The big question everyone has is, "how do I know who is the right one for me?" There's no easy answers, and though we pray for God to make this clear to us, we're still confused by our own desires or fears, and have trouble distinguishing his voice from our own. The world tells us to just go with the flow and follow our hearts wherever they lead us. But as Christians, we know that we are not of this world, and should therefore act more wisely. Our hearts should be governed by our minds. We should know ahead of time (as guided by the Spirit) what we are looking for, and not compromise our standards. Then we should wait for God to provide someone who fits that profile. If we do this, we will not allow ourselves to be manipulated by our emotions, but will be able to clearly assess whether someone has the potential to be "the one." If you have this standard from the outset, you won't waste time (yours or theirs) dating the wrong kind of people and should be able to narrow the field significantly. Dating is really only necessary as a latter stage in the weeding process.
So how do you know who is the right one? I suggest prayer for guidance in combination with adherence to the following guidelines. There are, as I see it, three key ingredients to a successful match. They are as follows: physical attraction, chemistry, and values, but not exactly in that order. In a successful relationship, the three will feed off each other, and the relationship will grow stronger with time. Allow me to explain how I believe this process should work, and the order from which they should follow in the selection process.
1. Values (part 1: the basics)
"Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14). As a Christian, it is of primary importance that you seek only other Christians in dating. If a marriage is to survive, it must be built on a solid foundation. Therefore, Christians must be "yoked" only with Christians, so their marriage can be built on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ. I would take it one step further and say that Christians have no business dating non-Christians. From my own experience, I know where it leads. We cannot expect to change someone through the dating process. Any "changes" that occur could merely be one's attempt to save the relationship, and not a genuine change of the heart. If one is genuine in their faith, it should be evident in how they live their lives. And if you are friends first, you have time to observe their character in action, and see how that person interacts with others outside of a dating context. It may not always be possible due to how you meet, but if so, I recommend this approach.
2. Physical Attraction
I know some of you are saying, "C'mon Steve, looks aren't really important!" Besides, they fade away eventually, right? Well, that's not how God designed us. Physical attraction is part of His plan to bring us together with the right person. That's not to say that it's the most important ingredient for success, but it is the starting point in differentiating between interest in casual friendship and something beyond that. Besides, what woman wants to be with a man who doesn't find her beautiful? Looks may fade with age, but in a healthy relationship, you will always find beauty when you look into each other's eyes.
Every once in a while, you may find yourself interacting with someone who you find attractive, but who also makes you feel at ease in their presence. You feel like you can talk about anything and everything, and when you're apart, you wish you weren't. You might also say that it feels like you've known this person all of your life. Some would pre-maturely call this love. I'd call it chemistry. It is absolutely essential to a successful relationship to be with someone who makes you feel better about yourself, and even transforms you into a better version of yourself. While physical attraction occurs quite frequently, this kind of personal connection is much rarer (at least in my experience).
I would suggest that if you've cleared these first three hurdles, it might be time to start dating. But it's absolutely essential that you've cleared all three. Many people, Christians included, have skipped step 1 and married someone based on steps 2 and 3. Many more have married after all three, but before the next. Step 4 is probably the most important in the long run, and the one that is best dealt with in the one-on-one dating context.
4. Values (part 2: the specifics)
There's certainly nothing more essential in the mechanics of a serious relationship, especially in marriage, than to have shared values. By "values," I not only mean your basic worldview, but also how you view things like money, work, children, and so forth. Of course a shared worldview will largely affect those other issues, but there is plenty of room for significant disagreement in the particulars of how each individual would like to live their lives together. It's also very important to be close on the particulars of your beliefs as Christians. That doesn't mean that you must have the same interpretation of the seven bowls of judgment in Revelation, or even agree on the exact number of kids you'd like to have someday, but the implications of your beliefs on how you are to live your lives should be very similar. This will help to bring you common goals for your life together, should you marry. You will still have conflicts, but so long as they're relatively minor issues, you'll be able to work through them. If you are too dissimilar on the particulars, you will in time find yourself in constant conflict, and your relationship will deteriorate. Many couples don't deal with these things before marriage, or they wait until they are just weeks away from their wedding and going through pre-marital counseling. At that time, they're already too excited about the wedding to be derailed by any conflicts on significant issues. Every couple should deal with these issues before they commit themselves to marriage, and allow their engagement time to be devoted to nothing more serious than the details of the big day. Unfortunately, I fear that very few couples properly complete this stage in the dating process, and wind up divorced in the end.
I pray for all of you that you don't make that mistake. It's very easy to get caught up in the feelings brought up in points 2 & 3, and look past the warning signs that suggest significant differences in values. When you're just dating, you don't have to live with the full consequences of those differences. You won't be able to escape them in the context of marriage. And don't think you'll be able to change the other person later on. Though marriage is designed to bring two people together as one, you each retain your own individual free will. So I reiterate: don't compromise your standards!!! Have in mind the kind of person you are looking for beforehand, and wait on God to provide. When you find the right person; someone who you find attractive, you have a great chemistry with, and, most importantly, who shares your values, each of those individual elements will grow stronger in time as you learn to trust, respect, and ultimately love that person like no one else you've ever known. And then you will know your love is not a passing whim, and has a solid foundation to grow stronger as you live your life together.
As in all things, we must wait on God and allow Him to do His work in our lives. That's easier said than done, and we hate being alone. Not to mention that sometimes we may find someone who seems like the right one, but that person doesn't feel the same way about us. Talk about frustration! Then the temptation is to just want to be with someone, even if that someone isn't the best one for us. But we must be patient. God may want us to mature a bit and work out some issues in our own lives before he provides the right person. Besides, it's better to wait your whole life and die single than to wind up in a bad marriage. We must use our time as singles to become the men and women we would want to be for the women and men we would want to be with. Just as Jesus warned us in Matthew 7:1; “Judge not, that you be not judged," we should not put a higher standard for our future spouse than we would place on ourselves. If we want to be with someone of the highest character, we need to be that ourselves.
My prayer for all of us (myself included) is that we are wise and discerning in our singleness, and that we allow Him to provide in His timing if and when He sees fit. God's plans for us are far greater than our own, so let's not get in the way. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jeremiah 29:11)