What does the Bible say about finding romance?

Perhaps the two most frequent things young Christian men ask me for advice about are relationships and overcoming a pornography habit. I’ll stick with relationships, though Dallas Willard has great advice for those who struggle to kick pornography: Beyond Pornography. On to relationships.

Most of the guys who ask for advice, though sometimes women come to my wife for such advice as well, ask how to enter into a relationship in the first place in the current dating market. Many of them suffer from a glut of two pieces of advice:

  1. Be yourself.
  2. Just be a nice guy and girls will fall in love with you.

The problem with both of these pieces of advice is that neither of them are connected in any specific way with Christian piety or with general wisdom. Here are the problems with each piece of advice:

  1. Be yourself.
    This piece of pop-culture advice has the potential to be very valuable when applied to truth telling, staying the course when virtue comes up against resistance, or refusing to compromise on important decisions. But in general it is suicide for anybody whose personal problems stem from personal failures. Telling people who struggled fundamentally with the following sentences to just be themselves won’t help them:
    “I’m lonely and have trouble making friends.”
    “I’m overweight.”
    “I’m lazy.”
    “I’m disorganized.”
    “I’m not funny.”
    What most people need to do is make fundamental changes to how they live in order to be happy.
  2. Just be a nice guy and girls will fall in love with you.
    If what people mean by this is, “Stop being immoral,” then it  is half reasonable. But in practice, it amounts to, “Don’t ask a girl out, just be her friend, be nice, and eventually she’ll notice.” It’s similar to the bad evangelism advice, “Just follow Jesus and people will ask.” It’s a bit narcissistic and it sets people up to be bitter about being friendly because they expect an unlikely or even impossible result. One should not simply become virtuous (especially if it is defined as niceness) in order to get people to love them. That’s stupid on the surface. But it’s also untrue that niceness, as described above, will land you a date.

So, what should a man who wants to be a disciple of Jesus do when struggling with loneliness or failing to ever successfully ask a girl on a date (or ask at all)? The advice below, by the way, is also applicable to women and married people.

  1. Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. (Matt 6:33)
    The first thing that needs to happen anytime there is a lack in our lives is that we need to reevaluate whether or not we’re living virtuously and basing our choices upon what benefits God’s people and what is in line with God’s purposes. Establishing, in our minds that our purpose is to pursue virtue and fulfill the duties God has placed before us is a powerful medicine for discontentment. The command to focus on our righteousness in the face of missing elements of the good life (read all of Matthew 6 if you would) is central to understanding what it means to be a Christian and it requires us to always re-calibrate our understanding of the good life and also recognizing that there is a highest possible value to seek in life. If people are so obsessed with getting a romantic partner that they compromise on virtue, success, or God’s purposes in general, then they are likely to find sinful romance (see Proverbs 1-9) and end up unhappy anyway. To seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness means (or see here for a rough sketch of what it means):

    1. Accept responsibility for your sinfulness.
    2. Accept responsibility for your problems in general.
    3. Work regularly on trying to fix them.
    4. Work on gaining all the virtues of Scripture (not just niceness).
    5. Learn to be content with God and virtue (in other words, gain some outcome independence, be fine with failure, and be comfortable with lack when you’ve done the right, wise, and courageous thing).
  2. Become skillful (Proverbs 22:29).
    In general, it’s important to have a skill or set of skills for making money, occupying your time, and bringing order into the world which God has given to us. We’re happier when we’re good at something. But learning to make your way in the world, accrue resources, and manage them well is very important for happiness in general (regardless of relationship status) as well as for finding love. Many young Christians spend so much time volunteering, hanging out, and ‘doing ministry’ that they neglect their studies, gain few useful skills, and make very little money in their twenties. This is economic suicide for your thirties and beyond. And being skillful tends to make you more interesting. I knew a woman once, who felt her calling was to be “a stay at home wife.” But she had no domestic skills. A man who expects to be married to somebody who pulls their weight in the relationship would run like Carl Weathers in Rocky III to avoid that sort of marriage. Similarly, men who cannot make money are simply less interesting to women generally. These claims aren’t always true, but they hold with the general population.
  3. Become likable and interesting. (Song of Solomon 1:3)
    One of the reasons that the woman in Song of Solomon is enamored by the man is that “his name is like oil poured out, therefore all the young women love you.” In other words, people love talking about him and they have pleasant things to say. She likes him, likes hearing about him, and likes talking about him. There are dozens of ways to become likable and only some of them require that you give up on virtue and God’s purposes. But having interesting stories, being generous, learning to be funny, dressing well, having bigger muscles, having a healthy BMI, learning to cook, being skillful (see above), being involved in your church, learning rhetoric, reading books, memorizing poetry, having party tricks, and having fun hobbies all go a long way to making you likable.
  4. Be selective. (1 Corinthians 9:5)
    In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul mentions that he and his fellow single apostles would be within their rights to have a “sister wife.” What that means is “wife who believes the gospel and cooperates with our life vision to share the gospel abroad.” Paul doesn’t take a wife because he believes it is virtuous to care for her and not endanger her. But the point stands that he perceives Christians should only marry other Christians. But I would add that one should try to marry somebody who is interested in your career and calling. One’s perception of these things changes over time, but marrying somebody who also wants to do what you want to do is both Christian and wise. Living with somebody who hates your career, calling, or life vision is miserable. It essentially forces you to have committed yourself to seek romance/sex from the only person in the world who regularly resents you, I suspect that nothing could be more miserable. On the other hand, having a virtuous circle of encouragement, challenge to improve, increased attraction, and increased friendship is idyllic and quite possible. It’s like the Scripture says, “at the right of the Lord are pleasures evermore.” (Ps 16:11) And marriage is God’s idea.

To summarize, working on yourself is the most central key to getting others to like you and learning to improve yourself whether or not others like you is utterly central to happiness. Failing to learn that lesson will not only lead to loneliness, but deeper dissatisfaction with relationships as well because you force your happiness to depend upon things other than God and upon things you cannot control.

Hedonism, Love, and Goodness

The things that shape who we are and how we think are pluriform and sometimes mysterious. This is especially so in the age of the internet stuff that may disappear forever after you read it. Every once in away, the Internet sends it back to you.

Around 2008-2009, I was quite depressed. And while I was still known for being a social butterfly at work and school, and many people even called me for advice (I remember distinctly two women with doctorates in psychology contacting me for relationship advice), I was languishing. There are probably three main reasons for this:

  1. Many of my friends had moved away, gotten married, or achieved opportunities I had never managed.
  2. I worked between 3-5 part time jobs to pay for grad school at any moment and so I got very little exercise or sun light. My academic nature and lack of sleep made it easy to substitute books for exercise. I also couldn’t afford a gym membership anywhere except a giant mega-gym that operated like a night club and prohibited squats, chalk, and grunting.
  3. I was lovelorn. During this time period, I fell in love, really hard, with two women. And because of that I felt like I had lost every ounce of the charm that had helped me make friends and ask girls on dates effortlessly before that. It was like I developed a speech impediment or a sudden physical handicap when I communicated with either of these women.

Essentially, because of certain failures of courage, mindset management, and personal care I found myself ignored by women right during the stage of my life in which I had, apparently, subconsciously decided to get married.*

Now, during this time, I had gotten really into reading Hans Balthasar, and I read his book Love Alone is Credible.

I searched online for any commentary on the book and found a quote on a blog [utterly devoid of theological interest in the academic sense], lost to the sands of time, “Never compromise on love. It’s the only thing that isn’t bullshit.” I’ve since found the blog through a retweet of the quote with a link to the 2008 post. It’s a great quote (the other material from the post varies in quality), and while the author clearly means erotic love, the point still stands. But, as any depressed person would do, I read other another post from the blog. The other post I read was about the author’s personal philosophy. That was relevant, since I was a seminary student working at a corporate coffee shop and therefore talking to atheistic armchair philosophers all the time. The author advocated a godless hedonism:

 

Imagine you had incontrovertible proof that there was no afterlife. No supernatural entities. No heaven or hell. No otherworld. No reincarnation. No forevermore.

No second chances.

Imagine there was no moral accounting after death of your actions on earth. No supreme being to judge your soul’s worth on the scale of divine justice. No reward or punishment. No appeal to omniscient authority in matters of good and evil.

There was only the endless black void at the moment death. The infinite silence. A complete surrender of your consciousness as the last pinprick of light extinguishes. All your thoughts, your feelings, your sensation, your memories… you… wiped away clean to merge with the great nothing.

How would you live? Given this proof of the finality of death, and of the expectation of nothing once dead, what is your personal philosophy?  

His answer to the thought experiment is this:

My answer to the philosophical question I posed above is hedonism. It is the only rational conclusion one can draw faced with the premises I presented. When there is no second life or higher power to appease; when our lives are machines — complex misunderstood machines cunningly designed to conceal the gears and pulleys behind a facade of self-delusional sublimation, but machines nonetheless — grinding and belching the choking gritty smoke of status-whoring displays in service to our microscopic puppetmasters… well, there can be only one reasonable response to it all. It makes no sense to behave any other way unless you never questioned the lies.

My own answer to the thought experiment is that if I try to imagine the world without meaning he described (advocated?), I come up blank. Why? If love isn’t bullshit, then there is meaning beyond the chemical soup and system of mechanical pulleys and levers he imagines us to be.

Indeed, if love bears the marks of a single aspect of live that isn’t bullshit, isn’t a lie, and is worth pursuing, then the matter of meaningless matter must be questioned. Is life actually meaningless or is this feeling of melancholy a salve for my own conscience? Perhaps the lie is that we’re just machines of no consequence in a heartless universe. If love isn’t bullshit, it’s implied that love is true and if there is truth, then perhaps beauty and goodness are real, too. This is an important implication, for if truth, goodness, and beauty are real, then it is perhaps the case that pleasures beyond the reach of mere pleasure seeking exist. Pleasure is a good, but what happens when the intellect attains to contemplation of goods beyond the mere stimulation of dopamine and serotonin? And what of beauty? Love entails beauty. If there is transcendent beauty, enjoying it may require that we move beyond the mere act of feeling pleasure in the moment.

Ultimately, if it’s true that love really isn’t bullshit, then the meaningless universe is opened to the possibility that there is meaning in the universe rather than artificially imposed upon it by our illusory consciousness (if you’re conscious of your consciousness being illusory, what is what of what?).

Love isn’t bullshit, but on the evidence of that, it appears that neither is the cosmos.

*Note: After I went through a fairly rigorous period of trying to improve myself, I did end up getting married and love, indeed, is not bullshit.

What is Love?


Edward Feser wrote an excellent article about what love is. In it he quoted Thomas Aquinas:

As the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 4), “to love is to wish good to someone.”  Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good.  Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good.

Love, in the sense which Christian doctrine typically means, is exactly what Aquinas quoted from Aristotle, “to wish good to someone.” For Aquinas and Aristotle, “wish” is better understood as “intend.” Love is a movement of the will, not a passion nor a feeling. In the case of loving other people as a Christian this makes sense. To love your neighbor is to intend to give him the goods he needs to flourish (to have success and happiness now and in eternity): companionship, knowledge, assistance, mercy, protection, prayer, etc.

But what does it mean to love God in this sense? Some people, like John Piper, would say that to love God means to have certain feelings about God. But on the analogy of love for human beings, we can love our enemies even if our feelings toward them are quite hateful. Acts of love would be much harder, as positive emotions are a great aid to positive action, but they would nevertheless be possible. And the Bible has several psalms, clearly written as actions of love toward God, but which express intensely negative emotions toward God.

So how do we “wish good to someone” with regard to God? Here is my most basic answer: to love God is to act to further God’s purposes in creation. While God is goodness itself and therefore cannot increase/decrease in goodness, God’s purposes in creation are meant to have progressive fulfillment. For instance, God commanded humanity to tend the garden. God made the garden, but there was further work to be done.

There is Biblical evidence in favor of what I’ve inferred from Aristotle’s definition of love: Jesus said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.(Joh 14:21)” For Jesus the categories of “those who love me” and “those who have and keep my commandments” are convertable. And elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that he glorified God by doing the deeds he was sent to do (17:4) and that he sends his disciples as the Father sent him (20:21). So, to love God is to act in line with his purposes or to obey his commands. This, of course, will include positive feelings. A significant consideration is this: Is it superior to obey a command of Jesus in the face of severe temptation and emotional resistance or in a state of deep and motivating affection for Jesus?*

Here is where things become interesting. Can our love for God be unrequited? We all know that our love for other people can. But in the case of God, the answer is no. Why? Because Jesus tells his disciples that “You are my friends if you do what I tell you. (John 15:14)” While our love for peers, children, parents, enemies, and so-on can be unrequited. There is no such thing as unrequited love for friends, for if the love is unreturned there is no friendship. In our relationship with God, our acts to further his purposes, include simultaneous action by the Holy Spirit on our behalf.

Finally, it is important to note that for the Christian, God’s purposes are primarily contained in the teaching of Jesus. To love God is to put the teachings of Jesus, rightly understood, into practice.

A corollary is that one might say that the highest form of self-love is to obey Jesus, as this would obtain the highest benefit for ourselfs if the gospel message is true.

To simplify the explanation above:

  1. To love is to wish to benefit another.
  2. To benefit God is to wish to further his purposes.
  3. To further God’s purposes is to obey Jesus’ teachings.
  4. To obey Jesus’ teachings is to live in friendship with God.

A final thought

I think that correctly understanding love as a matter of the will can help people who struggle with depression to realize that they do, in fact, love God. Also, as Feser mentions in his post, “…if love is thought to be essentially about having certain pleasant feelings, then the quest for love naturally comes to be understood as essentially a matter of finding someone who will generate in oneself pleasant feelings of the sort in question, and showing love to others comes to be understood as essentially a matter of generating in them pleasant feelings of the sort in question. [author’s italics]” Thus, in the case of loving God two errors can occur: to love God is to give myself good feelings about God or upon realizing how impossible this is to do consistently, to give up on the idea of positive emotions in relation to doing God’s will. Also, understanding love as intending the good of others assumes that there is such a thing a objective good that reliably benefits other people. The modern obsession with feelings (which are obviously good, important, and natural) leads of a sort of nihilism with regard to love. If it’s always loving to generate positive feelings in ourselves and in others, then because our quite plastic grey matter can learn to find positive emotions from all sorts of disordered events, can lead us to consider the most dastardly things loving.

*I think that it’s a trick question. If one has love as a virtue (good habit), then it will ‘come easy’ but individual deeds do not lose their value for being done in a state of temptation, depression, melancholy, or even momentary resentment.

Loving your enemies and politics

Jesus is pretty clear about loving your enemies:

Mat 5:43-48  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ (44)  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (45)  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (46)  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (47)  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (48)  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Luk 6:27-36  “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, (28)  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (29)  To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. (30)  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (31)  And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. (32)  “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. (33)  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. (34)  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. (35)  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (36)  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

I think his teaching here should become a controlling priority in lives of Christians. Be kind to those who oppose you. But there are two ways to get this wrong (btw, I’ve preached on this and maybe blogged about it…if I have, sorry). I’ll use a political metaphor because in my experience people of different political persuasions are usually (though not always) more likely to fall into the corresponding trap:

  1. The error on the right
    This mistake is simply that of finding exceptions to Jesus command here and immediately inferring that it therefore never applies. This error comes up more in conversation than in writing. It often goes like this: You want me to love my enemies…but what about Hitler? Or perhaps Christians who are unaware of Jesus’ teaching on this score will equate kindness to enemies with weakness.
  2. The error on the left
    This error is equally silly but more compelling at first glance. It goes this way, “Did you hear about that horrible tragedy that did not befall me? I totally love the person who did that. Therefore, I am a disciple of Jesus regardless of how I treat those around me.” This error comes with other blanket statements too: “Christians should never use violence,” “Christians should forgive everybody,” etc. In it’s stupidest expressions, this view essentially internalizes that nobody is the Christian’s enemy.

The problems with both of these errors are obvious, given a little thought:

  1. Both errors require their adherents to assume that exceptions to the rule of enemy love invalidate the teaching as a general stance. If there are times when violence is necessary helps accomplish a provisional good, then Jesus is wrong. On the right, the teaching is tossed out. On the left it is misapplied. Yet, there are exceptions in the gospels and the epistles to almost every imperative in the sermon on the mount. The Biblical authors knew that Jesus’ teachings assumed valid exceptions.
  2. Both errors make kindness to people with whom you actually have contact unnecessary. The error on the right makes kindness to local enemies seem like weakness (that would be like forgiving Hitler). The error on the left makes it unnecessary (I forgive all the terrorists, I don’t have to be kind to you).
  3. Similarly to problem 2, both ignore that the command is meant to be a general stance (kindness/mercy) toward the people in one’s immediate circle of experience: “Bless those who curse you,” “Pray for those who persecute you,” “Go be reconciled with your brother.”
  4. The error on the right ends up being a way for ill informed Christians to shame informed Christians for following Jesus’ teachings.
  5. The error on the left ends up being a way for ill informed Christians to shame Christians who have used things like violence to save a life, protect a child, or who have called the police when in danger.

The actual teachings of Jesus about loving your enemies are transformative, just as he meant them to be but it has to be something we commit to doing, not something we find exceptions to or merely claim to do.

Tips for loving your enemies:

  1. Remember that your enemies might also be the people that you wish to curse, persecute, or hate. Pray for forgiveness, pray for their well being, and be intentionally polite to them in the near future.
  2. When somebody obviously hates you, pray for them.
  3. When such a person is rude to you in person, try having an actual conversation with them about why.
  4. If such a person is dangerously, violently, or illegally treating you poorly notify the authorities. Seriously, sometimes the loving thing to do is to ensure that somebody does not hurt somebody else.
  5. Or even, avoid the person. Paul says, “as much as depends on you, be at peace with all people.” Given time to cool off, perhaps both of you could learn to be cool with each other.
  6. Whether you view the passage as being about pacifism or not, do not use your interpretation as an excuse not to actually do what Jesus says.

Redeeming self-love

Christopher Lasch wrote a marvelous book entitled, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. He chronicles a pitiful sort of self-love. He diagnoses our culture with a self-love that fails to recognize its own limitations, the source of the self which it loves, and the importance of relationships, traditions, contracts, and obligations. I tend to agree with his assessment.

From a Christian perspective, the easiest way to “fix” the problem is to never talk about self-love except in the negative. This is one of our chief sins (throwing babies out with the bath water in our culture I mean…or just throwing them out). Rather than destroy self-love, the Biblical material indicates that we simply must put it in the proper order. Paul assumes that the average husband loves himself (he who loves his wife, loves himself). Similarly, Jesus and Moses assume that the average fellow loves himself enough to use that as a gauge for neighborly love. But, though the Bible assumes that people care for their own needs it does not assume that they do so well.

The reason that the Bible assumes self-love is that, in the ancient world the words which translate “love” in our Bibles often meant something more than mere affection.1 They meant something like “see to the well being or pleasure of.” So, to love yourself meant “to see to the well-being of yourself.” Most people, who do not have a derangement, love themselves in this way. They may do it poorly or in an ill advised manner (over eating, smoking, dating doofuses, etc), but they do it. The Biblical picture, though it assumes that people generally love themselves, also does not authorize sloppy self-love.

I propose a cure for sloppy self-love. Get wisdom and understanding.

For instance:

Whoever obtains wisdom loves himself, and whoever treasures understanding will prosper. (Pro 19:8)”

To love yourself get wisdom. Examples of Biblical wisdom include: learn to stop being lazy, save your money, give to the poor, deny yourself daily, when you fast do not act gloomy, speak less, listen more, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, husbands love your wives, wives respect your husbands, etc.

Get wisdom lest your sloppy self-love makes loving your neighbor as yourself a horrible nightmare for you and your neighbor.

1 See just about any dictionary of the Bible for that one. The Hebrew word used in the passage in questions does often mean affection but in this context it is clearly related to beneficiary action.