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Tell Me How, Tell Me Who, Tell Me When! How God Uses Ups, Downs, and Unanswered
Questions to Make Us More like Him
BY JOSH HARRISBack to main article
The following article is excerpted from book Boy Meets Girl. Copyright © 2000 by Joshua Harris. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers Inc., Sisters, Oregon. All rights reserved.         

hen Claire Richardson found out that David Tate liked her and that he had asked her father for permission to pursue a relationship with her, she burst into tears.

They were not happy tears.

Claire was upset. Throwing herself down on the couch, she pounded the arm with both fists and yelled hysterically, "No! No! No! He's messing everything up! I've never thought of him like that. I'm not interested in him! Oh, he's messing it all up!"

Her reaction bewildered her parents. Since Claire and David were good friends, they assumed that she would at least consider the possibility of a courtship. But Claire already knew whom she wanted, and it wasn't David. She liked Neil‑and Neil liked her. He too had spoken to her dad, but because Neil was several years away from being ready for marriage, Mr. Richardson had asked him to wait on a courtship. So even though their relationship was on hold, Claire and Neil knew that they liked each other and were confident about their future together.

In Claire's mind, there was no possibility for a romance with David. He was her good friend‑that was all. She'd imagined being married to different guys, but never to David. He was like a brother. Now she was sure that their friendship had been ruined. Why did he have to do this? Why did he have to like her?

She didn't even need to pray about it, she told her parents. "Of course it isn't right."

Our True Condition
What if the girl you like responded to your interest like Claire did to David's? What will you do if the wrong guy starts pursuing you?  Or the right guy doesn't?

The questions of when and with whom we pursue a relationship‑-or in Claire's case, when and whom we allow to pursue us‑-can be confusing and uncomfortable. Most of us would prefer not to face them. Walking by faith isn't our idea of fun. We want the discomfort and risk removed.

Before we make a move we want God to make the situation crystal clear.

Do you see the problem? Our mind‑set is: "God, tell me who, tell me how, tell me when-‑and then I'll trust you." What God wants us to see is that if He did this, our trust wouldn't be real. We want a definitive answer so we won't feel vulnerable, weak, and dependent on Him. But guess what? We are vulnerable, weak, and dependent on Him. And it's only when we realize our true condition that God can demonstrate His strength and love on our behalf.

In this chapter we'll use one couple's story to illustrate principles that can help you with the how and when and with whom questions of courtship. But more importantly, I hope it reminds you that finding these answers for your life involves a journey of faith that you can't sidestep by reading a book. What you read here can help, but you still have to sweat through these questions in real life.

At this point I think you'll find the rest of David and Claire's story helpful. Your own experience will probably be different than theirs, but as you read about how God worked in their lives, I hope that you'll be encouraged as you see His faithfulness, His creativity, and His impeccable timing.

Ducks in a Row
David called Claire a few days after her parents talked with her about him. He didn't know about her negative response to his interest, but even on the phone he could tell Claire was less than enthusiastic. He decided to hope for the best and asked if they could get together to talk.

Though Claire politely agreed to meet and listen to what he had to say, she already knew her answer. "I just couldn't see how a relationship with him could be the best thing." She tried to pray about it, but her prayers were halfhearted. "Lord, if this is Your will, please change my heart...but please don't let it be Your will!"

She felt bad. She knew that David hadn't come carelessly to the decision to express his interest. He isn't the careless type‑he's thoughtful, methodical, and steady. Even his appearance reveals it. His black hair is always cut short and perfectly styled; his clothes are neat and ironed.  He regrets the day his buddies discovered that he keeps his T‑shirts arranged alphabetically.  "Hey, David, can I borrow a T‑shirt?" they tease to this day. "A blue one filed under K would be great."

You can imagine that a guy who alphabetizes his T‑shirts would be very thorough in deciding whether or not to pursue a girl. And David was. He wanted, he said, "to make sure all my ducks were in a row."

He prayed about it. He evaluated himself and his situation in life. He talked to his parents and his pastor. He even wrote out a list of questions to help him determine whether it was the right time to think about marriage:

  1. Am I prepared to lead my wife spiritually and serve her in every way?
  2. Do I have proven character, and am I growing in godliness?
  3. To whom and for what am I accountable?
  4. How am I involved in the church? What are my gifts and ministry areas? What are hers?
  5. Are my motives for pursuing marriage selfish and worldly, or are they to honor God?
  6. Can I provide financially?
  7. What do my pastors and parents have to say?

David prayed over his questions. He thought carefully about Claire. Besides being deeply attracted to her, he knew that she was godly and a woman of character. One by one the "ducks" lined up. David felt confident that God wanted him to take the next step.

David went to Mr. Richardson first. He knew that Claire would only consider a relationship him if her parents approved of it. She looked to her dad to provide oversight and screen any guy who as interested in her.

David's conversation with her father had been encouraging, though somewhat mystifying.  Mr. Richardson gave his permission for David to talk with Claire, but he told David that another young man had already expressed interest in her. "Since that relationship is on hold," he said, "I think it would be fine for you to let Claire know of your interest. I don't know what God's will is in all of this, but I'm confident that He'll make it clear to you both. Her mom and I will talk with her, and then you can give her a call."

Then Mr. Richardson said something that David would puzzle over for the next two years. "Go ahead and ask her...but don't take her first answer." What was that supposed to mean?

Eight Weeks of Silence
Evidently Mr. Richardson had a hunch that his daughter would not immediately warm to the possibility of a relationship with David. And as her couch‑pounding response indicated, he was right.

When David took Claire out to dinner, she listened quietly as he spoke about the qualities he saw in her that attracted him. He knew that she primarily thought of him as a friend and asked only that she prayerfully consider a courtship.

At this point they had their first major miscommunication. For whatever reason Claire left the dinner assuming David understood that she wasn't interested, while David left thinking she was going to pray about it and get back to him.

What followed was two months of silence between them‑eight long weeks in which Claire grew bitter towards David for having "ruined" their friendship and David grew bitter towards her for not "coming clean" and giving him a final answer.

"It was yucky," Claire remembers. "I was mad at him for disturbing my plans, and then, because I didn't want him to think I was changing my mind or even considering a relationship, I was rude and ignored him."

They participated in many of the same church activities, even played in the college worship band together, but they wouldn't talk to each other. David assumed that her answer was no but was upset that she wasn't telling him so. A once thriving friendship was now dead.

It's impossible to know how long this would have continued if God had not intervened. One Sunday at church the sermon was about how bitterness can destroy fellowship among Christians. Claire was sitting in the pew behind David. She knew that God was speaking to her. After the meeting she pulled David aside and made a tearful apology. "I'm sorry for the way I've acted the last two months," she said. "I've been bitter. I have not treated you as a brother. I've not been a friend to you. I've been selfishly ignoring you and running away from this situation. Would you please forgive me?"  David's own eyes filled with tears.

"When I saw that," Claire says, "I realized just how much my sin had hurt him."

David was relieved, but he also was convicted. "As she apologized," he says, "I saw that I had sinned against her in the same way. Yes, I felt that she had left me hanging. But God showed me that I too had been bitter. Instead of going back to her and asking whether or not she was going to respond, in my pride I refused to talk to her. I was no longer treating her as my sister and my friend. I asked her to forgive me too."

David and Claire were reconciled that day. The experience, though difficult, strengthened their friendship.

Wanting It Too Much
Though his friendship with Claire was back to normal, the experience of being turned down was still confusing and frustrating for David. Why had God made it so clear that he was supposed to approach her if He knew that she was going to say no? Hadn't all his ducks been in a row? He had a good job, he felt mature enough emotionally and spiritually, and the people around him thought he was ready. He was ready! So what was the problem?

David talked to his pastor, Kenneth, who listened patiently as he vented his frustration.

"Dave, I think you've made an idol out of marriage," Kenneth told him.

"No, no, I'm past that!" David protested. "I prayed about it.  I evaluated my heart.  I was content being single before I approached her."

"That's good," Kenneth said. "But look at your response to her lack of interest: you grew bitter; you got angry. That leads me to think that you want marriage too much. It's become a little substitute god in your life, and when you didn't get it, you reacted sinfully."

John Calvin wrote, "The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but in that we want it too much." David realized his mistake. Marriage was a good thing. It was good for him to desire it. But God was mercifully using the difficult experience of having this desire denied to show him that he wanted it too much.  He had been placing his hope for happiness in starting a courtship and getting married instead of in trusting God for his ultimate satisfaction.

Letting Go
Two years went by. During that time David prayed about other girls. At one point he approached another girl in his church about beginning a relationship. She also said no. "That was strike two," he says with a laugh.

One girl David wasn't planning to go to bat for again was Claire. Their friendship was stronger than ever, and he didn't want to endanger it. Besides, he assumed that she still liked Neil.

But David didn't know that God was bringing Claire's relationship with Neil to an end. "It was distracting both of us," Claire explains. She and Neil finally talked and decided that being on hold indefinitely wasn't good for either of them. "We decided that we needed to assume that nothing was going to happen between us."

Letting go of the relationship with Neil wasn't easy for Claire.  The emotional attachments were strong. "I have all these feelings for Neil," she told Pastor Kenneth. "How can I change my feelings and emotions?"

"You can," Kenneth assured her, "but first you need to change the way you think about Neil. Then your emotions and feelings will follow."

"That was exactly what I needed," Claire says. "For two years I'd been thinking of Neil as my potential husband rather than a brother in the Lord. I had to renew my thinking and release my 'claim' on him. When feelings for him would resurface, I could usually pinpoint the cause as wrong thinking."

Things didn't change overnight, but slowly Claire's feelings for Neil subsided. "God used that time to teach me to trust Him with my heart‑to believe that if the relationship with Neil wasn't His plan, He would help take it away and change my heart. And He did. He took the feelings away."

A few months after her feelings for Neil were gone, a most surprising thing happened. Claire began to be attracted to David. She began to notice his servant's heart, his humility, and his leadership. This attraction felt different than her prior experiences of liking guys. "Before it had always been, 'Here's the guy I want!' But this time, I thought, 'Here's a man I could follow.'"

Despite her growing feelings, Claire didn't want to get her hopes up. After what had happened the first time, she doubted that David would take another chance on her.

A Different Kind of Peace
David remained unaware of all these changes in Claire. But one thing he knew‑he still had feelings for her.  In fact, he still often wondered what Mr. Richardson had meant when he had said, "Don't take her first answer." Should he give it a second try? Would he risk losing her friendship?

As he contemplated these things, David was surprised to realize that he wasn't anxious. God had been changing him. Even though he wasn't always aware of it, even though he sometimes felt as if his life were on hold, God had been steadily doing an important work in his heart. The guy who loved to have his "ducks in a row" had grown to trust God more than his own meticulous planning.  The guy who longed for marriage was now bringing his requests to God with joy and thankfulness instead of desperation or complaining.

A key encouragement to him was Philippians 4:6‑7: 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, 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.

Now his prayers about courtship and marriage were very different. God, I don't want to be anxious about this area of my life, he would pray. I present my requests to You. I'd like to get married, and You know whom I'm interested in. But I'm trusting Your Word, which says that Your peace, which transcends understanding, will guard my heart. I want Your peace, not the peace I attempt to create.

One day on his hour‑long commute to Baltimore, David prayed, God, what's your timing for me to pursue a relationship?

As he prayed, David suddenly realized that it was the first time he wasn't assuming that he knew who the girl was going to be. He had finally let go.  "For me, it was evidence that God was transforming me," he says. "I prayed, Lord, I need you to help me to determine who just as much as when and how."

The Right Time in the Windy City
For David and Claire, the right thing at the right time came together on a trip to Chicago. They went with twenty‑five other young adults to serve a newly planted church and do outreach in the city.

The night before he left, David and his parents got into a conversation that turned unexpectedly to marriage. His dad and mom asked him when he felt he would pursue a girl. They lovingly challenged him not to hold back because of fear. "Son," his dad said, "I think you need to get going!"

"Get going!" With those words ringing in his ears, the next day David and the rest of the group flew to Chicago. Was God speaking through his parents and telling him that it was time to move?

One evening in Chicago he started talking to Amy and Nicole, two girls he'd been friends with since high school. To his surprise the conversation turned to the topic of marriage. "So when are you thinking about pursuing someone?" they asked, giggling at their own nosiness. Amy and Nicole had no idea the weight their next statement carried. "David, you know we care about you. Well, we really just feel that you should get going!"

David could hardly believe that his two friends were echoing the exact words of his parents. He began to tell them that he was content. He was really at peace and not in a hurry. As he talked, David realized the significance of what he was saying. He actually meant what he was saying! He really was content. He really was at peace. 

And suddenly, in the midst of this God‑given peace, David sensed that God was telling him the time had come to try again.

One More Try
David picked the last night of the trip to act. The group was walking through downtown Chicago. David wanted to time his conversation with Claire to happen as they walked across a bridge over the Chicago River. He kept to the back of the group and to his delight found that Claire was walking there too.

When they reached the bridge, he asked, "Claire, can I talk with you for a minute?" "Sure," she answered. He seemed so serious. They slowed their pace and let the others get ahead of them so they could have some privacy.  "Gosh, I can't believe I'm doing this...again!" David said and laughed.

Claire held her breath. Was he about, it couldn't be. David began slowly and deliberately, using every qualification he could think of.  "I was wondering if you would consider...praying about...the possibility of...maybe thinking about...possibly pursuing a relationship with me?"

Then, before Claire had the chance to respond, he rushed to assure her that she was under no obligation to be interested and that if she wasn't interested it was completely fine and that he would always be her friend if she said no‑in fact, she didn't have to answer him right away...she could wait as long as she wanted...and....

 "Can I give you my answer now?" Claire interrupted.

 "Of course."

 "My answer is yes," she said.

Standing there on the bridge over the Chicago River with his heart pounding in his chest, all David could find to say was "Cool!"

On his third try he'd hit a home run.

Learning As We Go
I see many things we can learn from David and Claire's story.  Let me share a few that seem the most important:

1. Remember, God is interested in the journey, not just the destination.  David wanted to finalize his readiness for marriage; God wanted to reveal idols in his heart. Claire wanted God to bless her choice for a husband; God wanted her to submit her emotions to Him.

It's a mistake to view the process of deciding how, when, and with whom we begin a relationship as something to "get through" so we can move on to courtship and marriage. God is in no rush. His interest in all this is not limited to getting us married‑He wants to use this process, and all thequestions and uncertainties it involves, to refine us, sanctify us, and increase our faith.

2. Don't over spiritualize decision making. God used very practical means to lead David: a thorough evaluation of his own preparedness for marriage, the consent of Claire's father, the encouragement of his parents and friends, and his own sense of peace about asking her one more time.

C. S. Lewis once wrote a friend: "I don't doubt that the Holy Spirit guides your decisions from within when you make them with the intention of pleasing God. The error would be to think that He speaks only within, whereas in reality He speaks also through Scripture, the Church, Christians friends, books, etc." Though God speaks to Christians primarily through His Word, He confirms and leads us in many different ways. But we should resist overspiritualizing the steps He expects us to take to make choices.

God knows all things. He knows whom we'll marry before we meet him or her. But that doesn't mean our task is to discover what He already knows or to worry that we might miss His perfect plan. Our responsibility is to love Him, study His Word, deepen our relationship with Him, and learn to evaluate our choices in light of biblical wisdom. If we're doing these things, we can make our decisions in the confidence that we aren't somehow missing God's will.

Will we fail sometimes and make mistakes? Of course we will. But the possibility of failure should never paralyze us. Though it wasn't easy for David, God used Claire's initial rejection of him for their good. God works through our choices and actions‑even our missteps‑to accomplish His best in our lives.

On the other hand, I'd like to offer one caution to men:  I'm not saying that initiative is not required or that sitting around waiting for the Lord to drop a wife into your lap is somehow godly. As the old saying goes, "Lack o' pep is often mistaken for patience."  Neither should you mistake a lack of courage for wisdom. 

3. Our romanticized ideal of what we want in a spouse is often different from what God says matters.  My favorite part of David and Claire's story is when Claire began to fall in love with David's character‑not his image or his personality, but his character.  At first David didn't fit her romanticized notion of what mattered in a husband, but then she realized that he was a man she could follow.

Claire's experience is a good reminder to us that we should very carefully examine our criteria for a spouse to see if they are in line with God's. The first nonnegotiable is that the potential spouse be a Christian. But that's not all that matters. The book of Proverbs ends with an entire chapter dedicated to describing the "wife of noble character." It says that a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised and is worth far more than rubies (Proverbs 31:10). God says that virtue and character matter most. 

Why is this so important? Because those who choose a spouse based on external and fleeting concerns experience much grief. The book of Proverbs is dotted with reminders of how bad marriage can be. It tells us, "A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones" (Proverbs 12:4). It warns us about the "sluggard" and the "angry man" (Proverbs 20:4; 29:22). It says it's better to live on the corner of the roof or in the desert than it is to share a house with a quarrelsome wife (Proverbs 21:9, 19).

We need to make sure that we don't let our own romanticized and foolish notions lead us into marrying a person who lacks godly character. 

A Second Yes
Courtship is a season for two people to grow in friendship, to get to know each other's character, and to see how they interact as a couple. As we'll see in the next chapter, courtship isn't a form of preengagement. It's a time to consider the possibility of marriage and to seek to make a wise choice.

Some courtships end with two people deciding that they should remain friends. David and Claire's courtship ended with two friends deciding that they should become lovers. Claire answered yes a second time when, on Christmas Eve, David asked her to be his wife.

I got to attend their wedding. It was a beautiful celebration capped with a great surprise: David had arranged for a helicopter to land behind the church and whisk the newlyweds off to their hotel in downtown Washington, D. C. Talk about a dramatic exit!

As I stood with the other wedding guests and watched the helicopter lift off into the clear night sky, I couldn't help marveling at the kindness of God. The boy who had felt the sting of rejection was finally holding his bride. The girl who had once pounded on her couch in annoyance at the thought of David Tate liking her was now flying away with him on their honeymoon, more in love than she had ever imagined possible.

In their wedding program Claire had quoted a passage from one of her favorite books, Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery. She had picked it because it so perfectly described their experience.

Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one's life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; Perhaps it crept to one's side like an old friend through quiet ways; Perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music; unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden‑hearted rose slipping from it's green sheath.

Perhaps after all our worries and questions, we'll discover that all along God had the right thing at the right time for us. Perhaps His plan is more wonderful than anything we could create by ourselves‑whether it comes with "pomp and blare," or quietly, "like an old friend."

Perhaps...perhaps...we should entrust our questions of "How?" and "Who?" and "When?" into His tender care.

Joshua Harris directs New Attitude Ministries and is in pastoral training at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

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© 2000, Adventist Review.