When and how should two people approach the ministry for marriage counseling? The general guideline that we give to students at Herbert W. Armstrong College is that it should be after you have dated exclusively (which is also undertaken with ministerial counsel) for two or three months; ideally at or about the time you say, “I love you.”
Remember though, you cannot love someone you do not truly know. Do not say “I love you” too soon!
Once you seek marriage counseling, what should you expect? It varies from couple to couple. Allow the minister to guide you through it, and don’t compare your courtship with another couple.
Generally, the minister will question you about your physical preparedness: how much savings you have, your employment situation and so on. The Church doesn’t have a rule about this, but individual ministers may have specific expectations, or your minister may counsel you what he feels would be wisest in your situation.
You will likely review The Missing Dimension in Sex and Why Marriage–Soon Obsolete? There will be lots of questions. You will likely cover subjects like love, the God-ordained roles of husband and wife, compatibility and finances.
Be patient! Expect the process to take place over a period of months.
At some point, you will reach the engagement period. A typical engagement lasts two to three months, sometimes four.
Remember, physical involvement before marriage should be extremely limited.
What is appropriate behavior during your engagement? Holding hands; a fond embrace; an occasional goodnight kiss—if not prolonged. Just realize: It is too easy to go too far!
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5, 8). Even if it’s the right thing, but done at the wrong time, it’s still the wrong thing.
God is very particular about this, firstly, because He wants to protect you from hurt. Touch is extremely powerful in binding you to another person. People in the world use it all the time—and it can leave you feeling connected to someone who is totally wrong for you. There is extraordinary science about how much happens hormonally with touch, and how we become biologically and psychologically bound together with someone. When done the wrong way, this leaves our reason completely short-circuited!
You must use touch wisely. Following God’s law is the way to do it.
God has awesome and beautiful reasons for essentially eliminating touch from the equation before you are married. He wants you to avoid the pain of breaking up. He wants you to develop character by refraining.
A man who takes the lead in the right way during the courtship is showing his bride-to-be that he is a man of character in whom she can place her full trust.
Developing the character muscle to “refrain from embracing” comes in handy even after marriage. There are times God tells a married couple to “refrain” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:5). He wants you to show love by putting the other person’s needs above your own desires. After all, what is love? It is “the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Real love is going to stay within the bounds of God’s law! The real love of God actually fulfills the law. If you are pushing the limits of what you’re supposed to do—if you’re going contrary to counsel—if you’re compromising—that is not love, it is lust! It is selfishness and sin!
Read the story of Balaam in Numbers 22 through 24, and consider Mr. Armstrong’s analysis: “Balaam wanted to go just as far in the wrong way as he dared. That is Satan’s way! Now just how far may you safely go in doing what you want instead of what you ought to do? Haven’t you often compromised on this? Haven’t you often wanted to do something you knew you really ought not? And haven’t you sometimes gone at least partway, thinking that perhaps if you didn’t go all the way in doing wrong, you might ‘get away with it’?
Mr. Armstrong relates this specifically to dating: “How many, under temptation to commit fornication or adultery, go partway—perhaps just a little ‘necking’? And how often does that lead to going just a little farther—and then perhaps just a little farther still? Going that first part way is already committing the act spiritually—according to the spirit, or intent, of the law! When you did that you were already guilty in God’s sight.”
In God’s eyes, going the first step is doing the act! He judges according to your intent. You must control yourself sexually—that is the law.
You only have one chance to have a godly courtship. Men: The way you conduct yourself communicates a lot to a woman whether she can trust you. In your dating, you are laying the groundwork for your leadership in the marriage.
Consider this amazing truth: When dating is done God’s way, two people can date, build a wonderful friendship, realize they aren’t right for each other, and part company with little or no heartbreaking pain. That is an absolutely remarkable testament to the wisdom in God’s way of dating! Having to part is certain to bring a measure of disappointment. But the closer that man and woman adhered to God’s standards, and the more they kept God at the center of their thinking throughout that process, the less disappointment there will be, and the quicker they will be able to recover and move forward. They won’t have regrets and bring emotional baggage into a subsequent relationship.
Ideally, however, a couple progresses through a courtship and then commits to one another in marriage. When they do so, they forge a lifelong, binding covenant safeguarding that relationship. It is at that point that God intends the walls to come down completely—including the physical barriers they were careful to preserve in dating. God’s design is that sex only occurs within that wonderful, protected state of a fully committed relationship, when full trust can accompany that intimacy.
Commitment opens the door for deeper love. As anyone who is in a long-term, committed, godly marriage can attest to, the more you think on this, the more you realize just how wise God was in commanding that that lifelong commitment be established before you enter into that full intimacy with a mate.
True Love Begins in Marriage
The reality is, love takes time. The bond you develop during your dating and courtship is just a fraction of what you develop over time because you’ve made that commitment to each other!
Don’t think you need to have some deeply passionate bond before you even marry. The real love develops after the commitment takes place. Those couples who split up after three, five or 10 years just because they feel like they’re “growing apart” have no idea what they are missing out on by not sticking with their commitment!
I once heard about this story of a couple that was dating. They really liked each other, but one thing holding the man back from marrying was that she had a very large nose. He found it unattractive, and he told her. She said she wouldn’t mind getting a nose job—she had considered it for a long time anyway. So they got engaged. Life got busy, and she didn’t have time to do the operation before the wedding. After they married, their lives were even busier. Soon she was expecting. Before they knew it, they had been married a few years with a couple of kids. Finally, one day she decided to have her nose operation, and she made a doctor’s appointment. When she told her husband about the appointment, he was shocked: “What? You’re going to let someone touch that beautiful nose of yours? Please don’t!”
You grow into love. Don’t expect to have the deep love of a couple that’s been together 20 years before you even get married.
“And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67). Isaac took Rebecca to be his wife—and then he loved her! He didn’t even know her before that.
Commitment opens the door for greater love. And when sex is preserved for that special covenant relationship, then it is elevated to a holy plane! Rather than just being a form of self-gratifying recreation, it is an expression of a spiritual bond. Marriage makes two people one—spiritually one! And sex is the physical manifestation of that reality. The Bible actually equates the two: It calls marriage and also sexual intercourse (even with a harlot) “one flesh”! (1 Corinthians 6:16).
There is so much wisdom in the way that God instructs us to date and to court. It protects you in some wonderful and valuable ways! It protects you from emotional devastation by forcing you to keep your emotions in check. It postpones the intimacy that leads to problems when it is broken. It postpones it until it is completely safe and secure within the bounds of a permanent covenant.
Do it God’s way, and you can navigate the tricky waters of dating—even serious dating and courtship—and lay the groundwork for a successful, happy marriage!