What is Love? (Part 2)

Photo by 德綱 曾 on Unsplash

In the culture wars that rage on in our societies, our disagreements are driven not so much because we hate each other. In the course of everyday life, I seldom find groups of people so acrimonious and bitter they make it the point of their everyday existence to make those who disagree with them miserable. Rather, I find that people have things they care about and believe so deeply that they cannot understand how another group could conceive the world differently. They then make conclusions that diverge so significantly from each other that the interface of those conclusions produce deeply injurious feelings. Love is one of those things because, as John Shore correctly points out, “love is just about the greatest part of being human”.

In fact, as John Shore also correctly points out, love is not just ‘one of those things’ in the Christian faith. It is the main thing. We cannot understand the Christian faith if we cannot agree on its definition of love, for love is the very chief of Christ’s commandments. It is the quintessential duty of a Christian to reflect love as we receive it from God to God and to others. But we must remember that this is a Christ-centred love, not a self-centred one. It is a posture and attitude, a persistent dying to self, that remains true even when things feel unloving. That’s why Part 1 of understanding John 3:16 was so necessary.

In Part 2 of this article, I try to refine this idea through a sphere most of the world agrees manifests ‘love’: dating and marriages. Unfortunately, even many Christians I know date and marry in a way antithetical to the epithets of John 3:16. By this, I do not refer to the Church’s famous prohibitions on pre-marital sex or other rules that you may or may not have heard. Many devout peers adhere to these prohibitions steadfastly. However, behavioural prohibition without understanding the underlying heartbeat of God misses the point entirely. It puts the cart before the horse. We can respect boundaries, do the ‘Christian’ thing, and elevate purity culture to heights that would please even the most unabashed conservative but lose sight of God. When we do so, we take something that is meant to manifest Christ’s transforming, trusting, and sacrificial love into something that elevates the self.

I am as guilty of these mistakes as the next party. I myself am currently in a relatively new relationship that I found on a dating app, which I stumbled into because of an extensive laundry list of things I wanted to find alignment on and to some extent find comfort in. If I had the privilege of starting all over again and choosing things differently, I am not sure if I would have gone down the same route. Thus, my intent here is not to put forward a model answer to a notoriously befuddling issue for young adults. There likely isn’t one. Rather, I would like to suggest things that are distinctly counter-cultural because I have realised they are helpful. In so doing, perhaps believers and non-believers alike can better understand why the church preaches the things it does and why its attempt to love can seem so unloving.

We live in a socio-cultural context that is relatively unique in human history. In the past, weddings primarily served societal functions. They represented transitions from childhood into manhood or womanhood, unions of two families for political allegiance, or even economic arrangements for the purposes of landholding and childbearing. Consequently, societal norms and customs governed the choice of who to marry, even if personal emotions directed otherwise. Take the story of Ruth and Boaz from the Bible. Ruth and Boaz clearly shared an unmistakable chemistry. They had an attraction to each other which satiated each other’s desire for belonging. However, Boaz respected custom first. He was unable to redeem Ruth unless a closer kinsmen relinquished his first claim. Today, weddings serve more individual functions. They are directed more by our preferences and emotions than other competing factors. Thus, there are fewer societal norms which govern dating and marriage, leading to some of the loosest and most variegated dating scripts known to mankind. Take perhaps the most prototypical heteronormative script you can think of from a Disney movie. A chivalrous man opens a car door for a lady and pays for an expensive dinner. A prince drags a princess into a bedazzling banquet. A couple kisses by moonlight under the Brooklyn Bridge. How many of us relate to this script? And yet this is already the most stereotypical, ‘representative’ imagery we can conjure of ‘dating culture’.

Our response to this variegated script has been to wrest complete control and autonomy over our dating decisions back to ourselves. We want to define the dating script, specify most of the parameters in our partner, and steer the potential marriage that arrives into a creation of our own conjuring. Yet, this approach has not been working. Divorce has been steadily creeping up. Marriages last 8 years on average in the United States. And marriage problems still abound. Recently, we have enlisted the help of algorithms to aid us in our pursuit. This has caused some improvement, but the tide is unmistakable. The self-defined script has not worked en masse. It has perhaps worked for only a select few.

The logical conclusion one draws from this stark reality would be to ask these select few how they did it. From an entirely un-evangelical quick Google trawl, their answers are startlingly similar. They all invoked some reference to compromise, shared growth, and an evolving sense of love that went beyond skin-deep. They hardly ever mentioned picking the ‘right one’. Why then are us idealistic unmarried youngsters piling all our efforts into the wrong things? Dating apps are now a multi-billion dollar industry. They make connection nefariously and temptingly easy, helping to perpetuate the lie that there are millions of choices out there, and that the perfect match awaits if only you swiped hard enough. Unsurprisingly, I see many of my friends (and myself) getting swept up in this tide. Countless hours are wasted in haltingly awkward conversations, nerve-wrecking first dates, and then waves of disappointment as the ephemeral promise of instant connection evaporates without a trace in minutes, only to be found again in a screen and not flesh-and-blood. We are stewing our minds in a potpourri of lies, preparing ourselves for a dream that cannot materialise, all while slowly robbing ourselves of the ability to lay down our preferences and attain what we truly seek. It is decidedly unwise and illogical.

And yet, what choice do we have? Nobody wants to be stuck in an unfulfilling and unwanted relationship and/or marriage. Moreover, the spaces we have to interact with peers are becoming increasingly limited. It is either too awkward to face unrequited emotions from someone who might not be looking or too difficult to get to know anybody new, especially in the face of a global pandemic! (I mean, come on, things were already hard before.)

Herein lies the need for the Gospel, and why this article is sandwiched slightly awkwardly between a treatise on John 3:16 and a bit on the culture wars. John 3:16-believing Christians cannot find remedy for their dating woes from cherry-picking the Gospel. There is no room for trusting and loving God fully in matters of life and death with a special caveat for dating decisions which are self-determined. They also cannot find remedy from mere piety or allegiance with a conservative faction. Merely doing the ‘right things’ as per the specifications of a purity culture will get us no closer to a satisfactory and loving relationship. It is merely the ‘christianised’ version of the self-determined script that we all want to write. Worse, God will forever appear to be a party-pooper hellbent on preventing us from getting what we want, and we’ve seen the spectacular breakaways from the Church that this has resulted in. No, the Christian answer to the conundrum of dating is the same as it is for all other things. Total surrender to God and trust that He is working through all our missteps and messiness. We are to approach the subject with the same reverence, intentionality, and seriousness that Christians are called to approach all things, and see Christ magnified in an unshakable foundation of compromise, growth, and love. This is encouraging news as much as it might sound scary, because it means perfection is not the bar. There is grace here too, and providence.

So, here I was, trying to do the right thing in the confines of my room during Singapore’s government-mandated ‘lockdown’ (or Circuit Breaker, as it was termed). I had been going through a cycle of deleting and re-downloading dating apps, trying desperately to find connection in a Christ-edifying way. I had been going through a season of transitions in my life and had been losing hope that I would find someone ‘suitable for me’. Lo and Behold, I finally met someone who appeared to have what I was holding out for. She had an authentic walk with God, attended the same church, appreciated my writing, had a wealth of international experience, and shared very similar interests and world views. Following the wealth of good Christian advice online, I thought to meet her in person as soon as possible rather than continue building false intimacy through text messages. This was something she concurred with and we soon met for coffee. We had an interesting time exchanging life stories and the exchange felt very comfortable. However, we did not share an instant attraction or spark. Things did not feel like Ruth and Boaz. I was perfectly content to walk away and perhaps give up on this whole dating app thing altogether.

Thankfully, we continued messaging rather infrequently and decided to meet again two weeks later. This time, we were less focused on following the ‘right script’ and more on enjoying ourselves. It was the first time we saw that there could be a possible future for the both of us together, but our attraction to each other was very much grounded in compatibility based on a convoluted list of things we both wanted of each other. We gave it a shot because of this congruence, and not really because of the attraction. One of her first cards to me included the words, “barring these imperfections”.

Following this, I proceeded to invite her to an outreach event in my cell group. This was something I hesitated on, but it again seemed the right thing to do and I had been jokingly egged on my cell group mates who were none the wiser. It was here that we got to know each other in a different context, and also met someone else who approached us enthusiastically to share more about the Gospel. Following up with this individual provided the basis for some further dates, and today she is a happy member of our church.

In search of the next right step, I then thought that it would be futile to continue in a grey area of mis-definition. I was eager to define the relationship as quickly as possible, since we both knew where this was heading, but moving faster felt a tad rushed. Yet, it was an awkward conundrum where there was no compelling reason to move things forward but ambiguity no longer proved comforting and/or reassuring. In the pursuit of clarity, I again followed good advice out there and tried to get the people who knew me the most involved: my parents.

Only after all these checkboxes were hit did I feel comfortable officially beginning the relationship. I thought all my troubles were over and I was finally free to enjoy what God had for me! It was unmistakable that God’s hand was upon the relationship (way too many coincidences, way too much congruence!), I had followed all the good Christian advice out there that I could possibly lay my eyes on, and all my peers thought it was a good idea. Additionally, we were even ministering to a new believer as a way to begin our relationship, something we hadn’t asked for but rather stumbled into. What more could I ask for?

Only it didn’t feel this way. I soon found myself questioning if I had indeed done the right things. I was questioning if I had rushed things too much or if I was keeping step with God’s plan for my life. Worse, I began doubting the mental list of things that had drawn me into this relationship to begin with. She didn’t really appreciate many things I did. She didn’t like coffee nearly as much, or the kind of art that I did, or Economics. We also didn’t share the same taste or perspective in several many other things, whether in consumption, leisure, or working style. Had I dragged someone unwittingly into what would be an unhappy relationship because I was relentlessly devoted to some script and had not pursued ‘love’, whatever that meant? Had I royally messed up? Yet, something continued to keep me in this relationship. I chose to trust in God’s higher plan even if I could only see it on some days and not on others.

Two turning points occurred. The first was when we quickly decided to attend a seminar for dating couples organised by our church. After a few seminars which confirmed that we had indeed been doing the ‘christian’ thing, I was wondering if this was all an unnecessarily fraught exercise which robbed the joy and happiness that comes from the haphazard and faulting process that was dating my own way! At this juncture, an older married man made a remark I found quizzical. He mentioned that many marital conflicts he had experienced stemmed from an inability to accept that his spouse was not meant to be like him. They were different, co-equal members of a covenant blessed by God, not identical carbon copies engaged in a union of mutual self-satisfaction. “I am not you, and you are not me. And we are better for it,” I recall him chiming.

The second turning point came a few months later. In a perfectly mundane and slightly embarrassing account, I had taken personal offence at a minor cultural faux pas she had unknowingly committed. It was not something she could have reasonably been expected to know nor something that mattered to anyone present. However, it viscerally reminded me of the different ways in which we relate to the world and the varying issues which matter to us. In the minor conflict that followed, I was convicted of my overly critical tendencies. I was also convicted of my desire to have a partner in my own image without wanting to put in the self-sacrificial love, care, nurturing, and mutual learning that was necessary.

Taken together, these anecdotes impress upon me that the design of marriage is inseparable from the complementarian, mutually sacrificial, and indeed downright mysterious works seen in the triune God and the way Jesus related to the Church. Thus, when we affront the design of marriage and assert our own conceptions of love onto it, what is at stake is no less than the very foundation of our faith. This, I posit, is why conservative Christians care so much about contemporary developments and have not yet fully figured out how to communicate the underpinnings of a position we genuinely believe is more loving, in a loving manner.

From my own personal experience, the partner attribute list that I spoke about eventually became irrelevant. Of course, we continue to enjoy some of these commonalities that we initially identified as non-negotiables. We enjoy it when we somehow complete each other’s sentences over text or when we adore the same aesthetic. However, they have ceased to become nearly as important. What has emerged are a completely different list of things we did not expect. Our ability to gently push each other toward activities or thoughts that, while helpful, we would not naturally gravitate toward or might even resist. Our ability to pick up each other’s shortcomings in social situations. Our ability to gently goad at each other’s strongholds so that we may become more understanding, more loving human beings to the other people around us. Was this process easy or at all what I wanted and/or expected? Not at all. At times it felt painful and downright torturous. Sustaining the relationship involved peeling myself off the pedestals upon which I had unknowingly built my life. It involved burning the altars of idols that I did not know I still worshipped: achievement, status, credence. It involved stepping beside myself to evaluate a whole that would go beyond myself. But I am now able to see why God has put her in my path and come to a place of tender, deeper love that needed time to manifest. I shudder to think of the loss I would have suffered had I followed the passions of my flesh which craved instant gratification and would have foreclosed the deeper oceans that lay beyond the shore.

Have I mastered this art? Is this a picture of life to come? Most definitely not. I have no guarantees if I have met the one I am indeed to spend the rest of my life with. There is as yet no covenant between us. I hold no claim to understanding the pains or the joys of those who are married. Yet, it is finally a good basis upon which I can judge a relationship with clarity, which is the point of dating. More so, I am a Christian, and I am qualified to comment on what this experience has taught me about discipleship and about love. I think this is the bigger point. Dating and love within a covenant marriage is not the end point of discipleship. It is, for a great majority of Christians (though not all), a stepping stone of our discipleship. We cannot claim to follow the teachings of Christ if we do not learn to display the love that costs, the love that transforms, and the love that trusts in this process. Thus, the advice to follow, the emotions to bode over, and the attributes to prize in Christian dating are entirely different from what the dating pattern of the world provides.

In summary, we must learn to come to surrender to God and see how He is working every step of your discipleship journey. We must realise that even in this domain, a subject that touches the heart of hearts, our hearts are still deceitful. We are to have loving marriages, but they might not necessarily come from the place that we have imagined. As young people still coming to grips with ourselves and our place in the world, is it not wise, sound advice to surrender the choice of your mate for life to the One who knows your comings and goings as well as your every future need? We are not likely to pick any better, and to constantly subject your choice of partner to a range of ever-evolving criterion to your ever-changing seasons of life is no way to treat someone else who also has his or her own needs. The union needs to be grounded in something higher, something unchanging: Christ.

So, while I will not recommend anyone to follow the preponderance of Christian advice wholesale and turn it into a witching recipe to conjure a life partner like I tried to do, I do believe that the governing principles this advice stems from make for wise dating, and more importantly, wise living. We need to get to a place where we celebrate not the elevation of self in our dating choices, but the enabling of a dying to self. More than that, there needs to be room for God in romantic love. Yes, we can have our thoughts, preferences, and lists, but they need to be subordinate to God’s will. I truly believe He acts through these things, placing people in our path with the right hooks to enter into our lives so that He may supply just what we need, not what we may expect.

This is the love that Christ envisions and embodied, one in which we find ourselves by dying to ourselves. This love is not always the easiest to swallow, even for the converted, but I posit it is the one that lasts.

A born-again disciple saved by grace