You’ve been seeing someone for a few weeks. Things seem to be going well, until something she said yesterday planted a seed in your heart, a nagging sense that she probably isn’t the one. You think about maybe giving her another chance, but you ask yourself, Why bother? After all, there are so many options out there, so why settle? All you have to do is open up your phone, load your favorite dating app, and swipe left and right to choose between many hopeful singles who more likely fit your preferences.
The above scenario might seem ludicrous to some of you who were married before the digital revolution of online dating, but as Aziz Ansari chronicles in his New York Times best-selling Modern Romance, “In a very short period of time, the whole culture of finding love and a mate has radically changed.”
Ansari’s book is part-sociological study, part-comedic commentary on the woes of looking for love in the digital age. His book is filled with anecdotes of people searching for their soul mates, both in the modern era and in a time long past. Perhaps what surprised me most about Ansari’s book was not the results of his study, but the reception of his book among Christians.
Most single Christians I know who have enjoyed his book have said it all-too-accurately describes their own experience of using mobile dating apps. Online dating was still taboo when I was in college, but today there seems to be no stigma attached to meeting someone on dating apps such as Coffee Meets Bagel or Tinder. In fact, I know several Christians who have gotten married using these apps.
Today people spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate. The tools we use on this search are different, but what has really changed is our desires and – even more strikingly – the underlying goals of the search itself.
The tools we use affect our views on the purpose for such tools. In his The Next Story, Tim Challies says,
The ideas that lie behind a given technology are often only apparent after time has passed and we have engaged in persistent and deliberate reflection. These ideas are often extremely influential, and they strike at the very heart of our human identity. We are inevitably shaped by the ideas our technologies carry within them. (38)
What ideas do mobile dating apps carry within them? How have these ideas shaped how we pursue love? And how can we reflect on the ideology beneath these tools to use them with more discernment?
How the digital revolution has changed us
The effect of online dating on the modern psyche is a small picture of the broader effect of the digital revolution.
Challies notes that “Studies of Internet users have long shown that websites turn readers into skimmers.” (127) We’ve lost the ability to read online content in a deep, thoughtful way, and instead resort to skimming headlines and opening paragraphs to determine whether something is worth our time. This is true not only in social media, where a short, 140 character message by a celebrity will spawn weeks of in-depth analysis, but also in modern dating.
Dating apps like Coffee Meets Bagel can cause us to “skim” potential romantic partners to quickly determine whether the relationship is worth pursuing. After all, there are so many other potential partners out there, readily accessible with a swipe of my thumb, so why invest time in something that doesn’t seem as though it will last?
Ansari shares one anecdote of a man named Derek who had signed up on OkCupid.com:
The first woman he clicked on was very beautiful, with a witty profile page, a good job, and lots of shared interests, including a love of sports. After looking it over for a minute or so, Derek said: “Well, she looks okay. I’m just gonna keep looking for a while.”
The reason for Derek’s response? “She likes the Red Sox.” Ansari goes on to describe Derek as someone who “just clicked an X on a Web browser tab and deleted her without thinking twice, like a J.Crew sweatshirt that didn’t live up to his expectations upon seeing a larger picture.” While we might think we would never be as superficial as Derek, the ease with which we can quickly thumb through multiple potential partners creates in us the belief that there’s someone better out there.
Instead of putting in the effort to engage with someone and get to know them, we flee at the first sign of incompatibility.
Another way the digital revolution has affected us is by presenting us with thousands of choices. As someone who lives in New York City, it’s often a struggle to find a place to eat, not because New York is lacking in options, but because there are so many places to eat! Because of websites like Yelp, we’re no longer satisfied with a restaurant down the street; we’d rather do our research to maximize our options and get the most bang for our buck.
In his book, Ansari cites psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, to conclude that the multitude of options presented to us in online dating apps means we are no longer comparing potential partners with others, but rather with “an idealized person whom no one could measure up to.” The mountain of options allows us to envision a fantasy spouse who exists out there waiting to be discovered.
How should Christians respond to this dating phenomenon?
Should Christians then avoid using mobile dating apps? As with all new technologies, mobile dating apps come with both pros and cons. Using these apps with discernment requires that we think biblically about the ideologies inherent in these apps. Benefiting from new technologies means we must ask how we can look at these things through a gospel lens.
Online dating apps perpetuate the broader narrative of the culture, which says the goal of romantic relationships is to find your soul mate who will meet your needs and who meets all the qualifications of your fantasy spouse. These apps perpetuate the dream of that “perfect” match waiting for you to discover, and that you should never “settle” for second-best.
The Bible tells us that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created to enjoy a monogamous marital union in which “the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Paul expands on the mystery of marriage when he uncovers its original purpose: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
The “mystery” of marriage is its ultimate purpose – to proclaim the gospel of Christ’s love for his bride, the church. This is a covenantal love in which God makes a gracious, self-sacrificial covenant with his bride, the church. If our earthly marriages are meant to portray the love Christ has for his church, how should that influence our use of mobile dating apps?
In our search for a romantic partner, we should remember we’re looking for a covenant partner, not a soul mate. This isn’t just semantics; a soul mate (as the term is commonly used) is someone who is the perfect match for me. They complement my own qualities and bring out the best in me. The search for a soul mate is completely me-focused. If this is what defines your search for love, this is what will define your marriage. And when you inevitably discover that your spouse sometimes brings out the worst in you, unless you are committed to them with a covenantal love, your marriage will likely not last.
Our search for a soul mate can also be motivated by a fear of making the wrong choice. Marriage is a lifelong commitment, and we can believe that the key to a successful, joy-filled marriage is our decision making on the front end. As long as I make the right choice now, I can avoid the hardships of a failed marriage later. The multitude of options offered by these dating apps can give us a sense of false hope that plays into our fears, as we trust in our decision making more than God’s good purposes for us.
Hardships can increase our fear and feed into our desire to swipe or click “X” on a relationship. But covenantal love is one that embraces hardship. Hardship and suffering is woven into the very fabric of God’s covenantal love for us:
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
Finding someone whom we can love with a covenantal love means recognizing that hardships are not a sign that love isn’t working, but are the very means through which true, lasting, battle-tested love are made manifest. Before we can wisely use these apps, we must see the covenantal love of God that defies all worldly wisdom.
If a mobile dating app reinforces an idol in your heart, it may be best to put it aside. Or, if you can use such an app responsibly without buying into the ideology it carries, it could be a source of great blessing.
We can use mobile dating apps to look for Christians whom we could serve with a covenantal love that mirrors the love of Christ for his bride. We could look for qualities in someone that would allow us to show this kind of gracious, sacrificial love. A covenant partner is someone whom we commit to love, even when they fail to meet our expectations (which they will), and even when we feel as though we haven’t weighed all our options (which we can’t). God’s covenantal love for us as his children grounds our confidence in his desire to work all things for our good, including marriage (if that is in his will).
As Christians, our pursuit for a romantic partner is ultimately grounded in God’s pursuit for us through Christ. That pursuit serves not only as the model for how we should pursue romantic love (and use dating apps), but also as the grounds for our hope in a dating culture ruled by fear. So whether you eat or drink [or use mobile dating apps], or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).