Uncomfortable and feeling out of place, George sat in his idling Prius at the entrance to Coto De Caza, one of the America’s largest gated communities. He gave his name to a guard, who checked a computer screen as George looked around at some of Orange County’s dwindling supply of undeveloped hillsides. The guard waved him through.
George parked in a designated area (a big, red sign warning that he’d be towed after 48 hours) and stepped onto the frilly porch of John and Wendy’s plush, three-bedroom house. George had studied nuclear engineering together with John in college, and his friend paid for this beautiful place by commuting daily to the San Onofre power plant. Wendy worked as a full-time housewife.
Wendy opened the door. “George, it’s been forever!” She gave him an uncertain side-hug and added, “John’s almost home.”
They made some small talk outside. A baby girl crawled out to meet them. Unsure what to do, George patted her on the head.
John drove up a few minutes later; they exchanged more greetings and went inside. John kissed his wife and gave some attention to his daughters, then they sat down for dinner. Wendy served roast Cornish game hens along with yams and yellow squash covered in a creamy sauce.
George asked about life at the nuclear nipples, and his friend winced at that hated nickname for his place of employment. John replied with some snide remarks about the hippie firm that claimed it would turn nuclear waste into organic produce. That would be Atomicleen, George’s company, which was working on new and innovative ways to contain and clean up radioactive waste in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown.
As they exchanged the obligatory office stories, Wendy (bored for lack of extensive knowledge of nuclear physics) went to put the babies to bed.
Finally, George got to the reason he’d come. Actually, John made it rather easy with a simple question. “So, any ladies on the horizon?”
There it was: the most-loathed query of all bachelors. “Well, I’m not sure.”
“That doesn’t strike me as something warranting uncertainty.”
“Well, I should clarify my reply.” As George began to do so, Wendy walked back in and rejoined the conversation. “I’m interested in a girl from the Rock’s singles group. We’ve started to get to know each other over the last month and a half.”
“Sounds like she’s not really on the horizon, in that case,” John replied in his usual, straightforward manner. “You should definitely keep getting to know her in that group. If God wants you to end up together, He’ll make it really apparent, like he did with Wendy and me.”
George rubbed the sides of his forehead with his palms. “Truth be told, I’m frustrated. I’m twenty-six! Twenty-six! And still single! It’s like there’s no escape. In high school and college, I met girls all the time: in classes, campus ministry, church, the cafeteria – they were everywhere. But now, that environment’s ejected me like a beta particle forever banished from a welcoming atomic nucleus into the cold, lonely universe.”
“Ouch, dramatic,” John said.
“That’s why I’m here. I’ve scheduled dinner with three sets of married friends – you’re the first – to try and get a handle on this issue. I figure, since you’re married, you must know something about relationships.”
George didn’t share the rest of the plan: he’d collate the data and take the logical intersection of their advice. If three separate married couples all said the same things, then he had his answers. It was a foolproof plan.
“Alright, well why don’t we start with our story,” John said. George had heard the story before and even gone to the wedding, but he didn’t remember all the details. He just remembered it had been fast.
“During my senior year, Wendy started coming to my Intervarsity Bible study. I noticed her after a few weeks, but I didn’t make any moves, because I didn’t want to do something I’d later regret.
“We kept interacting in groups and especially the Bible study. I saw how she loved the Word. I saw her quiet and gentle spirit. I was pretty smitten, but I didn’t say anything for a while.”
“So you didn’t ask to hang out with her alone or go on a date or anything like that?”
“No,” John replied in a straightforward manner. “First, dating isn’t anywhere in the Bible.”
So, what? Neither are keyboards, but we use in worship, George thought.
“Second, you shouldn’t pursue someone who you’re not sure is marriage material. And it takes time to determine that.”
This sounded like a lot of advice George had heard before. Advice that had led him nowhere. “But how do you know if someone is marriable without hanging out one-on-one?”
“You hang out with other people around,” John replied as though the answer were obvious. “Anyways, after about six months, I loved Wendy and knew she was my future wife. I got her alone one night after Bible study and told her that she was the one for me and asked if she would enter into courtship with me. I told her very clearly that my end goal was marriage. We got engaged two months later and married three months after that.”
“And what did you think of all this, Wendy?” George asked her.
John sat back and let his much-quieter wife speak. “Well, I also had a similar view of dating, for starters. It isn’t how God wants Christians to get together. In the six months before John approached me, I also noticed him. He helped to lead the study, you see. I loved the way he taught the Bible.
“When he approached me, it surprised me a little, but I felt the same towards him. Now, I look back on that night as one of my happiest memories.”
“Do you think he could have done better?”
“Well…” her voice trailed off.
“You might need to leave the room,” George said to her husband. “Honest responses are important for this project.”
John replied, “Look, you’re never going to meet the requirements of a double-blind study, anyways. Wendy, you can be honest. I love you.”
“It was a little jarring. We’d never hung out alone, then suddenly we were courting.” She threw her hands in the air and shrugged. “But hey, we’re married!”
“The important part is that God chose us for each other,” John added. “Even though our approach seems crazy to most people, it’s the Biblical approach (like God choosing Rebekah for Isaac), so it worked.”
“Then you think that God has only one person for each of us?”
“So, what happens if you miss that person or if you really screw things up so that they never want to speak to you, again? What happens if you end up married to the wrong person: is your marriage screwed? And how do you figure out who that person is, anyways?”
“Look, some of those are just unknowable mysteries of God’s will,” John replied. “But if you offend someone such that she never wants to marry you, she wasn’t God’s match. If you make the wrong choice, it’ll make for a harder relationship, but God still values your marriage and wants you to stay together. As for figuring out who she is, at some point after being around her enough, you’ll just know. That’s the best way I can put it.”
“So basically, you believe in a kind of romantic predestination?”
“Weird way of putting it.”
“Or you believe life is like a Disney princess movie.”
“Not quite. For instance, I don’t think that love at first sight is a good guide to follow. And anyways, the key isn’t that ‘God has one person for you.’ Whether you believe that or not, the right system is that you maintain really healthy boundaries and hang out in groups until you’re certain this person is marriage material. Then, you tell her very honestly that you’re interested in her and enter into a serious courtship, usually a little longer than ours. You refuse casual one-on-one dates (which can create emotional strain for both sides). And you don’t pursue go-nowhere relationships. You know, there’s a really good book on this called I Kissed Dating…”
“Yes, I’ve heard of I Kissed Dating Good-bye. Is that where you formulated this framework?”
“Well, actually, I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard it’s really good.”
George went home and created an Excel document containing his best memories of the main points of the evening. He labelled the row “John and Wendy” and saved the spreadsheet as “thinking.xls” in an obfuscated, out-of-the-way folder where no one would ever find it. He then inserted the next row labelled “Phil and Donna.”
Finally, George opened his Bible to Proverbs 18:17: “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.”
Part 2: Cyber-Wolf on the Hunt
On a Saturday night about a week after his first dinner, George took a 45-minute drive to Riverside, famous home of… well, not much. Except tract housing. Lots and lots of tract housing. His friends Phil and Donna lived in an idyllic cul-de-sac of similar-looking buildings. From space, the area had a sort of fractal quality, meaning that as you zoomed in, the picture kept looking the same: squares within squares within squares within squares. Both commuted into Orange County daily when that 45-minute drive took an hour and a half.
George rang the doorbell and waited a few moments. Donna, a woman with long blonde hair and a large nose, answered. Lacking children, she looked very clean and well kept. She hugged him warmly and said hello.
Phil followed close behind and welcomed George in with a brotherly embrace. Phil was an overweight man of vague, Chinese decent. He’d never left California, only spoke English, and adored Panda Express. He and Phil became friends about a year ago due to the fact they were two of the only Christians at Atomicleen. Phil and Donna were both about thirty.
They sat down for a healthy dinner. Well, healthy servings, at least. While the sun slipped behind the smog, They enjoyed BBQ T-bone steaks, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob.
“We just celebrated our one-year anniversary about a week ago,” Phil said while chewing on beef. Donna kissed him on the cheek.
“As it happens, I’m on a little project on that subject,” George said. He explained about researching his married friends and talked about the dinner with John and Wendy.
Phil scoffed. “Well, that may have worked for John and Wendy, but have you ever had a chance to get to know a girl in a Bible study over six months and then have her decide that she wants to marry you?”
“I think the answer is obvious.”
“Exactly. And you never will, especially after college. Sure, that worked for John and Wendy, but that’s one in a hundred. One in a thousand. If we called that the one true way to get married, 1% of people might be happy, but everyone else would be single, frustrated, and waiting for prince charming to appear before a chorus of angels. Not to mention all the bad marriages that kind of fatalism would produce. Because if you’re looking for the One,” he spoke those last words as though impersonating Darth Vader, “you ignore all the red flags that someone is actually a bad match.”
“Ok, so how did you guys meet?” George asked.
“We were introduced online,” Donna replied quickly.
“You don’t have to hide it like something shameful,” Phil said. “eHarmony.”
“Oh, really? What was the experience like? Was Donna the first lady you dated on it?”
“Of course not. What do you think this is, a Hollywood movie? We each dated about a dozen people before we met each other.”
“Actually, 21 for me,” Donna said. “Some good, some awful.”
“That’s a lot,” George gawked.
Phil replied. “It may sound like a lot, but it just took about six months. I went out with most of them once, didn’t feel that magic, then never spoke again. That’s part of the online dating thing, and when you step into that arena, you just acknowledge that’s OK.”
“How did you end up on eHarmony?”
“Disgust,” Phil replied with a laugh and a slap on his belly. “I was in my late twenties and realized that I had no outlets to meet women. I squandered college on academics and LAN parties.
“I decided to make a conscious effort at my single’s group. The first time I asked a girl out for coffee, she refused and made it really awkward. Our friendship was never the same. I don’t know if I got a reputation as a predator or something, but that happened two more times. I saw the pattern.”
“See, the singles pastor (who, by the way, was married) always preached that you weren’t supposed to go searching for your mate and that God would bring her to you once you found satisfaction in Him. Sometimes, married speakers would share their testimonies of some mystic realization of only needing God the week before they met their spouse. Right, like they had no desire for marriage after that experience. Like Adam in the garden, right? ‘Oh God, I’m totally satisfied in you and don’t need a wife.’
“No single ever shared a testimony of that kind of satisfaction, even though lots of my friends had great relationships with God! Yet they all felt shame that somehow they were single because they weren’t satisfied in God.”
“Anyways, I eventually gave up on meeting a woman at church went to eHarmony. And the rest…” he reached over and gave Donna a big kiss on the lips. George looked out to their front yard uncomfortably.
After they finished, Donna told her story of a meat market singles group with lurking men. She wanted to get married, but her church didn’t have any good men. “Some friends shared good experiences with online dating, so I decided to try it. But most of the men I met there weren’t better than the ones in my church, until I met Phil. I really believe now that how you meet the person matters a lot less than how you conduct the relationship. We’re taught so much to search for the perfect match that we don’t know how to date that person in an emotionally healthy manner.”
“But shouldn’t we trust God to provide someone for us? Isn’t it a lack of faith to do something like online dating?” George asked.
“Ah, the old lack of faith argument,” Phil laughed. His face tensed, and he looked straight into George’s eyes. “Let’s say that I lose my job. Is it a lack of faith to Google for one? Does mature Christianity look like praying all day long without putting together a résumé? Of course not. Why should we treat marriage any different? That view that God’s going to drop your spouse on a string from heaven simply isn’t Biblical. Think about Jacob, who worked seven years for his wife. And I Corinthians 7 says that if you can’t control yourself, you should get married. That means you intentionally go find someone and marry them. I just followed the Biblical model.”
“You sound like a wolf on the hunt,” George replied. “Donna, what do you say to that?”
Donna paused for a moment. “I’m just glad to have finally met a Christian man who isn’t passive.”
“You’re interested in someone, aren’t you?” Phil interjected. Donna laughed slightly. She’d realized that long before her husband.
“I believe the answer to that question is obvious,” George said once again.
“Well look, if you’re willing to meet with a dozen married couples and compile their advice into a dissertation, just ask her out.”
George drove alone down the 91 with some time to digest the evening’s conversation. When he got home and input his findings into thinking.xls, he found a surprising lack of conclusive data. In fact, the only thing the couples had in common was that they loved their spouses. No matter. He’d be having dinner with Chris and Sarah, soon. He repeated to himself Proverbs 15:22 “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established.”
Part 3: 1950s Retro
“…And I’ve made a spreadsheet to keep track of what everyone tells me,” George concluded. After his monologue, he downed the last bits of meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, and broccoli-mushroom casserole on his plate.
His friends looked at him with astonishment. “That’s… interesting,” Sarah said.
Sarah had worked as a teacher before having their first child a year ago. She now taught piano part-time out of their home. Though polite, she obviously didn’t comprehend George’s methods.
“What do you think?” George asked her husband.
“That’s very… thorough.” Chris’s mind also worked differently than George’s. He did sales for a large medical manufacturer. However, they’d been friends long enough for Chris to understand, perhaps even appreciate, such an elegant research project. “And what have you found?”
George began describing his evenings and the inconclusive findings.
Chris and Sarah lived in an old, quaint, single-story house in Corona, another commuter town that fed into Orange County. The place was clean and pleasantly decorated with stenciled walls and various curios on shelves (Sarah’s work).
Chris had a pale complexion and brown hair. He wore glasses and sported a mustache. Sarah was a few inches shorter than her husband with long, black hair. She wore a light-green dress. In her arms, she rocked their baby to sleep.
“So, would you like to hear our response?” Chris asked.
“Sounds amazing,” George replied.
“I had three relationships with girls in high school and college. The first, during my high school junior year, lasted two months. We went physically deep really quick, hurt each other emotionally, and broke up rather dramatically over AIM.”
“Did you just say AIM?”
“Yeah, AOL Instant Messenger.”
“I know what AIM stands for. It’s just… been a while.”
“Anyways, by the third relationship, which lasted six months, I’d learned a lot about physical and emotional boundaries. We didn’t go so deep, and we didn’t break up dramatically. Our lives simply went in different directions. After that, I graduated and stayed single for about four years. I went through all the periods of bitterness: bitterness towards dating, bitterness towards not dating, but mostly just bitterness towards not being married.
“During those years, I went out with a number of girls. Most of the time, we went no further than a date or two. I told one girl I was interested, and she rejected me. I had to DTR with a couple others. I made lots of messy mistakes and learned from them. Then I met Sarah, and she tells this part better than me.”
His wife began. “Well, first of all, I’d been in a fast and furious relationship a few years before I met Chris and still had some wounds. I was not, shall you say, on the prowl. I went to a birthday party for a married friend of mine in Corona (at the time I lived in Irvine). They had a pool, and we were trying to blow up an inflatable intertube. None of us could figure it out until Chris stepped in. Anyways, that was my first memory of him.
“After the party, he asked if I’d like to grab coffee with him. He bought for me and held the door open and all that, but like he said, he’d learned not to dive deep too quickly. He worked close to where I lived, so we went out a few times in Irvine. At the end of the third date, he said he liked me, and we both knew what that meant. We became a couple. As the relationship progressed, he honored me and went slowly and intentionally. I really think all his other experiences prepared him to meet me.”
“That sounds very… vanilla,” George replied.
“Sign me up for a passionate vanilla with clear boundaries over months of confusion and pain,” Sarah said. She looked at George and smiled. “Ok, so who are you interested in?”
George shuffled in his seat and looked out their aged front window to some houses across the street. “There’s a girl named Kristin. We know each other through church.”
That sparked a short tangent where George described this tall, blonde girl with a playful smile and a bubbling joy about her. Though interested, he only got to see her every once and a while.
“So, the first question is how you’re doing in your relationship with God, especially with singleness,” Chris said.
“Well, I love Jesus. I’ve experienced Him in powerful ways. I trust Him with my money and with my life and future. In my best moments, I cry out that I’ll live till 90 as a single man if I can just serve Him well. But still, no matter how many times I surrender romance, I have to wrestle about it again a few months later. I love Him, and I’m satisfied in Him, but this desire will not leave me alone.”
“Sounds like you’re in a good place. So ask her out. What’s the worst that could happen?”
George paused for a moment. “She could fraud me for every penny I’m worth and leave me poor, broken, and bitter. Actually, if she’s got mafia ties—”
“Honey, don’t ask a nuclear engineer about worst cases,” Sarah interrupted.
“Ok, so define ‘asking her out,’” George said.
Chris geared himself up as though giving a familiar speech. “I like to look at it this way. Sixty years ago, America had a way you did relationships between the sexes: dating. A date was no big deal: asking a girl out didn’t mean you wanted her to become your girlfriend. But after some number of these dates, it became more serious, and you started ‘going steady.’ After that, if things went well, you got engaged, married, etc. In all this, the guy took the lead.”
George interrupted Chris’ speech, causing his friend to sag like a deflated balloon. “Sarah, how do you feel about that? Is it frustrating to have a passive role as a girl?”
“At times, yes. But there’s a difference between passivity and allowing the man to take the lead. Passivity means that I do nothing. But in actuality, it’s totally acceptable to initiate conversations with the guy, complement him, and invite him to parties at my house which throw as an excuse to see him – basically to be a good friend. I can take a role in getting pursued by him.
“Ultimately, if I’m interested in a guy, my main responsibility is to fully express my character when around him. If he’s someone I’m supposed to be with, he’ll notice me. If he doesn’t notice me, there’s no hope for a relationship. If it takes me asking him out to start something, he’s an immature guy who I’m better off without.”
After a short pause for politeness, Chris puffed himself up again and resumed his talk. “Anyways, dating, going steady, etc. I have no real evidence to support this next point, but I think the sexual revolution changed everything. After the 60s, when you asked a girl out, it could be an old-style date, or you might want to sleep together by the end of the night.
“Eventually, the Christian world figured out how twisted the American dating scene had become: dating looked like an excuse to sleep with lots of girls, rather than a way to enter monogamy. In the last 20 years, much of the Christian world has thrown away dating without filling the void it left.
“Christians say they want to return to the Biblical pattern for courtship. The problem is that people in the Bible mostly followed their cultural norms. Abraham arranged a marriage for his son Isaac, complete with dowry. Joseph was given Pharaoh’s daughter as a wife in keeping with his social position. Even Ruth, who took some scandalous actions, went through the cultural norm of the kinsman redeemer after getting Boaz’s attention.
“So really, if people want to talk about the Biblical way to get married, it’s to do whatever comes naturally in your culture while keeping the commandments of the Bible. In America, you date with greatest respect and purity.
“One of our problems with abandoning our cultural norm is that men don’t know what to do when attracted to a girl. Because you have no framework in which to approach her, you’re confused, and you don’t act. Deep down, you’re insecure whether you’re even man enough to do anything. All you’re left with is imagining what might be.
“Take this girl, Kristin. Right now, your relationship is a fantasy: ‘Is she interested in me?’ ‘Would she say yes if I asked her out?’ All those thoughts make you anxious. Why not ask her out? If things go well, awesome. If she refuses, you’re sad and then God refreshes you. Anxiety gone.
“And if you go on a date and nothing comes of it, at least that fantasy of ‘maybe she’s the One’ no longer has power over you. You can simply be friends, which beats waves of confusion and fear whenever you see her. I personally think every emotionally healthy single guy should date every healthy single girl if only because it breaks the awful power of fantasy.
“I found that in the early days, before a date, I got extremely nervous and had trouble sleeping the night before. But as soon as I held the door open for her to walk into the coffee shop, the nervousness vanished. The fantasy of her being the One dissipated, and we became friends enjoying an evening together. With almost all the mature girls I took out, our friendships were stronger afterwards, because I saw them as they were, not as I imagined them.”
“And the idea that there is ‘the One?’” George asked.
“Well, either way, you’ll never find her if you don’t ask her out.”
George drove home and put the new data into his spreadsheet. Like an open-mouthed statue, he stared at it for a solid twenty minutes. Finally, he closed down his laptop and looked up a couple verses that came to mind:
Prov. 19:14 “House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.”
Eccl. 8:16-17 “When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”
After a quick prayer, he picked up his phone.