Friday, October 29, 2010

Venipuncture and the Essence of Love – Relationships

In my last post, I talked about how Christian love was, at its essence, sacrificial. This is in sharp contrast to the common understanding of love which seems to be, at its essence, for the benefit of the other. If love is as Jesus defined it, then it changes everything. The first thing it changes is what is for most people where they will experience the deepest love: the romantic relationship.

This Christian view on love turns relationship on its head, or at least it turns what we’ve been calling relationship on its head (I feel like I’m late to the party on this one; St. Paul seemed to already understand this 2,000 years ago). We Americans believe that relationships (that is, sexual relationships, both “boyfriend/girlfriend” and modern “marriage”) are about love, and love is about pleasure. Both parties get peace/happiness/pleasure by entering the relationship, and so long as that peace/happiness/pleasure endures, so does the relationship. This theory of relationship is supported by data collected by the dating site MyCupid that shows that people of my generation have an average of about 1 new sexual partner per year from the time they’re 18.

On the American definition of love, Biblical passages on marriage like Ephesians 5 sound terrible: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph 5:22,25). Why should the wife have to submit when the husband only has to love?

But what if love was not pleasure? What does a marriage entered into under Christian terms look like? It is not about pleasure (or at least not directly), it’s about suffering and sacrifice. Suffering and sacrifice are not things that must be endured for the love. They are the love. Today, suffering is a red flag, it’s a sign that we are in the wrong relationship; we try to minimize our own suffering. Christians would rather forget about the Godly marriage of Hosea who was commanded to marry a prostitute named Gomer, and stay married to her while she stayed a prostitute. For that matter, we want to forget about Christ, who did the same thing except we, the Church, are the prostitute.

On Christ’s definition of love, the Ephesians passage takes on an entirely different meaning: women have to serve men; men really have to serve women. CS Lewis explains, “The husband who gets this verse is the one whose marriage most feels like a crucifixion…This verse is most embodied in the husband whose wife receives most and gives the least.”

Then how do we pick our partners? Could we maximize suffering by picking the least compatible person possible, a person who hated us? Would that lead to happiness?

To answer that question, I think I need the council of St. Ignatius. Christians in the first and second century died violent deaths with such joy that it was inexplicable to the world. This witness was so dramatic that it became a major factor in the conversion of the brainy Justin Martyr (whose given last name gives some clue as to the fate he himself would later ‘suffer’). People were legitimately asking, “If you like death and martyrdom so much, why don’t you actively seek it out, or commit suicide?” Ignatius, on his way to his own martyrdom, wrote that it is something that must be borne, but not sought. As a warning, he tells the story of another Christian who volunteered for martyrdom, but apostatized at the moment of truth. He denied Christ; he chickened out. So we should not seek martyrdom, neither in the lions' den nor in the bedroom.

So the question remains. How do we pick our partners? Well, how does Christ pick the Church? It seems arbitrary, following no pattern that we can understand. We, the Church, certainly aren’t intrinsically beautiful; we have nothing to offer, neither dowry nor wealth. Contrary to all reason, Jesus chooses us nonetheless. What does that sound like? Could that be anything but romance?

Surely all of our desires can honor God when used properly, even (perhaps especially) romance. Romantic feelings seem to follow no rules, pairing up people that really have no rational business with each other. In a culture without arranged marriages, I think this is as good a pairing rule as any. The important part is not who you pick, but how willing you are to sacrifice for the person you’ve picked.

Sacrificial love completely transforms relationship. It’s no longer about maximizing your own benefit, but your own sacrifice to your partner. If this is love, it does not need to be bi-directional; one partner can always give and never receive, and still have love. But of course, the most loving relationship is one where both parties are sacrificing completely to each other. How often would we cheat on each other if our eyes were perpetually fixed on sacrifice instead of pleasure? How many arguments would be averted? How many tears of sadness prevented? How many more tears of joy would we shed? How happy we would be if we stopped obsessing so much about pleasure, and thought more about love, that is, about sacrifice!

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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