When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
-1 Corinthians 13:11
Of all the prayer requests I get in ministry one of the most frustrating goes something like this: “would you pray for my boyfriend/girlfriend who isn’t a believer?”
I wish I could say I’ve only gotten this request from kids in youth group, or only from college students, but I’ve gotten it from across the gamut of age ranges. As most of us in ministry know the initial question is usually not as important as the question behind the question. In this case what I think many might really be thinking is: “I’ve gotten myself in a conundrum, I’ve become infatuated with someone I shouldn’t be. If only God would lay hold of this person then my disobedience would melt into insignificance.” There is much wrong with this sort of thinking and this sort of prayer.
If you or someone you know is caught in this situation here are some things to consider:
1. God’s Will On This Matter Is Not Secret
That God does not want you to date an unbeliever is clearly outlined in His Word. The Old Testament is replete with examples of this in both command and narrative form (Deut. 7:2-5; Josh. 23:11-13; Jud. 3:5-8; Gen. 24:1-4; Ezra 9:12).
The New Testament is less clear* but does offer this admonition to a widow looking to remarry:
she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39, emphasis mine).
By “only in the Lord” Paul means to marry only those that demonstrate faith in the same Jesus that New Testament Christians worship. This advice to a widow looking to remarry would not then be different for any other person looking to marry. The principle is the same, marry within the household of faith, “in the Lord” and you will be most pleased and in obedience to God. The Old and New Testaments uphold the same standards when it comes to marriage.
Let us not continue claiming ignorance to what God has revealed.
2. You Are Not The Exception
Some people have been so bold as to ask me, “people tell me it’s unwise to date a non-believer, what do you think?” Which is telling of a heart condition that betrays their words. I suspect the majority of people in the Church asking this question already know its answer but are looking for an exception clause that will exclude them from calling off the relationship. While they don’t realize it, they are really saying, “I know this is wrong, many people have told me it is wrong, but can you validate my sin by telling me it is right? ” They expose their lack of belief that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). They’ve visited many doctors and all have said, “I think your symptoms point to illness” yet, they will continue to seek that one doctor who will falsely tell them they are not sick but well.
If this describes you, accept God’s grace. He is merciful and will give you the strength needed to stop resisting his will. Repent. Break off the relationship and commit to pray for this person. Adopt newly defined boundaries that don’t include romance.
3. The Seeming Exceptions Are Not Really Exceptions
Speaking autobiographically, my wife started dating me when I was an atheist. This was disobedient and unwise. God intervened, got ahold of me, and we later married and started a new life together
chasing stumbling after Him. But there is no guarantee that God will do this for someone else. Yes, He is expert at using one person’s sin as another person’s good (Gen. 5:20 et al) but that does not absolve the one sinning. My wife admits that it was foolish and sinful to date me when I was an unbeliever. God was merciful and kind and led me to repentance as well as my wife.
A good litmus test of where you stand is to ask yourself, “what do I treasure more: God or this person?” If you are not willing to break it off, you’ve gotten your answer. Which is really more telling of an even bigger issue…
4. You Are Making An Idol
I’ve also heard this “conundrum” put into these sorts of words, “I think I’m falling in love with an unbeliever.” No. You are most certainly not. Love is not a puddle of mud that we fall into. Love is a verb. It is active just like our hearts (see how Paul defines it in 1 Cor. 13). And our hearts cannot be turned off, we will either aim them at something appropriately sized to receive their worship (God), or we will aim them at something lesser and place upon it more weight than it is made for (an idol, in this case, the unbeliever).
You have not “fallen” in love. You’ve actively decided to love someone more than God and the truth that He has revealed to us. Paul tells the young pastor Timothy that a terrible fate awaits some widows, “their passions [will] draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith” (1 Tim. 5:11-12).
Time has not changed us or our desires. Many young women (and men) will be led away from the faith and the Savior by engaging in romantic relationships with unbelievers. But, if you’ve not yet married,** it is not too late. You can still break it off.
Eventually, the rubber will hit the road. You will either decide that you love God as displayed in Jesus or you will choose to love an unbeliever more. You will choose that you want to follow God even though it will cost you this relationship or you will choose the relationship and risk being drawn away from your Savior. Things may change. This may, in fact, be the sort of action that makes the unbeliever see that your faith in God is real and it may even draw him/her to faith. But things won’t change if you do nothing. Let James words stir you up:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14)
To be clear, I’m not saying you will go to Hell for dating or even marrying an unbeliever. The Gospel is that Jesus died for us and our sins and that by placing faith in Him we are saved. What I am asking you is this: do you really have faith in Him? If so, then prove it. Put your faith into action. Do the hard work of protecting your faith in God by telling your boyfriend/girlfriend that you treasure Him more than them. Pray that He might capture them by your witness. But be okay if Jesus saving them means you might not get them back. God is more satisfying than marriage, and marriage will not save us, in fact a marriage to a nonbeliever will likely bring more heartache than happiness when the honeymoon is over.
*Some point to 2 Cor. 6:11 but that is not the best way to interpret this verse
**Throughout this piece I am addressing only those who have not yet married. For those who’ve married my counsel is different and I do not encourage contemplating divorce.