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I was 16 when I first saw the cover of I Kissed Dating Goodbye—that picture of a man looking down, his hand tilting a brown fedora and obscuring his facial features, that dark background adding shades of allure to an already-enigmatic man. That’s real good marketing, I remember thinking. Every girl likes a man with some mystery shrouding him, and boys probably look at that suave, dapper man and want to be him. What’s more, that mysterious picture captured for me the whole concept of dating: a bizarre, bewitching forest, thick with untapped emotions and coiled with unmarked trails.
But then, what did I know, what did I care? I had found that book on my brother’s desk—my younger brother who at age 14 had already been on more dates and had his heart broken more times than my solid count of zero. I refused to read that book: I was a self-proclaimed feminist who had no time for boys pretending to be men (or so I harrumphed then), though if you had asked me what a real man is I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Everyone who knew me knew that Sophia Lee doesn’t want to get married—nope, nuh-uh, never ever. I had my sights on something more secure and controllable: To attend my first-choice university and be a butt-kicking, world-traveling journalist with no husband or kids to hold me back. I didn’t need to kiss dating goodbye—I never let dating be an option in the first place, and I was proud of that fact.
So it’s with great humility and interest now that at age 30, as I’m in my first ever dating relationship, I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye for the first time. The book, written by the then-21-year-old homeschool celebrity Joshua Harris, urges readers to ditch dating and enter courtship with the intention for marriage. Then I read Boy Meets Girl, also written by Harris, this time about how he courted his now-wife. Next I read Thomas Umstattd’s pro-dating dissent Courtship in Crisis, and I also read Marshall Segal’s Not Yet Married, a new book that encourages not-yet-married readers to first find satisfaction in God. So many books about Christian dating, yet the Bible seems to say little about it, so whose advice do we trust?
At first, I was prompted to read these books because I’m currently working on a story about the ripple effects of I Kissed Dating Goodbye on Christians who grew up riding the waves of the 1990s purity movement. It’s been 20 years since that book was published—so what’s happened to that generation’s dating culture since?
But as I study the various ideas on what “Christ-honoring” intimacy looks like and what pursuing “true love” means, as I interview marriageable Christians about their dating (or non-dating) experiences, I keep turning the questions toward myself: Why are romantic relationships so hard? Why are the emotions that come with it so powerful and uncontrollable and scary? I had never cried so much in my life as I did for this relationship. Yet why, oh why, do I want this still, want this so badly that I’m willing to cry a thousand tears more? What is it about a man-woman relationship that makes me both so selfless and selfish at the same time, that I’m capable of giving more than I thought I could give, yet demand more than what any man can give me?
I go to a big church in Hollywood, whose members are creative types in their late-20s to mid-30s who wear “distressed” skinny jeans and highlights in their tousled hair. What most of us don’t wear are wedding rings, and a pastor once told me that the biggest complaints he gets are from women who say men don’t ask them out, and from men who say women keep rejecting them. I know guys who pray with godly brothers for months before asking a girl out, and guys who tell girls they like them but want to be “intentional” about building a friendship first. I know women who for years have prayed and prepared themselves as Proverbs 31 wives for their future, so-far invisible husbands, and they’re still waiting for them. I know men who look for houses in good school districts with a future family in mind, but don’t even have a girlfriend.
Before I started dating, I used to roll my eyes and wonder what’s wrong with people, why we over-dramatize and over-complicate everything. Then I met a man. And then I cried when I read that last chapter in Boy Meets Girl, in which the author writes with such gushing sincerity about his wedding day—his face is sore from smiling, his heart is racing, his body is quivering ... and there stands his bride, and he writes, “Oh, Lord, she’s beautiful.” And I recognized that desire—to be the object of another’s gaze and gasp, to love and be loved—a desire that I, this proud, stubborn, insecure woman, share with so many others because we were made for intimacy, for love.
I used to feel shame for that desire, so I stuffed it away. I still feel uncomfortable with it, and wrestle with it every day because I spot times when it overtakes my desire for God. That’s the part that no book on Christian dating can help me— that moment-to-moment thoughts and emotions of fear, uncertainty, and wonder that I’m trying to honor yet surrender before God. Man, it’s hard, it’s messy. But oh God, it seems worth it.