It was a refrain I heard from just about everyone as I came of age as a Christian.
I first remember listening to sermons by John Piper proclaiming that God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him. Later, Timothy Keller would speak of how putting our ultimate hope and identity in a romantic relationship will ultimate fail us and lead us to despair, showing that it’s only through finding complete love and acceptance in God through Jesus that we gain the spiritual buoyancy to weather the inevitable disappointments of our spouse.
Indeed, just about every article about singleness and marriage that I read on Christian blogs, websites, and magazines, it seemed, warned against putting too much stock in the hope of fulfillment from a potential spouse that gets stirred up with the exhilarating experience of falling in love. Whether married or single, these voices said, you already have all of that in Jesus. Just delight in him and stay rooted in the perfect love and complete acceptance that he has given you through the cross.
At the same time, I also read both secular and Christian books that critiqued our modern image- and material-obsessed culture. They exposed how, absent a robust faith in God and given the prevalence of pop culture’s Hollywood endings, the modern person is taught to long for ideals of physical beauty and happily-ever-after in a romantic partner that will never satisfy us. Literature is replete with examples of men and women torn apart and ultimately crushed by the failure of their lover. Even my favorite music artist, Jon Foreman, sang of trying to drown his existential pain with a friend who’s “got a pretty face with her wedding lace.”
But in the end, he laments, “I’m still waking up with myself.”
The great danger, it seemed clear to me, was idolizing a romantic partner. Don’t make your spouse (or a prospective spouse) your savior: first, because they can’t be, and second, because you already have one.
To be clear, I take no issue with the greater truth of these exhortations, only with how I followed them. With my guard firmly up against romantic idolatry, I embarked on a relationship with the woman who is now my wife. I fell for her hard. She was beautiful, exuberant, friendly, free-spirited, and full of God’s life and love in a way that I’d seen in few other people. She was the kind of woman that a lot of guys would find instantly attractive, and I didn’t want to be the latest addition to a list of desperate suitors. I quickly grew to love her and desired to be with her, but I didn’t want to become so attached that I wouldn’t have the emotional and spiritual capacity to walk away from the relationship if that’s what was best for both of us.
The result of my wariness was a painful cycle driven by my projected sense of cool detachment covered with a spiritual veneer. She would become fearful and threaten to break off the relationship, and I would calmly reply that while I really liked her and wanted to stay together, she was free to end things if she really wanted to.
And if she did, I added, I would be okay. Privately I rationalized that I had my relationship with God to fall back on, and while it would obviously hurt to break off our relationship, she wasn’t the ultimate thing in my life and eventually I would recover and move on. I could marry her and it would be great, I told her, but if that wasn’t what she wanted, then ultimately I didn’t want it either.
To her, this came across as a take-it-or-leave it attitude, and it stoked a deep-seated feeling in her that I didn’t really care about her or our relationship all that much. “I could leave,” she would tell me at various times, “and you’d be totally fine.” Worse, my fear of falling into idolatry led me unknowingly to maintain a certain emotional distance from her. I don’t want to idolize her, I thought, so I’d best work out my deepest hurts and fears between myself and God. Better that than letting her into the pain I would feel if our relationship ended.
The problem was that I didn’t let my care for her show in a way that was vulnerable—that was woundable—because I had subtly conflated the sin of idolatry with the experience of being deeply hurt by losing someone I desired. I failed to grasp that a relationship with God, truly experienced and understood, leads not to detachment from the world but into a deeper love for the world and for the people made in God’s image. More than that, I failed to understand that satisfying one’s deepest needs for love, purpose, and belonging in Jesus does not inoculate us against the wounds and sorrows of world—least of all those caused by one’s significant other. In fact it does just the opposite.
It took several more cycles of my projected detachment during the early months of our marriage for me to start opening my heart and showing my wife through confession and tears that the prospect of losing her would cause me more pain and grief than anything I’d ever experienced. I had to learn to show her that she affected me not only in positive ways like being fun and encouraging me to follow Jesus, but that she also had the capacity to deeply hurt me. She needed to see me make myself vulnerable to know that I cared for her.
Is this not, after all, how God shares his heart for us? Is this not the song of the prophets, whose words ache with the grief God feels when his people leave him to chase after other gods? Is this not the experience of Jesus, who not only wept over the death of Lazarus but ultimately suffered the death of a perfect relationship with his Father for our sake?
God does not have a desperate or needy love for us, I understood that well enough, but his love for us is reckless and deep and woundable. Our romantic relationships, while no substitute for God himself, should look the same.