Brain research suggests that romantic attachment — infatuation — is more powerful than the sex drive. Neurologically speaking, it’s easier to say no to physical sexual passion than it is to regulate the rush of emotional infatuation.
Think about that. Consider all the sermons you’ve heard as a single about reining in the sex drive, developing skills to say “stop” in the heat of passion, not letting yourself get into intense situations, and yet, neurologically, it’s more difficult to deny powerful emotions than it is to regulate sexual passion.
Have you ever heard a sermon or read a blog about emotional self-control?
Foundation of Friendship
We can’t always choose who we get infatuated with; sometimes, infatuation just happens. But we can choose what to do with that infatuation. We can choose to slavishly follow it, laugh at it or learn to manage it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did a miserable job of this as a single, so I can’t use myself as an example. Fortunately, we have a much more reliable source to turn to: Jesus. While Jesus never dated, He did have friends. And His friendships reveal the nature of His relationships in such a way that we can imagine how He would date.
For instance, Jesus built rich relationships with Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11). When Lazarus grew very sick, the sisters sent word to Jesus to hurry back; Lazarus was close to death. Yet Jesus purposefully delayed His visit until after Lazarus died.
It looked really bad on the surface. An uncharitable view might have been that Jesus was afraid of the Jews in Bethany who had tried to kill Jesus on His last visit, or that He was simply indifferent. The accusations these sisters greeted Jesus with demonstrated their distrust. As God, Jesus knew His friends would feel betrayed. Even so, He held back from doing what they wanted Him to do. His friendship was based on something superior to what His friends would think.
Is your friendship great enough to put your loved one’s good above your loved one’s opinion of you? That’s a difficult place to get to, but it’s the only foundation for mature love. You have to become the kind of person who does what’s best even if the person you love doesn’t think you’re acting with the proper motive or concern.
A writer from the previous century, R. Somerset Ward, suggests in his book To Jerusalem that such “unselfishness is only possible by means of discipline, of warfare with selfish desires. The highest bond of friendship is forged in the fire of discipline, and it is true to experience to say that the greater the cost of the forging, the greater will be the friendship.”
Most people think the highest bond of friendship is the fire of emotion and affection. What makes someone a friend in the modern mind is that we like him or feel fondly toward him. Ward suggests, and Jesus models, that the highest bond of friendship is personal discipline — the higher the cost and sacrifice, the truer the friendship. Love is doing what’s best for someone, even if what’s best is confusing or resented. To get to this place, we have to “declare spiritual war” against our selfishness.
Romance is built on dramatic displays of lavish affection, but such displays can be evidence of an undisciplined heart. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to limit your displays (or expressions) of affection by submitting to God’s greater good for this person. Ward puts it this way: “A voluntary limitation of demonstration [and] a consideration of their highest good are marks of a great love.”
Jesus could have immediately traveled to Lazarus and healed him, and never given Mary or Martha an opportunity to question His love, or He could have allowed Lazarus to die, allowed Mary and Martha to go through a natural questioning of His love and commitment, and thereby teach them a valuable spiritual lesson. Jesus chose the spiritual lesson and waited until Lazarus died.
It goes a little deeper than this, however. Jesus told His disciples that it was God’s will for Him to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus couldn’t do that unless He first let Lazarus die. Jesus lived first for the glory of God, above every human friendship, and that made Him the truest friend anyone could ever have.
Notice also how deliberately Jesus acts in friendship. Let me ask you a tough question: When you see a friendship or romance just beginning to bloom, are you deliberate or impatient? Do you seek God’s face before you “explore” your feelings and discuss them? If your feelings are contrary to God’s will, they are, at that moment, irrelevant, if indeed Jesus is your God and not just your “friend.”
Many couples tend to be undisciplined and hasty in declaring their affection. They blurt out their feelings before seriously even knowing the other person. And then they tend to be very self-centered, wanting the other person to respond in kind and begin meeting their romantic fantasies with equal desperation.
Jesus does the exact opposite. Let’s listen to Ward again:
The mistakes in our human friendships are usually due to the fact that we give too generously what is useless to our friend [easy displays of affection], and are too [stingy] in giving the more costly gifts, which are essential to his welfare [reining in our feelings until we know we can back them up].… At the back of all appearances lies the truth that the measure of love is its costliness. To analyze one’s feelings is the worst way of arriving at a measure of friendship; to count its cost is the best way.
To analyze one’s feelings is the worst way of arriving at a measure of friendship; to count its cost is the best way. And yet isn’t that what many of us do, spend endless hours trying to figure out what we’re really feeling? Jesus lived and taught that friendship and love are marked by sacrifice: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Feeling romantically inclined toward someone, but not mentioning it because you know doing so would be premature and unwise, is one of the most loving and difficult things you will ever be asked to do. It is difficult to feel so strongly and not talk about it with the one you’re infatuated with. And it is so delicious to hear that the feelings are returned. But giving free rein to such emotion and conversation is the opposite of love; it is selfish. It threatens that person’s emotional and spiritual health. It shows a lack of concern, a lack of care, a total lack of the willingness to sacrifice on which true love is based.
Displays of public affection, verbal commitments that are born out of sheer emotion, and false promises based on temporary emotions are the “useless” gifts that Ward says we can be so generous with. But then we’re too stingy with the costly gifts essential for the other person’s well-being: We don’t consider their welfare before we pronounce our commitment or affection; we don’t consider whether our displays of affection will be healthy for them or cause possible confusion and later hurt. Are you learning to deny your selfish desires and put the other person’s spiritual welfare ahead of your own emotional and physical lusts?
How do you truly know whether you are committed to this person and that you truly love him or her? Here’s how you know: Your love is directly proportional to your willingness to act unselfishly, to even let the person think less of you, if in doing so you are serving their spiritual advancement. If you would rather not declare your love because you want to make sure the relationship is wise, that’s counting the cost. That’s love. If you would rather know whether your feelings are returned before you even know whether the relationship would honor God, that’s selfishness. Analyzing your feelings is a waste of time. Analyze instead the fruit of love, your willingness to sacrifice, your commitment to the other person’s welfare.
That’s what Jesus did with Mary and Martha. Ward continues:
In our Lord’s mind we can see that the spiritual welfare of the household at Bethany was the first consideration. The wait of two days was doubtless to enable them to understand more fully their loss, and to draw out more completely their faith. The tie which bound our Lord to them was knit most closely with their souls. If we would be true friends, giving ourselves to those we love, we must put the spiritual before the material in our relationship with them. Marriage or friendship, which is not based on some mutual spiritual outlook and ideal, can never reach perfection.
A God-honoring friendship is one of the best realities of life. A friendship that might also lead to marriage is even more exciting, which is all the more reason we should guard it and make sure it is built on a solid foundation.
The spirit in which we enter on a friendship, determines its growth. Too often we enter lightly and without thought into friendship, but if we consider it as a part of spiritual life, we shall be saved from this disaster. In such a case we shall approach it as a serious matter, striving to discipline it rightly from the start, prepared to give our best to it, however costly it may be… If we can accomplish this by God’s help our life will be enriched by the greatest gift to be found on earth, a friendship such as Christ gave to Lazarus and his sisters.
It comes down to this, friends: If you don’t value God’s approval above your friends’, you’ll never be able to truly love them. Faith isn’t just about what happens when we die; it changes the way we live, the way we fall in love and even the way we date.
Copyright 2012 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.