2021 has been an exciting year for me!
Last summer, for a variety of reasons, was not fun for me. One was the intense stress of having to submit my Masters Dissertation at the end of August, but … Continue reading Being Thankful in 2020
That time I learned a positive life lesson from counselling
Memories are important to helping me understand what Gods Kingdom will be like.
So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.
In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.
But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw
For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.
Gods work – Invisible String
So how is all of that relevant to the title?
I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.
Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?
Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.
That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.
This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.
The Flaw in Looking Back
But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.
Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.
And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.
The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.
This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.
Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.
So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.
Forgiveness is one of those things we are taught from a very young age. When you play with friends or siblings and you accidentally hurt one another, you are told to forgive instead of hitting back. If you grew up Christian like me, then you will have heard about forgiveness much more often as God forgave our sins through the death of his son Jesus.
But when you’re an adult, this becomes a lot more complicated. As you get older, feelings become more complex and people’s wrongs have more ways to hurt you. The damage caused is not fleeting and can last for years if not decades if harmful enough. This post is about the complicated nature of forgiveness from both sides of the story. As someone who has been hurt and has hurt others I am developing a far more nuanced, if not necessarily more comfortable perspective.
Being wronged by someone else hurts a lot, and it can hurt in a lot of different ways; physically, financially, but for the sake of this blog we will focus on emotionally. Being hurt can trigger a wide variety of emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, feelings of betrayal, fear, etc. You can feel like all of these emotions are being felt simultaneously, swirling around and cascading down on top of you. But one question you will need to answer for yourself is ‘can I forgive this person for what they have done?’
Forgive us as we forgive
The Lords prayer is a prayer delivered by Jesus, and is perhaps the most famous prayer ever uttered. For centuries Christians have used this prayer as a model for the perfect prayer. In a sense it is the distilled elements of any prayer that might be given, whether standing in front of a congregation, or alone on your knees at the foot of your bed. But for our purposes, we need only look at one part. In this line, Jesus does a very important thing; he ties our ability to forgive to God:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12, NIV).
Lets be unambiguous here; you will not always be the victim. As a human being, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will be on the other side of this equation at some point, and depending on your beliefs or creed you may approach God for forgiveness. Jesus understood this, and therefore chose to make sure that we understood that our ability to be forgiven is based on whether we can forgive others. Later in Matthew Jesus tells us ““Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matt 7:1). When we have the power to forgive and choose not to, we are making a moral judgement, that this persons crime is not worthy of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that we also have to ask for forgiveness sometimes, and that if we are not a forgiving person, we cannot expect God to be for us.
The Cost of Forgiveness
I love the phrasing of the NIV version of the Lords prayer for the passage we used. Rather than other versions that might translate to sins, this translation uses the word debts to refer to our wrongs.
We live in a world that bases itself on economic value, personal worth, compensation and debt. I’m sure you will have seen adverts on the telly offering short-term loans, and then in the small print collect huge rates of interest. We grow up learning to pay others back for what we owe them, and thats not a bad thing. Its a good practice to get into and also saves you from being a drain on your friends.
Being wronged is like someone incurring a debt to you. You expect to be paid back, or in some ways to collect on that debt. Lets say someone hits you in the face – you want to punch them right back, right? Or when you were younger and one of your siblings broke one of your toys, you want to break one back to make things fair. When someone insults you or hurts you emotionally you want to lash back, calling them names and saying the things you know will hurt them most.
It all goes back to our concept of repayment and fairness. The fact this person wronged you was unfair, and that must be made right somehow. But that is not how the gospel works and its not how Jesus operated. When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus told him seventy times seven times. This number is not to be taken literally, but as a symbolic gesture; numbers in the Bible often represent different things, and the number seven represents completion. So Jesus is telling Peter that forgiveness must be complete every time, and also an unlimited number of times.
To forgive is to wipe away the debt owed. The slate is wiped clean, no additional payment can be collected. And I’m not going to sugarcoat this; that’s really hard. Its painful. It costs you to do it because it means you have to let go of that righteous rage that you feel when you confront that person. And its so natural to find it difficult because its the opposite way to every instinct of every person who has ever lived. Except one.
So why is this spiritual debt relief important? It all comes down to power.
Every relationship you have involves a power exchange. Power is unevenly distributed between people based on any number of things; money, athletic ability, looks, popularity, expertise, age, gender, race, you name it. If its a thing, power can be exchanged. As we have discussed, forgiveness is a way of wiping away the power you have over your wrongdoer, but it also has a positive effect for you also.
Proverbs 29:11 reads Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end” (NIV). Acting on your impulses for revenge may feel good initially, but only bring more anger in the future. Sometimes it can explode out in unexpected directions, hurting others not involved in the original wrong. But letting go of the anger and the power you have also means that that person no longer has power over you. Holding a grudge means that that wrong is taking up valuable space in your head when it could be used for something far more beautiful than anger and hate.
You can free yourself from that by forgiving. Wiping away a debt owed involves you taking on an enormous cost on yourself initially, but eventually you will be better off for it, having achieved a spiritual peace.
So that’s the perspective from the position of being wronged. These thoughts are not new thoughts, as I have been ok with this for a long time. What follows however are thoughts from the other perspective, and they are thoughts that I am far less comfortable with, but I feel they are the right thing.
Welcome to the other side. If you haven’t already, you will probably end up on this side of the equation at some point in your life. You may also be seeking to repair the damage done, or at least considering it. Hopefully this letter will help you understand some stuff a bit better, but fair warning, it may not make you feel better about it.
You have to ask
Seeking forgiveness is the most important step you can take. You must show remorse for what you have done, be truly sorry for the hurt you have caused. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Ron and Hermione discuss Voldemort’s horcruxes, enchanted objects that contain parts of Voldemorts soul that he created by ripping his soul apart in acts of extreme evil. Ron asks Hermione if someone with horcruxes could put themselves back together. Hermione says the only known way is remorse, truly feeling what you have done, but that its extremely painful and that the pain of it can destroy you.
You have to be willing to put yourself in a position to be hurt (we will come back to this later). This involves removing your own pride from the equation. The temptation may be to try to defend yourself at the same time as apologising, issuing a sort of non-apology that allows you to emerge with your ego in tact. Politicians and social media figures do this all the time, “Im sorry that your feelings were hurt” being a very popular way of subtly shifting the blame to the victim for supposedly allowing your words or actions to hurt them.
The Bible uses the word repent to talk about sin a lot. Its an old-fashioned word but is useful in this context because it means a complete change in direction, a full 180 degree turn. For you to be forgiven requires an acknowledgement that you need to change. You must work on the things that cause others pain, otherwise the same things will happen over and over again.
All of this takes a lot of work on your part and assumes you are committed to showing remorse and rebuilding what once was broken by you. But perhaps the most difficult part of all of this is that things may never be the same again.
Forgiveness is not Forgetting
I write this letter because I have been in the same boat as you. In the summer of 2018 I reacted badly to a situation which in hindsight was so stupid and small, but at the time really overtook me. And that was all it took. Although things carried on as normal for a fair while after that, eventually it was one of the things that sort of ended the friendship as it was before the incident. At the time we had discussed it and I foolishly thought it was behind us, but their opinion of me had been changed once they had experienced that side of me.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about it over the past months, and I have had to come to a conclusion about being forgiven. If you’ve read the last post on this blog, then you’ll know my opinions on needing to forgive people. I think its a very healthy thing for the wronged person to do and also removes any need for further hurt in the future. However, I must make it clear here that sometimes forgiveness is seen by Christians as a sort of get out of jail free card when we hurt each other. The Bible commands us to forgive, so we then force it upon others. But forgiveness cannot and should not be a forced thing, and to do so can lead to more damage and worse consequences.
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to accuse Doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Nassar was the doctor for the USA Olympics Gymnastics team, and has been sentenced to between 40-175 years in prison after sexually abusing 140 women. However, Denhollander has more recently become critical of some attitudes held by churches (Denhollander is an Evangelical) that leads to them not doing due diligence to victims of sexual abuse, particularly within the churches themselves. Doing a twitter seach using the #churchtoo and the word ‘forgive’ brings up a number of stories where a victim of sexual abuse was told to forgive their perpetrator because thats what jesus would do, and the perpetrator faces no consequences.
Now this is quite an extreme example, but does get to the heart of what I want to say to you. Just because we are told to forgive, you cannot expect the person to forgive you for whatever youve done. If you said sorry and then they didn’t accept it then, you do not get to turn around and complain that they are not doing what Jesus commanded! People are complicated! Hurts can really damage us badly, sometimes destroying parts of ourselves like our ability to trust others. You are in the wrong, so you do not get to determine whether your’e worthy of their forgiveness.
But lets say that the person does forgive you or has forgiven you. What then? I think we all want things to return to how they were before we our partner/friend/colleague/stranger. we think we should act like the hurt never happened. And again, thats easy for you to say, but for the other person, that may not be possible. My actions caused my friend to look at me differently, and the damage could not be undone. It would be unfair of me to expect them to carry on as if nothing happened because that would mean I would have suffered no consequence. And thats also the thing, because the Bible does not guarantee freedom from consequence. Even where forgiveness is possible, you are not owed a continued normality afterwards. If a friendship had to end, or a relationship, then you have to accept that. It was your fault in the first place.
I’m sorry if that’s a really harsh reality. I know its tough. But sometimes the best thing you can do is to ask for forgiveness and give the other person space to heal. It may take hours, days, weeks, months, years or even never happen, but you need to let them process what you did in their own time.
So those are my thoughts on forgiveness. What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below!
The crowd watched as the three men were hoisted high above them, silhouetted against a dark sky. The men’s soft moans were barely audible over the sound of jeers and insults, punctuated by a few sobs from the back of the crowd. Further away, a group of men in robes stood watching, grim satisfaction on their faces, pleased with a job well done. That was at least, until a young man in Roman armour propped a ladder against the cross in the centre, climbed it and nailed a board above the head lacerated by a crown of thorns. The satisfaction on their faces slowly turned to rage as they read the white inscription daubed on in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS. As the Roman official overseeing the execution walked past, his work done, the priests shouted at him “why have you done this?”, to which the man responded “on the orders of Governor Pilate”.
Why write this? what was so incendiary about this inscription? Well, it gave the man on the cross the title prophesied that he would hold, but that the priests denied was his. Jesus Christ, descendant of the royal line all the way back to King David himself, the Son of God, was that day proclaimed king.
But what a strange King he was, for there was never one like him before or since. Nothing about this man would ever have struck anybody as Kingly. Born literally in the straw, from a mother who would have been considered a bit of a wrong’un (pregnant and unmarried), growing up in a less than desirable part of the neighbourhood, who was a carpenter until the age of thirty, decided one day to quit that job and become a travelling preacher! People who knew him must have thought he’d lost his mind!
Once this campaign started, he starts preaching his manifesto for his Kingdom. But it’s not a manifesto like we’ve ever heard of; it’s one where the meek will inherit the earth, that tells you to love your enemies, give to the poor as help the sick. He surrounds himself with the most motley assortment of people, the weirdos, the outcasts, the money-lenders, scabs, hookers and diseased. His own closest followers are uneducated country bumpkins from the middle of nowhere, not the generals, priests and the wealthy diners one normally needs for a revolution! Even worse, he shuns those people in favour of the outcasts! And he touches them! Rather than remaining aloof, away from the unwashed rabble, he rolls up his sleeves and gets on in there, with no fear for his personal health! He touches the blind, the lame, the mentally ill, the lepers and even the dead! He gives out food, washes feet and hugs those who need them. He acts with compassion, not judgement, never turning anyone away who might accept his help! In this way, he became a revolutionary, a man at the vanguard of a new way of life, one that chose to value all people, not just those with power and influence. Anyone could join his movement, regardless of status.
But all revolutionaries run afoul of the authorities eventually, especially when his own people turn on him. They come for him in the night. They put on a show trial with a predetermined outcome. Even when the Roman governor can’t find fault, the frenzy of the crowd cowes him. He releases Barabbas instead, a violent militant on the removal of Roman power. And the self-proclaimed king? Is nailed to some wood and left to die on a hill, his friends, family and followers left to watch as he agonisingly dies.
The Act of Dying
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about death. In history it’s unavoidable. Everyone dies, including Kings and revolutionaries, and they range from the heroic to the cowardly, from the mundane to the ridiculous. But this death is the strangest, and I’ve only just realised why.
One point is that Jesus’ death is kind of pathetic from a human point of view. If you were a King, you may want to die in battle, having cut down a dozen men in a heroic last stand that echoes down through the ages. If you are a revolutionary, perhaps you want the same, maybe after delivering a heroic braveheart-esque “FREEDOM” that ignites rebellion in the populace and that leads your face being plastered on t-shirts and the walls of teenage idealists. But Jesus dies without shouting, not ordering his followers or cursing his enemies. No heroic battle-cry, just suffocating slowly, hanging from a cross. Not exactly epic, is it?
Were the Bible pure propaganda, then you would expect something different. Perhaps a defiant Jesus, killing several people before being overpowered. A Jesus who at his trial delivered a speech so rousing that it rallies people to the cause, causing a revolt and the overthrow of the Roman autocracy. But the Bible doesn’t do these things. It chooses to tell us how the son of God died in public view, slowly suffocating as the pain in his hands and feet grew too unbearable to support his weight to breathe. It chooses to tell us of his cry out to God “My God, my God, hey have you forsaken me!”. It chooses to say he forgave rather than cursed. All this, because that’s what the revolution was about. Love, forgiveness and honesty.
But there is another, far more crucial thing at play here. You see, Kings are kings and revolutionaries are revolutionaries because they are the leaders. They are the names on the banners, the faces on the leaflets, the statues in the town squares. Their image and prestige are everything to their people. They are indispensable. But that means the people, their subjects, are in some way disposable.
Rarely does a King fight on the frontline. They send people to fight for them, choosing instead to sit on their horse overlooking and perhaps directing proceedings. The members of our armed forces swear allegiance to the King or Queen of the day. The President if the United States is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And the same is true for all leaders throughout history; they all require grunts to do their bidding for them, and in many cases die for them. For millennia men have marched to war for the cause of their ruler, who does not put himself in harms way, except if he may achieve some glory. And when they are in danger, it doesn’t really matter how many of their people might die for them. When the wolves are at the door, the royals and people of power are often last to die, staying safe behind their walls as the ordinary ones are beaten and killed.
And that’s the distinction between them and the King Jesus. Because Kings don’t die for their people – their people die for them. Thousands, perhaps millions of men may lay down their lives in blood-soaked battlefields for their monarch or leader. But in this case this King, a King who could have wielded power beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, chose to die for his people, and not have his people die for him. His death didn’t come at the end of a long war, with thousands already perishing for his cause. He saw the danger, the threat of sin and death to his people, to all people, and chose to face it himself.
But also unlike other Kings or revolutionaries who die, Jesus is alive now. When these other Kings die, no matter how much wealth they may have had, will end up just like the rest of us plebs, rotting in the ground as worm food. But this man Jesus through his death conquered sin and the power of death itself, and by so doing broke the chains of the rest of us. This King chose to die for you. But his death means new life for us. No other leader would do that for you. So, maybe question your allegiances, because the King who died for you offers something far greater than anything in this world.
You’ve probably all been there: the tingling sensation down the back of your spine as all the hair stands on end; the way you catch your breath when they walk in the room; the way the smell of their perfume catches your nostrils and makes yous stomach flip; the feeling of rising heat as they look at you and perhaps even smile. Then, if you’re lucky, so many more experiences come after, like the first time you hold hands, the first date, the first kiss. The strange, dreamlike quality the world takes on when you’re with them, like you’re in a real-life Disney romance. The feeling like they are the only person in the world who could understand you, that you would do anything for them, and indeed that they are your everything.
You’ve also probably been there when you lie awake in bed, mind running top speed, unable to get the thought of them out of your head. The time at work or in the car or shop you suddenly felt like you were going to breakdown. The panic as you send that message, and the melancholy when no reply comes. The constant feeling of being on edge around them, like every movement of yours will be dissected for weaknesses and flaws. The elation and panic when they arrive and the crushing emptiness when they leave. The days sat in the corner of parties, numb to the fun you could be having with your friends, or the nights spent staring at nothing, waves of self-loathing crashing down on you.
If you’re here, you’re probably a love addict. Not like a sex addiction, but an addiction to romance, to needing someone to complete you. If this is true, then welcome friend, because if this is a war then I am a seasoned veteran. And I’m here to tell you whats wrong, and maybe how you can fix it.
Love in the modern world
If you’re like me, it’s likely that the importance of having a romantic partner has not escaped you. Love comes in all shapes and sizes, whether its friendships, family relationships or others, but so much of the emphasis now is on the supreme importance of having a partner. But not just having a partner, having the partner. The cultural idea of ‘the one’, that single person who you were destined to end up with has become a central part of romantic relationships. So much of the media we consume reinforces these ideas, that to be truly happy you have to be with someone. I love this stuff, from the music of Taylor Swift, to crying at a good rom-com (Sleepless in Seattle or the Holiday are personal faves). Its in-built almost, part of our cultural DNA to love these things.
I feel like growing up in a religious community adds an extra dimension to this, because of the importance placed upon marriage and its perceived value. From quite an early age, children brought up in religious circles are told about marriage; when you hit your teenage years, speakers feel the need to address certain feelings that young people have that can only be expressed once married. This in part contributes to a much lower average age for getting married in religious communities compared to outside those communities. But it goes beyond that sexual element. I can speak from first-hand experience just how excited people in church get when a new relationship begins and almost immediately gossip starts about marriage and children. Some of us engage in it jokingly, others not. And its not just cultural thing because some stuff does come from the bible. the idea that man and woman become one flesh once married implies that two people become whole once bonded together.
All of these things put love and finding it on a pedestal equivalent to God. This may not be the same for everyone, as others may choose to put money and success first, and not unfairly, people may see that as being kind of cold. Because love is fantastic! When you’re in love with someone you feel so amazing because you have somebody who loves you back, who you can share secrets with and who you bond yourself with closer than anyone else. However, I do think this poses a problem for some of us, including myself.
What Are Idols?
When Paul and the first Apostles began preaching the gospel, they were doing so in a world that believed in pantheons of gods. In Acts 17 Paul arrives in Athens, the cultural capital of the ancient world, he is greatly distressed at their worshipping of idols (17:16). The idols of the ancient world were personifications of concepts, an image put to an idea so that the people could pray to that god for help with a particular thing. If you were going on a sea voyage for example, you might pray to Poseidon to keep you safe. In the modern day, we do not worship at temples but we still ‘worship’ things. We are human, its instinctive to search for meaning, something to build our lives around, your focus so to speak. The one thing that if you got it, would make you complete and whole.
Now some of these are easier to spot. Money, wealth and status are the obvious ones in a world of gold leaf on food, million dollar hyper-cars and social media influencers. But the idols of others are always much easier to identify than your own, and as Jesus once said “…first, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brothers eye” (Matt 7:5). So this post is about mine, which is love.
Idolatry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it takes things that are good or fine for us in small amounts and puts them at the centre of our lives, giving these things an unhealthy prominence. Its a toxic relationship because whatever it is become so all-consuming you end up believing that its the only thing that will make you happy and you will therefore do anything to achieve it. You lose all perspective on the thing you worship.
In the wilderness, the Israelites often complained to Moses that God wasn’t giving them enough of what they wanted. In one particular passage, the people are complaining that they only have manna (Heavenly bread sent overnight by God) to eat. So God tells them that he will send quail to the camp, but that You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?” ’ (Numbers 11:19-20).
Eat until it comes out of your nostrils. how descriptive of idolatry is that? Wanting something so much, that you take so much of it to the point its actually bursting out of you and that you end up hating it. This can be us with a lot of things; some people become addicted to alcohol, tobacco, drugs or gambling, and they can get treatment for those. But you who worship at loves altar are also addicts of a sort, with love being the heroin that fills your veins.
How best to describe love worship? Perhaps the best example I can think of is when you have a really intense crush on someone. From personal experience, its usually on people who I do not know that well. That element of mystery is exciting, but it also allows you to fill in the gaps, building them into the perfect person for you, or our cultures idea of a soulmate. However, a crush is only based on your perception of that person, and not the actual person themselves; they are just as complicated and messy as you are, but you have made them into something they’re not.
In relationships, whether with family, friends or romantic partners, we have to be careful we don’t turn our into idols. We put so much expectation on them, make them so much of our daily focus, our reason for being that we lose sight of them and their needs. If you do this, it is inevitable they will collapse under the weight of your expectation. They become like the titan Atlas in Greek mythology, cursed to hold up the world upon his shoulders for eternity. No one could stand up to that burden. But we can place people under that weight if we don’t force ourselves to keep them in perspective. This leads to breakdowns in relationships as you destroy those around you, not out of malice, but out of a desire to make them the centre of your world. It may also lead people to stay in toxic or even abusive relationships when they should really leave, because they have been lead to believe that they have no value outside of the relationship they are trapped in and would not be wanted by anyone else.
And when relationships end? Those who have a healthy perspective on their relationships will be sad, and be hurting, but will ultimately be able to move on. But if the person you loved was at the centre, your reason for being alive? their absence can rip a hole in your life so vast you’re unsure whether it can be filled again. You could become so depressed you can’t leave your house, or so angry you end up seeking to hurt the other person, just to give them an idea of how much they’ve hurt you. Either way, these are not healthy ways to live.
So whats to be done? How do we move on from this? Well, I can speak from personal experience.
For the longest time, I really wanted to find love. I used to think about it all the time, hoping that one day I would find someone, the one person I’d want to spend my life with. Throughout my teen years and early twenties, I had many different crushes, but never acted on them really. I found it too intimidating! I thought that whichever girl it was was so great and I was so unworthy that they’d never talk to me. I was so worried about their approval, rejection would have been too soul-destroying. Looking back now, I realise that I always went for the wrong type of person as well. If a relationship had begun, it would have ended because we would have been too incompatible for it to have worked.
I’ve come to realise that I was just not capable of relationships in that time. My priorities would have been all skewed and I would not have been able to have a functional relationship with an actual person, just the god I made them into. To some extent, I think that still may be true. But I am working to change myself with help, to try and make this less central to my life. I need to be happy with just me first.
But, with all of these idols, there are put at the centre in place of something else. We all seek a meaning and focus, but we have chosen to replace God with something else, and that definitely includes people like me who put love at the centre. God can take the weight of that burden of love from us, that weight of expectation, where our loved ones would be crushed by it. We are told in Luke 12 to 33 Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Whilst this refers to money and gold, it could easily be applied to love. All relationships end, either through breakups or death, and the love in them could have withered away long before then. But God’s love is so vast and everlasting, you will never lose it once you have it. All you need to do is accept it.
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. – Matthew 22:36-38
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