. 

Through it all, his family had one message for him: “You are now dead to us, and we are dead to you.” The next morning word shot through the village, “Silvanus is a Christian!” Not only that, but the lie was spread that he’d been eating beef, an unforgivable offense in Hindu culture. Silvanus was shunned, which in rural Nepal meant no one could receive anything he’d touched or allow him into their home. Silvanus’ parents allowed him to stay with them, but he left a few days later, hated by every family member. 

As Silvanus climbed away from the village, he looked down the mountain and prayed for the family and friends who hated him. “Lord, would you open my family’s eyes to the truth; may they come to know Jesus.” Silvanus was alone at that moment, except for God and his promises: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.” 

Silvanus soon became an evangelist, visiting villages and sharing the Gospel with Hindu youth, hoping to help others receive the new life he had found. As the years went by, he occasionally saw his parents, even though they maintained a fierce hatred of Christianity. 

When civil war ripped through Nepal in the late 1990s, Silvanus’ father joined the communist rebels, assuming a leadership role in their militia. As the war dragged on, the government sought to arrest and execute his father for his role in bombing a government building. When his father fled, the government warned anyone who assisted him, they’d also be executed. Afraid of this threat, the family refused to let him stay with them, and Silvanus’ father had nowhere to go. 

Silvanus’ father reached out to his Christian son, who welcomed his rebel father despite the grave danger he brought into his home. Silvanus’ father lived with him for three months, seeing his son pray, read the Bible, and worship God. His views on Christianity remained unchanged, though; Jesus was just another failed political rebel, and Christianity was merely an American power-play used to manipulate people in developing countries. “If the communist rebels ever gain control of Nepal,” he subtly threatened his son as they parted ways, “Christians might meet an untimely end.” 

Six years later, in 2007, Silvanus’ uncle and father attended his wedding to an Indian missionary serving in Biratnagar. It was the first time they’d experienced the kingdom life of a Christian community. A road had been washed out, and both men and women, young and old, worked together to rebuild it. Silvanus’ father was amazed. “This is the kind of society I’ve been looking for,” he remarked. “But it’s not from the government, but the people?” “We’re doing this,” they told him, “because we’re Christians.” 

In 2009, Silvanus’ father visited him again and saw the church his son planted. “Where are you getting the money for this church?” he asked Silvanus, sure that it was from America. “We’re raising it ourselves,” Silvanus answered, “through the offering each week.” Again, his father was stunned. 

By 2013, Silvanus’ grandmother, who had raised him, lay on her deathbed, writhing in pain during what doctors said were her final hours. With the family gathered, Silvanus invited his church to come to his uncle’s house and pray for healing. After a day of fervent prayer, her pain disappeared and she rebounded. “It’s a miracle!” Silvanus’ family exclaimed, astonished at her reversal. When his father saw the change, he came to Silvanus alone and asked a shocking question, “Could you get me a Bible?” 

Silvanus left Nepal to move to New York, to plant a church among the Nepali in Queens. Before he left, he had one final talk with his dad. “Every knee is going to bow to Jesus,” Silvanus told his dad, “The only choice you get is whether you do it voluntarily in this life, or are forced to on Judgment Day.” Nothing changed in his father’s life, though, on that day on in the years following. 

But, on April 25, 2015, exactly 23 years after Silvanus came to Christ, the unexpected happened. An 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, flattening villages and killing almost 10,000 people. While Silvanus’ family all survived, he flew home to help them rebuild. A second quake hit the day Silvanus arrived, and the next morning his father came to him privately, “Silvanus, I would like to follow Jesus Christ.” 

Silvanus couldn’t believe his ears. “Are you sure?” he asked, wary his father’s decision might not be genuine. “Yes, I’m sure.” Silvanus was amazed. “Then you need to tell mom in front of the family.” When Silvanus’ father told his family the news, they were shocked, but as they talked about the Gospel and Christianity together, they decided to give their lives to Christ as well. 

There was great joy that day as Silvanus, the persecuted son, led his father and family in receiving Jesus. God’s kingdom broke through a lifetime of hurt, rejection, and brokenness, working new life in previously hardened hearts. “You said we were no longer family,” Silvanus told his family, beaming, “but now we are an eternal family!” 

How Do You Answer the Question: "Who am I?"

How do you answer the question: “Who am I?” It’s a simple question, but one that’s surprisingly difficult, since it forces you to ask yourself: where do I get my identity. It’s easy to go through life never consciously answering this question, yet at the same time, allowing your search for an identity to drive every area of your life.

This question, “Who am I?” causes each of us to stop and consider what we’re actually finding our identity. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian, says that there are three main answers that we give to this question.

1. I am what I do

This first answer to the “Who am I?” question revolves around your work and accomplishments in life. For most young people, their career and work is their number one source of identity; that’s one reason we so quickly ask each other, “What do you do?” And whether you’re a lawyer, teacher, or stay at home mom, it’s so easy to use what you do to define who you are as a person.

The problem with answering “Who am I?” with what you do, is that you’ll be basing your identity on something that will fluctuate wildly. When you get the job or promotion or achievement you’ll feel great. But when you have the inevitable career setbacks, disappointments, and days where you don’t get much done, your self-worth will evaporate, causing you to question whether you have any value at all. On top of that, eventually you’re going to grow old, retire, and lose your ability to accomplish tasks. How will you define your life then?

2. I am what other people say about me.

The second way you can answer the “Who am I?” question is by basing your identity on other people’s opinions about you. Whether it’s how many likes you get on a post, who wants to date you, or how respected you are in your friend group, it’s so easy to base your identity on what other people say about you.

When you do this, you’ll be happy whenever people approve, encourage, and like you, but the moment you’re criticized, questioned, or disliked, your sense of self-worth will crumble, especially if it’s from a key person in your life. This will happen, because you’ll always have critics and won’t be able to make everyone like you. You’ll always have someone, whether it’s a coworker, “friend,” or an ex who doesn’t approve of you, which will cause lingering doubts about who you are.

3. I am what I have

The third way to answer the “Who am I?” question is by referring to your possession, both tangible and intangible. You may find your identity in your social class, ethnic background, relationship status, education, looks, clothes, or any other material possessions. You look to these markers to show others who you are and how much value you have.

When you base your identity on having all of the ‘right’ things, you may be happy for part of life, but eventually, one or more of them will slip away, whether through change, loss, or ultimately death. This will cause your self-worth to plummet, depending on the importance of the loss, and leave you feeling worthless and helpless in a life you can’t control.

The impact on life

All three of these areas, what you do, what people think of you, and what you have are all naturally good. But when you take them and make them your identity you’ll never find lasting peace. You’ll always be on emotional rollercoaster, trying to maintain some sense of value.

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll recognize how much of your life goes towards securing identity through these three ways. Nouwen says we devote our lives to being “more, better, and different” than our peers, hoping this will make us feel good about ourselves.

And so you use your time, energy, and money trying to ensure that you’re doing a lot, that other people speak well of you, and that you have all the right things. But no matter how much you achieve in each of these areas, Nouwen warns, death will eliminate each identity: you won’t be able to accomplish more, people will forget about you, and you’ll lose all of your possessions. So how should you answer the question, “Who am I?”

The only answer

Jesus shows us a different way to answer this question. When Satan tempted Jesus, he tried to get Jesus to find his identity in one of these three ways. Satan tempted Jesus to:

  • Turn stones into bread, to show that he could do something amazing.

  • Jump from the temple and let the people catch you, to show how amazing he was, and to get people to think highly of him.

  • Become king of every nation, to show how much power and how many possessions you have.

But Jesus resisted each one of Satan’s temptations, refusing to find his identity through these three ways. So how did Jesus find the strength to do this?

We see the answer right before the temptations, when Jesus was baptized by John. As that happened, the sky opened up and God the Father proclaimed: “ “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

That’s the key. Jesus answered the question “Who am I?” with: “I am God’s beloved.” He found his identity in his Father’s love and complete acceptance. Because of that grounding belief, he didn’t need to achieve the most, make everyone like him, or have the most stuff.

Jesus had a hard life, one that most of us would consider a failure. He was a blue collar worker whose earthly ministry completely fell apart. His entire community rejected him and ridiculed his claims, eventually putting him to death at a young age. He never had any possessions or earthly position, and never lived in the right neighborhood or had the right friends. Yet Jesus was the ultimate success, because he knew his value was based on his Father’s love for him.

“I am God’s Beloved”

If you ever want to find peace, rest, and real fulfillment, you need to start answering “Who am I?” with “I am God’s beloved.” You’re not left alone, trying to prove your identity by yourself, but were chosen by God before eternity to be his daughter or son. You are deeply loved for who you already are, regardless of your achievements, status, or possessions.

All of these other  identities will come and ultimately go, but it’s only in Jesus that you will have complete security in who you are. It won’t be easy, but when you live out of the finished and eternal identity that Jesus has given you, you can weather the ups and downs of life that will inevitably come.

Dating Anxiety: What Is It and How Do You Work Through It?

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” — Mark Twain

I stared at my phone, lying a few feet away on my desk. I’d sat there an hour, sick to my stomach, while trying to avoid the phone call I knew I needed to make. I was 22, and frozen by the fear of asking a girl I liked out. “This is going to go badly.” I thought to myself. “I’m sure I’ll freeze up and say the wrong thing. I know she’s going to say no and it’s going to be so awkward the next time I see her.”

Eventually, after what felt like hours, I picked up my phone and found her name. Here goes nothing. “Please don’t pick up, please don’t pick up, please don’t pick up,” I recited to myself as the phone rang, hoping I could will the call to voicemail. Five rings, almost there! “Hello.” I froze. Oh no. “Umm hey, it’s Luke.”

There’s nothing that scarier in your twenties than dating and the anxiety that comes along with it. While no one wants to admit they struggle with dating anxiety, we all do to some degree. It’s the fear she’ll say no, the butterflies that bombard you as you get ready, and the pit that develops in your stomach as you wonder if he’ll ask you out again. Dating anxiety wreaks havoc in our lives, causing us to go on fewer dates and start fewer relationships.

That’s why understanding and addressing your dating anxiety is so crucial to thriving in your twenties. While dating will always have hard parts, when you start to address the underlying causes for some of the difficult emotions you experience, you can stop seeing a date as a dreaded task and can instead begin to enjoy it. So how do you help resolve your problem with dating anxiety?

what is anxiety?

Before you can do that, though, you have to first understand what anxiety actually is. I like entrepreneur and author Seth Godin’s simple definition: anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Anxiety is more than just a generic feeling; it’s happens when you look ahead to the future, projecting failure as the most likely outcome, and beginning to experience the effects of that failure in the present. And so your emotions hit the panic alarm, not because anything has actually happened, but rather in anticipation of the bad you think will happen.

Few things affect dating like anxiety, causing us to stumble over words, overanalyze any potential relationship, and act like someone completely different than ourselves. You look ahead at some situation, whether it’s before, during, or after a date, and begin to fear for the worst. You know things will turn out badly and you’ll be rejected and hurt.

For most young people, dating anxiety occurs as fear, frozenness, and a general dread of any dating situations. Here are a few common ways you might experience dating anxiety:

  • You obsessively check your phone for a response to your text, and grow more and more worried the longer they take to reply.

  • You’re so afraid of making a bad impression around someone you’re interested in you completely clam up and start behaving strangely.

  • You’re dreading your date that night and would do anything if you could bail.

  • You’re nervous your plans for the date will go badly, and nothing will work.

  • You’re worried you’re going to run out of things to talk about, and you’ll be stuck in awkward silence.

  • You’re so tense on the date you have no ability to eat or enjoy what you’re doing.

  • You enjoyed the date, but your mind immediately turns negative afterwards, and begins to attack any hope that they might have had fun, too.

Dating anxiety every young person in different ways, causing you to experience your future fears of bad dates and broken endings in the present. But if that’s what dating anxiety is, then why does it happen?

why does anxiety happen?

It’s no accident that anxiety almost always shows up in dating. Why? Because anxiety, of any kind, always feeds off of one thing: uncertainty. Uncertainty is the warm, moist air that feeds your mind until it turns into an emotional hurricane.

Few things force you out of your safe bubble of control and into uncertainty like dating. Dating requires you to take off your emotional armor and open up at least a little, even if it’s just to the possibility of the other person not liking you. Every time you request someone’s phone number, ask someone out, or go on a date, uncertainty is there, reminding you that the outcome of this interaction is unknown.

While uncertainty alone isn’t enough to create anxiety, when you combine uncertainty with our natural bent towards a negativity bias, anxiety quickly crops up. A negativity bias is our inherent human tendency to expect negative situations to occur much more frequently than positive ones. We over-remember past hurts and heartbreaks, causing us to overestimate the likelihood that future outcomes will be bad.

This is why so many young people struggle with dating: we want the good parts of a relationship, yet are too afraid to leave our safe emotional alcoves to venture out into the sea of uncertainty, sure that we’ll be rejected. How then do you deal with uncertainty in dating?

our answer to uncertainty

Because we all find uncertainty unsettling, we fight against it, trying to regain certainty over our futures. We want to be in control of our lives, so we can ensure we don’t get hurt. The main way most young people do that is through perfectionism. Perfectionism makes this promise to you:

If you’re perfect, then the other person will have to like you, and you’ll never have to experience the hurtful parts of dating.

We all think that in the midst of an uncertain world, perfectionism is our best bet at relational certainty. That’s why we try to be perfect for and on dates. As I went through my twenties, perfectionism caused me to put intense pressure while dating. I thought that if I was perfect, if I wore the right clothes, picked the right activities, and said the right things, then I would be safe, or at least safer, from the pain of being rejection.

My quest for perfection caused my to become very self-analytical, obsessing over every part of myself before, during, and after dates, hoping I could spot imperfections first and fix them before she’d notice. I’d stress out about every little detail on a date, afraid that if I wasn’t perfect she wouldn’t like me. Then afterwards, I’d replay it all, checking to see if I’d done or said the wrong thing. I had to be perfect, I thought, if I ever wanted to get someone to like me.

the problem with perfectionism

There’s just one small problem with trying to be perfect: none of us are. Sure, you can appear “perfect” for a date or two, but eventually something will happen that reveals your true, and flawed, self. And even if you could reach your version of dating perfection, who’s to say that’s what the other person considers perfect?

When you try to solve the uncertainty of dating by being perfect, you will grow more and more fixated on your inevitable flaws, moving from being self-analysis to self-judgment, finding and hating any part of yourself you feel is imperfect. So you hate your body, your personality, and your past, blaming your dating anxiety on the fact that you’re just not perfect enough.

This drive to be perfect while dating left me in a catch-22: I was either anxiously hating myself for how flawed and imperfect I was, or I was exhausted from trying to over-control and be perfect while dating. Neither outcome solved my dating anxiety, instead just feeding it more and more. The real outcome was that I’d withdraw from dating, since it felt safer to be single yet certain, than dating and exhausted.

so what’s the answer?

This is where so many of us end up: struggling with dating anxiety, yet assuming there’s no way to fix it. We treat fear and dread in dating like gravity, something we just have to learn to deal with. But there is a way to solve your dating anxiety, if you’re willing to dig deeper into your underlying belief system.

The key is to solving your dating anxiety is to understand how you deal with uncertainty. Uncertainty hasn’t always existed, but only started when humans rebelled against God. Adam and Eve had perfect certainty over life, but they didn’t like submitting to God’s control, so they rejected him. We’re the same way; we don’t like God being in control of our lives, so we reject him, hoping that we can run our own lives. But we’re finite, imperfect people who quickly hit our limits, causing us to feel anxious and out of control over all of our self-induced uncertainty.

When we date, we experience uncertainty because we’re trusting in ourselves and our own ability to control the future, rather than trusting in God. Billy Graham sums up our struggle with anxiety with this quote: “Anxiety is the natural result when our hopes are centered in anything short of God and His will for us.” So, if you want to solve your anxiety, you have to stop trying to suppress it,  deny it, or control it, but rather take it to God. This is what the Apostle Paul says to do:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

When Paul says, “Do not be anxious,” he’s not telling us to get our lives together and that only weak people struggle with anxiety. He’s admitting that fear, uncertainty, and anxiety are a normal part of the human condition, and can never be solved by using our willpower to put it into an emotional straitjacket.

the solution

Instead, Paul tells you the only way to solve your anxiety isn’t to avoid uncertainty or to try to control life yourself, but by taking your anxious thoughts to God through prayer and petition, reflecting on Him and His promises. As you do that with your dating life, remember these two promises:

  1. God’s in total control: God promises that He has a plan for your life and that He’s working out everything according to it. That means, no matter how good or bad you do on a date, you can’t mess up God’s plan for your life.

  2. God loves you: Not only does God have a plan, but it’s one crafted out of His love for you. Everything in it is for your absolute best, because He loves you and wants to see you thrive.

In the midst of all of the unknowns surrounding dating and relationships, will you believe that God is both in control of your life and working for your good? You might look at past rejection as proof that you can’t trust God, but look at how God worked through the cross. Jesus was hanging on a cross, rejected by the people he had come to save. But after Jesus died, when it looked like God has either lost control or wasn’t working for our good, Jesus was resurrected, and rose from the dead to give you new life and prove God’s character true.

The only answer to the uncertainty of dating isn’t anxiety or perfectionism, but the certainty of God. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is the one who’s writing your story. That doesn’t mean dating will be easy or without uncertainty, but it does mean you can rest in God’s plan for your life. Paul says that when you trust God with your dating life, you’ll not just get through it, but experience peace in it. Rest in this: that whatever happens, your future is not uncertain: God will only give you his best.

Just a note: in using the term anxiety above, I recognize there’s lots of different kinds of anxiety. I’m referring to acute anxiety, not general anxiety, which is different. I’m not writing about or trying to speak to general anxiety, which is a more complex problem and may require professional help to work through.

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10 Things to Remember When You Feel Behind in Life

It’s so easy to feel behind in your twenties. You look around at your friends and your peers, quickly seeing all the ways your life comes up short. They have more money, more status, more possessions, more friends, more everything than you! And so you feel behind, frustrated with your life and your circumstances, and somewhat jealous of that you don’t have what they do.

Every person in their twenties struggles with feeling behind. Really! But if you want to actually enjoy this decade of your life, and not just spend it comparing yourself to others, here are ten things you need to constantly remind yourself.

reminder 1: what society calls success usually isn’t

When you feel behind in life, make sure you first uncover the underlying narrative behind the people you’re using to judge your life against. Our society’s narrative for a successful life is whoever gets the most money, marries the best looking person, attains the highest status, and wields the most social power. These people are presented as the real winners in life, and are usually the ones we compare our lives to.

But why? Just because society defines success as that lifestyle, doesn’t mean it actually is success. If it were, why aren’t those people more happy? So often we feel behind in tangible things (buying a house, making a certain amount of money, having this many followers) and ignore that real success in life is about using your gifts to help others, while developing meaningful relationships along the way. The people who do that, whether rich or poor, famous or obscure, are the ones who are happiest.

Ask yourself: What definition of success am I using to compare my life to?

reminder 2: everyone starts in a different place

Before you start to compare yourselves to others, realize that everyone starts in a different place. Some people are born into rich, well-connected families with almost unlimited opportunities. Others are born to single mom’s who struggle just to get by. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but yet we act like everyone starts at the same place, and thus can easily be compared to each other. Let’s face the facts: some people have incredible advantages, and so it’s just apples and oranges to compare your life to theirs.

When I moved to New York, I felt really behind all of my peers. But yet I had to realize I had a different starting point than them. No one in my small town in Kansas had ever even told me about New York, much less encouraged me to move there.  I had to accept that we all start in different spots in life, and some are more advantageous than others for instant success. That doesn’t mean I’ve failed, just that I have a different story.

Ask yourself: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of where I’ve started? Am I maybe being a little too hard on myself?

reminder 3: everybody’s going to a different destination

So many young people their twenties as a race: the first one to check every box off wins. And so they rush to get promoted, buy a house, get married, have kids, attain a certain lifestyle, all trying to reach different milestones before their peers. But life isn’t a race that you should try to get through as soon as possible, but an experience to savor and enjoy.

Your life is going to a different destination than the people you’re comparing yourself to, so don’t be surprised if you don’t hit all the same checkpoints, especially at the same time. God has given you unique gifts, situation, and calling which will lead you down a different path than most people. Your twenties are not about jumping to a big lead in the race of life, but rather figuring out who you are and where God is taking your life.

Ask yourself: How is the destination I feel God is calling me to different than the people I’m comparing my life against?

Reminder 4: your twenties are about figuring out what works for you, not other people

Some jobs and career trajectories are set up to give external markers of success much faster than others. Careers in accounting, engineering, computers, law, and finance offer higher starting salaries and more structured and immediate pathways to financial and social success. Which is totally fine. But if your gifts don’t fit those kinds of careers, your twenties will be different, requiring more self-exploration and less in the way of starting salaries.

When you feel behind, check to make sure you’re not comparing yourself to someone with an entirely different career structure. Some careers give immediate payouts, while some careers take a lifetime to build. Figure out which path you’re on, and quit comparing yourself to the other. Every career path has pros and cons, so don’t force yourself into a bad fit just to appear success.  Instead, use your twenties not to race others, but to learn about who you are and what you’re good at. Then you can spend the next forty years honing your gifts and abilities, not being miserable just to win some figurative life race.

Ask yourself: Am I comparing my career path to one that is set up completely differently time-wise?

Reminder 5: lots of people who look further ahead are stealing from tomorrow to pay for today

Many young people who look like they’re the furthest ahead in life, are using money they don’t have to appear more successful than they actually are. They are using credits and other debt to live beyond their means to look good in the short term, instead of saving and thinking of the long term. Often times the people with the nicest apartment, clothes, and lifestyle are getting those things at the tradeoff of setting their lives up for finance ruin down the road.

It’s so tempting to follow this trap, but you’ll save yourself a lot of future headaches if you learn how to live within your means in your twenties. Be willing to not have the nicest apartment or clothes or trips in your twenties so that you can establish a solid financial foundation that will help you thrive in your 50s, 60s, and beyond. Not spending all of your paycheck may make you feel behind today, but trust me, your future self will thank you.

Ask yourself: Am I making wise financial decisions, or am I caving into peer pressure to appear to live a certain kind of lifestyle?

reminder 6: if you’re not satisfied with what you have now, you’ll never be satisfied

When we feel behind, what we’re actually saying is: “When I have ______, then I’ll finally be able to be happy.” But when you think one more hit of achievement will finally satisfy us, we forget that that means everything you’ve achieved so far in life hasn’t. That’s the problem with thinking if you just catch up to your peers then you’ll be happy. Because no matter what you achieve, when you get it, you’ll find a new thing that you need to get in order to be happy.

Young people who feel behind will always feel behind, no matter how much they achieve or get, because they will just compare themselves to a new set of people “ahead” of them. Your desires will always outpace your attainments, unless you consciously work on curbing your desires. Instead, you need to learn to cultivate contentment and gratitude for what you do have. This doesn’t mean that you give up on your dreams, but rather that you learn to enjoy your situation and be thankful for today, regardless of what the future holds.

Ask yourself: What thing or achievement do I think will finally make me happy?

reminder 7: it takes years of hard work to do anything worthwhile

When you feel behind in life, it’s often because you’re expecting instantaneous success. But it takes time to build a meaningful life, and real, lasting success doesn’t happen overnight. It will take years to develop the skills, wisdom, and connections necessary to contribute to healthy organizations and communities. While it’s easy to spend your twenties discouraged about your lack of achievement, think tortoise, not hare, and commit yourself to a lifetime of growth.

Quit worrying about where you are in relation to your peers, and instead focus on getting better every day. Slow and steady growth over a lifetime is the only path to meaningful success. Many young people shoot for instant success, and either never get it or become one hit wonders, because they don’t have the framework in place for long-term success. Be patient and be diligent in cultivating your skills.

Ask yourself: How can I use the time I often feel sorry for myself, to instead work on getting better at what I’m gifted in?

reminder 8: delayed gratification makes for the sweetest gifts

When success and achievement come easily and on time, it’s tempting to grow complacent and entitled. These young people often struggle when life gets hard, as it does for everyone. While it’s okay if life comes easily, the most rewarding moments are often when you see years of hard work pay off. Why do you think Olympians are so happy? Because they’ve worked for years behind the scenes, and are finally seeing the fruit of their labor.

In the rush to appear ahead in life, many young people chase trivial things they can achieve quickly, never wanting to commit themselves to any larger or longer term goal. But if you want to live a satisfying life, quit trying to act like you’re ahead in your twenties, and instead commit yourself to serving a purpose and a people larger than yourself. Be willing to risk appearing behind your peers because you’re working on a calling, problem, or opportunity that is bigger than you.

Ask yourself: Am I more likely to work on important projects that help others, or short-term things that make me look good?

reminder 9: everybody feels behind in some way

Because we all only have one life, everyone feels behind in one way or another. Nobody can be at the front in every area, because most paths are mutually exclusive: choosing one requires you to fall behind in another. It’s easy to fixate on the ways you feel behind, but you also need to realize how blessed you are in the ways that you are ahead of some of your peers.

Rather than always grumbling about what you don’t have, take some time to count your blessings for all of the ways you have been gifted. Not in a prideful way, but rather to recognize that God has given you much more than you give Him credit for.

Ask yourself: In what ways am I ahead many of my peers? (If you think hard enough you have some)

reminder 10: trust that God is honing you in little ways to prepare you for bigger things to come:

God tells you that He first gives you small amounts of responsibility to see if you can handle it before He gives you more. Your twenties are this time of “small things” where you feel like you’re doing unimportant work. But really you’re building the character, integrity, and abilities that you’ll need to succeed in the future. God is working in your present to equip you for your future.

Many young people don’t believe this, so they loaf through their jobs, thinking they’ll turn it on when it really matters. But that’s not how life works. If you don’t do the unimportant things well, you’ll never have the opportunity to influence the important things. I know it’s hard to be patient, but you need to faithfully serve in your current role, no matter how beneath you you feel it is. Trust that these years of feeling behind aren’t being wasted, but are the training ground for your future responsibilities.

Ask yourself: How do I need to re-evaluate my attitude towards the things I consider unimportant in my life?


At its core, feeling behind your peers is really an identity issue: you’re trying to find your worth through your own relative achievements rather than recognizing your need for Christ’s achievements. When you try to find your worth through comparison, this a recipe for constant insecurity and fear, since you’ll always be worried about falling behind other people, no matter how much you achieve.

When you realize you’re loved and accepted through Jesus, you’ll be set free from comparison, and enable to enjoy the unique life ahead of you, even if it doesn’t meet all of your expectations. Remember, life is not about achieving a set of goals by a certain age, but rather engaging in the moment and growing into His plan for your life.

If You Want to Get Better at Dating, Stop Performing and Start Connecting

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”Maya Angelou

“The price of acceptance is too high if it costs who you are.” — Bob Goff

“Why would she ever like me?” I thought, as I waited for my date to show up. I was in my mid-twenties, and starting to date more, yet still struggling to feel confident. Then my date would arrive, I’d forget my self-doubt, and spend the next couple of hours getting to know her.

What dates became, though, was a performance: me trying to show the girl that I was the kind of guy she’d want to date. When I say performance, I wasn’t tap dancing in a tux, but rather trying to act like somebody I really wasn’t, in hopes she’d be impressed and would like me. So I put lots of pressure on myself. “I needed to appear successful, funny, and put together,” I thought, if I was ever going to get the kind of relationship I wanted.

These dates would go fine, but something always seemed off. It wasn’t until later that I realized the problem: I’d thought the best way to make someone like you was by impressing them, so I’d try my best to be the kind of guy I thought they wanted. But after my fair share of emotional bumps and bruises, I finally realized I’d been going about it all wrong: the point of dating isn’t to perform for your date, but to connect with them.

performing and dating

While we perform in every area of life, there’s no place where it shows up more than in dating. When you go on a date you know you’re going to be evaluated, so you put on your best clothes, tell you most interesting story, and try to be on your best behavior. If all goes well, you hope, your date will like you and want to go out again.

So what does it mean to perform? Performing is observing a social situation and then adapting your personality to fit another person’s expectations. You adjust who you are in order to alter how you’re perceived, with the goal of getting your date to think more highly of you.

Performing is all about suppressing your unflattering aspects and touting your achievements, activities, and interests that will garner the most social praise. We all know what’s prized among our peers, so we adjust what we talk about to fit society’s preferred path. Some people perform by talking and sharing a lot, while others perform by being quiet and rarely sharing, but the result is the same: we perform to control our personal narrative, hoping we’ll impress our date and receive the attention, approval, and acceptance we’re looking for.

Our fascination will how other people perceive us turns each of us into our own PR director, making sure the impressive aspects of our lives get wide airplay, while the unimpressive parts get buried. When we date, we try to convey three main messages to the other person:

  • I’m normal: I’m totally well-adjusted, easy to get along with, have no problems, and never stress about anything.

  • I’m an achiever: I’ve accomplished a lot in my life and have a bright future full of success ahead of me.

  • I’m high status: I understand what’s cool and other high status people think I’m fun to be around.

The key to performing, though, is to make sure the other person never knows you’re performing. This is just who you effortlessly are. So you spend the date monitoring how you appear and what you’re saying, always adjusting based on how your date’s responding.

why do we perform on dates?

Most people don’t perform on dates because they want to, but rather because they think they need to. Deep down, all of us are caught in an inner struggle: we all want to belong and be affirmed, yet we’re insecure and afraid that we’re not enough: not good-looking enough, cool enough, interesting enough, successful enough, and so on. We’re afraid that if our date sees our real self they’ll reject us, confirming our worst fears about ourselves. So we perform, creating an identity we think they’ll be sure to approve of.

In our insecurity about the self-worth of our real self, we put on a mask, a false front based on who we think the other person wants us to be. We choose a mask that fits our date’s  preferred life narrative, and adapt our stories, interests, and expressions to reinforce that identity. When I’m performing, I almost always gravitate towards one of the following masks:

  • Achiever: Look at all of the success I’ve had and the different ways I’ve achieved!

  • Adventurer: Look at how exciting my life is and all the adventures I’ve gone on!

  • Entertainer: Look at how interesting and funny I am; there’s never a dull moment around me!

  • Agreeable: Look at how much we’re agreeing about and have in common!

  • Responsible: Look at how I have everything under control!

I would never set out to perform, but in my insecurity about my self-worth, I’d slip into one of these masks, all to get my date’s approval. This happens because we all socially construct our self-worth, using other people’s opinions to gauge our value. And since no one’s opinion matters more than our date’s, we do everything we can to impress them the most, hoping that if they like us, we’ll have proved we matter.

Performers, we should note, often appear really good at dating. They can carry on a lively conversation and share lots of information about their lives, but nothing ever goes deeper than surface level. This thrive in “resume dates,” where both people basically work through their resume. They end up knowing a lot about each other, but they don’t really know each other.

We’re all afraid the real us isn’t enough, so we perform, hiding any part of ourselves that we don’t think would measure up. They use generic statements and socially acceptable aspirations to hide behind their mask and deflect attention from their true self. Like the “Wizard” of Oz, performers work hard at appearing impressive, hoping you’ll pay no attention to the ordinary man behind the curtain.

the problem with performing

We perform in hopes that it will get us the sense of belonging that we all crave. But when we put on a mask in an attempt to be impressive, we present a sterilized version of ourselves, hiding anything we consider unimpressive. By doing this, though, we end up suppressing all of our unique and interesting aspects of our personality: our quirky interests, playfully embarrassing stories, and distinctive sense of humor. In other words, all of the things that make you, you!

Performing doesn’t pan out, though, because it can’t create the belonging we’re all searching for. Why? Because performing and the mask it creates always puts a barrier up between you and your date. Masks are an attempt at being perfect, and any time we come across something that’s perfect, we rightfully grow suspicious that this isn’t actually real. Even if they do like you, they really just like your performance, which is too exhausting to keep up for long.

We keep performing, though, because if it we don’t get to experience real belonging, we’re willing to settle for what it does get us: fitting in. But while fitting in feels okay at first, eventually it gets old, as we feel the disconnect between how we’re presenting ourselves and who we actually are.

And so, many single people, exhausted from performing, yet still afraid of rejection, end up disengaging from dating, choosing instead just to hang out in the safety of their same-sex friendships. We either end up dehumanizing each other, through things like hook-ups or ghosting, or just withdraw from the uncertainty and risks of dating altogether.

what’s the solution?

So how do we stop performing? Most young people try the problem of performing by either doubling-down on it and become better than ever, or they disengage from dating altogether, tired of putting themselves out there. But neither or these tactics actually addresses our insecurities and our universal desire for belonging. So what should we do?

The only way to stop performing and experience real belonging on a date and in a relationship is by connecting. A connection is when two people relate to each other in a way that makes them both feel known and valued. That’s why performing behind a mask never creates a real connection; you may get the other person to value you, but they don’t actually know you. So how do you connect, then?

You can only connect with your date when you quit performing and engage with your authentic self, the person you actually are, and not who you’d like to be. You are your authentic self when you’re expressing the interests, abilities, and experiences that are most true to who you are; the things that make you you! It’s the person you are when you feel safe to be yourself, whether that’s around your friends, family, or maybe just your dog.

how to be your authentic self

“You want me to be my authentic self???” I hear you thinking in a questioning tone. “On a date in front of someone I’m interested in!?!” That’s sound terrifying to all of us, at first, and it is. But if you ever want to connect with someone, you have to allow yourself to be known and take the risk that you’ll be valued. That risk is called being vulnerable, and it’s a requirement if you ever want to experience being both known and valued that true connection requires.

We often mis-define vulnerability as telling everything in your life to every person. But that’s not what vulnerability is at all. Vulnerability is fighting through the risk and uncertainty of being emotional open with another person. Brene Brown puts it this way:

“Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”

Being vulnerable while dating doesn’t mean you need to start every date with your top 10 most embarrassing moments, but rather that you’re willing to talk about the emotions around your life experiences, even if they don’t fit what’s culturally acceptable among your peers.

Human beings, as much as we might try to resist, only connect through shared emotions, not shared information. That’s how God made us, and to try to experience life together without sharing our emotions with each other is counter-productive. When two people on date engage with their authentic and vulnerable selves, they mutually create a safe place to share their emotions and experiences. Performers approach dates as an individualistic status grab, while connectors see dates as an opportunity to engage as a team and encourage each other.

the only answer

So how do you get the courage to be your vulnerable, authentic self? It sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s not easy to be emotionally open and authentic on a date. While we’re all drawn to vulnerability, few people ever want to be vulnerable themselves. What if the other person doesn’t like us? What if they disagree with us, subtly shame us, or worst of all, reject us?

Brene Brown writes that you can only give true belonging if you’ve experienced it yourself. You’ll only have the ability to be your true self if you solve your inherent insecurity around you self-worth. That’s why if you want to ever experience true belonging in a relationship, you have to first find your belonging in Jesus. Jesus completely knows you, yet also completely values you, and invites you into an eternal relationship with Him.

When the Son of God approves of you, the real you, and invites you to an eternal connection with Him, it melts your insecurities, and gives you the confidence to be yourself, no matter what your another person might say. God didn’t give you your inherent personality, abilities, and interests in order for you to perform and hide them behind a mask. When you center your soul on God and his invitation to belong with Him, you no longer have to perform for a date or relationship in order to gain approval.

When you struggle with performing, and we all do, remember Jesus message to his disciples right before he died. He told them: you’re no longer my servants, but my friends. While the shift seems subtle to us, Jesus radically redefined all relationships. Because of his death and resurrection, you’re not a servant performing to please a master, but rather are a friend of God, accepted into God’s family because of who you are in Christ. Performing is finished, forever!

so how should date?

When your self-worth is secure in God, how you approach dating completely changes. You can stop trying to solve your insecurities through performing, and can instead be yourself, knowing that your self-worth is based on being known and valued by Christ. So while rejection, in any form, is never easy, finding our identity in Christ, and not the other person’s opinion of us, will keep us moving forward. When you have Christ’s internal validation, you no longer need another person’s external validation.

Now, a successful date isn’t about making the other person like you, but rather being yourself. You want to be likable, of course, but you no longer have to become someone you’re not in an attempt to control them. There will be people who get to know the real you and won’t be interested, but that’s life in an uncertain world. Vulnerability is scary, that’s why we all find dating nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. But it will all be worth it when you find the person who wants to know and value you for only one reason: you’re being you.

True Compatibility Isn't Found, But Forged

“What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.” — Leo Tolstoy

“So what’s your Myers Briggs type,” she asked. I was on a first date, in the middle of getting a “compatibility rundown,” that barrage of questions that the other person asks when they’re trying to judge whether you’re compatible or not. While questions are usually good things, her rapid-fire probes, “In what ways are you not normal?” and “How long do you see yourself in New York?” betrayed a deeper purpose: she wanted to figure out ASAP if I fit what she was looking for.

Compatibility, and our search for it, has become a major theme in today’s dating and marriage culture. Young people everywhere are searching for the most compatible person, hoping when they find them that they’ll get the marriage of their dreams. In our hunt for compatibility, we use our lives and interests as the standard, and then compare every other person’s personality against our own.

I used to think that if I just looked hard and long enough, eventually I would find the “right person,” that perfectly compatible person who matched up with me in every way. But as I dated in my twenties, I could never find one person who fit everything I was looking for. Eventually, I realized I had it all wrong: compatibility is not a precondition for a great marriage, but rather the result of one.

so what is compatibility?

When we set out to find someone compatible to marry, what are we looking for? Generally, our search for compatibility revolves around trying to find someone who has as many things in common with us as possible. We want them to have similar interests, attitudes, and goals for life. In short, we’re look for someone as much the same, or at least similar, as possible.

As we get to know someone, our interest in compatibility causes us to cling onto any bit of information self-disclosed by the other person, trying to figure out if they would be a good fit for us. If we have a lot in common we get excited, and if not, we grow doubtful about whether things could work out. While everyone differs, most young people look for compatibility in the following areas:

  • Personality compatibility: Do you agree on everything, and are they easy and exciting to be around?

  • Physical compatibility: Are you sexually attracted to them, and does their appearance fit how you want to be perceived?

  • Lifestyle compatibility: Do you relax, travel, and spend your free time in the same way.

  • Financial compatibility: Will you make enough money together to support your desired standard of living?

  • Background compatibility: Are you from the same kind of family, and did you have similar childhood, high school, and college experiences?

  • Interest and hobby compatibility: Do you like the same restaurants, music, TV shows, movies, etc.?

  • Aspirational compatibility: Do you both aspire to the same type of life and career success?

And so we spend our twenties searching for a compatible person, believing that somewhere out there is a perfect person who will seamlessly fit into our current lives. We meet, date, and get to know lots of people, hoping to find someone who checks off all of these boxes.

why is compatibility so important?

For most young people, after romantic love, compatibility is the most important thing they look for in a future spouse. But why? Because we all believe in the compatibility myth:

If you find someone perfectly compatible with you, then your marriage will be easy and you’ll never have to change.

While no one ever tells us this, we soak it up from our general culture, and hope that if we play by its rule we’ll the results we want. So what is it we’re looking to compatibility to get us?

  • We think our marriage will be easy: We all know that marriage can be hard, so we hope that if we are completely compatible with our spouse, then we can avoid the tension, conflict, and fights that will make married couples unhappy and lead to divorce. We think a compatible marriage will be easy and never require much in the way of maintenance.

  • If we find a compatible spouse, we’ll never have to change: As many of us get married at an older age than previously, we’ve had more time to develop our own preferred lifestyle, habits, and preferences. We hope that if we find a completely compatible spouse we’ll never have to change or be told that we’re wrong. We want to be reaffirmed that we’re already doing everything well, and are looking for someone to do that.

This ideal of the “perfectly compatibility couple” promises an easy and effortless marriage where your spouse always understands you and never makes you change. If you can just find this perfect person, you’ll be in marital paradise, and can expect a life of uninterrupted happiness.

why is it so hard to find compatibility?

Despite our desire to find this perfectly compatible spouse, it’s becoming harder and harder to do. Why? Because of something called Expressive Individualism, our society’s dominant, yet unknown, personal belief. Sociologist Robert Bellah, who coined the phrase, says expressive individualism is the belief that every person has a unique core of feelings and intuition that needs to be expressed if you want to realize your individuality. Expressive individualism tells you that if you want to reach your full potential, you need to focus on being true to your authentic self and expressing your inner thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Because of expressive individualism, we’ve all been encouraged to pursue interests, activities, and personalities that express our unique inner personalities. And so we use clothes, lifestyles, jobs, vacations, and social media profiles to show our authentic and unique individuality; that we’re different in all the right ways. The worst thing you could ever do in a society like ours is conform.

the compatibility paradox

While expressive individualism makes for innovative products and intriguing personalities, it creates a major problem when we try to find a perfectly compatible spouse. How does someone cultivate absolute authenticity, self-expression, uniqueness, and freedom from all constraints, while ever finding someone who is compatible with them? This desire to maintain self-expression while finding a perfectly compatible spouse creates a unique paradox: you have to find another person who’s different and unique in all the same ways as you.

As we search for this paradoxical person, we’re stuck between competing tensions: we want both freedom and intimacy at the same time. We want the complete freedom to always choose how we want to be our authentic self, while also having the breadth of shared experience that intimacy requires. And so we chase after absolute compatibility, thinking if they are the exact same as us, then we can get both the freedom to be unique, and the intimacy that tells us we’re not alone.

As we search for this paradoxical person, we’re stuck between competing tensions: we want the complete freedom to be always be our authentic self, but we also want some to connect with and share life together. We want freedom and intimacy at the same time, and the only way we can think of to get both is absolute compatibility on everything. If they aren’t compatible, we’re afraid we’ll not only have a hard and frustrating marriage, but we’ll also have to suppress our prized individuality.

These two simultaneous desires causes us to look for a clone instead of a spouse. If we find someone exactly like us in every way, we hope we’ll get the intimacy we’re starved for, yet not lose any of our self-expressive freedom. This search for our clone causes us to evaluate, and usually reject, each other on the tiniest things: if they were an unfashionable brand, like the wrong band, or have an unrefined Instagram style.

how you find “compatibility”

Due to the difficulty of finding this perfectly compatible person, we often settle for what I call “confirmation bias compatibility.” Confirmation bias happens when we are assemble the facts in a biased way to confirm the narrative we want. When we practice confirmation bias compatibility, we first choose who we want to date, and then find the facts to justify why we think we’re compatible with them.

This is why every young person magically finds themselves with any person they’re really attracted to. You want that relationship to happen, so you pick 3-5 things you both agree on or have in common and pronounce that you’re compatible. “Wow, you like traveling, eating out, and want to be successful at your career? We’re like the same person!” And so on the strength of just a few usually common similarities, we block out the other 4,732 things you either disagree on or do differently.

Meanwhile, if you’re not interested in dating someone, you’re always able to find 3-5 ways to prove you’re incompatible, regardless of the actual fit. “Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to work,” we think to ourselves about someone we don’t find as attractive. “We’re from opposite parts of the country, they’re too into football, and they don’t even enjoy skiing....we’re just too different.” And so we pass on the relationship, relieved we’re not compatible. Whew.

Because of confirmation bias, what often gets termed “compatibility,” is just finding someone who’s cool, good-looking, and goes to church, and then lying to yourself about how good of a fit you are. This whole process allows us to save face to ourselves; of course I’m not a superficial person who only judges someone on their looks, I’m just more compatible with this person than that one.

why you can’t find true compatibility

Because you’ll never fully know the person you’re dating until you’re marriage, confirmation bias compatibility can take you through the wedding day and into your marriage. Eventually, though, every married couple realizes they didn’t are married to the person they thought they married. The differences you overlooked, or never thought to discuss, while dating now come to the forefront.

Once married, the couple is not only involved in the tiniest details of each other’s lives, but they’ve also stopped performing. When this happens, you’ll begin to see for how differently your spouse approaches life. You’re now married to someone who puts the dish drainer on the wrong side of the sink, has no clue how to set the table correctly, and quietly introduced some terrible new way to store the plastic grocery bags, disregarding your obviously superior system. Not to mention their toast and butter etiquette, which could only be described as Neanderthalian. This person, who just a few short months early was absolutely perfect, is now on a mission from God to drive you crazy!

No matter how compatible you think you are before getting married, every couple will have times where they feel deeply incompatible with each other. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:

The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is...learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Our desire to find a perfectly compatible spouse is impossible, not because you haven’t looked hard enough, but rather because they don’t exist. Most couples, though, surprised at how different they are, grow discouraged when they hit their incompatibilities, whether small or large. Many couples, who while dating created a narrative of perfective compatibility, now switch the narrative, emphasizing how different they are: maybe I did marry the wrong person?

These questions happen because we’re all flawed and have weaknesses, shortcomings, and inconsistencies, which naturally cause friction, frustration, and feelings of incompatibility between any two people. At the root of these feelings of incompatibility, though, are two things: pride and self-centeredness. Each person both thinks they know best, and that they’re desires should be met first.

Does this mean you just give up on finding a good fit and marry whomever? Tim Keller answers this question this way: “Everyone’s a bad fit for you, but some are worse than others.” Every person in incompatible with you, but avoid the ones who are really incompatible with you. Here’s the key takeaway: choosing someone to married is not about searching through all of the flawed people to find a perfect one, but rather choosing which flawed person and their problems you want to be married to.

what should you look for then?

So how then do you figure out who is less wrong for you? To do this, stop looking for a perfectly compatible person, and instead find someone with whom you can build a strong partnership. A great partnership isn’t based on perfect compatibility, but rather two crucial things: shared values and complementary personalities.

When you’d look to get married, begin by finding someone with the same foundational values. Ask yourself: does this person share my deepest values and perspectives towards life? If you’re a Christian, is the other person pursuing their relationship with God and using the Bible as their highest authority in life?

This is what God means when He tells us not to be unequally yoked: don’t enter into a lifelong partnership with someone who doesn’t share the same foundational values as you do. If a marriage is two people building a life together, if they’re each using a completely different set of blueprints the project will be a disaster.

On top of your faith, you should have be united on a common approach to how you want to live life. When I was 25, I felt God was leading me to move to New York City. The girl I was dating, however, felt like God had best equipped her to live in the Midwestern suburb she grew up in. While we were united on a lot of foundational things, as we talked, we realized our lives were going in opposite directions, so we eventually broke up. Great partnerships share not just a commitment to Christ, but also a common view for your life and future.

At the same time, a great partnership takes more than just unity; you also need to have complementary personalities, abilities, and gifts. Find someone whose personality and gifting complements yours, bringing out the best in each other. Think of every person like a musical instrument, with a different sound, range, and capabilities. The best duets don’t happen when the instruments are either exactly the same or completely opposite, but when their sound and style complement each other, creating beautiful harmonies.

As you look apply this to dating and relationships, don’t evaluate someone by asking, “Who is exactly like me?” Instead, start with, “Are we both committed to Christ, and do we share the same values?” If that’s a yes, then look for the person whose natural personality and giftings complements yours and makes both of you better together.

the path to true compatibility

But even if you find someone and have a great partnership with them, you’ll still have times when you frustrate, offend, and hurt each other. In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul writes about how people with different personalities and gifts get into close relationships, there will always be incompatibilities. But he gives a way forward, writing:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body...grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

When you feel incompatible in your marriage, you’ll be tempted to throw up your hands and walk away, convince you’re just too different. But in this verse, Paul tells you that the only path to true compatibility is to speak the truth in love, helping each other grow to become more and more like Christ. Real compatibility isn’t found, but forged over time, as each spouse does the hard and uncomfortable work of graciously confronting and confessing sin, leading to forgiveness and and reconciliation through Christ.

So, as you look for someone to marry, don’t get caught up in trying to find some perfectly compatible person. Instead, look for someone who’s pursuing Jesus, complements your personality, and knows how to work through your inevitable differences with grace and kindness. Marriage doesn’t mean you’re the same, It just means your together.

How Do You Know Whom to Marry?

“I was nauseous and tingly all over. I was either in love or I had smallpox.” — Woody Allen

How do you know the you should marry? So far we’ve looked at all of the reasons you shouldn’t marry someone: to feel successful, to find self-fulfillment, or to gain status. But what are the right reasons to marry someone? And how do you know when you’ve met the right person?

I often felt overwhelmed in my twenties by the immensity of this question. How do I know whom to marry, given all of the options around me? And what if I choose the wrong person, I thought, and end up stuck in a miserable marriage? Whenever I’d asked older people how they knew whom to marry, they’d politely reply, “You’ll just know,” which told me nothing at all.

As I dated in my twenties, I unknowingly followed our society’s embedded instructions for how to know who to marry: go out with someone you’re attracted to and see who you fall in love with. But after a few heart-wrenching rounds of this, I thought there had to be a better way than this to figure out whom to marry.

learning how to fall in love

“Hey, Mom!” I shouted as I scurried out the door, “I’m going up to the library to read for a bit.” I was in middle school, and had an embarrassing new interest: I loved reading Nicholas Sparks’ books. I felt too ashamed to read them at home around my brothers, so I’d sit in the corner of the library and speed through the pages, soaking up their romantic plotlines as I daydreamed about what it would be like to fall in love.

All of us, whether we know it or not, grow up in a culture saturated with romantic love. Whether it was watching Simba nose-nuzzle with Nala, listening to Taylor Swift sing about her latest crush, or waiting for the Bachelor to hand out his roses, we’ve all been made aware of the importance of romantic love for all of our lives.

Our romantic love culture has drilled into our minds that the best way to choose a spouse is by following your feelings and see who you feel the most love for. Every romantic story teaches us the same principles: if you listen to you heart, it will guide to you the perfect person for you, which you’ll know when you fall irresistibly in love with them. You’ll marry, and be guaranteed to live happily ever after.

how did we get this way?

It’s no accident that we marry this way, but rather the result of Romanticism, a movement among artists and creatives during the late 1700s that rejected getting married for practical reasons, and instead emphasized using your feelings to determine whom to marry. The Romantics believed a person’s feelings were inherently good and pure, and could be trusted to always guide you to the perfect person for you.

The Romantics taught that if you wanted a happy and passion-filled marriage, you needed to trust your feelings and follow your heart. Because of this, romantic love, as these feelings became known as, became the key way to discern who you should marry. If you found someone who you fell in love with, you should get married, and expect these feelings to only grow over time, since true love will overcome anything.

romanticism’s impact today

While most of us have never even thought about Romanticism, we continue to live in a Romantically-influenced culture, which tells us what we should expect to feel as normal at every step of a relationship. So how do relationships work under Romanticism today?

Our romantic culture tells us that when you meet your future spouse, you should instinctively be drawn to them and feel something special. You’ll be instantaneously attracted to them, both physically and emotionally, as a sort of calm and inner peace settles over you. Lots of young people, especially guys, mark this initial attraction down in their minds, later telling at their wedding how, “I knew she was special the moment she walked into the room.”

If you’ve truly found the right person for you, our romantic culture says the dating and relationship process should be not only exciting, but easy as well. You should feel an effortless connection, where you both are amazed at how much you have in common and how easily you’re able to communicate with each other. As the relationship progresses, you be amazed at how great the other person is, and surprise at how smoothly things are going. Whenever you’re together the hours just fly by.

Eventually, if you’re feelings continue to increase, you’ll come to the most important point of a romantic relationship, the moment you profess your love. Romantic love isn’t seen as a choice, but a spontaneous thing that happens to you when you’re around the perfect person for you. You fall into it, after all. The more time you spend together, the more you feel attracted to, passionate about, and infatuated with this perfect person. If they reciprocate your feelings, then you’re officially in love, the greatest feeling in the world.

should we get married?

By this point, both people should wonder: should we get married? Our romantic culture encourages us to decide by again evaluating the strength of our feelings. The indicator of a happy and successful marriage in our culture is how much passion and romantic love you feel for each other while dating. Alain de Botton, who writes about Romanticism and its impact on relationships, says we know we have to marry this person when we feel the following four things about them:

  1. You think they’re amazing.

  2. You can’t stop thinking about them.

  3. You’re sexually obsessed with them.

  4. You want to talk to them all of the time.

If you feel all four of these, you need to get engaged and be married. And so young people, excited for their wedding day when they’ll celebrate with their friends and families that they’ve found love. As you leave for the honeymoon, you can’t wait to spend the rest of your life in this euphoric feeling of love, with this perfect person for you.

the problems with the romantic approach

While every love story differs, this is the common narrative that we’ve been told over and over again in our Romantic culture. There’s a problem with it, though. Real life and a real relationship can never fulfill on all of the feelings that our romantic culture promises to give you. Many young people, whether while dating or marriage, become frustrated and disenchanted with their significant other when they can’t meet the expectations Romanticism has given to all of us.

To be clear, the problem isn’t with romantic feelings, but rather with our culture’s insistence that following your feelings will always lead you to the best for you. God created romantic feelings for us to enjoy, and even put a whole book into the Bible, Song of Solomon, about a passionate love affair between a husband and a wife. Romantic feelings aren’t all bad, but when we treat them as an infallible guide to direct to our perfect, we run into the following problems:

  • You’ll struggle to find someone who meets all of your romantic expectations: Our romantic culture promises that if you wait, you’ll eventually find your soulmate who meets every one of your expectations. In reality, many young people turn down lots of potential relationships that could be great, just because they don’t meet every one of your superficial romantic expectations. Everyone says they want to get married, but they don’t, because they can’t ever find someone who meets all of their romantic expectations.

  • You’ll follow your feelings into questionable or unhealthy relationships: While our romantic culture promises that strong feelings can overcome any problem, in reality, they often blind you to major problems in your relationship. When you let your romantic feelings lead you, you’ll pursue relationships with people who have major character flaws or are a bad personality fit for you, all because they make you feel the right way. This might work while you’re dating, but once you’re married it will be exposed, after it’s too late to change.

  • You’ll choose someone because they’re fun to date, rather than good to marry: Our romantic culture promises that marriage will be a continuation of dating, but in reality, it’s different. It’s easy to fall in love with someone who’s fun to date, only to find out that they don’t have the maturity or character to sustain a healthy marriage over the long haul. Marriage isn’t a 24/7 date, but rather a partnership centered around ordinary life, especially if you have kids.

  • Your romantic feelings, no matter how strong, will eventually fade away: Our romantic culture promises that if you’re really in love, you’re feelings will last forever. In reality, romantic love isn’t a feeling in your heart, but rather a chemical reaction in your brain that will slowly fade away. During your first few years of marriage your brain will pump out chemicals that give you that buzzy “in love” feeling, but as you grow familiar with each other, you’re brain will chill out, leaving couples perplexed and frustrated: had they fallen out of love?

If you use how the other person makes you feel as your main criteria for marrying them, you are dangerously making a lifelong commitment on the basis of fickle, ever-shifting feelings. Feelings are great, but they’re still affected by sin and can lead us astray. If you choose someone primarily because of how they make you feel, what will happen on the days when you feel the following about your spouse?

  • You’re amazed at how terrible they are.

  • You’re tired of having to think about them.

  • You’re sexually bored by them.

  • You’d rather talk to anyone else but them.

Every marriage has hard times where you won’t feel over the moon about your spouse. If you choose to marry someone because you feel in love with them, on the days you don’t, you’ll be tempted to wonder, “Did I marry the wrong person?” Marriage can be hard, and if you want yours to last 50+ years, you need to base it on more than how you felt at 25.

so how should you choose?

As I went through my twenties, I followed this romantic script, albeit unsuccessfully, using my feelings as a thermometer to tell me whether I should date someone or not. I kept waiting for that a-ha moment, when things would click and I’d fall in love. But when that moment never came, I began to look around at the marriages I admired and respected. It was then I noticed something that our romantic culture never tells us:

The best marriages aren’t based on strong feelings, but great friendships.

I realized that the healthiest marriages, whether they’d been married four months or forty years, weren’t based on strong feelings, but rather great friendships. These marriages were thriving not because they had the most romantic story, the most passionate dates, or the most beautiful wedding, but because their relationship was built on an enduring friendship. As I watched these couples interact, I observed some key characteristics that marked a great marital friendship:

  • They enjoyed spending time together, even when they weren’t doing anything exciting. While they still liked romantic dates and fun activities, they enjoyed doing nothing together.

  • They each felt comfortable being their true selves around each other, and didn’t merely put up with the other person, but actually enjoyed their natural quirks and curiosities.

  • They spent more time focused on serving and meeting the other person’s needs, than in constantly evaluating how happy their spouse was making them feel.

  • They weren’t blind to their spouse’s weaknesses and flaws, but still cared about them and were committed to the long-term task of graciously helping them become the best version of themselves.

While every couple’s different, when you get around the best marriage, you quickly see a strong friendship that supports every aspect of them. Romantic feelings will come and go throughout a marriage, but great friendships last. Every relationship has its ups and downs, but if you have an enduring friendship at the core of your marriage, it will act like a mountain spring, causing fresh feelings to bubble up even during the driest seasons.

so how should you date?

When I began to understand the wisdom of building a relationship off of a friendship and not my feelings, it completely changed who and how I dated. Instead of asking “Who will give me the strongest romantic feelings?” I began to ask, “Who could I develop a deep friendship with?” It’s so tempting, yet so dangerous, to develop a romantic relationship with someone you would never be friends with otherwise.

When you think about a relationship or marriage with someone, always look past your feelings and see if you have a friendship at the foundation. While it’s fun to have feelings for someone, if you want to build a strong and healthy marriage, make sure it is grounded on something more. Henry Cloud, a Christian writer and counselor, puts it this way:

Romance is great. Sexuality is great. Attraction is great. But here is the key: If all of those are not not built upon lasting friendship and respect for the person’s character, something is wrong.

Enjoy your romantic feelings, but make sure they grow out of a friendship, and don’t take the place of one. Cloud has two suggestions for how to do this:

  1. Begin every relationship with an eye towards friendship: Don’t allow yourself to fall head over heels for someone romantically until you have developed a friendship with them. Make sure you’ve developed a real friendship with them and have seen their character in real life before you let your romantic feelings run wild.

  2. Get to know the other person in non-romantic ways: Spend time with each other in non-romantic ways, to make sure you actually enjoy being with the other person on the basis of who they are, and not just how they  make you feel. If you don’t enjoy doing ordinary, non-romantic things with them,

This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to date or marry a friend even if you’re not attracted to them. That would be an over-application of what I’m saying. While a great friendship is the foundation for a great marriage, romantic feelings are an important part of every healthy marriage, so don’t force something if one or both of you don’t want to be more than friends.

so how do you know who to marry?

It’s easy to follow our romantic culture and marry the person who makes you feel most in love. But if you follow this path, don’t be surprised if you romantic love breaks down. Why? Because at its core, romantic love isn’t about the other person, but rather how the person other makes you feel. This means that romantic love, and those who marry for it, are feeding their own natural selfishness, which eventually makes two people becoming one almost impossible.

The Bible talks about the importance of love in marriage, but defines it differently. Marital love in the Bible isn’t a feeling in you, but rather an action for someone else. When Paul describes marital love to the Ephesians, he doesn’t talk about romantic feelings or an overwhelming sense of attraction, but rather Jesus’ willingness to give up His life to secure an eternal friendship with His bride. When Jesus demonstrated His love for His bride on the cross, He didn’t ask Himself how the relationship made Him feel, but rather acted on the love He had for you.

Real love isn’t always feeling the right way or finding someone who meets all of your romantic expectations, but is rather serving and supporting someone because you care about them so much. Marriage isn’t a celebration of how you feel, but rather a promise to your spouse that through all of the unpredictable events of life you’ll always be their friend.

The 15 Steps to Building Character

“I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to your soul.” -- Socrates

When’s the last time you thought about your character? Few of us ever spend time building this important part of our lives, focusing instead on things we know we’ll be judged on, like our appearance, popularity, and career.

To re-awaken my need to build my own character, I regularly read a section from David Brooks’ The Road To Character, where he lays out what he calls a “Humility Code,” a list of fifteen steps towards a more virtuous and mature life. While Brooks isn’t writing from a Christian perspective, I read the themes of the gospel into this code in order to point me towards the source of true character change: Jesus Christ.

(FYI: these are his headings and my comments).

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.

If we want to build character, you first have to change what you’re living for. While everyone else tells you to live for pleasure, great lives are driven by a struggle for moral virtue. Living for happiness is too small of a goal, and will never compare to the gratitude and joy that come from a life lived with strong character.  

2. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures.

If we live our lives in pursuit of holiness, then you’re implying that we’re not already holy. All of us have an inner bent towards selfishness and overconfidence, and we too quickly pursue empty and short term desires that help ourselves and hurt others. We all have a skewed view of ourselves, which causes us to exaggerate our strengths and overlook our weaknesses.

3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also tremendously endowed.

Even though we do have flaws and weaknesses, we each possess an internal moral compass that opens our eyes at times to these problems. And despite our shortcomings, we have the ability to improve and grow.

4. In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.

Brooks defines humility as “having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos.” Humility reminds us that we’re not self-sufficient and need to both rely on others, and admit that we’re not the most important person in the universe.

5. Pride is the central vice.

We aren’t naturally humble because of our pride, which blinds us to our flawed nature, making us unable to see our weaknesses and causing us to think we’re better than we actually are. Pride also cause us to work to prove we’re better than everyone else, and makes us think we’re in control of our own lives.

6. Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.

While our culture worships external achievements, the inner struggle against our moral failings is the most important battle we will fight. While sin will always be a part of our lives, we can choose to keep battling against it.

7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.

Character, what Brooks defines as a “set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness,” comes about when we confront our inner flaws and shortcomings. Character doesn’t get built all at once, but gets engraved onto our inner lives through the tiny actions and decisions of day-to-day life. Your always building your character, whether good or bad, and if you build poor character, your life will eventually bear the consequences.

8. The things that lead us astray are short term--lust, fear, vanity, and gluttony; while the things we call character endure over the long term--courage, honesty, and humility.

If you want to build character, you need to have the discipline to resist short term pleasure to instead pursue healthy, long term values. People with character take the long view towards life, and build stable beliefs and connections to the world that will pay off down the road.

9. Since individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception, no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.

If you try to become a person of character on your own you will fail, since our pride, selfishness, and self-deception are too strong for any of us to individually tackle. If you want to build character, you need outside help, from God, your friends, your family, and cultural tradition. As we wage our personal battle against ourselves with others, we encourage each other and grow stronger together.

10. We are all ultimately saved by grace.

Despite our best intentions, and even with the assistance of others, all of us will fail in our moral struggle. It is in these moments of failure and weakness that we can admit our need for others, and receive their grace, in the form of love, encouragement, and forgiveness.

11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the self, since it is only by muting the sound of your own ego that you can see the world clearly.

If we never give up our own pride and self-sufficiency, we’ll never listen or be open to the help we need from others. Our struggle against our weaknesses requires us to see ourselves as small, and to look to greater sources of strength and wisdom.

12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty, since the world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small.

If we want to be wise, then we need to admit that we often don’t know. Life is complex and contains so many interconnected causes and effects. To act like we can understand, much less know of all of these is to overestimate our knowledge of the world. Humility teaches us the limits of our knowledge and causes us to respect those who have more experience than we do.

13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.

A vocation is not about you using your work to fulfill yourself, but rather using your gifts to answer the call that the world makes on each of us. If you try to use your vocation for your own glory, you’ll always be anxious, since your ambitions will always outpace your accomplishments. If you use your work to serve the community, you’ll always be insecure and reliant on what others think of you. If you use your work to serve a vocation, you’ll focus on pursuing excellence and indirectly serve both yourself and the community.

14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it.

The best leader recognizes that they share the same flaws as the people they lead, so when they misbehave, they don’t immediately condemn the people under them. Good leaders invest in gradual, long-term change, knowing that radical and sudden change rarely creates healthy situations. Leadership is not about gaining power or glory, but about helping to mediate between competing ideals and purposes.

15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.

The goal of life isn’t popularity or fame, but rather maturity. Maturity is not about becoming better than everyone else, but rather being better than you used to be. The mature person is no longer fragmented, restless, or confused about where they are going in life. They can do the right thing, regardless of what the people around them think.

It’s important to note that true character change only happens when the Holy Spirit renews our lives through the resurrection of Jesus. Moral restraint never creates true heart change, but I this humility code is a really helpful reminder of our inherent sin and need for Christ.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” 2 Cor. 5:17

The Pursuit of Status: Modern Dating's Fatal Flaw

“Love can’t be earned, it can only be given.”  -- Donald Miller

“Why did we even start dating?” she looked at me and asked. My girlfriend and I were sitting in a parking lot at 1am, free-falling through the final moments of our relationship. “I thought you wanted to start dating,” I responded, “That’s why I suggested it.” “What!?!” she said. “I only said yes because I thought you wanted to.”  We both sat in stunned silence, knowing things were done.

In the months after we broke up, her question lingered in my mind. Why had we started dating? At first I didn’t know, but as time passed, I was finally able to admit the uncomfortable truth to myself. I’d asked her out, not because our personalities were a great match or we had such a strong friendship, but rather because dating her gave me what I’d be craving since high school: status, and the accompanying feeling of being a somebody.

the beginning of it all

It’d all started my freshman year of high school at the fall homecoming dance. I went to a typical Midwestern high school, and in a world where the girls prized the tall, athletic, and confident guys, 14 year-old Luke was short, chunky, and worst of all, timid. I felt invisible the whole night, relegated to the olive green plastic chairs lined up against the wall, joined by all of the other guys who didn’t measure up.

As I sat there, watching who danced with whom, I soaked up the unspoken message: if you ever want someone like her, you better be somebody like him. “If I could just get a girl like that to like me,” I thought from my sideline seat, “Then I could prove I actually matter.”

This unspoken goal etched itself into my mind, giving purpose to my high school and college years. If I could just achieve enough, academically, athletically, and socially, to be one of those guys, then I could get a girl like that to date me. This seemed like the best way to silence my nagging fears of forever being a nobody.

And so I got to work, spending the next ten years do everything I could to become successful. It  all culminated at 24, with the relationship I mentioned above. When we started dating, I finally felt like I belonged, excited that someone like her would like me. I’d made it, right?

our status driven world

We all grow up in a world that revolves around status, that intangible social standing which invisibly designates who gets the most respect, approval, and social power. No one has to teach us what status is, as we subconsciously pick it up, observing which kids receive the most praise, attention, and affirmation.

While our parents may have loved us unconditionally, the rest of the world doesn’t, causing us to feel the need to use our gifts, talents, and opportunities to show them we deserve their attention. And so, as we observe who and what’s high status, we subtly orient our lives towards these things, using our appearance, aptitude, and athleticism to prove we’re a somebody.

Nowhere, though, is our pursuit of status more pronounced than through relationships. Whether it’s middle school crushes, high school prom dates, or college “hang-outs,” who likes you both displays and creates status. These relationships follow the transitive rule of status, you are who you attract. And so we strive to date as pretty of a person as possible, hoping to solidify and expand our social standing.

why does is it like this?

This culture exists because we all grow up in something called a meritocracy, which David Brooks defines as a “hyper-competitive system where we are all encouraged to focus on cultivating our own talents and skills.” In a meritocracy, status gets distributed according to individual achievement, or merit, which leaves us chasing more and more success.

Before the gradual introduction of the meritocracy in the 18th and 19th Centuries, status was assigned by a strict hereditary aristocracy. If you were born to peasants, you were low status; born to nobles, high. But now, as we assign status to individual achievement and not familial last name, anyone, at least hypothetically can move up through talent and hard work.

With this change came of possibility for the first time of upward social mobility. Today, because of this switch, the successful life requires upward achievement, where you better your social standing through achievement, hoping to improve on your parents and outdo your peers. This opportunity, and expectation for upward social mobility, Brooks writes, creates four key beliefs that rule our culture:

  1. You view life as a competition.

  2. You value the external, not the internal.

  3. You view people according to a social ranking, based on how much they’ve achieved.

  4. You win at life by achieving the most.

These beliefs reside in our collective subconscious, teaching us that our worth and value aren’t tied to who we intrinsically are, but rather to how much we externally achieve.

dating in the meritocracy

While the meritocracy can be seen in every corned of our society, nowhere is its influence stronger than in dating and relationships. In our meritocracy, dating is no longer about trying to find a companion for life, but rather an aspirational search, where we use a relationship to prove our level of achievement and social rank.

Because of this, the groundwork for dating and marriage in our culture is individual achievement, to prove to others that you’re a high status person. You have to be a somebody, after all, if you want to attract a somebody. While what constitutes achievement differs for men and women, it always revolves around easily judged external categories, such as appearance, body type, clothing, academic degrees, jobs, lifestyle, and social media profiles.

And so, we willingly work long hours, spend money we don’t have, and become people we’re not, all in order to achieve and establish as high of status level as possible. Once we achieved as much as we can, we then hope to use our resulting status to attract a person with equal or slightly better status. If we can do this, it will validate our achievements and prove to our parents, peers, and society-at-large that we’re successful, while giving us the happiness and self-worth we think will satisfy.

our current dating mindset

This approach, what I’ll call achievement dating, causes us to completely flip our approach towards relationships. Rather than pursuing a relationship with someone we naturally connect with, we limit ourselves to only those who check off enough achievement boxes, and then try to connect with them. This creates a subtle, yet destructive, flaw seen in much of today’s dating:

You don’t date who you actually like, but rather who you’d like to like.

This flaw causes us to resist people we naturally connect with, but who don’t have enough status for us, to instead try to date the people we’d like to connect, because their looks, lifestyle, and status fit our ideal identity. Pastor John Ortberg puts it this way: our idea of a good marriage isn’t to find the man or woman who will match your soul, but to win the guy or girl everybody else wants.

This approach to dating causes you to date transactionally, where you evaluate every potential date not on who they are as a person, but rather on their ability to help you reach your goals. As you pursue achievement and status, this means you primarily value a person’s looks, lifestyle, and achievements. It’s no surprise then that every dating app allows you to instantly assess each other on these exact things. And so we spend our single years trying to date the highest status people we can, willing to force a connection so we can either create or maintain a high social status.

When I dated like this, I rationalized any lack of connection away, hanging on a few things we had in common, all because I liked how I looked when this person was with me. I thought I liked the other person, but I really just liked how they made me feel about myself. But then, after the inevitable breakup, I’d go back to the girls I had great friendships with to complain about how messed up dating was, never willing to admit the problem might be with me.

why do we date like this?

Given all of the frustration and hurt surrounding relationships today, one would think we’d be more than ready to get rid of achievement dating. But, due to three major reasons, we can’t ever quite let go.

  1. We want to validate all of the work we’ve done: As young people who have sacrificed so much to achieve, we want to finally get a return on all of our hard work. We don’t want to throw away the last 20 plus years of achievement all by marrying someone “below” us, and feel entitled to an equally-statused achiever. So we resist anyone who doesn’t measure up, inwardly stating we “deserve” more.

  2. We want to solidify our social standing for life: Since we know we’ll be judged on the status of our spouse the rest of our lives, we hold out for someone who will prove our status as a high achiever. If we marry a lower status person, we’re afraid our status will drop, relegating us to a permanent place in the social underclass. And in a culture that decreasingly believe in an afterlife, achievement in the here and now becomes everything.

  3. We want to set up our children to win: Aware our future children will grow up in a meritocracy just like us, we hold out for a spouse who will best equip them with the looks, intelligence, and abilities to win at the game of life. We’re afraid that if we settle, we’ll permanently disadvantage our hypothetical children in their pursuit of high status.

These three reasons show why many remain single and hold out for a spouse with the highest possible status. But they still beg the question: why is status so important? Why do we all feel the need to validate our achievements, solidify our social standing, and equip our children to win at this same game?

the real reason for achievement dating

We all strive to achieve high status because we all struggle with the same question: am I important? Born one in a world of seven billion, we all wonder if our life actually matters. Deep down, we’re all afraid that the answer’s no, so we look to others and their perceptions of us as the basis of our identities. We spend our lives trying to impress them, hoping to convince everyone around us that we are valuable.

We become ambitious in our life and dating, thinking that greater achievements will garner greater amounts of attention and love. The problem, though, is that great achievement and the resultant high status don’t happen overnight, or if at all, which causes us to live with what philosopher Alain de Botton calls “status anxiety.” In the uncertainty of singleness, we’re all unsure we’ll attract a high status person, leaving us both insecure and anxious that we’ll ever achieve our relationship goals.

I spent so much of my twenties looking to relationships to take that insecurity and anxiety away, but it never worked. No matter who I dated, I could never silence my inner doubts and fears. There was always a little voice in my head that whispered, especially after breakups, “You’re not enough, Luke, so no one will ever like you.” And if someone did, then I’d struggle with imposter syndrome, leaving me feeling like I was a fraud, sure they would cut ties after they realized I was really just a nobody masquerading as an achiever. So what’s the answer, then?

so what’s the answer?

When I think back to 14 year-old Luke, sitting there at that high school dance, I wish I could tell him to never think that achievement, status, or have the “right” girlfriend could solve what I was searching for. This never works because no amount of an external achievement will solve your inner hurt and fear.

We need something more than what this world can give, something that can satisfy our ambition, yet at the same time take away our insecurity. It’s at this point that God comes to you and whispers something different. You’re important, He says, not because of what you’ve achieved, but rather because of what Jesus has achieved on your behalf. Christ’s achievements, through His life, death, and resurrection are available to you, and can satisfy your ambitions; you no longer have to marry some high status person to prove your successful, and can instead rest in the identity He provides.

On top of this, Christ’s love for you melts your insecurities and fear of not being important. The Son of God left paradise to suffer and die, all so He could spend eternity in a relationship with you. We can’t do anything to earn this love, but rather it is given to us by God’s unmerited grace. Knowing this, you never have to base your importance and value on who you can attract, but rather on the God who, because of Jesus, says this about you: you are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased!

so what now?

So what does this mean for who we date and marry? What it doesn’t mean is that you can never go out with someone who’s attractive or successful. Of course not. But it does completely change our motives for choosing who and how to date. When you rest in Jesus’ achievements and love, you no longer have to date someone for what they give you or how they make you look, but rather because you’re excited about who they are and what you can be together.

As an ever-recovering achievement dater, I always ask myself three questions when I’m interested in someone, in order to check what my true motives are:

  1. If this person were half as physically attractive would I still be just as interested?

  2. If my friends never saw what this person looked like or knew about any of their accomplishments, would I still be just as interested?

  3. Am I interested in this person because I’m trying to build my kingdom, or because I think that together we can better serve God’s kingdom?

If I answer any of these three questions incorrectly, then I need to reconsider my interest, since it’s most likely based on external status than internal character. The best relationships aren’t a means to mutually assured achievement, but rather a pathway to serving each other and bringing glory to God.

previous essays in this series:

My 10 Favorite Books of 2018

I love reading so much, and want to share the best books that I’ve read this past year. Each of these books have changed me, bring joy, insight, and growth into my life. They’re all different, but they’ve been crucial to my life and development over this last year. So if you want to grow in 2019, I encourage to pick up one of these and dig in!


10. Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat

Key Quote: “Whether you’ve never picked up a knife or you’re an accomplished chef, there are only four basic factors that determine how good your food will taste: salt, which enhances flavor; fat, which amplifies flavor and makes appealing textures possible; acid, which brightens and balances; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of the food.”

Why I Liked This Book: Unlike so many recipe-heavy cookbooks, this book is more about teaching you how to cook. Samin doesn’t just give you recipes to follow, but teaches you the principles of cooking, so that you’re equipped to tackle all kinds of food. The most interesting cookbook I’ve ever read!


9. Everybody Always, by Bob Goff

Key Quote:Now I think while we might be known for our opinions, we’ll be remembered for our love. What I’ve learned following Jesus is we only really find our identities by engaging the people we’ve been avoiding.”

Why I Liked This Book: Bob Goff is an ordinary man who shows you how to love people like Jesus loved them. His examples and stories about how to love like Jesus are both gently convicting and instructive. This book has helped my faith grow from head knowledge to heart action, especially in a place like New York, which is full of people who can be hard to love.


8. Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

Key Quote: “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”

Why I Liked This Book: As someone who comes up with lots of ideas and gets distracted easily, this book was so helpful! Learning to focus on the essential things in life has been really good for me. I like how he doesn’t encourage you to become more efficient, which just leads you into more and more busyness, but rather teaches you how to focus and gain clarity about the meaningful things that are worth spending your life on.


7. My Life in France, by Julia Child

Key Quote: “When I wasn't at school, I was experimenting at home, and became a bit of a Mad Scientist. I did hours of research on mayonnaise, for instance, and though no one else seemed to care about it, I thought it was utterly fascinating....By the end of my research, I believe, I had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history.”

Why I Liked This Book: This book was incredible, as it detailed how an ordinary 38 year-old woman, stuck at home in Paris while her husband worked at a job for the U.S. Foreign Service, discovered and fell in love with French cooking. Julia’s path to becoming a cooking legend is both inspiring and instructive, showing the wisdom of picking something you enjoy and getting a little bit better at it every day. Her writing takes you back to 1950s Paris, and shows the beauty of a life well-lived.


6. Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier

Key Quote: “The discovery of our common humanity liberates us from self-centered compulsions and inner hurts; it is the discovery that ultimately finds its fulfillment in forgiveness and in loving those who are our enemies. It is the process of truly becoming human.”

Why I Liked This Book: Jean Vanier is such an inspiring person. in 1964, he bought a home in rural France and invited two men with developmental disabilities to live with him. This became L’Arche, a community for people with special needs, that now has over 100 homes throughout the world. In this book, Vanier writes about the lessons he’s learned through serving this community, helping me understand community, loneliness, and how to love people who are different than me.


5. The Power of Moments, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Key Quote: “We must learn to think in moments, to spot the occasions that are worthy of investment…In organizations, we are consumed with goals…but for an individual human being, moments are the thing. Moments are what we remember and what we cherish.”

Why I Liked This Book: Human beings thrive off of moments, those special times of life that bring joy and cement themselves into our memories. This book explores why moments matter so much and helps you think through how to create them. I found this book so beneficial, and I’ve used it to rethink how I interact with my customers, friends, and family.


4. Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

Key Quote: “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.”

Why I Liked This Book: This book opened my eyes to so many important things that I’d been blind to in my life. I had heard of boundaries before, but as I read this book, I began to understand the lack of them in many of the relationships in my life, and the major problems that caused. My life and relationships with my customers, friends, and roommates has improved so much as a result of this book.


3. Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday

Key Quote: “If you go looking you’ll find that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.”

Why I Liked This Book: This book is all about our egos and the danger it poses to all of us. Reading this book was eye-opening, since it showed me some major ways pride and overconfidence are setting me up for major problems down the line. Holiday draws from a wide variety of historical examples to show the corrupting influence of ego, versus the healthy effects of humility. This book is a must-read for anyone in their twenties.


2. TrueFaced, by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch

Key Quote: “If our primary motive is Pleasing God, we never please him enough and we never learn to trust. That’s because life on this road is all about my striving

Why I Liked This Book: This book blew my mind in all of the best ways! It hones in on your motives for following God, showing the difference that results when we either try to please God or trust Him instead. It may seem like a small difference, but it creates such a radically different spiritual life. This book changed my life, and helped me understand grace and my relationship with God in a much healthier way. This book is so important for you to read!!!


1. From Wild Man to Wise Man, by Richard Rohr

Key Quote: “The full male journey is a risky journey where you can only trust God and not your own worthiness or rightness. It is a journey into the outer world, into the world of risk, uncertainty, and almost certain failure.”

Why I Liked This Book: This book packs a punch, and has helped me to understand what it looks like to grow into a healthy and spiritually mature man. Men are not naturally encouraged to do the “inner work” of examining your past hurts, wounds, and experiences, but this book gave me a framework to work through the ups and downs of my life. Richard Rohr brings such wisdom and insight into the male condition through this book, and I loved it so much.

If You Actually Want To Get Married, Start Looking For a Spouse, Not a Savior

“The search for the perfect is usually the enemy of the truly good.” — Richard Rohr

single in the city

“Do you mind if I invite a few people over tonight?” I asked my roommates. It was Valentine’s Day, and as usual, I was single. So I started messaging some friends, telling them to come over and invite anyone else who was free.

By nine o’clock that night, more than forty twenty-somethings had crammed into my small New York apartment. I was shocked by the turnout. “How can all of these friendly, successful, and attractive young people still be single?” I thought. Something seemed off. We all spent so much time talking about relationships during day-to-day life, yet few of us were ever in one, much less getting married.

why aren’t we getting married?

As I’ve talked to young people around the country, they’ve shared similar stories to mine. After college, many of them had moved to trendy cities and developed large friend groups and social circles. They spent their twenties wanting to get married, yet despite all of the single people around them, they struggled to find a spouse.

This creates a marriage paradox: every Christian young person wants to get married, and we’re surrounded by other single people who want to get married, yet everyone’s afraid they’ll never find anyone to marry. At face value this situation doesn’t make sense. How can so many single people be friends with so many other single people, yet be afraid of always being single?

the late twenties blues

“I’m afraid I’m never going to find someone to marry,” the comment always goes. I’ve heard this phrase so many times from my peers, and have uttered it myself. Few young people ever share this side of themselves in public, but one-on-one, when you dig into what’s really going on in life, this fear tumbles out, unable to be repressed any longer.

“But what about her? Or him?” any good listener asks. “They’d be interested in dating you.” Uncomfortable squirm. “They’re nice,” the getting-ready-to-join-a-convent person says in a woe-is-me voice, “But they’re just not quite what I’m looking for.” This is the crucial phrase, and it begs the question: what are we looking for in marriage?

the unasked question

To understand what we’re looking for in marriage, we have to dig into a deeper question that rarely gets asked: what’s the purpose, after all, of marriage? We spend a lot of time thinking about how to get married, but few conversations ever address why we should get married. We assume every generation gets married for the same reasons, but in reality, marriage is an ever-evolving institution, adapted by each time period to fit its view of the world.

In the 1700 and 1800s, when the U.S. was full of farmers, young people pursued pragmatic marriages, seeking a spouse for their ability to work hard and create an economically stable and secure life. After the Industrial Revolution, young people began to pursue companionate marriages, where they chose a spouse on the basis of the excitement, intimacy, and romantic love they felt with the other person. While lots of young people in traditional parts of the US still pursue companionate marriages, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s ushered in today’s dominant marriage narrative: self-expressive marriage.

a new type of marriage

In self-expressive marriage, marriage becomes a means by which you pursue happiness and self fulfillment. While pragmatic marriage sought to meet the larger needs of the society, and companionate marriage was about meeting the immediate needs of your spouse and children, in self-expressive marriage, young people pursue marriage in order to meet their own personal needs.

Today, sociologist Eli Finkel writes, young people “view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.” Marriage above all, he adds, becomes a quest for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.

This change occurred as a result of society’s emphasis on the self, creating our current culture where self-expression and self-fulfillment are the highest values. So, we grow up focusing on understanding who we are and what will fulfill us. As we enter high school and college, these are the desires that become the criteria by which all prospective spouses are judged.

expectations everywhere

While young people have always had expectations for marriage, self-expressive marriage has raised them beyond any previous generation. This happened because when you start looking into yourself for guidance, you quickly find almost unlimited desires that you’d like to fulfill. According to Finkel, these unlimited desires have created increased expectations for marriage in four major areas. They’ve led to increased expectations for:

  • Emotional intimacy: we don’t just want a partner, but a best friend who naturally understands us and makes us feel alive when we’re together.

  • Sexual passion: we want every sexual encounter to be exciting, passionate, and full of ecstatic pleasure, with a person who we can’t take our eyes off of.

  • Social prestige: we want to marry someone that’s either equally or more successful than we are, in order to gain or solidify our desired social status.

  • Personal growth: we want a spouse that not only “gets us”, but helps us realize our hopes, dreams, and potential for life.

While every young person is different, these four categories describe the general expectations many of us use to choose a spouse. Just last week, while scrolling through Instagram, I came across a single guy’s “letter to the universe” about his future spouse. As you read it, look for his self-expressive expectations:

Dear Universe, I’m ready for you to bring my soulmate into my life. Here’s my vision of my ideal relationship: She lights me up! There’s a connection and oneness between us. She is my best friend. We know each other’s thoughts. I’m free with her. Our conversations flow. We inspire each other to learn and grow. We enjoy working out, making food, and doing yoga together. We love to travel to new places.

We have such incredible passion when we kiss, hug, and touch each other. When we kiss and make love we lose track of time. There is an energy between us that people can feel. We both put the needs of the other one in front of our own. We share similar interests. She has a growth mindset, very loving, playful, constantly smiling, funny, and loves adventure. I can’t wait to meet you!

While we’d be too embarrassed to ever express these things, this guy describes many of the unspoken expectations young people have for marriage. We’re not just looking for someone to share life with or raise a family, but instead want a deep friendship, strong sexual attraction, advantageous social connections, and a life of reaching our dreams together.

While none of these expectations are inherently wrong, together, though, they create a sky-high bar for what your future spouse needs to be. If you find a spouse who meets all of these expectations, we’re led to believe, you’ll be guaranteed a happy and fulfilling life. Because of this, we spend our twenties in the defining aspect of today’s pursuit of marriage: the search.

looking for miss/mister right

Because we have such high expectations for our future spouse, we need to cast a wide net to find such a special person. We develop large friend groups, attend large churches, and go to large parties, in part to increase the likelihood of meeting someone who can make all of our dreams come true. Cue Hall and Oates.

And so we spend our twenties in large friend groups, meeting new people and judging them against our expectations. This search for an ideal spouse dominates our twenties, and is the major reason for the popularity of dating apps, since they allow you to quickly filter through a large number of prospective dates. We start with a person’s external traits, their job, social status, and sex appeal, and if they pass those tests, we try to get to know them and see if there’s an emotional connection.

problems in paradise

As I went through my twenties, I spent a lot of time looking for this perfect person. If I could just find this person, I thought, I’d have my ticket to the perfect life punched. But by the end of my twenties, I was exhausted; I’d met so many people yet still hadn’t found some who met my expectations.

Looking back, I see the how the inherent flaws in the self-expressive marriage search made it almost impossible for me to ever find this perfect person.

  • My pride led to pickiness: since I was subconsciously looking for someone who met my needs, my preferences became the standard by which I judged everyone else. This caused me to disqualify a good option if they weren’t perfect, at least according to my definition.

  • I struggled with the paradox of choice: since I met so many young people, I eventually became paralyzed by all of the choices. Every person had pros and cons, and so I struggled to choose among so many good, but never perfect, options.

  • I had contradictory expectations: since expectations are inherently abstract, I was looking for mutually exclusive traits in the same person. I wanted someone who was good-looking, exciting, and had a strong personality, yet at the same time was humble, servant-hearted, and stable. But because every strength creates a weakness, this person can’t exist.

While finding your dream spouse sounds great in theory, these structural roadblocks in self-expressive marriage create a lot of frustration and make it hard to ever find your “perfect” person.

the waiting game

And. So. We. Wait. Years go by, while we search to find someone who meets all of our expectations. It’s as these years pass that the fear of being single kicks in, that even though we’re surrounded by so many other single people, we’ll never meet our ideal person who perfectly completes us.

But yet we can’t just marry any single person around us, for fear of “settling,” that dirty word for giving up on your expectations. If you settle, we’re told by society, you’ll end up stuck forever in an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage.  And so we wait, afraid of being single and lonely, yet not wanting to settle and feel stuck and unhappy.

This is what creates our marriage paradox. When a young person, surrounded by other quality single people, expresses fear that they’ll never get married, they’re not actually afraid of never getting married, but rather that they’ll never find their perfect person. Surrounded by frogs, we hold out for our prince.

And while we’ll all meet people who meet all of our expectations, it’s difficult to find a prince who thinks you’re more than a frog. So we go through our twenties, single and frustrated with everyone else’s high expectations, but blind to them in our own lives.

the hidden cost of self-expressive marriage

“But what about my friends who are getting married?” you might be saying by now. “They look really happy.” You’re right, when two good-looking, high-achieving young people hold out for the best and get it, it’s incredible, between the gorgeous engagement pictures, beautiful wedding, and instagram posts professing they’ve finally found their “dream person.”

But as my peers both remain single and get married, I’ve seen that behind the initial promise of happiness and self-fulfillment, self-expressive marriage and the expectations that come with it create some disastrous side effects.

  • Pessimistic single people: When single young people expect their future spouse to meet all of their idealistic expectations, they often fall into a deep pessimism about dating and marriage. This creates either bitterness (all men/women are terrible!), withdrawal (it’s hopeless!), or rationalizing away major character flaws (s/he’ll change once we’re married), none of which are healthy.

  • Disillusioned married couples: some young people find their dream person, and get married to them, only to realize after the initial sheen has worn off, that this person isn’t great at making them feel happy and fulfilled. Eventually they wake up to the hard reality that they’re both incapable of and exhausted by the burden of meeting all of their spouse’s expectations. This causes disillusionment and cynicism, and they assume they must have married the wrong person.

  • Fulfilled yet self-absorbed married couples: self-expressive marriage can work really well, as long as the couple has the emotional energy and and disposable income available to focus on fulfilling their spouse’s dream life. But these marriages get so couple-focused, that they do nothing other than work and spend time together living their dream lifestyle, which usually involves lots of travel, restaurants, and leisure. But if the DINK years ever end, these marriages can struggle, as the pressures of life and getting older cut into each spouse’s ability to fulfill the other.

While the promises of self-expressive marriage sounds great in the abstract, it’s hard for anyone to meet these expectations either initially or throughout the lifetime of a marriage. So far though, we’ve only looked at the symptoms of self-expressive marriage. If we want things to change, we need to address the root cause of these expectations.

how did we get this way?

When the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s occurred, it completed what the Enlightenment had started, and kicked God out of the center of the universe, putting individual Self there instead happened. While society’s enjoyed getting rid of God’s rules, we’ve collectively struggled to replace the purpose and transcendence He provided. To fill this void, we’ve taken marriage, and tried to use it to regain a sense of purpose and transcendence.

Now that Self is the center of the universe, and we’re trying to use marriage to transcend our finiteness, we’re no longer looking for a spouse, but rather a savior. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, puts our search for a love partner this way:

We want redemption--nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. We turn to the love partner for the experience of the heroic, for perfect validation; we expect them to ‘make us good’ through love.

In our finite brokenness, we all desire a savior, someone who will love us, validate our lives, and make us feel happy and safe forever. If we can just find our savior spouse, then we can create what we’re really looking for: heaven on earth.

the true savior

But since perfect savior spouses are hard to find, we spend our twenties either in unwanted singleness or struggling to love our spouse, with all of their struggles, flaws, and shortcomings. But if you ever want true happiness and lasting fulfillment, you have to follow this inner drive for a savior not to your spouse, but to Jesus, the real Savior our hearts yearn for.

Jesus, because He’s both God and man, is the only person who can fulfill your expectations for being known, loved, and cared for. This true savior knows everything about you, yet still loves you so much that He gave up everything in order to secure a relationship with you. He promises to only give you what’s for your very best, and that when this life is over, you’ll spend eternity with Him in a perfect relationship.

So if you want to get married, stop looking for a de facto savior, and instead find a person who points you to the only perfect Savior. When you find true fulfillment in God, you can use the good things God’s created, like beauty, personality, and passion, to glorify Him, not to selfishly serve yourself. That’s the path to a happy and fulfilling marriage, when you stop asking your spouse to sacrifice their life for you, but like Jesus, give up your life for them.

previous essays in the series

a successful life isn’t about getting married, but getting God

relationships are by grace alone

next week: marriage and the meritocracy

Relationships Are By Grace Alone

Note: This is the second essay on my series about relationships. The first one’s here, and while they build off of each other, they can be read independently.

I see people my age getting married to people they’ve known for like a year and a half. A year and a half? Is that enough time to get to know someone to know you want to spend the rest of your life with them? I’ve had sweaters for a year and a half and I was like 'What was I doing with this sweater?' "  --Aziz Ansari

"How am I still single," I wondered. "Yet that guy's in a relationship! Especially with her?" After my initial disgust, I'd make a checklist to compare me and the other guy, choosing categories that weighted towards my strengths and his weaknesses.  The results always came back the same: another guy that I should have been married before. As I went through my twenties and attended wedding after wedding, I struggled at times; why them and not me? 

I went through my twenties thinking I could will my way into a relationship. If I was the right kind of guy: funny, charming, successful, well-dressed, and planned the right dates, then I'd have to get someone to commit to me, right? After some bumpy breakups, I figured I needed to do more, and added relationship books to my self-improvement diet, thinking that relational success was just a few personality adjustments away. As the years went by, I worked harder and harder to be the right guy, growing more and more frustrated when none of it ever worked. But one day, God opened my eyes and I saw a new truth: a relationship isn’t something you work to deserve, but a gracious gift from God. 

relationships by works: i deserve this!

"Justin, you're so old." I said to my older brother, "I can't believe that it took you until 28 to get married." I was 22 at the time, confident that someone like me would be married by 25 at the latest. "Be careful, Luke," my Dad warned from the next room, "You don't know how old you'll be when you get married." Hmmph, I wasn't worried, certain that my success in other areas of life would carry over to finding a spouse.

This mindset is common today, and it pervades the attitudes of young people in our culture. I'll call it a relationship by works mentality: if you put in enough work to become the type of person who fits someone else's dreams, you'll be guaranteed a relationship. So young adults spend their twenties and thirties devoted to self-improvement, using exercise, work, travel, clothing, and social media to create enough social capital to warrant the right to marry another similarly desirable person. We think that if we're polished, smart, and attractive, then our dream relationship can't be too far behind.

This relationships by works mindset works for a while, and you’ll meet lots of other successful young people who are following this same script. This mindset culminates in a subconscious deal you make with God: if I get the things society says are important and I obey all of your rules, then you have to give me a relationship. So you begin to date, certain that since you are upholding your end of the bargain, God will give you your dream spouse.

People in this mindset start your twenties with such relational optimism, sure that their dream spouse is just around the corner. But then your expectations start to crack, as girls say no or guys never ask. And when something does happen, it inexplicable crumbles, leaving you wondering why two people both following this deal with God couldn't make it work. As you stay single year after year, while the pressure to be married builds and builds, you approach God, angry at Him and disappointed with yourself, wondering why He didn't hold up His end of the bargain.

You to God: "Why did you make me this way, God? You're to blame because you could have made me taller, prettier, more successful, more popular, and more athletic, but you didn't. On top of that, you know how much I've given up for you! I go to church every week, I usually read my Bible, I only date Christians, and I'm not sleeping around like everyone else. I do so much for you, yet you won't give me the relationship I deserve. Do you even care about me? 

You to Yourself: What's wrong with me? Why is everybody else getting married and I'm not! I guess I really am too short/tall/fat/skinny/ugly/awkward/loud/shy/annoying/poor to ever expect someone to like me. I feel like such a failure, and the fact that I'm still single proves it. But maybe if I work on those things that my ex critiqued me on, I might be good enough for someone else.

In our my-works-merit-a-relationship mindset, we get angry at God when we feel we've fulfilled our part of the deal but He hasn't give us what we deserve. So we pull our moral resumé and wave it in front of God to remind Him of everything we've done, while simultaneously wallowing in discouragement and inadequacy. You take your singleness as proof that not only can you not trust God, but you're also too broken and flawed to be loved by anyone. 

relationships are by grace alone

I went through most of my twenties under that perspective, working harder and harder, yet feeling more imperfect than ever, continually frustrated that God wasn't keeping His end of our deal. But then He opened my eyes to a startling truth: that just like salvation, relationships are only by grace. A relationship isn't a reward for being the right kind of person or a sign that you've been good enough, but rather an undeserved gift from God because of His love for you. 

What a complete change in perspective! When you believe a relationship is only given as a gift from God and not as a reward for those who deserve it, you can trust that He will give you a relationship if and when it is the best thing for you. You don't have to live anxiously, frustrated you're not in a relationship. Instead, you can give yourself fully to this current time in your life, knowing that God thinks you being single today is the absolute best thing for your life. While understanding this doesn't dissolve the disappointment many feel at being single, it does help you live in a healthier relationship with both God and yourself. How does that happen?

Towards God: Whether you're single or in a relationship, you can trust that this is God's absolute best for you. Your life is not careening off track, but is following God's plan for what is best for you. It also allows you to see being single not as an undesirable state to be gotten out of as soon as possible, but rather as a way for you to serve and glorify God.

Towards Yourself: When you believe a relationship is a gift, it takes away the burden of self-improvement; that constant feeling of needing to be better in order to deserve a relationship. Since God gave you your personality, life circumstances and body type, you can stop feeling like you are not enough, and that you'll never be in a relationship unless you're perfect. It also tells that you being single is not a sign that you're messed up beyond hope, but rather that God is writing a different story with your life.  

When you internalize the fact that you can never be good enough to deserve a relationship, it sets you free to both love God and love who He has made you to be. You can accept that your different looks, quirky personality, and persistent weaknesses aren't mistakes that disqualify you from God's best for your life, but the setting in which He will reveal His grace to you, whether that means being single or in a relationship. Being single is not a curse or a sign that God has forgotten you, but an opportunity to dig into the place and people where God has called you. 

why we naturally hate this

Unfortunately, we all naturally hate that relationships are by grace alone. Even when we've experienced the destructiveness of trying to deserve a relationship, we all like having that deal in place in God. Here are the two major reasons why:  

We Want the Glory: If you receive your relationship only because of grace, then, when a relationship does happen, it destroys your ability to think you're better than everyone else. If relationships are only given through God's grace, then you have to give Him all the glory for yours. We hate this because we want the glory for our lives, and try to steal it from God at every opportunity. Grace says you didn't earn this relationship by being more cool/talented/desirable/or successful, but only because God gave you a gift you don't deserve.

We Want Control: When you submit yourself to God's grace, you have to give up control over your life. We like the works mentality because it gives us a feeling of control over God and our lives. If I do this, then you have to give me that. This desire for control manifests itself in two ways:

  1. You plow ahead in a relationship even when God gives you a red light: You resist God's grace by ignoring all of the red lights He puts up, continuing to pursue a relationship that isn't working only because the person fulfills your idols: they have the right look, job, background, status, etc. To live in God's grace means you need to end a relationship that you know He doesn't want you in.

  2. You refuse to go forward into a relationship when God gives a green light: Here, we resist God's grace and reject a relationship He is trying to give us because the other person doesn't meet our criteria. We ignore God's grace, acting like it's not there, so that we can find someone else who gets us closer to our idols, the things that really make us happy. Most of us would rather be single with the option of a perfect spouse, so we resist God when He brings someone into our life that is a great fit, but doesn’t line up with our dream scenario.

In both of these situations, you don't want to give up control because you're more concerned with getting your way than in getting God and His best for you. Tim Keller nails this mindset in the following quote:

"Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage who will "fulfill their emotional, sexual, and spiritual desires." And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to deep pessimism that you will never find the right person to marry. This is the reason so many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are "not good enough." 

While the fact that relationships are by grace alone frees you from the pressure of having to be good enough to get married, it also calls you to stop resisting God's grace and pursue a relationship even if they don't fit all of your criteria. God won’t force you to be in a relationship with someone, but don’t be surprised when He draws you to a person you weren’t initially attracted to.

what now?

By now, you might feel a tension between trusting God's grace to provide with your need to do something. God gives graciously, but He also calls you to act. So while your actions never merit God's favor and blessings, they are the means that God uses to deliver His grace to you and to other people. If you feel that you should be in a relationship, God calls you to put some effort in and go for it. Young people typically don't strike this balance, but are either too active or passive in their pursuit of a relationship. This difference requires different advice for each group:

For Active Types: Your temptation is to get out ahead of God and try to make a relationship happen. Active types trample over God's grace, trying to manufacture a relationship even if He isn't leading them to that. If you're an active type, God calls you to be patient, and to wait on Him to provide you with good opportunities that fit His will for your life. 

For Passive Types: Your temptation is to sit around and wait for God to provide the absolute perfect opportunity. Passive types abuse God's grace and use it as a cover for inaction. While discerning God's will is a huge topic, step out into faith, not perfectionism, and trust that God will bless you, not in spite of the messiness of relationships, but through it.

Trusting God to be gracious to you isn’t easy. Will He give you a relationship? Will you be single for the rest of your life? I don’t know, and no one does. But the Apostle Paul poses this same question, asking: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” You follow a God who has freely given you eternal life with Him; this enormous gift should give you the confidence that Jesus will provide every other gift that you need in this life.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.    Ephesians 2:8-9

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A Successful Life Isn't About Getting Married, But Getting God

“Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?” — Chris Rock

“So Luke,” the question always starts, “are you dating anyone?” My eyes get wide. “Oh, umm, yeah. Sorry, I’m, ahh, not,” I manage to fumble out. No matter how many times I get this question, it always catches me off guard. Not because it’s rude, it just jolts me to their underlying expectation: shouldn’t you be married by now?

Growing up, I assumed I’d get married in my early twenties, since that’s what successful people did. But as I went through college, while my friends all met and started dating their future wives, that wasn’t my story. And so, after I’d graduated and started attending wedding after wedding, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Is it okay that I’m not married yet? And if it is, then why do I feel like such a failure?

two conflicting views on marriage

Unbeknownst to me, I was caught in between traditional and progressive cultures’ struggle to use marriage to define what a successful life is. The traditional culture that I grew up in told me marriage should happen in my early twenties, in order to create mature adults and stable families. But I also felt the pull of progressive culture, which told me marriage should be delayed in order to cultivate your gifts and maximize your potential.

Each side fights for young people’s loyalty, using praise and critique to convince college students to follow their preferred narrative. Traditional culture praises those who get married young, bestowing celebrations, gifts, and “adulthood” onto young people when they marry and have kids. This culture sees singleness as a “problem” to be gotten rid of, and looks at unmarried people with suspicion:

Why won’t you grow up and get married? You’re just being selfish and immature. Or maybe something’s wrong with you?

Progressive culture does the opposite, incentivizing young people to delay marriage by heaping money, status, and success onto those who stay single and spend their twenties building their careers and lifestyles. This culture sees getting married young as a terrible decision that stunts personal growth and freedom, and looks at married people with suspicion:

Why are you throwing your life away at such a young age? You don’t even know who you are yet; you’ll both change and then be stuck in a miserable marriage.

just trying to fit in

Having grown up in the traditional midwest, I spent my early twenties trying to get married.  I wanted to join the adult world of successful people that my friends had been welcomed into, and marriage was my ticket. I was afraid if I didn’t get married soon I’d fall behind, and get stuck with the unwanted stigma attached to single people.

So I tried to make a relationship happen, dating several girls over the next few years. As each relationship imploded, I was left frustrated and hurt, angry at both my former girlfriends and God for not cooperating with my plan to be successful. I was single in a culture that said I should be married, which made me feel like a failure.

working to be worthy

At that point, I moved to New York City, leaving the traditional culture of my youth for the capital of progressive culture. I was now surrounded by single people my age and older everywhere, and nobody looked down on you if you were still single. What a refreshing change. New York’s progressive culture told me not to focus on getting married, since your twenties were a time to build your career. Then, after you had achieved enough, you could get married in your thirties.

And so I stopped worrying about getting married and dove into my career, starting a cleaning business before getting a job at a church I’d always wanted to work at. Soon, I’d developed a subconscious checklist of what I needed in order to be successful enough to be married: a desirable job, expendable income, cool apartment, and a curated collection of hobbies and interests. If I could prove myself successful in all of these areas, then I’d be ready for marriage.

After a few years of this, I was exhausted, disappointed, and still single. Progressive culture had promised that if I worked hard and got my life together I’d be successful enough to get married, but I still felt five years away from any of those goals. I felt like a failure, but in a different way, since I hadn’t done enough to make someone want to marry me.

the problem with both views

By now I’d been influenced by both cultures, caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle between the progressive and traditional narratives. I felt like I couldn’t get married because I wasn’t successful (progressive view), yet I couldn’t be successful unless I was married (traditional view). I felt stuck in this never-ending loop of failure.

So many single young people feel like a failure because both cultures, while appearing different, share the same underlying belief: marriage is ultimately how you prove you’re successful. Traditional young people panic when they’re single at 22, and progressive young people panic when they’re single at 32, but eventually every single person struggles with this thought: If I don’t get married soon, it will prove that I really am a failure.

life through God’s love

Christianity, though, rejects our culture’s fixation on marriage, teaching that the successful life is not about getting married, but rather getting God. The Bible tells us that our primary calling as Christians is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to get married and have kids. Marriage is a good thing, for sure, but it’s a secondary calling, behind our relationship with God.

When you view life through this lens, you see that God created marriage and singleness to complement, not compete, with each other. He views them as two different, but equal, callings for humans to glorify Him. God does this by calling married people to demonstrate the depth of His love, while calling single people to demonstrate the breadth of His love. Getting this distinction right is so crucial to seeing how God uses marriage and singleness together.

God’s love through marriage

The Bible never elevates marriage above singleness, instead using it to point to the depth of love that Christ has for His Church. God calls married people to this deep love, where they focus on loving one person for the rest of their lives, to the exclusion of all others. This deep love found in marriage requires them to die to their own desires, as they serve and sacrifice each other in order to come together as one.

But this deep marital love creates limitations, since it takes so much time and energy to maintain. Married people, by God’s design, cannot love as broadly as single people, and if they try, their marriages will suffer. While married people are still called to love their neighbor, their primary neighbor becomes the person waking up next to them every morning.

God’s love through singleness

In our marriage-centric culture, many people assume God prefers marriage and its depth of love, stigmatizing singleness as a lesser state. Our cultural fixation with marriage causes each segment of society to see singleness in a negative light:

  • Progressives: as a time for self-centeredness: Young people are encouraged to spend their twenties focused only on themselves, spending their time and money to build a fulfilling career and social life. Marriage, though, is still the ultimate goal, and it serves as a capstone to validate the successes of your twenties.

  • Traditional: as a social defect: Single people are seen as defective, and as a threat to the long-term health of the community. They often feel excluded and left out, since they can’t engage in the main storyline of any traditional culture: having and raising children.

  • Christians: as a temporary “trial” on the way to marriage: Many Christians see singleness as a time of hardship to be gotten through on their way to marriage. Single people are encouraged to patiently wait around for their person to come into their life, so they can start life “for real.”

Caught up in one or more of these views, single people often grow frustrated with God, thinking He must’ve forgotten about them.

a different view on being single

But God sees singleness differently, not as a curse, but as an opportunity to show the breadth of His love to the world. Set free from needing to invest in a marriage, single people have the time, energy, and flexibility to love a much wider range of people. By not getting married, God has allowed me to invest in so many people that I never would have had time for otherwise. I’ve been able to learn from older adults, mentor younger friends, serve people in other countries, and spend time with outsiders.

This call to show the breadth of God’s love has made my life so rich. God’s used this flexibility to introduce me to some incredible people and give me amazing experiences. I never planned to still be single, but I see God’s wisdom is using my life this way to do things my married friends can’t. Because God uses single and married people to show His love in different ways, we have to stop viewing each path as better or worse than the other, and see them instead as different callings with unique opportunities, struggles, and tradeoffs.

then why’s it so hard?

But knowing that God’s called you to love broadly doesn’t magically solve the difficulties of being single. It’s easy to grow impatient with God, frustrated that He hasn’t given you the deep love of marriage. While my calling as a single person can be exhilarating, I still struggle at times with feeling empty and like a failure. After all, both progressive and traditional culture tell me if I were successful I’d be married by now.

The answer to this feeling is found through another single person who never lived up to his family’s, friends’, or hometown’s expectations. Jesus disappointed a lot of people throughout His life, never fulfilling their cultural narratives, i.e. idols. Because of that, His whole society thought He was a failure, especially after He died alone, abandoned, and in disgrace.

But yet Jesus lived the most successful life ever. How? Because Jesus showed the successful life isn’t fulfilling some cultural narrative, but pursuing and obeying God’s call on your life. Jesus followed God’s path for His life, even when it took Him to the most difficult, uncomfortable, and lonely place in the world, the cross.

But because Jesus obeyed God’s call perfectly, every human being, single or married, can now find the true intimacy we’re all looking for with God. While every culture tries to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with another person, Jesus says lasting fulfillment is only found in Him.

the key question

As you wrestle with being single, it all comes down to one question: is Jesus enough? Is Jesus where you find love and intimacy, or do you need another person to give you those things? When you find worth, identity, and fulfillment in Jesus, you’ll slowly be set free from trying to validate your life by marriage, and can instead rest in God’s plan for your life. Your singleness, whether it’s for a few more years or the rest of your life, isn’t a sign of failure, but a witness to how our deepest longings are only truly fulfilled through Jesus.

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Why Trying to Prove Your Doubters Wrong Doesn’t Work

“Doubters will never achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create.” — Calvin Coolidge

What are the most hurtful criticisms you’ve ever received? Was it from a teacher, coach, or old boy/girlfriend? You were sharing a goal, dream, or just a part of yourself, and before you knew it, you were met with some type of rebuke, spanning from a raised eyebrow to a sharp critique: “You think you can do that?” “That’ll never work.” “Really, you?!?” These comments cut deep, deflating our hopes, and lodging themselves in our minds.

When we get hurt like these, many of us go into “I’m going to prove them wrong” mode. These negative memories accumulate, and by our twenties we each have a list of people who have doubted, discouraged, or put down either our ideas or who we were. While the other person often doesn’t even know the hurt they’ve caused, these brief moments sear themselves into our mind. We’re each tempted to hold tight to these slights, and to use them as fuel to prove them all wrong.

I received my fair share of critiques in my twenties. “You’re a danger to the church,” one pastor told me as I was finishing seminary. “You don’t seem to have any direction in life,” one girlfriend told me as she broke up with me. “You think that will actually work?” more than one “friend” responded when I told them about an idea. These words cut deep, creating wounds that I didn’t soon forget. And so, when I moved to New York City, I used these memories to motivate myself, telling myself I was going to prove all of these doubters wrong.

why you remember the doubters

Why do we all struggle with past slights and critiques? One major reason is because we all have something called a negativity bias, an inherent ability to remember negative situations so much more vividly than positive ones. We all quickly forget most compliments, praise, and situations that go well, but latch onto any criticism, hurtful comments, or rejection that we experience, remembering these negative situations much longer than the positive ones.

But since we’re ‘nice’ people, we never mention anything out loud, and instead try to get back at them indirectly by doing the things they said we couldn’t. Society tells us, and we quickly believe, that the best revenge is a life well lived. So we use the negative comments from our past to motivate ourselves, both to show them how wrong they were, and to punish them for the hurt we feel.

This desire for “achievement revenge” can create incredible motivation, which is why everyone, from pro athletes to Taylor Swift, use it. For me, these past slights fueled my desire to make it in New York, causing me to push myself towards dreams. After a few years, my hard work started to pay off, as my cleaning business took off and I got a job at a big church. “See,” I lectured my past doubters in my mind, “You were wrong; I can do everything you said I couldn’t.” But something still wasn’t right.

a broken solution

I had accomplished what they said I couldn’t, but the pain and hurt of their words still didn’t leave. I felt like I still needed to do more, to punish them for criticizing and rejecting me. At this moment, I realized no amount of achievement could make the hurt go away. For years I thought that if I showed their critique was wrong my hurt would disappear, but now it seemed more entrenched than ever.

And then it struck me: no amount of achievement could ever solve the real problem, which was the anger and bitterness in my heart. Trying to prove my past doubters wrong was only pushing my hurt deeper into my life, not freeing me from it. They all now lived thousands of miles away, and I didn’t have contact with any of them, even through social media.

a better way

Eventually, I realized that instead of trying to get achievement revenge, I needed to forgive them for the hurt they’d caused me. Forgiveness! you may be thinking, there’s no way I can forgive that person. We all naturally hate forgiveness, and want justice for how other people have hurt us. To forgive them, we think, is to let them off the hook without fair punishment. And so we “punish” them indirectly, hoping they’ll get word of how well we’re doing and feel bad.

But Jesus tells a story for people like us. He said there was a manager who owed millions of dollars to the king. When the king came to put him in jail for his debts, he begged for forgiveness, and the king had mercy on him, wiping his debt off the books. Immediately after leaving, though, the manager ran into someone who owed him a small amount, and demanded that this man pay him back immediately. The manager ignored the man’s pleas, and threw him into prison until he could repay.

This is what we do, Jesus says, when we refuse to forgive people from our past. We’re like this manager, punishing everyone else for the tiniest of sins, while expecting Jesus to forgive us for the major ways we’ve rejected him, critiqued him, and wanted nothing to do with him and his way. When you remember how much grace Jesus has shown you, by taking your punishment on the cross and constantly extending forgiveness, it will soften your self-righteous heart and allow you to forgive people from your past.

a positive path forward

Do you have people from your past that you’re trying to ‘punish’ through your achievement, even if you'd never use that word. The forgiveness we’ve been shown in Jesus allows us to quit trying to prove our doubters wrong, and instead compels us to forgive them for the pain they’ve caused. This is the only way to be released from any hatred and bitterness that you still carry in your heart.

And when you stop trying to prove your doubters wrong, it frees you to instead work to prove your encouragers right. Whenever I’m tempted to use past hurts for inspiration, I remind myself to focus on all of the people who have supported me, believed in me, and encouraged me through life. Working to prove your encouragers right gives me so much motivation, as I use my gifts to reach my potential and honor their investment in me.

This shift is so life-giving, as your old wounds melt away and you shift your thoughts to all of the people who want to see you do well. While forgiveness will alway be harder than nursing past bitterness, we experience true freedom when we understand how much Jesus has forgiven us, and extend this forgiveness to the people in our pasts.

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