It was summer. We had just spent a summer doing high school ministry together, and in that world of close team dynamics and long work days, something was lit. The sparks began to fly; it was my first relationship ever. As we prepared for the school year the sparks continued to build up. In fact, they flew like crazy for about a month until late August, when I abruptly flipped the handle on the fire extinguisher, leaving all but a heap of ashes and both of us burned.
In that first relationship, I failed miserably in establishing healthy emotional and spiritual boundaries. By all external measures, the relationship was safe; nothing physical happened. And yet, our lack of wisdom and inability to “guard our hearts” really kicked us in the butt when everything ended. Through that experience, I learned that there is so much more to healthy relationships than being on the same page about purity or even having strong individual faiths. When we let our emotions and spiritual connections run wild, we put ourselves and others at risk.
I think that the necessity of boundaries applies to all relationships, regardless of their trajectory. But as I seek to explain their Biblical foundation, it’s probably helpful to clarify that this post is based on the idea that dating is meant for marriage. The Bible doesn’t explicitly discuss dating (it just didn’t exist then). But considering God’s design for singleness and marriage, dating can be seen as an evaluative process in which two people see if they should enter into covenantal relationship. It is not a standalone relational status but rather a transition stage between singleness and marriage. (If you want more of this, check out the resources linked here!)
With this in mind, boundaries of any kind are necessary because God designed marriage as a covenant. A covenant is a divinely-mandated commitment upheld by two parties– a promise which is kept for the rest of life. In Old Testament times, if a party broke the covenant, they had to bear heavy consequences. All throughout Scripture, we see examples of God making covenants with the people of Israel, culminating in the New Covenant established by Jesus on the cross (Genesis 9,12; Exodus 19-24; 2 Samuel 7; Jeremiah 31). In marriage, the two parties are man and wife, promising to commit to one another for the rest of their earthly lives. One of the essential functions of marriage is for the husband and wife to reflect Jesus’ covenantal commitment to the church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
There are certain parts of relationship that are designed to grow and flourish only within the security of lifelong covenant. Scripture is clear that there are several things which must be saved for marriage. The one that gets the most attention is sex, the intimate physical connection formed between two people (Genesis 2:18-25, Mark 10:6-9). But God’s design for marriage includes far more than the physical, and it’s important to recognize the ways in which degrees of emotional and spiritual connections are only life-giving if done in the security of lifelong commitment.
Because dating is a bridge from singleness to marriage, it is important to create healthy boundaries so that covenant-purposed privileges do not cross over prematurely.
The church focuses a lot on physical boundaries because they’re relatively clear in scripture. In comparison, emotional and spiritual boundaries seem very ambiguous. Verses like Proverbs 4:23 say to “guard our hearts,” but what does this actually look like? It certainly doesn’t mean that dating ought to be void of emotion or mutual spiritual growth. If anything, those are helpful parts of evaluating whether or not two people have chemistry and maturity of character. But I think we all understand that extreme degrees of emotional and spiritual attachments are not healthy nor safe when there is no guarantee that the relationship will last. So creating boundaries therefore requires a balance between an absence of connection (which could impede real knowledge of the other person) with going overboard (which will lead to unhealthy patterns of dependence or hurt).
Like I mentioned before, I’ve made mistakes in these areas. I’ve been in two relationships, both with guys who were actively pursuing the Lord. Yet the first relationship was radically different than the second because it lacked proper emotional boundaries. Over the course of a month and a half, both of us grew extremely emotionally invested. When context and parental wisdom made it clear that I should break things off, I ended up really hurting the other person. The thrill and excitement of being in that relationship had clouded my self-awareness, making it difficult to accurately evaluate the state of my own heart, the state of his, and our relationship. So by the time I realized things just weren’t going to work, that realization came fast and furious, tearing through the intense emotions and making for a less-than-ideal breakup. When intense emotional connections are formed outside of covenantal commitment, at least one person is bound to get gravely hurt.
One of the tricky things about seeing dating as a process leading to marriage is that it makes the process very future-oriented. The whole relationship is about seeing if you could spend the rest of your life with that person, making it too easy to construct visions of that potential marriage, family, or general stage of life. When we become emotionally invested in this imaginary future, we set ourselves up for a lot of hurt if the relationship doesn’t pan out. Emotional boundaries help keep the temptation of future dreams in their proper place. Not only so, by keeping our emotions in check, we acknowledge that only God can truly satisfy our human cravings for belonging and relational fulfillment. When we are consumed with another human being, our hearts and minds have little space left for Jesus.
Spiritual boundaries are also necessary in dating. Praying, worshipping, studying scripture, and being spiritually vulnerable are all actions which bind two people’s souls together. When this binding occurs outside of marriage, the possibility of unpairing can threaten the spiritual well-being of both individuals. Moreover, it’s really important to make sure that actions which are meant to exalt Christ do not become tools through which we exalt our own relationship. When a relationship exists in Christian community, it is all too easy to perform spiritual disciplines together as a display of “maturity,” or because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. Of course, a big part of Christian dating is discerning whether the other person is mature enough to enter into covenant. This discernment requires that both guy and girl witness each other’s pursuits of Christ. As a result, I don’t think that totally barring combined spiritual pursuits is helpful or advisable. Instead, spiritual boundaries may involve timing (ie. pursuing spiritual growth together later on in the relationship) and discerning heart motivation (ie. thinking critically about why you want to grow in spiritual intimacy). Remember, these boundaries are a gray space and may look different for different people!
Scripture is our ultimate authority in all matters of life, including dating. And while dating isn’t explicitly in scripture, we can think about boundaries through the lens of a few guiding principles:
Whatever we do in life– including in dating– must be for the glory of God.
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” -Colossians 3:17
God’s love towards us is an unfailing and perfect covenant, which we must cling to as we discern how to preserve the covenant of marriage.
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” -Deuteronomy 7:9
In this covenantal relationship, God has no boundaries in His love and closeness towards us because His love is secure and unfailing.
“…Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below– you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.” -1 Kings 8:23
We always need to measure our emotions against Scripture; while knowing our feelings is necessary for emotional health, they are not our ultimate authority.
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” -Jeremiah 17:9
True fulfillment is hidden in God; no human relationship can completely satisfy.
“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” -Isaiah 58:11
Despite their imperfections, all relationships between believers can be sanctifying, including dating relationships.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” -Proverbs 27:17
Read “You Don’t Need Mr. Perfect” for more on this!
We are called to guard our hearts because our thoughts, actions, and attitudes flow out of them.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23
Even when boundaries are breached and hurt comes, God is near and can restore broken hearts.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” -Psalm 34:18
When we fail to guard our hearts and souls, there is immeasurable grace.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” -Ephesians 1:7-8
See also 2 Corinthians 12:9, Romans 5:20, Romans 6:14, 2 Corinthians 9:8, Galatians 2:21, Ephesians 2:6-7, Hebrews 4:16, James 4:6, and 1 Peter 5:10 for more on grace.
This series is called “Welcome to the Gray Space” because godly dating is fraught with ambiguities. It is far from black and white. Creating emotional and spiritual boundaries takes thought, prayer, and self-awareness; they might be different for every relationship and finding a balance may take time. I’m not here to tell you how to date or what kind of emotional and spiritual boundaries to have. I hope that this post prompts careful thought and prayer about your own relationships! At the end of the day, if we desire God-honoring, safe dating relationships, we must think about protecting our hearts and souls. It’s for our own good and for His glory.