Simply stated, there are two dominant views about how a person goes about entering marriage: the world's way and the Lord’s way.
The world's way is to investigate, to see if the other person "pleases" you and to not commit yourself until if and when you feel like it. The pattern established by the Lord (regarding His betrothal to His people—which, after all, is what earthly marriage represents) is to commit Himself to you before asking you to respond to Him. It was “while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us.” He has committed Himself to Israel, come hell or high water, literally. We see, too, that Hosea committed himself to a harlot. These two were in it for the real deal—to show what they themselves were made of, regardless of how the woman turned out. This is a kind of love that the world knows very little about.
Let's look at the results of these contrasting avenues of entering marriage.
The enemy's suggestions to us in any area of life are almost always the exact opposite of what will be the best for us over the long-haul. The enemy's strategy can be summed up in the statement: "Buy now, pay later." Self-indulgent ungodly men, so prompted by the enemy, have even found themselves caving into the private thought: "Why buy the cow when I can just drink the milk?" In contrast, the Savior’s way—the way that He both lived and taught us to live, in nearly every area of our lives—generally involves having to endure some self-denial as the initiation rites to any glory.
At least half of the adult population in America is no longer entering traditional marriage. Many are shacking up and living together. The majority of children now live with unmarried parents. What began as a social experiment is now the norm. The underlying reason adults give for going this route is that they want to get to "know each other." But what they all find out is that there is no complete knowing of another person. Each person is an entire continent underneath. It takes a lifetime to know another person, and even then there is much that is outside the parameters of a person even knowing himself or herself. There are parts of our own selves that even we cannot manage. In addition, people change over time—either slowly or consequentially—for instance, as a result of sickness, an injury, a job change, work pressures, or as a result of new insights and personal growth in unexpected directions. Therefore, if we are waiting to see what the other person will be like, we may be waiting a lifetime.
If love is real love, total love, what would it be about another person that we couldn’t love, even if we found out some little thing we hadn't known?—if we loved like our Savior does, even to death on a cross. On the road to the cross He wasn't asking how worthy we were of the sacrifice He was about to offer.
We know many people who are currently living in long-term "significant other" relationships and they still don't know if they want to marry the person or not. One fellow's relationship dragged on for seven years and he still didn't know. He is now in his second year with a different woman—and can't commit to marriage. What this translates to for the woman is a daily rejection. There is something in the back of her soul that chronically says, "Will this be the day when he fully rejects me?" She knows in her heart of hearts that he doesn't love her enough to commit himself to her—and perhaps he never will. The number of wounded women in the world today is legion, due to this mentality.
The key issue for a believer, when considering marriage, is do I feel liberty in my spirit from the Lord, after earnest ongoing prayer, that this is His will for me—that He is part of this relationship? Two verses show this: “Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” and “Let the peace of the Lord rule in your heart.” Peace is the ruling agency through which we know His will. This guidance is by far stronger than being led by rapturous personal feelings, on the one hand, or by intense and thorough rational evaluation, on the other hand. When you think about it, a man could fall in love in ten seconds with a gal that he sees on the street corner while merely driving by!!!...just because of physical attraction. That gal might have no depth of moral character whatsoever, which could ruin a man who was so led. Conversely, we know of a young man who looked across an intersection, spotted the young woman driving in the opposite direction, and knew in his heart that she was the one for him. He courted her, changed his plans, and they established their life together and are still compatibly married after 45 years. Divine leading turns out to be a lead-pipe confidence in your future life together, to get you through tough patches, which every marriage encounters not once but multiple times, given that we are all fallen creatures.
This sure dependable guidance of the Lord is what enabled Isaac to marry Rebecca on the first day that he ever laid eyes on her—because He had picked her out! Others find each other, but don’t know it, in second grade and grow up as next door neighbors—and then there is a day when the Lord removes the blinders and reveals that they are to become married. They may have been clueless that they were meant for each other just a year before, because they were too familiar with each other.
The biblically blessed way is to lead with the spiritual and mental parts of a relationship before commitment (do the ducks line up regarding all of the really significant issues that will affect their lives together?) and then enter more fully into the emotional part after commitment (and of course the physical part after marriage). The Lord is deeply concerned about our emotional life. He doesn't want us to be needlessly hurt. Accordingly, going through some questioning and seeking affirming direction through authority structures already established (parents or surrogate parents) helps with this discernment and safety. One pastor who has taken scores of couples through this process calls it "courting with questions." His results have been so successful that a reporter did a story on him and aired it on a major national TV network—interviewing and tracking the results of all those happy couples in successful marriages—with some of the highest viewer ratings that station had ever had.
Depending on the circumstance and the degree of credibility, a good approach for starting to grow a relationship mentally may be to start with emails—if at some point it becomes evident that you are ready to email the gal’s father to ask permission to do that. Emailing enables a potential suiter to lead with the mental and spiritual. And then if the interchange seems to be opening the door to a "go" (or at least, the door has not been shut; there were no red flags yet, more direct visits can be considered—within the protection and boundaries of a family setting. If this is a match, the two may soon be on track to becoming best friends.
For further reading:
for her to read: Waiting for Mr. Right?