Dating, Sex, and Friendship In The Modern Age: Shelby Abbott
About the Guest
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Shelby AbbottShelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
There can be a lot of trouble meshing our relationship with Jesus and today’s dating scene, especially when you factor in our phones, social media, sex, and how to communicate without being super awkward.
Dating, Sex, and Friendship In The Modern Age: Shelby Abbott
Shelby: Somewhat anxious—always authentic—this is Real Life Loading… I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and our desire with this podcast is to help guide you toward the life-changing power of Jesus for relationships in a constantly-shifting culture.
I've worked with college students my whole—well, not my whole life—but my whole career since I graduated from college. I've noticed that, when it comes to the area of romance, people get weird; they just get really, really strange. There was this one guy I was working with who was like just great in so many ways—he was pursuing Jesus; he was memorizing Scripture; he was sharing his faith—but when it came to interacting with the opposite sex, he was just completely inept. By the way, he gave me permission to share the story: [he] just had no idea what he was doing.
I thought: “You know, what if I wrote something that would be helpful for that guy, or a girl, who's trying to walk with Jesus, as a college student, and they just don't know how to interact with the opposite sex?” I put together a book, and it was published in 2014—so a little while ago—and it's called I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life)—I thought that was really clever. As I wrote that book, I discovered, more and more, how helpful it was for so many young people, who are clamoring to get some advice on how to navigate the world today when it came to romance and dating.
Today's episode is going to be all about that. I actually don't have a guest joining me this week; it's just going to be you and me. And I know there can be kind of a danger in talking about romance because of all the opinions related to what was once called purity culture and the backlash from that. I'm going to do my best to be measured, biblical, and honest; because this is such a universal thing. God calls us to put Jesus first in our lives in every area—not just when we go to church, or pray, and read our Bibles—Christians are loyal, in every way, to Christ; and we want to live like that's actually true. So let's hop into it.
Now, I think it's important to define what dating is because a lot of people get confused when they hear the word, “dating”; they assume certain things. Some people will say that “This approach to dating is more biblical than this approach to dating.” That's kind of like saying heating your home with electricity is more biblical than heating with propane gas; in other words, the Bible has a whole lot of nothing to say about that.
But of course, biblical principles and biblical thinking can be applied to practices that Scripture is silent on, and Scripture is silent on dating because it's a more modern thing. Dating can mean totally different things to different people: based on past experiences, based on books that they've read, information that they've gathered, lessons that they've learned, or apps that they've tried.
We're going to operate from this definition of dating for the remainder of our time today: “Dating is”—in my definition—“a series of divine appointments to encourage, under the assumption that the God-honoring relationship is clearly defined via healthy and appropriate communication.” Okay, so I know that's a lot; but let me say it one more time so you get it: “Dating is a series of divine appointments to encourage, under the assumption that the God-honoring relationship is clearly defined via healthy and appropriate communication.” I'll break that down as we go along; don't worry.
What dating is not is just hanging out. A lot of people: “Oh, we're not dating; we're just hanging out.” I think that that whole perspective and that whole approach is lazy. I think it's non-committal and, frankly, it can lead to a lot of ungodliness. I think that dating should be intentional; I think it should be communicative and approached with a lot of initiatives.
I'm going to give you six topics we're going to unpack when it comes to dating; and they're going to be: Sex, Communication, Service, Friendship, Social media; and then, we'll dive into the topic of Singleness as well; okay? That's where we're going for the remainder of our time.
Let's start with the spicy one: Sex. Let me start by saying this: “Jesus is described in the New Testament as the friend of sinners; and I think all of us are sexual sinners, all of us. So if you've compromised in this area, in any way in the past, know that Jesus welcomes you with open and loving arms. If you're a Christian, you are forgiven and new, as a sexual sinner; so I want to start there before going any further.
It could seem, when talking about this subject, like a bunch of boundaries and perimeters that could quickly spill over into shame and regret; but there is no place for shame and regret in the kingdom of God. In Christ, you are not defined by your failings; you're defined by His grace. So let's have the proper perspective on the fact that we're all failures in this area and that Christ offers full and complete forgiveness. He is, as I said, the friend of sinners.
Now, that being said, what the world will tell you, when it comes to sex is:
- “Sex kind of really has no consequences; at least, consequences that can’t be fixed really quickly,”
- “Sex is the end goal of an evening,” or “…the end goal of the relationship in general; that's kind of the peak of it. Sex is not a beginning of something,”
- “If you're serious about your relationship, you should be having sex. In fact, there's something seriously wrong with you if you're not sexually active.”
That's what the world tells you—it's all about you—“Get it when you can, wherever you can,”—says the culture—“because it's the ultimate barometer of whether or not your relationship is actually a relationship. If you are not having sex with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you are not actually a boyfriend or girlfriend”; that's what the world will tell you.
Now, let me pivot here and tell you a story. Back when I was single, I had a roommate, this guy named Tommy. Tommy, in his room, had a 22-gallon fish tank; and he had, I think, three or four fish that would swim around. At the end of a long day, I'd come back from working on campus; and sometimes, if Tommy wasn't there, I'd go sit in his office chair and just watch the fish swim. Now, one day I noticed, of the different fish that were swimming in there, there's one brightly-colored orange fish. I noticed that he was more special, really, than the other fish.
As I sat there, watching the fish swim, I thought to myself, “You know, we live in a three-bedroom apartment. It is a lot of space here; it's really not fair that this fish is confined to this small little 22-gallon fish tank”; I thought, “He needs to be more liberated from this.” I grabbed that little green mesh net. I plunked it into the water; I snagged the orange fish. I pulled it out and I flopped it over into the middle of the room; and I said, “Be free, fish. You can swim wherever you want.” The fish wriggled around on the floor [flopping sounds]; and the fish died, right there, on the floor.
Now—okay, before you get angry at me—just know this is not a true story! In case you couldn't figure that out, this is not a true story. He did have a fish; I did watch the fish, but I did not murder this fish; okay?
Why is this story ridiculous?—because true freedom, true vibrancy, true life for the fish is found within the context of the fish tank. Anything outside the fish tank brings eventual death to the fish. What can look like liberation, for the purposes of this story, is really assassination.
You see where I'm going with this?—similarly, sexual “liberation,” outside the confines of marriage, is not life; it leads to destruction, and it leads to brokenness. The maximum experience for sex is designed, by God, to be within marriage; this is where true freedom exists. Why?—because nobody's going to grab their clothes and leave in the morning; there is no walk of shame for married couples.
Every compromise that you make, sexually, now is, in effect, a swipe of the credit card; meaning, “You get now, but you pay later”; and somebody will have to pay in the future. That person might be you, or it might be your future spouse—there are memories, hurts, comparisons, emotional entanglements, physical consequences, and psychological residue that lingers, for years—when you have sex with someone. All of that will turn up, again, in the future—it will come out again—now, again, the person, who pays for the credit card swipe might be you; or it might be your spouse.
And also/now, again, when I say this kind of stuff, there could be a lot of like guilt and shame. Again, if you've compromised in the past, you are a new creation; look at
2 Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 17: you are clean in His eyes—and His opinion—that's the only one that counts. So if you're a virgin, and you haven't compromised, praise God. If you stumbled, and you've crossed the line, God forgives and offers healing. Either way, God is good; and He gets the glory.
But let's be intentional about not making quick sexual compromises, because it can lead to destruction. Why?—because God has designed it in a very specific way.
Number two: Communication. First Corinthians 13:11 is one of my favorite verses to share with people because it says this: “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.”
Why am I saying this in connection to communication? There are a lot of people, when it comes to romance, in the context of communication, that play games with one another; meaning, they'll say one thing, but they actually mean another:
- They'll direct message you, but then they ghost you for seemingly no reason.
- There's manipulation that people use to get what they want, or get a reaction, or inspire jealousy out of you, whatever.
And here's my point: little boys and little girls send mixed messages and play games. Healthy communication is the antidote to the poison of manipulation and games. When we're clear, and uninterested in messing around with another person's heart, it builds vulnerability; trust; honesty; and eventually, a strong bond with another human being.
If the person you are messaging, back and forth with, is clearly someone, who's playing you or trying to keep you on the line—but doesn't really follow through—cut them loose and block them. If your boyfriend or girlfriend is a game-player and manipulates you into getting what he or she wants from you, do yourself an enormous favor:
Pause this podcast. Text them, right now, to get together with them—somewhere like a coffee shop, or in a park, or whatever—where you can talk to them, face to face, and break up with them.
You deserve better than someone, who is deceitful, and a game-player. Don't continue dating a child; don't be with someone who refuses to give up their childish ways. It's not worth your time or emotional energy.
I've had many people, [to whom] I have said this to—come and thank me later—and I think you will too. I've had a girl come up to me, with tears in her eyes, who said, “You spoke about this. I was bold; and I went and I broke up with my boyfriend, because all he did was manipulate me. My life has been so much better this year.” Again, I think you'll thank me later.
Number three: Service. There are these vile little creatures that live in the forest—and in sometimes, God forbid, a yard—that will attach themselves to a deer, or a dog, or—“Lord, help me,”—a human being; and they're called ticks. Ticks are these things that attach themselves, and they suck blood. They're parasites; they take, and take, and take, and give nothing back other than disease. I hate ticks.
Similarly, in the world of Harry Potter, there are these creatures called Dementors. Dementors are described by author, JK Rowling, as soul-sucking fiends. That's all they do is take, and take, and take from another person for their own satisfaction. There are a lot of relationships that are based on being basically ticks or Dementors when they enter into a romantic relationship; they take for their own satisfaction. The relationship—for lack of a better phrase—sucks; [Laughter] that's my dad joke.
Okay, so we don't want to be ticks or Dementors in a relationship. We don't want to take, take, take; and give nothing back. We are designed to be people of service. We want to look to the example of Jesus, the life-giving Spirit; Matthew 20 talks about laying down His life. We want to pour into one another and care for people, who we’re dating. We want to think, intentionally, about: “What I can do for them,” “How can I encourage them?” “How can I build them up?” “How can I breathe life into them?” When you have this posture in a dating relationship, it'll set you up well for a possible future marriage, should God want that for you; but also, it'll set you up to be an all-around better human being. When you die to yourself, there is true life. Dying to yourself: that's where true life is actually found.
“How can we do this? How can we serve one another in our dating relationships?” Well, I have some friends, who—when they were dating back in college—they did this thing called a “Monthly favorite state.” They would just find out: “What was their favorite thing that month?” and they would encourage them. So this girl I knew, who was dating a friend of mine, she would like leave a favorite baseball t-shirt for him/a new baseball t-shirt for him on his bed and his favorite snack. When he was out to class, she would drop it off at his apartment. They would just do fun little stuff like that. He would think about what she would like, and they would go out on a picnic. That's just something that they thought, intentionally, about how to serve one another.
I had another friend, who actually was dating a guy, who was pretty well off; he had a lot of money. He surprised her one morning at her apartment—came; woke her up, super early, and said, “Pack your stuff for the day; we're flying to Disney®.”And they literally got on an airplane, and flew to Orlando, and spent the day at the Magic Kingdom. Now, most people don't have that kind of money for that; but I was like, “Dude, that guy knows how to serve his girlfriend.”
One of the things that I did for Rachel, when we were dating, was I put together a travel survival kit. She studied abroad in Italy one summer:
- I put together/I drew some pictures for her to color on the plane.
- I did some funny quizzes for her to answer.
- I had this puzzle—like a jigsaw puzzle, that I did my own; I colored—and she had to put it together and create the message.
This was something simple and little, but it helped her to know that I cared about her; I was thinking about her; I wanted to serve her.
Our default, in life, is to think solely about ourselves; so it takes discipline to recalibrate our approach to dating someone and putting their needs ahead of our own: “Serve the person you're dating.”
Number four: Friendship. Friendship—you might be thinking [speaking softly], “What?! Friendship?”—but yes, if you're going to be a good boyfriend or girlfriend, you need to be a good friend first. Strong and godly friendship is the hinge on which the door of your relationship swings, so make sure that hinge is sturdy and well-attended to. If you set up your friendship well, it'll set you up well for a bright future that honors Christ.
“Do you actually want to be friends with the person you're dating?”—like strip away all the cuteness, or physical attraction, or whatever that you see on the outside—“If you took that all away, would you still want to be friends with this person?” That puppy-love romance—the electricity that you feel at the beginning—that's a good thing; it's a very good thing; don't get me wrong—but it fades quickly. So make sure you actually want to be friends with the person you want to be your boyfriend or girlfriend.
Number five—I think it's important that we talk about—The digital world and social media. Now, a lot of times, when people talk about social media, they think that technology, or our phones, or social media is the problem. I actually don't think the problem is necessarily technology; it's not necessarily our phones. The problem, when it comes to relationships with one another, is what our phones have forced to the surface in our lives; things like, fear, laziness, apathy, and a desire to control people.
Because we exist in a world, with technology and smartphones, we have this thing that I like to call the digital shield all around us; it's this protection layer that we have that prevents us from, for real, a hundred percent interacting with other human beings in a real-world kind of environment. And so we often choose the digital shield as opposed to the tension and the weight of interacting with people, face to face.
Listen, it's tough for a guy to look a girl in the eye and ask her out on a date—like face to face—it's really hard to do that. Just like it's hard for a girl to tell that guy that she has no desire to be more than friends with him if he might show interest to her in that moment. That's like really cringe-worthy; face-to-face tension can be, almost, unbearable sometimes.
So many—I dare to say most—opt for the initial stages of dating to take place behind the safety of their phone. I'd say that this is probably a mistake. Why?—because a precedent gets set: that important communication between a couple is going to be dealt with in the easiest way possible—a way that brings the least amount of anxiety now—but in effect, glosses over the realities of life. A couple/a dating couple shouldn't be in the habit of retreating to the safety of their phone in times when it's hard to handle the bumps of relationship friction.
Let me pause here, in the midst of all this, and just talk to the men for a second. If you're a woman—you're listening to this—you can eavesdrop for the next few seconds. Men, let me encourage you this: “Have face-to-face conversations with women you're interested in. If your idea of asking a girl out is swiping on an app—or sending a text message to her, that says, “Hey, want to hang out sometime?”—I think you seriously need to rethink your strategy. Not that you can't meet a girl, initially, over a digital platform; that's not what I'm saying. But in terms of: “This is how you start your dating relationship,” I think you need to rethink your strategy.
When you go out on a date with someone—when you go to pick her up, maybe—don't drive up to her parking lot and text, “Here.” I'd say you need to get out of the car; walk up to her door; knock on the door; when the door opens, lean into the social awkwardness and anxiety you might feel of meeting her roommates or her family.
Now, as I talk about all this, you might be going, “Oh, my goodness, who in the world asks a girl out, face to face, these days? I mean, who does that?” And my response would be: “Ideally, you!” Instead of succumbing to the social norms of passive digital-relational interaction, why don't you set a different kind of standard of caring for a woman by actually communicating with her personally? Not only will you stand out, as a man among boys, it will also communicate care, respect, and character in a world that devalues these admirable things in men. Again, that doesn't mean that you can't meet a woman through a digital platform; but when you take her out, engage in the face-to-face awkwardness that makes you stronger.
Now, I want to talk to the women, as well; so men, you can eavesdrop on this. I'll be a lot easier on the women—trust me—it'll be a lot easier to go through. Ladies, there's a lot of ambiguity in the digital world; meaning, you may not understand perfectly what someone means when they say something. I think it can be dangerous to ascribe specific meaning to DMs or text messages when you don't know, for sure, what the intentions were of the one who sent them.
Assuming a guy means something when he doesn't state it explicitly is probably an incorrect assumption, and it could end up hurting you; so be careful how you interpret. Remember, everything that's typed through a phone, or through a computer, is edited. The only real way to get to know someone, in a deep and meaningful way, is either, face to face, or maybe through something like FaceTime®, where you can actually see and experience body language, conversation pauses, and socially-awkward moments.
A friend of mine, Carrie Armentrout, once said, “Social media and texting is helpful and good; but it should always be a springboard for relationships, not a substitute for relationships”; I think she's right. In light of that, men and women, I have “Shelby's Top Five Technological No-nos.” This is just five things to talk about as we're thinking about social media, and the digital world, and texting, and all that kind of stuff; and then, we'll move on to point number six.
Here's “Five Technological No-no’s”:
- Number one: “Don't ever break up with someone over text message, Marco Polo, or—Lord forbid—social media. Lean into the anxiety and awkwardness of meeting, face to face, with them and saying, “It's over.” I know it's just easier to do on your phone, but have enough respect for the person and for yourself to actually meet up with them. It doesn't have to be long; but meet up with them, face to face, and tell them that it's over. This is a really difficult thing to do. I don't ever think you should start or end a relationship through your phone. I just think you need to do it, face to face.
- Alright, number two: “Don't share every detail of your dating relationship with everyone on Instagram®.” Why?—because all of your single friends see it, and they might be encouraged by it initially; but it could also be difficult if you're sharing every single aspect of your relationship on Instagram. It's difficult for your single friends, sometimes; so why not just use discretion and maybe share one picture instead of ten?
- Alright, number three: “Don't communicate important things over text messaging.” If I were out someplace, and my wife texted me: “The house is on fire,” with a couple of fire emojis, I'd be like, “Why did you text that to me? Why didn't you call me?!” It's really important that, as you approach important things in your relationship, I would encourage you not to text; because you can so easily misunderstand text messages. I'd say call the person to talk about important things.
- Alright—other Technological No-no’s—number four: “Don't talk to the faceless social media community about your relationship problems.” Sometimes, people can post things, like a picture of them sitting on the couch, watching Disney+, or whatever, Netflix®—and it's just their feet—and they hashtag: “Alone on Friday night,” or “Pizza by myself.” Okay—now, I'm not trying to be mean—but it's like, “What are you attempting to do with that? Are you just trying to manipulate people or make them feel sorry for you?” Listen, nobody is seeing that message, as the opposite sex, and going, “Man, I got to rescue them.” They’re like, “No; that's sad.” Don't try to garner sympathy or empathy from people by talking to the faceless social media community about your relationship problems; that's just not a mature or wise thing to do.
- Alright, number five: “Don't allow your phone to diminish your social skills.” If you know how to engage with the opposite sex when it comes to romance—not only does it help you in relationships—it helps you in life. If you're a person, who goes for a job interview after you graduate from college, and you're someone who knows how to listen well, how to answer questions, how to look somebody in the eye and be attentive as they're asking you questions for your job interview, you're going to have a leg-up on everybody else.
Don't allow your phone to rob you of the basic social skills you need to be able to interact with other human beings. Put your phone down sometimes; and like I said, lean into the awkwardness of relationships—because all relationships are difficult—but as you work out those muscles, they get stronger.
That is what I have to say about social media.
Finally, number six: I think it's important, when talking about relationships, to engage in the conversation about: Singleness. Now, 1 Corinthians, Chapter 7, verses 6-9 talks about the gift/the “gift” of singleness. I remember when I was single, we used to joke about wanting to return the gift of singleness—like, “No, I'm good; I think I'll take something else,”—in fact, I used to say this jokingly to all my friends when I was single; I used to say, “You know, deep down, I know marriage won't solve all my problems; but even deeper down than that, I believe marriage will solve all my problems.” [Laughter]
I did not enjoy being single. In fact, two years after I graduated from college, I started dating this girl; we got pretty serious. I really loved spending time with her. We dated for about six months or so; and then, after six months, she came to me and said, “God is not calling me to you anymore.” And I was like, “Does that mean you don't like me anymore?”—[Laughter]—basically, I was like—“Well, God is calling me to you; so who's right here?” Well, it must have been her; because we eventually did break up. The heartache of that came like pretty intensely. I was really deeply sad for a long, long time. It hurt so much because I thought I was supposed to be with her, and she didn't think she was supposed to be with me.
Now, eventually, I did get married at the age of 29. Getting married helped me to look back and appreciate the singleness that I was constantly wishing was not around. I believed, when I was single, that singleness was a curse. I think, when everything inside you screams for deep romantic connection with another person, it's hard to listen to anything else. I wanted, when I was single, to be loved; I wanted to be wanted by another human being. Sometimes, I would literally ask myself: “What's the matter with you?” “Are you unlovable?” “Why doesn't anybody want to be with you?” “Why won't anyone love you?”
But singleness is not a curse. If you're single, you are not half a person. You do not need to be fixed if you're single. You do not have a disease that needs to be cured if you're single. When you get out of college, and you stay single for any significant amount of time, older people will start to try to connect you with “…someone I think you'd like.” You and others around you might believe that singleness is a wound that prevents you from thriving as a person, when in reality, singleness is potentially a great opportunity for you. Why?—a friend of mine, Matt Smethurst, said, “The most fully-human and complete person ever to live was single. Marriage is not ultimate; Jesus is ultimate.” My friend Matt is right.
Yes, Proverbs 18:22 says: “If a man finds a wife, he finds a good thing”; but that good thing was never meant to be the ultimate thing. The only truly satisfying relationship one can have is the ultimate connection with God through Jesus Christ. The finish line isn't the end of singleness in marriage; the finish line is heaven. When we become Christians, we begin to experience a little bit of heaven, here on earth. Singleness can be an opportunity, if you let it, to flourish instead of constantly wishing it away.
You are uniquely free to pursue new things when you're single. If you believe that you constantly need a significant other to be complete or joyful, you'll constantly be dissatisfied with everything in life; because you're looking for fulfillment in a boyfriend or girlfriend instead of in Jesus. Singleness is a gift worth cherishing because, once it's gone, it's gone. So appreciate it for what it is: a loving gift from our heavenly Father.
When we think about relationships, I've just covered the topics of: Sex, Communication, Service, Friendship, Social media/the digital world, and Singleness. All in all, I want to say this: if you're a single right now, and you're in the dating world, I'd say spend less time looking for the right person and more time on becoming the right person. Jesus is ultimate; I'd say:
- “Cling to Him in times of relationship—sadness, and heartache, and loneliness, hurt, and confusion,”
- and “Cling to him in times of zeal, and excitement, and comfort, and fulfillment, and exhilaration when every detail of your dating life is going great.”
We need Jesus when things are horrible, and we need Jesus when things are wonderful. He is the ultimate, regardless of the state of your dating relationship: “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,” Revelation 22:13; “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together” Colossians 1:17. No one will ever love you the way that Jesus does.
I sincerely hope you were encouraged by what we talked about today. If you think this content about dating was helpful, you can go further into the topic by picking up my book, I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life).
And I'd love for you to share this podcast with a friend, [whom] you think would benefit from it. And wherever you get your podcasts, it can really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading... if you'd rate and review us. It's totally easy to find us on our social channels; just search for Real Life Loading... or look for our links in the show notes.
I want to thank my producers, Josh Batson and Bruce Goff. I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading...
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