Before romance became an ally for me, it was a terrorist, because it had become a god.
It was a subtle god, of course. But subtle gods — money, sports, career success, relationships — often wield more functional authority than the gods of organized religion. You may find more devotion in sports arenas, movie theaters, board meetings, and social media threads than in many pews. And the worshipers of those gods gather seven days a week. Through my teens and twenties, I read my Bible regularly and rarely missed church, but if you watched really closely, you might have assumed that marriage, not God, was the only pleasure great enough to fill my restless soul.
I dated too young, and too often, and took those relationships too far, emotionally and physically. Through those failures, I discovered just how desperately I needed forgiveness and redemption. And I learned that dating (and marriage, and sex, and family) would never satisfy all I desired. Because romance had become a god, I betrayed God — the one true and living God — to serve my golden calf. Relationship after relationship, I was burning down the gold he had given me to fashion something that might more immediately meet my longings.
By God’s grace, like Saul along the road to Damascus, romance was dramatically converted in my story from murderous terrorist to servant of Christ. So if you, like me, have bowed at the altars of romantic affection and intimacy, I hope to open your eyes to a greater Love (and a greater, more fulfilling vision for earthly love). I hope you’ll begin to see how romantic love is simultaneously at the core of what’s right and beautiful about this world (hence why dating and marriage can be so thrilling and satisfying), and yet also at the core of what can be so wrong (why the two can be so destructive and devastating).
Your Good Desires for Love
My desire for romantic love, even as a naive, impulsive teenager, wasn’t totally dysfunctional. I was experiencing something that God had created in me. After all, he himself says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). That means he who wants a wife wants a good thing, and wants favor from God.
“Healthy and happy marriages find their health and happiness in that future marriage.”
We see the goodness of romance in the very first paragraphs of Scripture. Notice how the first six days of God’s masterpiece come to a climax: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .’” (Genesis 1:26). He’s lit the stage, hung the moon, carved the seashores, formed the mountains, planted the flowers, unleashed the birds, and uncaged the bears. Now he’ll put something of himself on that wild and wondrous stage — he’ll pick up handfuls of dust and mold the kind of creature his Son will one day be.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him . . .
But that’s not all he said. And that he says more gets to why I innately had such high, even unrealistic expectations of romance.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
Not just male, but male and female. And a few verses later, they were no longer separately male and female, but one flesh. When God sculpted his image into creation, he didn’t just make a man — he made a man and a woman, together. He made a marriage. Marital love, at its best, tells the story the universe was made to tell, about the love within God himself (Father, Son, and Spirit), and the love of that Son for his bride, the church.
Our desires for romantic love (again, at their best, when they’re burning as God himself kindled them to burn) draw us into the love that formed the earth and every other planet, the Milky Way and every other galaxy. Marriage is a wondrous gift, given by a generous Father, to help lead his sons and daughters to their greatest possible joy.
Your Bad Desires for Love
It didn’t take long, though, for that one-flesh sculpture to crumble. The honeymoon was devastatingly short (at least in the story we’ve been given). Almost as soon as we find the two together, naked and blissfully unashamed, Satan slithers between them and turns them against each other.
When we read Genesis 1–2, we can hardly imagine what a relationship like that might be like, a love without fear or suspicion, without secrets or grudges, without sin or pain. Neither ever needing to say sorry. Then the serpent raided their home, overturned the marriage bed, and started a fire in the living room. It’s stunning, isn’t it, just how quickly sin turns this love story into a horror film.
Now, for the first time, they’re hiding (Genesis 3:8). They’re suddenly afraid of the God who had been their safety (verse 10). Within a few sentences, the husband’s pointing fingers (verse 12). They’re having their first fight as a couple (verse 15), the wife wrestling her groom for the steering wheel. They meet pain (verse 16), which shows up at their front door and never leaves. And their work grows hard, and not just hard, but frustrating and ineffective (verses 17–18). Worst of all, they’re evicted from Paradise, leaving them wandering without God (verses 23–24). His presence had been their address, their foundation, their first and only home. And when it comes time to have children, they give birth to anger, rivalry, and death (Genesis 4:1–8).
As soon as God was uprooted from the center of their union, and they from the safety of his garden, romance was no longer spiritually safe. Their nakedness was now a vulnerability. And two thousand years later, it’s really not any safer or easier out on the dating scene. Adam and Eve’s fall is a warning that, for as beautiful, even divine, as romance can be, it can also be dangerous, even deadly.
Rehearsing for the Real Thing
I wasn’t completely wrong about romance, even as a teenager. I was wrong because I expected from romance what I would find only in God, and then demanded that the true God deliver my god (and that he overnight it). And then I was surprised when I didn’t get what I wanted and ended up lonelier and more miserable than before.
Make no mistake, romance captures worship. Idolatry like mine explains why sexual sin runs rampant. It’s why the demonic empires of pornography make billions of dollars every year. It’s why we see so much divorce. It explains a lot of depression and suicide. Our desires for love, however, in their deepest, purest, most intense expressions, are desires for a Marriage beyond marriage. You won’t be freed from all the frustration, confusion, and heartbreak of romance worship until you see this.
One day, heaven will come to earth, Christ will return on the clouds, and we’ll have a wedding:
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure. (Revelation 19:7–8)
Then Jesus will sing the Groom’s anthem over us: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). He came to pursue her, he died to redeem her, he rose to secure her, and he’s coming to bring her home. How will we remember these brief years of unwanted loneliness, or persistent conflict, even of paralyzing betrayal when we see the blazing fire in his eyes, when we hear the warm rumble in his voice, when we feel the passionate strength of his embrace?
Healthy and happy marriages find their health and happiness in that future marriage. They’re content because their contentment doesn’t rest finally in each other. They receive these years of matrimony, even decades together, as a blessed rehearsal for the real thing.
Romance of Orthodoxy
In this case, however, we don’t have to wait for the wedding to enjoy the pleasures of the romance. Through faith, Christ is already yours. Even though you are not yet the glorified you that you one day will be, you already have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” in him (Ephesians 1:3). G.K. Chesterton famously writes,
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. (Orthodoxy, 143)
The apostle Paul, an unmarried man himself, had tasted that sweeter, fuller romance: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). And if he had married, he still would have said the same. He knew no wife could have possibly made him happier than Jesus could (and so he actually may have made a good husband).
Your desires for love are, at root, good. They’re innate, inescapable desires for Christ. And yet sin distorts our desires for love and leads them astray (sometimes far astray). That means romance can be a friend or a god, an ally or an enemy. So don’t run from your holy desires, and don’t idolize them. Make your earthly loves (or potential earthly loves) serve your first and greater love for God.