“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
I hate Valentine’s Day. I think I’ve hated it since I was a perpetually grumpy and unlucky-in-love teenager. At this point it I’ve hated it for the better part of a decade. I bring this up because today is Valentine’s Day.
What a coincidence.
I’ve been reflecting much lately on my resentment towards the holiday. As a 25-year-old man, I’m faced with my first minor existential crisis. To paraphrase Ed Wood, I’m as old today as Orson Welles was when he directed Citizen Kane. Now is as good a time as any to take stock of life and ask myself some difficult questions. One of those questions has been: why have I struggled in love for so long?
Part of my reflections of late have had to do with my own coming to terms with God’s will for my life and the fact that I’m not sure what that is yet. I wrote an extensive blog on this for Christmas reflecting on my feelings about complacency and patience. Obviously, I’m not the first millennial nerd to ask this question. It’s no secret that romantic love is difficult. Finding someone is difficult and then maintaining love with someone is also difficult. You’re never off the hook. That introductory phase though trips up a lot of people. My first instincts towards trying to meet someone go back to my freshman year of high school when I was a completely asocial individual with almost no ability to talk to others in school. Thankfully I’ve mostly overcome that affliction and grown to the point where I can comfortably talk with others.
As an adult now, I find the continued pursuit nearly a decade later has been immensely emotional draining. I’ve followed many popular avenues for meeting people such as online dating and found them to be fruitless endeavors that more often than not incentivize a non-Godly approach to relationships. I’ve tried other less conventional methods to meet new people through personals ads and through online chat groups. Sadly, those methods have largely come up short. Repeated failure in love can be a bad blow to a man’s self esteem. Speaking for myself, I spent many years doubting my own value because of it. What was my worth as a man if it couldn’t be recognized by a woman?
It all crystalized into an important life realization based on something my pastor said to me one morning as we sat down for coffee: I have a tendency to idolize women and relationships.
Mind you, I don’t mean that in a perverse sense. I’m not a desperate man who engages in hookup culture or doesn’t have the patience to meet people in a Godly fashion. Generally speaking, the women I’ve historically pursued are highly lucrative businesswomen and academics who are all Christian. They’re in every respect the kind of respectable women that any good Christian ought to pursue. As the colloquialism goes, they’re the kind of women you can bring home to mother. That doesn’t mean that the way I’ve approached seeking a relationship has been Godly or healthy.
The more I reflect on my emotions though, the more I start to untangle the enormous ball of nerves in my core that has deeply impeded my spiritual and emotional wellbeing. The deep emotional need to try and impress myself to the fairer sex has only served to harm my spirituality and emotional health. When the possibility that the quality of my day or week can be determined just by a single positive or negative interaction with a person I have feelings for, there’s a huge problem. When you realize that the person you care about can go days or weeks at a time without thinking about you, there’s a huge problem. When you create a vision of what that person is like in your head only to realize they’re not exactly like that in person, there’s a huge problem. At times it feels like having an emotionally abusive relationship with yourself.
It’s been going on so long at this point that I can’t begin to imagine how much emotional energy I’ve wasted on these infatuations. After nearly a decade, I suspect I’m somewhat addicted to these tendencies. These knots in my heart stand as impedances to my ability to move on, connect with the Lord and grow into the adult man who can handle a Godly relationship.
Worse than that, they’ve left me bitter with the Lord. Like I said last month in my It’s a Wonderful Life essay, why do men younger than me have wives, homes and children while I don’t? What have I done to deserve constant rejection? My heart is filled with much resentment this Valentine’s day as it has for the last several. Maybe I should feel happy for those around me who have succeeded in this area of life against all odds, and yet that’s hard.
God warns of idolatry repeatedly in the Bible. He doesn’t just mean that we must avoid casting golden calves and worshipping Pagan deities. We humans also make idols out of the things we give our time and money. We can idolize sports, artworks, and of course, people. When we do this, we draw our focus from the eternal to our petty desires.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” -Matthew 6:21-23
A Christian can only succeed in his mission to serve God when his or her focus is in the right place. We must submit ourselves to God and allow ourselves to be moved by His will. That’s difficult for most Christians, but to one whose vision is blurred by material pleasures it’s nearly impossible. Often those idols come in forms we wouldn’t expect. Even minor coping mechanisms can become idols to us.
Coping mechanisms are dangerous to a Christian life. They’re merely methods of drowning out the buzzing nature of the universe to keep us from putting our faith where it ought to be. Usually they’re unhealthy for us in their normal usage alone, becoming progressively more dangerous as we grow more dependent on them. This is true for food, drugs, spending, entertainment or any vice that is addictive.
Reflecting on my own addictive tendencies, I thought of a movie I recently re-watched for the first time in a while that has much to say on the nature of addiction and coping. Trainspotting isn’t a movie about love. It’s about the other thing… Lust. Granted, it’s not specifically about idolatry or physical attraction. It’s a movie about heroin addiction amongst the lower class of Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s more than just that though. It’s a movie about people’s relationships to an object that transforms their perception of reality and makes it momentarily tolerable.
The film’s thesis probably couldn’t be better summarized than by Ewen McGregor’s famed “Choose Life” speech at the beginning of the movie. It’s a long rambling of a man, who has decided to dedicate his time and attention to the one thing he’s experienced in life that makes him feel like it’s worth living. He’s not fulfilled by a banal work-a-day life. He wants to feel ALIVE. Heroin gives that to him, at a great cost. Throughout the film we see the full cycle of man’s addiction to drugs. At its worst, we a see an infant die from neglect because his mother was too dysfunctional to care for the child. We see our group of characters go through cycles where they try to break their heroin addiction for days or weeks at a time only to relapse. When our lead character finally does attempt to go straight, he spends days in bed hallucinating as his desperate need for “one more” hit drives him mad. Even when he’s technically gone clean, he’s not free of his problems. He quickly goes out and starts seeking sexual flings with women right after the first time he attempts to go straight. He trades one drug for another.
There’s not much talk of religion in the film, being that it’s set in then-modern day Edinburgh. Religion is merely irrelevant to these people’s lives. They’re all poor, unstable people coping in the face of a world that doesn’t care about them. It’s more a reflection on the lives of how real people live in poor areas of Scotland than an endorsement of this lifestyle. The film and it’s 2017 sequel, T2, are time capsules of 1990s banality and Gen-X existential rage. They’re merely a depiction of depravity and hedonism. Religion is irrelevant to them.
Of course, merely being religious isn’t enough to take us Christians off the hook. As we see them, these are characters with real problems that extend beyond just their heroin addiction. The heroin only makes their problems worse. Their answers to extreme poverty, desperation and nihilism is to make the act of being alive enthralling and momentarily worthwhile. Aren’t they so isolated though? This is a tendency almost everybody I know tends to be guilty of. How many of us are guilty of relying on our basic vices just to get through the day?
How many cups of coffee have you had?
How many times have you drunk alcohol this week?
How many hours did you while away on Netflix or on your PlayStation this week?
These are minor vices but they accomplish the same thing. In place of wellness or good mental and physical health, we numb ourselves on a daily basis. Think of the last time you met someone who doesn’t drink coffee or alcohol, or who honestly approaches their day to day life with a sense of consistent joy and happiness. That feels so alien to most people. To be free of vice is to be truly alive. Only in Christ do we find the source of a life worth living that truly fulfills our needs.
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” John 4:13-15
So how does a Christian man who has let his heart flee into an idolatrous worship of relationships handle such a tendency?
I don’t say any of this coming from a place of certainty or finality in my faith. I’m writing all of this as I’m processing my revelation in real time. I fall back on my vices as hard as anyone around me does. It’s only just struck me how badly they’ve impeded my walk with God.
I love coffee, wine, movies, video games and the joys of this world. I’ve dedicated years of my life to thinking about art and film more than almost anything else. Above all, I yearn for a loving relationship with a Christian woman who builds me up and challenges me intellectually and morally to be a better man. In and of themselves, these things are not sinful. God gifted humanity the joys of wine, love and art to make the world beautiful and joyful. Even so, these things need to be kept in check as much as dangerous addictions like heroin.
In the end, the object of our desire just becomes an idol we worship. Again, as I said last month, I personally struggle with having to live with a life that doesn’t come easily to me. The object necessary for escaping that life becomes an idol and you pursue it with abandon. Then you fail to obtain it so you spite the world. This is a dangerous tailspin that can wreck your emotional health.
Sometimes an addiction calls for mitigation and other times a person who is struggling needs to completely cut off the limb that’s drawing them away from God. I recently made the decision to attend an all men’s bible study instead of one with both men and women in it. The effect was palpable on my ability to focus and start reflecting on the Word with people who suffered similar problems to myself. I can’t say what kind of decision I’ll be led to in regards to addressing my idolizing and addictive tendencies. Most of my close friends are Christian women. More than anything though, I feel a greater strength in my desire to start putting God first and recognizing my shortcomings for what they are.
Reflect on what vices you rely on. More than likely, if you rely on them too much you’re harming your relationship with Christ and drawing your heart away from the mission of serving the Lord. In order to take up our crosses, we must serve him with abandon and we cannot do that with reservation.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. -Matthew 16:24