“To do even the most humbling tasks to the glory of God takes the Almighty God Incarnate working in us.”
– Oswald Chambers
In Christian culture, we put a lot of weight on making our dating relationships “Christ-centered” or “God glorifying” or “holy.” This is good so far as it goes, and I am well aware that modern dating presents some serious danger zones for couples who want to build intimacy while preserving their sexual purity. That being said, most of the advice you’ll find online is restrictive rather than prescriptive: these articles are largely lists telling teens and young adults to avoid physical touch, or to spend less time alone and more time in groups. (I did find one article that suggested watching chick flicks together as a good way to make your relationship Christ-centered. For some reason.)
I also don’t think it goes far enough. Putting Christ front and center in our relationships is not only about maintaining purity. That just puts the cart before the horse. Charles Spurgeon said that love for God is obedience and holiness. But holiness and obedience are not by themselves love for God. (If that’s unclear, think of it this way: maintaining a healthy diet probably means not eating KFC Double Downs, but not eating Double Downs by itself does not necessarily make for a healthy diet.) That is to say, if we fail to make Jesus the focal point of our relationships, then we have fallen short of what our relationships are meant to be even if we maintain sexual purity within them.
It discourages me to see that when we refer to Christ-centered relationships we almost always mean romantic relationships. If we were to make a practice of putting Christ at the center of all of our relationships, then it wouldn’t be so challenging to do so in our romantic relationships. Jesus said in Luke 16, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.” The food writer Michael Ruhlman has a great anecdote about visiting Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se. “Just the other day, Thomas was so proud to show me how they use painter’s tape in the kitchen,” he said. Rather than tearing tape off of the roll in order to label the plastic food containers, every piece of tape is cut with scissors so that every edge is perfectly straight. “Because it’s all one thing to Thomas. You can’t be lax in one area and perfect in another.” Likewise, if you think you are putting Christ front and center in your dating relationships but aren’t doing the same thing in your other relationships, you are kidding yourself. It’s all or nothing.
But what does a Christ-centered friendship look like? If it’s not about obedience to a set of rules, then what is it? I cannot write a comprehensive description, but I think I can offer some guidelines that will help us on our way.
1) In Christ-centered friendships, we constantly and intentionally point the other person to Christ. We can do this explicitly by imitating Christ, and thus being as Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”) We can lead each other to praise God in our good times and to lean on God in times of trouble and to remember God when things are typical. In the mewithoutYou song “Messes of Men,” Aaron Weiss sings to God, “If ever You come near, I’ll hold up high a mirror. Lord I could never show you anything as beautiful as You.” In the same way, we cannot show each other any greater beauty or kindness than to point to Jesus.
2) In Christ-centered friendships, we must consistently serve one another. In John 13:34, Jesus tells His disciples, “In the same way I have loved you, you are to continue loving one another.” Whether it’s in encouragement when the other is down, in calling them out when they are slipping up, or sharing a burden in a time of need, there are constant opportunities to express, to share, and to embody love in each other’s lives. Even if we feel helpless or overwhelmed, God is not limited by our constraints. I love the way Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) put it: “When God makes His presence felt through us, we are like the burning bush: Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was—he only saw the brightness of the Lord.”
3) In Christ-centered friendships, we have to prioritize the other person’s spiritual growth. This is related to the first entry, but different enough to warrant its own. We need to encourage each other to be actively growing in knowledge of God, engaging in acts of worship, and expressing the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In “Mere Christianity,” CS Lewis wonders, “if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?” We have to be constantly reminded of what we believe. We practice our faith like an athlete exercises. If it’s only sporadic it will soon become sluggish. A short time after that, worthless. Teammates hold each other accountable in this way; Christ-centered friends hold each other accountable in this way.
John Piper said, “If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is insurrection.” Piper was referring to academic scholarship, but his point extends beyond academia. If we are serious about the supremacy of God, then we must also seek to glorify God through building Christ-centered friendships.