The relationships between the sexes is one of the greatest human sources of joy - and also one of the greatest human sources of anguish. At the opening of South Pacific, a group of men sing about all the things they have, but the one thing that is missing outweighs all the rest: "What ain't we got? We ain't got dames!" The same sentiment applies, perhaps even more strongly, on the other side also.
You can hear this cry throughout our society: what I need is a husband! (or, a wife!), and society reinforces the message in a hundred different ways. True love means happiness and fulfilment and consists of a boy and girl alone together. The picture can be filled out, but it is basically familiar to us all. The question is, whether the Bible can offer us anything better?
The sad truth is this: the love which is packaged and thrust at us on every conceivable occasion (slight pun!) doesn't work. The couples who were deeply, everlastingly in love yesterday are filing for divorce today. The fulfilment that a sexual partner was supposed to give, if it is ever felt, fades rapidly into the past, and lies buried under an increasing load of misunderstanding, bitterness and resentment.
A part of the gospel answer to this problem is that our relationships need to be guided by the principles laid down in the scriptures. When this is done, a large number of the problems that plague our society are avoided. Abortions and divorces don't happen when we all follow Christ's teachings - but this still leaves several unanswered questions.
What about the pains and scars caused by relationships that don't end in marriage? Surely is is not God's will that we should pray about and then marry the first girl (or boy) we go out with? And what about those who do not even have someone on the horizon? Can they have a happy and fulfilled life - or is the only option for them the monastery or mission-field?
In short, we need to re-examine the entire question of relationships, courtship and marriage in the light of the Bible - and throw out whatever does not fit in with God's plans. All that society teaches and expects of us needs to be questioned and tested by God's standards. I don't mean to say that we should totally ignore society's norms, but these human expectations and standards should not keep us from living the way God wants.
There is great pressure put on people today to pair off. This means that young people today are encouraged to establish a one-to-one relationship with someone of the opposite sex which is explicitly sexual in nature, and where there is no commitment from either party. You are thrown together in a way that produces many of the strains and tensions of married life but without providing the security and commitment that marriage offers. The result is that the stress becomes intolerable, and relationships are broken off in a way that causes scars in the individual and divisions in the community.
People pair off for many different reasons - some good, and some not so good. People pair off because they are lonely and want companionship; they want to avoid the social pressure from friends and family that comes when you are without a partner; they want to attend social occasions that require (or 'prefer') you to come with a partner; they want the emotional support of a partner; they want to get married; they want to have sex, or sexual contact, without the shackles of marriage.
Let me emphasise here: I am talking about Christians. Some of the problems are helped by being a part of the Christian community, but other difficulties are increased: we prayed about it. God has told us we should marry. Is this the person God wants me to marry? And so on.
I would like to suggest that 'going out' as it is practiced today is unbiblical, immoral and dangerous. The traditional pattern of 'courting' was just as unbiblical, but was far more helpful, both to the individuals concerned and to the society they lived in.
What are the differences between courting and going out?
People sometimes suggest there is little point in replacing going out by courtship, because people are hurt when a courting couple break up. This is true, at least in general, but you have to bear certain things in mind.
If courtship were the only way that single people could relate to those of the opposite sex, what I am suggesting would probably be a step backwards, not a step forwards from where things are today. To really improve people's lives, we need to introduce another new factor. As well as courtship, people need to learn about friendship.
We need to establish in the hearts and minds of young people the real possibility of friendship between the sexes.
If the friends end up courting, and marrying, then a solid friendship is an excellent basis for a successful marriage.
And if you just stay friends, then a solid, healthy friendship may not be all you were looking for, but it is much, much better than nothing - and far better than the misery that many married couples end up with.
At this point, some people will be saying something like the following: it's all very well, all this talk of minimising pain in relationships, but you cannot organise this aspect of peoples' lives. Where does love fit into the picture?
Firstly, I am not trying to impose a new social order on people, and I'm certainly not suggesting we go back to the Victorian era for our values and social norms. But we can affect the way people live by opening up new possibilities for them - by helping them to see that there are more ways to live than the few patterns they see repeated around them.
The kind of change I am suggesting cannot be organised, but if people start to believe in it, it can be lived.
And what about love? To be honest, it is not particularly relevant to this discussion.
Christian love is certainly not relevant. We are called, as Christians, to love everyone. Marrying everyone is not an option.
And what about romantic love? It is great fun and immensely enjoyable, but it is a completely disasterous way to decide whether to marry someone. People are not built to cope with that intensity of relationship for long. If you fall in love with someone, the one thing you can be certain of is that you will fall out of love with them before long.
Many couples get married because they have fallen in love, and soon after, they get divorced because they have fallen out of love. Sometimes it takes a few years; sometimes it happens before the wedding presents are unpacked. One of them falls in love with someone else, and it's all change again.
If you want a basis for marriage, friendship works much better than romantic love. And, if that sounds terribly unromantic, remember that love grows with time, if you are prepared to work at it.
Marriage Guidance Counselling needs to begin before you get engaged.