Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

Love: Feeling or Choice?

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This blog is about ideas and the idea that ideas matter.  I believe the ideas people have can dramatically influence the direction of their lives.  Our choices, based in our ideas, could actually help shape reality in a ways not previously understood.

The view that seems popular today makes people simply products of the universe.  We emphasize the role of genetics and the influence of environmental factors in shaping what a person is, which is an idea that is certainly not without merit.  We bear a close resemblance to our parents for a reason and had no choice in determining that.  There’s also a good explanation of why I am writing this in English rather than Chinese. 

Obviously we have a given nature and are influenced by the nurture we received, which could lead to a ‘it is what it is’ fatalistic view that we have no choice or free will and ability to determine the future.  But could there be more than that?  Is it possible that the universe is only an influence and not a dictator of our consciousness?  Could it be that our own consciousness acts as a co-creator of the future universe?

Advances in physics have opened a whole new realm of possibilities.  The wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics is a paradox that suggests there is a bigger picture of the universe and one that could put our own consciousness in a far more important role than previously understood.  If our observation actually shapes reality at a quantum level (collapsing the wave function) then the future may not actually be determined outside of our own mind and will as is a common assumption.

If the future is not a destiny and is in fact something we co-create, then that could change many things including our ideas on love, which leads to the question…

Is love an existent feeling or a willful choice?

Both religious and secular people have seemed to have embraced a fatalistic view of love.  We could be scientific and point to natural explanations like pheromones, cultural expectations, chance opportunity, etc.  It is basically to conclude that love is something pressed out of a myriad of factors that all combine at the right time—which is a view that makes love seem sort of like sausage.  The religious, on the other hand, may turn to a meant-to-be (or God-did-it) rational to explain love and downplay choice.

Our culture, religious or otherwise, tends to emphasize the feelings of attraction above all else.  Love is something we are told we should ‘fall’ into and that there is a ‘right’ person out there for everyone. The idea is that attraction produces a feeling that produces a choice that produces commitment and ends with happily ever after. 

Unfortunately, I believe this is a view of love that has produced a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment in our day. It doesn’t work for many people. For some the problem is that they never find someone who produces that feeling of attraction enough to make them commit and they remain single or go from one relationship to the next in search of it.  The problem for others is that they marry based in superficial feelings, eventually those feelings fade away and they want out of the commitment. 

In both cases (above) the idea of love centers around feelings of attraction and presents love as a product of circumstances outside of our own control.

But what if there is an alternative view? What if we flip the order of things and put commitment first? Or, rather than love being a fate produced by an initial attraction that eventually ends in commitment and happily ever after, could love be a commitment to love that lead to a continual choice that produces a deepening relationship that produces a feeling of love and marital bliss? 

It is my view that love is less of an ‘it is what it is’ fate and more an ‘it is what we make it’ choice.  I believe the idea of love as a choice would produce healthier more sustainable relationships than the current popular view.  We believe we would see a reversal in trends towards non-commitment if we stopped waiting for the ‘right’ feeling to come and started to be more actively loving to others even when the feelings do not exist.

What is the (proper) Christian view of love?

In the American church there is a heavy emphasis on experience and emotion in worship.  We want music, we want excitement and entertainment, because the more feeling we have in the moment the more we love God, right? 

Wrong.

Christian faith is not supposed to be primarily about feelings or ‘spiritual’ experience.  Christian faith should be about obedience to the Spirit of love and that is the true evidence of faith according to Jesus:

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Many Christians have confused positive emotions for spiritual depth.  A person who proclaims the loudest how great God is and puts on the biggest public display of praise is not necessarily the one who loves God the most.  The Gospel presents a different view of love that doesn’t resonate as well with our feelings based culture.  Jesus says, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15) and equates love with obedience.  

To obey Jesus means to love others as we wish to be loved (Luke 6:31) and to love perfectly like God does:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

If Christian love were a feeling and emotion how would it be possible to love our enemies?  Enemies are, by common definition, the people we do not love because they have in some way offended us or they are out to destroy us.  But, perfect love is not a feeling.  Perfect love is a choice to obey and love in action even when the feelings aren’t there.  Perfect love is a choice rather than a feeling, perfect love is the kind that sacrifices our own selfish ambitions for the good of others, and without that kind of love we are not actually true disciples of Jesus:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”  (1 John 4:7-21)

Christian love is preemptive.  Christian love follows the example of Jesus who loved us BEFORE we loved him.  True love is not based in initial attraction nor does it wait in fear of not being reciprocated.  True love steps out in faith.  Perfect love is not a pursuit of an immediate feeling or instant gratification. 

Love is a choice to invest in the good of another person even when we do not feel like they are worth our investment.  Love means a choice to obey and the choice to obey is a choice to follow the example of Jesus.

So, if love is a choice, then feelings do not matter?

No, not exactly.  I do believe feelings do matter.  But, a love based primarily in initial superficial attraction is a shallow love and deep love is only possible with deep (and self-sacrificial) commitment.  Deeper love is a continual choice to love more than a fleeting feeling of love.  For that reason we should be emphasizing the choice to love over the feeling of love and not the other way around.

This is not to say that those who started with a feeling of superficial attraction never develop depth of relationship—some do and some do not.  But I will say that love that is a choice and a commitment in faith is starting at a deeper level.  The better love is not a feeling.  The better love is a choice to put aside fear (or hate) and invest in the betterment of another person.  It is a love that is based in faith rather than feeling.

If love is a matter of will rather than a determined or predestined fate, then when a person says that they cannot love a person what they are really saying is that they unwilling to love that person.  The feelings can never develop in a person who is not willing to step out in faith.  Therefore, if you want to find love, be willing to bring love into the world and give it away in faith.

Love first.  Plant seeds of love in the world.  Do not wait on feelings to arrive before investing in the good of others.  Do not expect the Spirit of God to come to you (or the world) unless you live in obedience to the command to follow Jesus and love self-sacrificially by his example.  Love before you expect love to arrive.  Yes, this is absolutely a paradox, a causality dilemma, but that is the nature of our reality in a quantum universe.

Do not be resigned to an idea that we are haplessly tossed about without a will of our own.  Instead, consider the last lines of Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”  Choose to love supernaturally.  Be a co-creator of a higher and deeper love rather than a mere consumer of the feelings produced by base human nature.

Finding your motivation…

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I’ve been listening to a motivational video since a friend posted a link to it.  It is advice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who rose to prominence through body building, with an unlikely accent began a career as an actor and then later was elected governor of California.

What he said resonates with me.  I know enough of his story to appreciate the ethic of hard work, confidence, need to overcome fear of failure, to break rules, to ignore naysayers and pursue visions.  We limit ourselves.  The truth is that I limit myself and it is because I doubt my chances for success.

Had Schwarzenegger thought like I do sometimes could he have accomplished what he has? 

No, probably not…

I am a driven and determined guy.  I dream of the impossible.  I hope for the impossible and I believe the impossible is possible by the grace of God.  For some faith is an excuse for them to sit on their hands and do nothing.  But for me faith means full investment in the visions that God has put on my heart.  There can be no compromise with those who tempt you to quit.

I have encountered the naysayers, they are many, and they will try to turn you from what is best.  For your good, they claim, you should settle for less and seek the compromise.  They will recount their own failure as reason, cite facts and present logics, but do not let their faithless words take away your courage.  Fight for what is right and good because you trust that God is right and good and is on the side of those who pursue righteousness and goodness.  Do not listen to the naysayers.

I have my own anxieties.  I too often have made excuses for myself and can too easily withhold my best effort with a fatalistic attitude.  Yet, when we do not put forward our best efforts because of fear, can we blame anyone other than ourselves for our own failure?  It is a lie to blame God or fate for our own failure unless we have truly invested our all.  Those who have done their part and still come up short have still won.

Another thing I have done too often is view failure as defeat.  Failure should instead be viewed as a learning experience.  As the saying goes: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  If you give up at the first sign of trouble or after facing some tough opposition, then the goal must not be all that important to you.  To stay focused on the prize, despite the pain, the scars and torments of past failure, that is victory.

I am not afraid to think outside the box.  Sometimes success requires being alone and setting the trend yourself rather than wait on others.  Yes, I would rather the comforts and company of the group, but when the group is limiting God’s purpose for them or encouraging complacency, then one must lead.  A true leader does not wait to be sure others are following, they do not pay attention to rules that come between them and doing what God has for them.

Now, there are components I believe are missing from Schwarzenegger’s perspective, namely God’s providence and grace, nevertheless there is much true in his advice.  Those who have faith can overcome pain, failure, naysayers, fear, worldly rules and be willing to work their butts off for what they believe.

So find your motivation, do not be content to live mediocre and safe, go out and change the world with the fullness of your God given abilities.  To do less than your best, less than you are able to do, that is failure and faithlessness.