A Dangerous Addiction
The ancient Greeks and Romans considered romantic love a form of mental illness, which in many cases was fatal. Perhaps in today’s parlance we could call it an addiction, just as debilitating, if not deadly, as bondage to alcohol, drugs, computer games, or gambling. By definition, an addiction is something that has taken control of you; it has captured your attention, affections, aspirations. You think about it constantly; delight in its charms and pleasures; and long for its fulfillment. Romantic love, like other forms of mental illness, causes you to lose control over your mind. You abandon common sense and indulge in fantasy, ignoring warning signs which a reasonable person would heed. Brushing off suggestions from friends or perhaps your own conscience, you convince yourself that your case is different; principles that you agree apply in general are not relevant to your particular situation. In your thinking, you minimize dangers and maximize delights. You turn a blind eye to the faults of the other – or at least consider them relatively insignificant and surely capable of being changed under your benign influence (this is especially true of women) – and focus on his or her good points. As your reasoning goes, your whole life begins to get out of balance. This addiction, like all others, begins to take more of your time; it crowds out normal relationships with other people, especially your family and friends; it distracts you from work. Zealous Christians find that their Bible study begins to slack off, and their prayers concentrate on whether this person is God’s heaven-sent angel and how you can find more time to be together. At the advanced stage, you ask God to open the eyes of those benighted people who don’t see things as you do. Gradually, your finances take a hit, as you give expensive gifts, make costly calls, and go out on dates that are both time-consuming and carry a high price tag. It’s not long before your health suffers, too. Late nights out and engrossing conversations replace sleep and exercise. You’re tired, but you don’t mind, because it’s just so wonderful to see and talk with your beloved. As the disease progresses, you turn from previous plans and commitments – to further your education, or deepen relationships with family and friends, or engage in some form of Christian ministry. That once-clear call to the mission field seems like a faint dream, long ago and far away. Your thoughts focus on the short term goal of being together, and then you dream of a more permanent union. Other purposes, such as serving God, getting to know God, loving family and friends, sharing the Gospel, recede into the background. Now only your personal happiness matters, and it is bound up with being with your beloved. Once you begin to have some sort of physical contact, you’re doomed to an ever-tightening grip of passion and desire. Each step in intimacy creates a hunger for more, in ever larger doses that fail to slake your hunger. Women begin to see their man as a true husband, in fact if not in the eyes of the law, and give themselves away, body and soul. Lurking not far beneath the surface may also be a fear that denying the man’s caresses may sever this relationship, which now has become essential for life itself. The voice of conscience grows softer with each close encounter, or its shouts are drowned out by the cries of passion. Married people forget that they promised life-long fidelity to their spouse, finding all sorts of reasons to believe that their wedding vows are no longer binding. “Perhaps I made a mistake,” you say to yourself. “After all, I was young and in love, and didn’t see what trouble I was getting into. I really didn’t know him/her, not as well as I know [the new beloved]. Anyway, he/she has changed and is no longer the person I married. This marriage doesn’t fulfill my deepest desires for love. In fact, it is toxic, positively harmful to my mental and emotional well-being.” And so it goes, spiraling downward until your entire life is dominated by one obsession. No wonder the ancients portrayed love as a youth with a bow and arrow, aimed at the heart of the next poor victim!
But is it really this bad? Isn’t there such a thing as “true love”? Is all erotic passion wrong, as St. Augustine maintained? Of course, what I have been describing is not “true” love, but infatuation, that passing madness that disorients your entire life and deprives you of your common reason and concentration. That is why the title of this essay puts “love” into quotation marks. Yes, there is such a thing as “true” love. Such a love discerns truly that the other person is meant to be your life partner, because he/she is compatible with you in the most important ways, including values, commitments, purpose, interests, background, etc. If a love is true, it will last, despite inevitable conflicts and troubles. Genuine love does not distract you from God, other people (especially your family and friends), your work, or your God-given mission in life. Real love enhances your health and well-being, and doesn’t drain you or drag you down. True love will wait until after marriage for physical intimacy. Sexual passion is not wrong, but natural, and implanted by our Maker into healthy people. In the marital relationship, it both expresses and deepens affection, and normally leads to the conception of children. Physical intimacy between husband and wife can be very beautiful, as described in the Song of Solomon. On this point, St. Augustine was wrong.
Avoiding Addictive Affection
So, how do we enjoy what God has given us, without becoming slaves to passion and losing our minds? St. Paul tells Timothy to “flee youthful lusts; and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). This command gives us four principles for taming the tiger of infatuation (which, by the way, is not a disease only of the young. Retirement homes are romantic hothouses, and people into their eighties can “fall in love” as easily as teenagers. These passions only begin to assail us when we are young!) Run Away! Like Joseph in the house of Potiphar, we must do all we can to avoid temptations to destructive desires. That means turning from anything that would entice us to indulge desires that should not be fulfilled at the time. Magazines, movies, DVDs, internet images, TV shows – anything that depicts unlawful actions should be scrupulously shunned, lest the pictures linger in our minds and feed our lust. Likewise, we should stay away from people of the other sex who do not share our love for God and who would enable us to disobey God by drawing us into a kind of intimacy that violates God’s will. Time alone with anyone who is not zealous for God’s kingdom will not bring us closer to our Lord. Close friendships with a person of the opposite gender are always filled with potential for infatuation, but particularly when the person is not focused on knowing and serving God. Even between dedicated believers, however, there can arise an attraction that becomes an addiction, especially if physical intimacy – caressing, kissing, etc. – replaces conversation and community life. We need to run from any situation that allows us to let our desires take over from our mind and our will. Run Toward what is Good As we run from youthful passions, we need to have a positive purpose in life. As Jesus said, we should seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Aim to please God, to obey His commands, to fulfill the obligations He has placed before you. We should exercise faith also. Whether Paul refers here to growth in our trust in God, or faithfulness to our commitment as His servants, the idea is that we run towards the Word of God in faith and obedience. Build a relationship based on faith in God, and your emotions will have some restraint placed upon them. Love should be our goal, not lust. Giving, not getting. Building up the other person and other people around us, not being consumed with our own private relationship. We are to seek peace, too. Many couples “in love” ignore, and even offend, the people close to them. They cause unnecessary conflict and sorrow because they are turned inward, not outward. A true love will lead the couple to face the world together with the goal of expressing God’s love to each other and to the people whom they encounter. Calling upon the Lord If we direct our attention to God in worship and prayer, as well as in service that flows from hearing God’s voice, we shall be spared a lot of trouble. A God-oriented love will deliver us from an obsession with our own relationship and its churning emotions. Seeking God, even pursuing Him in prayer and worship, will direct our eyes upward, away from ourselves and upon Christ the Lord. We shall submit to His commands as obedient servants. In particular, if we call upon God to fulfill His purposes in us, He will show us how to share the Gospel with unbelievers and build up the faith and love of believers. Christian Community Rather than going off to be alone as a couple, people who love each other must immerse themselves in Christian community. Worshiping and serving alongside sincere believers and dedicated followers of Christ will put our own love into its proper context, the Body of Christ. In this way, a couple will grow in their understanding of each other, as they see how the beloved relates to other people. They will benefit from wise counsel and from the prayers of their fellow believers, with whom they should share their relationship. Is There Any Hope? Can a man and a woman really love each other without being afflicted with the addiction of infatuation? Can your heart be warmed without your mind being lost? Is it possible for God’s intention for men and women to be realized in this fallen world? To some degree, yes. I have known couples who did not kiss until they were married, who developed their relationship within the community of Christians, who honored their parents from the beginning of their friendship, and who sought to serve God together even though they were in love. To be sure, they had to exercise self-control, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Word of God had to be the center of their times together, and prayer was often on their lips. They eagerly sought advice from elders and friends, and then took it! Instead of spending all their time together, they entered into ministry as members of the Body of Christ, and went out into the community with the Gospel. May God give us all the grace to flee youthful passions and pursue instead His kingdom and His righteousness!