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