This article was originally published at the Biblical Counseling Coalition. It is drawn from material by both Zach Schlegel and Deepak Reju from a class they co-teach on dating.
If I had a dime for every time someone has sat on my couch, in tears about a recent breakup, I’d be a rich man. I pastor a young church (the average age is 28). As a general rule of thumb, if you stick a lot of single men and women in the same building, they’re usually going to spend time together and eventually get married. So, having “Whom should I date?” or “Should we get married?” conversations is a fairly normal part of what I do.
Not every relationship ends in marriage. And sadly, Christians can too often look like the world when it comes to breaking up. Ignoring each other. Gossiping about your ex. Longing for the person. Fighting bitterness or fighting to get over the pain of the loss. Giving yourself over to quick peeks at his or her Facebook page or Instagram account. (Has he moved on? Or is she still hurting just like me?)
If the gospel of Jesus really makes a difference, it should show itself in the worst of moments. But if Christian dating looks no different from the world, our faith shows itself to be relatively useless.
What would it mean to break up for the glory of God? Seriously. How do you end the relationship in a way that honors God and the other person, especially since he or she is a brother or sister in Christ?
Here are 13 things to remember:
1. Remember we live in a fallen world.
There is no such thing as risk-free dating. Proverbs 13:12 reminds us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” In a breakup there is usually at least one party who still hoped it would work out and has suffers hope deferred. We need realistic expectations and must ultimately hope not in the person we’re dating, but in God who never fails.
2. Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’ (Matt. 5:37).
Don’t beat around the bush. If you know you need to break up, it’s better to rip the bandage off and be straight-forward. That doesn’t mean you should be cruel; we are still called to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and to speak only those words that build up and are fitting (Eph. 4:29).
3. Talk in person, not on email, Twitter, Facebook, or over the phone.
This is a simple way to honor the other person and provide space for questions or discussion.
4. Don’t make the breakup a one-way conversation.
Often the person initiating the breakup has taken a great deal of time to reach his/her conclusions, so he/she simply unloads and leaves. Don’t do that. There are times when it will be helpful to leave room for a follow-up conversation, then return to hear and process together a bit. The other person may have questions or things to discuss afterward. Some people are good thinking on their feet, and some aren’t.
5. Be gracious and loving in the way you end it.
The worst thing you can do is throw stones and cast blame on the other person, not only causing sadness over the lost relationship but also provoking feelings of guilt, as if it is his/her fault. Even in the act of breaking up, you need to be thoughtful, gracious, and loving towards the other person (Eph. 4:1-3; Col. 4:6; Titus 3:2). After all, he or she is a child of God, loved by God, so what gives you any right to treat him or her any differently than God does? If you are not sure how to do this, find an older, godly Christian man or woman and ask for help.
6. Don’t use the advice of a pastor, close friend, parent, or counselor as a trump card.
“I talked to X about this, and he/she thinks we should break up.” It’s tempting to do this rather than taking responsibility yourself. When it comes to deciding whom we will or won’t marry, we need to take advice. Yet remember that ultimately this is a decision each person must make. If you agree with the counsel you are receiving, own it.
7. Fight against bitterness (Heb. 12:15).
When our hope for the relationship is shattered, it is tempting to play the details over and over in our minds until they fester. What can we do to fight against bitterness? (Take a look at 8, 9 and 10.)
8. Assume the best in the other person’s motives.
We read in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that love “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We can’t peer into others’ hearts, judge their motives, and conclude that they were being malicious. Assume the best in them.
9. Preach truth to yourself (as in Ps. 42:5, 62:5).
For instance, when you struggle with the temptation toward bitterness, you can let go of bitterness because God is righteous and just—we don’t need to take vengeance into our own hands. Paul writes in Romans 12:19, 21, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We can forgive by remembering how God has forgiven us in Christ, as we see in Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
10. Find your identity in Christ, not in the lost relationship.
“I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:13-14). Just as we find our identity in Christ in the dating relationship, so, too, this broken relationship does not define you. Most of the church is not thinking as much about it as you are, so when people ask how your life is, feel free to share other things. Be careful in how you share details of how you are processing, especially if you’re struggling to build up the other person in your speech.
11. Remember our responsibility to do good to all Christians, even your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.
It’s okay after the breakup to distance yourself or set some boundaries in order to protect your heart—give it some time to heal. On the other hand, you have a responsibility to do good to that person as your Christian brother or sister. Paul says in Colossians 3:13, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” This includes a former boyfriend or girlfriend, especially if yours is the broken heart.
12. Don’t assume that after the breakup, you must go to another church.
It is possible to stay in the same church with the person you once dated. Too many people assume that they must leave because of how uncomfortable it is initially. It’s easier to run and avoid than to do the hard work of living “at peace” with one another, and eventually (sometimes years later), again being friends. It is not wrong to go to another church, but we don’t want to presume that is the only thing you can really do after a breakup.
13. Remember that regardless of how painful the breakup may be, God is using this difficult experience to sanctify you.
Paul says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Your breakup is included in this phrase “all things.” If you are a Christian, God is using this experience for your good. As hard as this is, he is making you more like his Son. You might not want that comfort right now. With the pain and sorrow over the lost relationship, you might just want to be with your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. Or you might want to just wallow in your hurt or sadness. But take comfort from the fact that God wants to use this anguish to refine you, using trials “of various kinds” (James 1:2) to help you become more like Christ.