You’ll Love Her More and More

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe two began in a small pond, in a small boat, rowing with separate strokes. The banks were well-defined, the waters were shallow, and the current was non-existent. It was easy. Like a kiddie pool without the kids.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I imagined growing old together in this pond, rowing in ever-increasing unison. The joys of our pond would multiply again and again and again. More fish, more toys, maybe a child or two to play by the bank while we rowed. An inflatable raft to soak in the sun when we tired of rowing the boat.

You’ll love her more and more.” And I knew it was true.

But the pond began to change. At first it grew a little bit deeper. The bottom wasn’t so easy to see anymore. The banks also widened, and I couldn’t reach the edge from the boat anymore. Our pond was more dangerous, but it was somehow more appealing. I had the sense that there were nooks and crannies I would never explore, even with a lifetime to row and swim. It wasn’t so much like a kiddie pool anymore, but it was strangely better.

Then the currents began to flow. The pond became a creek, then a stream, then a river. A few of the currents even threatened to toss one or both of us overboard. There were currents we seemed to generate: Fear, Anger, Pride, or Selfishness. Others blindsided us from beneath and beside the boat. They had awful names like Poverty, Loneliness, Sickness, and Death.

You’ll love her more and more,” they told me. And I knew it was true, but it wasn’t how I imagined.

I loved you more because you stayed in the boat with me and kept rowing, even when the currents were swift. Sometimes, in my selfishness and anger, I rowed against you, in the opposite direction. But you stayed in the boat anyway.

Your arms and my arms grew tired, but they also grew stronger. We did row in ever-increasing unison. It’s a strange thing, but once the currents were behind us, we laughed at them sometimes. Not because they were easy, or even particularly funny, but because we’d rowed through them together and they didn’t seem so terrible anymore. We laughed in delight because we were alive. And because neither of us had jumped overboard.

We looked back upstream and remembered the perils we had passed. I marveled at the depth of this woman sitting in the boat with me, this creative and lovely and wonderfully strong woman, whom I once thought I knew but didn’t really know. My understanding had been as shallow as that little pond, as narrow as its banks.

As the river got deeper, so did our love. As the currents grew stronger, so did our love.

And we increasingly noticed another Current, stronger than all of the others. Sometimes we’d missed it as we rowed, but it was often visible when we looked back. Sometimes the Current seemed to move us toward the terrible rapids, and sometimes away. But the Current was always there. The Current was alive, stronger than us both, and He –yes, it was a “He” — gave us His strength. He taught us to row, not only in sync with one another, but in sync with Him.

“You’ll love her more and more.” And it was truer than I’d imagined. Loving you more didn’t mean endlessly rowing around and around, in an easy little pond, watching the toys and shiny rocks multiply. Loving you more meant seeing your beauty and strength and grace, even as the water splashed up around us and we faced the ever-present realities of fallenness, sin, and death.

Loving you more meant watching carefully as you learned to row in sync with the Eternal Current, the One who made the river and the boat and these two feeble people inside. The One who made our love to be a dim reflection of His own.

Loving you more meant rowing together as we learned to row with Him. And it meant deciding every day that we’ll keep rowing together, until our boat reaches that junction where every river driven by the Eternal Current flows together, and His love overshadows and consumes our own. We’ll land on the shore at last, with every traveler and lover who rows on His river. We’ll lie down and bask in the light of His love, His perfect and ever-blazing love. The Tree of Life will line the shore and the light of God will never end.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I believed them then, and I believe now more than ever.

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Why the Christian Mingle Ads Bug You So Much

A while back, I obliquely referred to the dating site Christian Mingle in a post about whether or not we have “soul mates.” Since then, Christian Mingle has become very well-known for their television ads, which promise to help clients “find God’s match for you.” The soundtrack for the ads is the popular Jars of Clay song, “Love Song for a Savior.” In their original context, the lyrics, “I want to fall in love with You,” obviously refer to Jesus. In the context of the ads, however, the lyrics have taken on quite a different meaning.

I’m not opposed on principle to internet dating sites. I’ve had friends and family members use sites like eHarmony. I recognize that the internet is a reality of our world, and it can often be a portal for what eventually becomes a more serious in-person relationship. In some ways, internet dating sites are just the electronic equivalent of being “set up,” in which a friend introduces you to a person you might like to know better.

However, the Christian Mingle ads have stirred up no small amount of consternation. Most people I’ve talked with are simply annoyed with them, but can’t quite pinpoint why. Why do they are so annoying and seemingly offensive?

I think the major problem with the Christian Mingle ads is the way they try to use Christianity as a lure for those seeking a romantic relationship. Using the Jars of Clay song as the soundtrack is a perfect illustration of the issue at hand. The song is about the love that Christians feel toward Jesus. It isn’t remotely about dating or marriage. Listening to the lyrics in hindsight, I recognize that its romantic imagery makes it the perfect target for this kind of misuse. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was never intended as a song about finding your perfect mate.

By co-opting a song about Jesus and using it to sell a dating service, the owners of Christian Mingle have trivialized Jesus and managed to insult a number of single Christians at the same time. I think the song, though, is simply indicative of broader theological problems. The way Christian Mingle presents God and relationships is deficient in a few key ways.

First, the love of God is qualitatively different from the type of romantic love being “sold” by Christian Mingle. God’s love is fierce, intense, perfect, and always dedicated to the growth of our character. Rich Mullins referred to the “reckless raging fury that we call the love of God.” C.S. Lewis reminded us that God is not “safe, but good.” In other words, Christian Mingle is selling a picture of interpersonal love that feels shallow and trivial when placed alongside the love of God. If God created marriage, then romantic love ought to reflect His love. Yet the breed of romantic love promoted on the ads confuses God’s love with a sort of sentimental mushiness that seems at odds with the impression of God’s love we get from the Bible.

Second, the ads clearly make false promises. Christian Mingle assures us that the right mate is definitely out there, and that God has a perfect match for each person. As I’ve written before on this blog, the Bible offers no such promise. The danger, of course, is that somebody could watch the ad and conclude that it speaks for God rather than just for a profit-motivated dating website. To be clear, God never promised to provide everybody with a mate, with children, with lots of money, or anything of the sort. He’s promised eternal life for those who know Jesus. He’s even promised abundant life, meaning a rich relationship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. But it’s patently false to claim that God has a definite match for each person and then to imply that said person is also using Christian Mingle.

Third, the ads imply that Christian singles should view their relationship with God as simply a means to find a spouse. Most Christian singles I know don’t believe that. Most of them would be offended at the implication. The ads seem to subordinate the word “Christian” to the word “Mingle.” Or to put it another way, being Christian is less important than being married. In reality, it’s the other way around. Marriage, for those who enter into it, is one of many relationships in which we’re called to live out our relationship with Jesus. It’s an important one, to be sure, but it’s not the sum total of our existence. I fear that Christian Mingle’s ads promote the mindset that the important thing about being a Christian is that you can go out with nice girls or guys. 

I realize that in the final analysis, we’re only talking about television ads. The company that owns Christian Mingle also owns dozens of other dating sites encompassing every religion from Buddhism to Judaism. So I suppose I shouldn’t expect them to adhere to high theological standards. However, sometimes it’s helpful to evaluate why we feel uncomfortable with ads like this. In the final analysis, it’s because these ads trivialize God and humanity at the same time. They present a woefully deficient picture of God’s love and what it means to be made in His image.

We have an opportunity, once we get a grasp of the problems, to present a better picture. God loves each of us unconditionally, regardless of our marital status. For Christians, that love is the basis of our actions and thoughts and the foundation of our relationships. It drives everything we think and do, and it dramatically affects how we view marriage and romance. It gives us a more complete and positive picture, and we now have the chance to communicate the greatness of God’s love to world that obviously is dying for love. When people don’t understand God’s love, they will grasp at straws. They’ll accept cheap alternatives. We have the privilege of offering the real thing to a world that seeks it desperately.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. Do you agree with my assessment? How do you think Christians can best reflect God’s love to people who grasp at cheap alternatives?

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Is It Wrong to Desire Marriage?

Last week I sat with a group of college men as they were talking about relationships, personal purity, and marriage. In the context of the discussion, one young man asked, “Is it wrong for me to desire marriage? Is it alright that I think about marriage and hope to get married one day?”

I found the question itself to be illuminating. Is it possible that we Christians, in our zeal for purity, have communicated that all sexual and relational desires are somehow wrong? If so, that’s tragic, because the absence of desire is not a Christian concept. It’s true that certain passages in the New Testament tell us that for some people in some contexts, it’s better to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:24-35). However, the Bible simply never says that a desire for marriage is wrong. The Scripture speaks highly of marriage as a gift from God (Gen 2:18-25; Prov 18:22; 19:14).

What is wrong, of course, is misdirected desire.  When we desire marriage (including its emotional, spiritual, and physical components) as an opportunity to display Christ’s love (Ephesians 5:21-33), it’s perfectly legitimate. God made us with a desire for intimate relationships with others; we see that desire displayed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve. However, when we begin to seek marriage — or any other relationship — for strictly selfish reasons, we have a problem.

In other words, if I’m seeking marriage solely as a means to satisfy my sexual cravings, or to fill an emotional void in my heart, then I’m not looking at it as God intends. But the desire for sex or love or emotional intimacy, in a relationship that is centered on reflecting Christ’s love, is perfectly legitimate.

Desire turns into sin when we seek the fulfillment of the desire for our own purposes, rather than for God’s purposes. That principle holds true whether we’re talking about money, sex, physical health, success on the job, or anything else.

Often, our problem is that we believe that the fulfillment of a particular desire will satisfy us in a way that only God can satisfy. We seek earthly treasures for their own sake, rather than seeing them as mere reflections of the much greater treasures promised to those who know God (Matthew 6:19-21). C.S. Lewis put it well (see The Weight of Glory, pp. 3-4):

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord fins our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is really meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Far too easily pleased, indeed.

Do you struggle with the concept of desire? Where does legitimate desire turn into sin, and how do you avoid going down that path in your own life?  

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Is Something Wrong With Me?

If you’re involuntarily single, you’ve almost certainly asked yourself that question at some point. College students and young singles regularly tell me they struggle with insecurity. I remember struggling with it myself during a prolonged period of singleness (with no apparent prospects) in my early 20s. “Why can’t I find a date/significant other/spouse? Am I too short or tall or quiet or loud or unattractive or intimidating or picky?” It doesn’t help that those around you often ask the same questions. “Why are you (still, after SO long) single? Are you not trying hard enough? Do you think you should get out more and stop being so picky?”

We all know people who are clearly wonderful — attractive, godly, normal — and yet remain single for a long time. (For that matter, we also know unattractive, worldly, and strange people who get married young). From a logical perspective, most of us understand that singleness isn’t always — or even often — caused by a person’s defects. There isn’t any discernible rhyme or reason to who gets married at 22 and who remains single at 35. You probably know that in your brain, but it’s hard to apply personally when you’re sick of being single. The temptation is to try to isolate what’s “wrong” with you, thinking that once you can isolate the problem you can fix it.

The truth is that human relationships are complicated and often mysterious. They don’t lend themselves to simple evaluation or pat answers. Every relationship involves the personalities, feelings, and desires of two complex human beings. Not only that, but as Christians we have to take into account the work of God in each person’s heart and mind and life. We don’t always understand God’s plans, and sometimes we don’t even like them. That’s a hard truth, so it’s easier at times to seek out factors we think we can control — maybe if I lose 20 pounds or tell funnier jokes or just stop being so picky, I can fix this pesky singleness problem.

But relationships with God and others just don’t work that way. Seeking change and growth is appropriate and good and a necessary part of the spiritual life. However, it’s not a guaranteed means of finding a spouse, and as long as you view it that way you’ll be in danger of minimizing or missing the real work God wants to do in your life. For all of us — whether we’re waiting for a relationship or a better job or a child or something else altogether — God is simply more concerned with our character than with giving us the life circumstances we would prefer.

So is something wrong with you? Sure. Me too. Lots of things. We’re sinners in need of God’s grace. But your personal deficiencies probably aren’t the reason you are single. I don’t know exactly why you’re single, but it probably has something to do with God, who arranges the circumstances of your life so that you can know Him and pursue Him (Acts 17:26-27). So instead of agonizing over questions that can’t be answered, turn your eyes toward Jesus and follow Him with everything you have.

(And as a postscript, those of you who are married can certainly help your single friends in this regard. Resist suggesting easy “fixes” for their singleness or implying that if they would only do x or y or z then they could make everything better. Although we usually mean well, such advice is rarely helpful, often demoralizing, and always distracting).

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Listening to Your Loneliness

When I feel lonely, oh that’s only a sign,
Some room is empty, 
That room is there by design,
When I feel hollow, 
That’s just my proof that there’s more for me to follow,
That’s what the lonely is for.

(David Wilcox)

We tend to think of loneliness as something we need to escape. Many of us have ideas about what would truly cure us of loneliness once and for all. College students and single adults often think that marriage will cure loneliness. Married people often think that a better spouse will cure loneliness. From time to time we all believe that popularity or fame would cure our loneliness. In the words of Adam Duritz, “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely.”

Except, of course, you can. To be honest, some of my loneliest moments have been in the presence of crowds, people who know my name but don’t really know me. Maybe you can relate to that. I think loneliness is often most acute when we finally achieve what we believe would be the cure for our loneliness — a spouse, a date, popularity — yet we realize we’re not cured after all.

What if we’re thinking about loneliness incorrectly? Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to avoid loneliness, but should instead carefully consider what it means. Perhaps loneliness isn’t located “out there” somewhere but is really located “in here,” inside our hearts and minds and spirits. Loneliness just might be God’s way of reminding us that the ultimate source of acceptance and comfort isn’t found in anything this world can offer.

Don’t get me wrong — we’re designed to be in community with others, and to some degree we even need it. We aren’t made to walk through life totally alone. On the other hand, we aren’t made to be completely satisfied with the sort of imperfect relationships that this present world provides. Even in the most intimate relationships, people still hide from one another and hurt one another and fear one another. Until Jesus returns and makes us new and perfect and complete, we just won’t be able to avoid the pain of loneliness.

But when Jesus returns, loneliness will disappear. We’ll have perfect relationships, free of sin and doubt and fear of abandonment. Free of the need to hide from Him and from one another.

So right now, our loneliness serves as a sign to remind us that all is not well, but one day it will be. Instead of trying to escape it, let’s allow it to draw us closer to the One who can remove it permanently. Let’s also use the loneliness to remember that others are lonely too. Just like us, they need to hear the life-giving message that it won’t last forever.

How do you handle loneliness in your own life?

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Does Anybody Wait for Marriage Anymore?

Every so often I run across an article discussing the problem of young Christians engaging in premarital sex. One recent example comes from Relevant Magazine, a cutting-edge magazine geared toward young adults.

Typically the information presented runs along the following lines: nearly all young Christians are having sex before marriage, despite intense efforts by the evangelical church to convince them to wait. (The Relevant article says that 80% of young Christians are having sex outside of marriage). In nearly every case, the writer characterizes the popular True Love Waits program as a colossal failure, because only about 12% of the students who sign purity commitments during the program actually keep their promises.

Despite the compelling statistics, though, I think articles like this are alarmist at best and misleading at worst. Why do I say that?

First, they often portray sexual sin as something new to Christianity, as if everything was a great deal better in the “good old days.” But that perspective is inaccurate. Go read any of Paul’s New Testament letters, and you’ll see repeated exhortations against sexual immorality, usually because members of the church were in sin. In some cases he provides specific examples of Christians who were failing in this area (for example, see 1 Corinthians 5). The Church has struggled with the issue of chastity for thousands of years. In certain eras and in certain cultures it has done a better job of forcing people to conform to external standards of purity (usually by shaming or punishing those who disobeyed), but I wouldn’t say that sexual purity has ever been the norm. Even if people managed to control their outer behavior, there were usually struggles boiling beneath the surface.

Second (and I really think this is key), articles like this make no attempt to distinguish those who identify themselves as Christians from those who actually possess a Christian worldview. In Ronald Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, he laments how the behavior of evangelicals is indistinguishable from that of the culture around us. He cites some of the same troubling statistics about sexual sin, violence, and racism in the Church. However, toward the end of the book he makes a critical distinction that I think is worth noticing (pp. 127-128).

He mentions that George Barna did a study to determine the effect of a biblical worldview on a person’s behavior. Here’s how Barna defines a biblical worldview:

For the purposes of the research, a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.

Guess what? Only 9% of “born-again Christians” actually have such a biblical worldview! And among that smaller group, the statistics relating to sexual activity are much more encouraging. While 1 out of 8 born-again Christians had sex with somebody other than their spouse in the month preceding the survey, only 1 out of 100 of those with a biblical worldview had done so!

So on a practical note, what does this mean? It means that sexuality cannot be discussed as a separate issue apart from the holistic calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Parents and youth leaders, take note: if you tell your kids to “just wait” without explaining to them why they should wait or integrating the discussion of sexuality with robust training in the spiritual life, your efforts will most likely fail.

On the other hand, the students who wait until marriage are concerned first with knowing Jesus and following Him. Their approach to sexuality is not disconnected from their spirituality, but is an integral part of it.

And here’s the really good news: there are students who are waiting. I know many of them in my own ministry. Yes, it’s difficult, and yes, they are constantly tempted and no, they don’t always make perfect choices. But they are waiting and they do see the value of sexual purity as a part of their spiritual life.

So let’s not be too alarmist or fearful, but instead let’s be diligent to make disciples, recognizing that the way we use our bodies is a critical aspect of walking with God (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Why or why not?

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