A Theology of Romance
I really appreciate and highly recommend Laura Smit’s book, Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love. It isn’t your typical book on singles and romance. Right away, the subtitle lets you know this book is special because while there are countless books on mutual love and our moral responsibilities as Christian lovers, hardly anyone writes about our responsibility toward virtue when feelings are not mutual. Smit begins with a “theology of romance” in which she details God’s nature as love, God’s creational plans both in Eden and in the New Heaven and the New Earth, sin’s effect on those plans, and finally, virtuous and vicious romance, how sin twists God’s intentions for love and how we can be virtuous by shaping our romantic lives to God’s plans. This framework is centered on New Testament teachings on marriage and family and singleness, teachings many Christians, myself included up to now, have been successfully avoiding.
Smit notes the importance of pouring a new understanding of marriage and family into new wineskins. In Matthew chapter 19, Jesus makes this astonishing statement: “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (v. 12). And shortly after that, in response to the Sadducees, Jesus declares, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).
Jesus also asserts that the way we think about family changes when he enters the scene. Jesus is teaching and his biological family interrupts him, expecting that they deserve more of Jesus’ attention than the crowd. And it was natural for them to expect this. But again, Jesus turns social expectation on its head, responding, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt. 12:48-50).
Jesus seems to be saying marriage is not ultimate; only the union between Christ and his Church is ultimate. He is also saying our biological families are not ultimate; only the family of faith is ultimate. Saying all this about marriage and family was a big deal. In Jesus’ day, everyone’s number one loyalty was to his or her biological family, people who were married were higher on the social ladder than those who were not, and couples who had children (well, sons) were even higher. Jesus came and changed our primary loyalties, and he declared that the only members of society who are valuable to God’s kingdom are those who do God’s will, regardless of their social status.
By looking into these passages of Scripture, Smit is asking us to consider: Should Jesus’ teachings change the emphasis American Christians place on marriage and family? Why do most unmarried Christians feel social pressure from the church to get married and start a family? They also feel excluded from congregations whose messages and activities have a biological family focus instead of a spiritual family focus. How then can we change our focus and the ways in which we interact with one another so that we are following in Jesus’ revolutionary footsteps?
A Theology of Romance Gets Personal
Smit suggests that not only will the way we think about (and consequently our behavior toward) others change, but so will the way we think about our own lives. To give you an example of how we, the Christian culture in America, think about marriage, specifically the expectations we have regarding marriage in our own lives, let me share with you this story.
Several weeks ago, I was subbing in AWANA, and the third through fifth grade girls were asked what they foresaw in their future. Every girl there stated, rather confidently, “I’m going to go to college then get married.” What a wonderful vision for one’s future! What’s interesting is that each child had the same vision for her future, which simply speaks to the fact that marriage is socially expected for church girls (and boys too as a matter of fact). It’s what Christians consider normal and the “natural thing to do.” Again, marriage is wonderful. The question is, are we limiting ourselves, and our daughters, and ultimately, Christ and the Church, when we consume this view of marriage and personhood wholesale? Is it a limited vision rather than a Kingdom-vision?
To give you a clearer picture of what I mean by “Kingdom-vision,” let’s look directly at Smit. She notes:
Our primary loyalties shift when we come into contact with Jesus. Whereas in the Old Testament the family was one’s primary loyalty, Jesus redefines this, saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). Jesus is our family now and the community of faith is our primary social commitment. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39). Jesus insists that his followers live sacrificial lives that will make little sense in the eyes of the world.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? Think for a moment about the political implications for the Religious Right. Marriage and family concerns wouldn’t cease to exist, but would rather exist within a broader context, under a farther-reaching banner. What might such a banner look like? Let’s look again at Smit. She posits:
If all Christians everywhere were to take [seriously Jesus’ teaching that marriage is not ultimate], stop getting married, and stop having children, perhaps the church would start to grow through evangelism rather than through procreation. In this case, the church would be a blessing to the nations, just as we are supposed to be, with most of our nurturing energy going outside our own community. Finally, if we actually converted everyone in the world, and everyone in the world then embraced continent singleness so that no children were being born (a rather unlikely scenario), wouldn’t that mean it was time for Jesus to come again? All Christians are supposed to be longing for his second coming and doing everything possible to bring it about.
Wow! What a bold statement! Well, don’t worry, in the very next lines she says,
I do not believe that all Christians need to be single [or stop having children], but all Christians must come to terms with Jesus’ teaching that marriage is not ultimate. Taking [this] teaching seriously will change how we think about the possibility of marriage in our own life and how we treat people around us – particularly within the church – who are single.
I think it important to note that throughout her entire book, Smit never once devalues marriage or children—particularly within the church. And that is part of the point. Jesus came and demolished value hierarchies society had placed upon people. The apostle Paul states that this is to be the case particularly within the church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Marriage and children and sex and singlehood and abstinence and romance each offer valuable life-pictures that teach the church about who God is and our relationship with him.
With that in mind, we are now ready to consider the romantic lives of unmarried folk with nuance. Smit’s book challenges Christians to govern our romantic relationships with a Kingdom-perspective, reminding us to readjust our ingrown eyeballs: to look up toward God and out toward others. How do we do that when we’re in love with someone who doesn’t love us back?
The Ethics of Unrequited Love
Loves Me, Loves Me Not helps us learn how to behave virtuously in loving someone who does not return our romantic affection. It also helps us to behave virtuously toward someone who cares romantically for us, when we desire only friendship for him or her. Smit encourages her readers to consider true Christian charity in these situations and whether or not charity—or we might use the word agape—supports or rejects society’s scripts for such roles. Whether we realize it or not, our society has our lines and stage directions all laid out. From film and literature alike we know how to behave if we find our love rejected. We will hold on to our rejected love by continuing to pursue until resignation is absolutely necessary; in which case, we resign to martyrdom upon the cross of love, sometimes in a gallon of ice cream and sappy movies, sometimes quite literally, leaving our legacy behind on the suicide note. Or, we simply move on. It is their loss, and undoubtedly there is someone out there who is more deserving of us.
Certainly both scenarios can be true. Sometimes we ought to continue to pursue and not give up too quickly; sometimes our love is misplaced upon someone undeserving and we must recognize the fact and move on. But motives matter. That is Smit’s point.
How do we counter our ingrained selfish patterns and social scripts when we love someone who doesn’t love us back? I’m not going to give away the whole book; I’m hoping you’ll pick up your own copy. But I will pass on one practical tip from Smit: we must desist from wanting to posses the other person. Now, that sounds creepy in the restraining order kind of way; and you’re thinking, I don’t do that. But we all do it. We do it when we create a whole imaginary life with our crush—where we go on dates, how we sit together in church, how he kisses me hello, how she makes my friends envious. We also get possessive of our crush when we allow our hurt and jealousy to win over our charity (love) for him or her. Because if I didn’t think he and his affections were (or ought to be) mine I wouldn’t be jealous that, in reality, he’s interested in another girl. But the truth is he’s a person, not an object; and as a person he is free to be interested in whomever he chooses. If I really love him as a person rather than lust after him as an object, I will honor, value, and even celebrate that freedom. Not that at times it won’t be painful; it will be.
What about when someone loves us and we don’t return their romantic feelings? What’s easiest is to simply ignore that person. Don’t return his calls. Pretend you didn’t see her. Flirt with someone else right in front of her. Tell him you have to wash your hair. It’s much more difficult to actually continue to be that person’s friend, behaving in Christian love toward him or her, considering them to be better than yourself. Part of the reason this path is more difficult is because it makes you all the more attractive and difficult to get over, and it’s easier to convince ourselves that we’re doing the other person a favor by being a jerk.
Sometimes it is appropriate and necessary and loving to give the other person his space or to stop returning her phone calls. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I wish God designed our relationships to be governed by clear-cut, black and white formulas: do this, get this result… always. But he didn’t. God designed our relationships to be governed by faith. So we have to work hard to live counter-cultural lives, acting out according to God’s script rather than what’s socially expected of us. Smit’s exhortation to consider what motivates our behavior is key. Are we responding lovingly or selfishly? And while motives cannot always be wholly separated or distinguished in such a clear-cut way, God always honors the search.
Smit has in Loves Me, Loves Me Not some very powerful exhortations for the church that I appreciate on two levels: one, she forces readers to think seriously about New Testament teachings on marriage, family, and singleness; and two, she gives singles in the church a voice, in part simply by writing a book that addresses the lives of unmarried folk in a thought-provoking, holistic, and meaningful way. If my brief look into the book has sparked your interest, and if you want the specific, and I think rather good, suggestions Smit makes as to how we can pursue loving virtue in our relationships, be sure to pick up a copy of this singular book.