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Flawed Faith: Love, Idolatry and Trainspotting

 

“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

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Post-Marital Blog Post

(So much has happened since my last article on Geeks Under Grace… Do I even remember how to write anymore?)

Well, then. I’m a married woman now. Three months strong, just about.
 
*inexperienced cough*
 
It’d be too difficult to keep myself condensed on every pre-marital and marital experience I’ve had these past months. Still, even though the institution of marriage is nothing new – especially for a newlywed “spinster” 30-something like myself among long-married friends and relatives – I can’t help compiling a list of lessons I’ve learned along this romantic way.
 
So here are “Amanda’s Relationship Revelations”, numbered for your convenience.
 
1. Weddings are super fun.
 
Not like I’ve been to boring weddings (well, maybe a couple), but I didn’t think I’d personally enjoy mine as much as I did. I’m not too big on being the center of attention and definitely not interested in over-orchestrating the events of one day in my life. But the important moments happened beautifully, I had an amazing crew who smoothed the day and let me enjoy it, and I married a man who seeks to honor God alongside me. In the end, I’m thankful to say I didn’t elope. ;-P
 
(Oh, and we totally played video game music at the ceremony AND reception.)
 
2. There’s psychology behind being “unequally yolked”.
 
I might be stating the obvious here (in a super complicated way), but when you spend so much time with a person, in such close proximity, your thought patterns begin to mold – nearly imperceptibly – to accommodate and mirror that significant other. I’m not even talking about the obvious changes you make for each other as you communicate your needs. I’m talking about the most gradual yet significantly altering change in personality. I suppose any marriage counselor worth his/her salt will make you aware of the way you and your spouse will reform to accommodate each other, but noticing it happen so subtly between my husband and me has been its own experience.
 
It’s no wonder to me now why Jesus cautions his followers to guard against pairings between unequal positions of faith. Even the subtlest slips can add up over time, and you might find yourself pointing in a Christ-opposite direction without even realizing it happened.
 
3. Satan will attack you and your marriage from the get-go.
 
Let’s be real: Satan will attack you no matter your social status. He found plenty of ways to push me down while I was single, too. Whenever you have the opportunity to witness for Christ through your life circumstances, you’d better believe he’ll be there to disrupt you.
 
There’s so much in marriage that can make you happier, healthier, and have more of a zest in life. In my 20’s, I admit I thought those who were married had an upper hand and better life than those who were single. Oh, how the devil pits us against each other with all that “greener grass”. In truth, the struggles are different, but there are still struggles. The difference I’ve seen so far is, while Satan would personally attack me in my singleness, he attacks the institute of marriage. He always seems to find the little crack where he can wedge in the subtlest discouragement: “Can you really help this marriage succeed?” It’s been a new exercise in prayer and will to nip those criticisms in the bud.
 
4. Marrying later in life has its own positives and negatives, just like any marriage at any age.
 
Years ago I read an article discussing the concern of finding a spouse while older, because with every year you add a little more “baggage” to yourself that a potential significant other will either accept or spurn. All hope is lost once you hit 29 with no prospects; quick, get married to someone before you’re completely undesirable!
 
What I figure – I had “baggage” back in my 20’s that would’ve been difficult to bring into a marriage, and I don’t even worry about it now. Likewise, there are ways a decade of singleness makes some adjustments more difficult for me than they would have been years ago. Time shifted my perceptions, but it never ruined me for marriage. Should a Believer ever begin to think they could be “ruined” for anything? It’s God who decides our worth, not our spinsterhood, wifehood, or any-ol’-hood.
 
5. Your spouse can’t be your everything.
 
Okay, I was aware of this way before getting married; give me some credit, please. But it’s weird how, no matter what your brain knows, your feelings still persuade you to seek every need and want from this mortal person who falls short just as much as you do. In the same vein, I tend to put more pressure on myself to be everything he needs me to be, and you can figure how well that turns out.
 
We’re reminding ourselves marriage is an opportunity to turn to God and seek His provision and guidance. A book we’ve been reading asks the question, “What did you get married for?” If it was for the good feelings, there’d be no reason to stay longer than those feelings last. If it were for comfort, it’d last until life stopped being so comfortable.
 
Early on, when those desires to be wholly satisfied would crop up, I’d ask myself, “If Marco is never able to satisfy this particular want in my life, would I still choose him to be my husband?” And I’ve emphatically known: yes. God miraculously and undoubtedly put him in my life – not only for my own joy, but for my growth in Christ as well.
 
And I think that’s about it for the time being. Even while things feel new, exciting, and challenging, it’s funny how normal married life became after I’d been single for so long. Stay tuned: I’m sure my article on “What I’ve Learned from People Always Asking Me When We’ll Have Children” is just around the corner.
The happy couple.
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Articles Christian Living

No Achievements Required

We have quite a few themes in November: Thanksgiving, NaNoWriMo, Peanut Butter Lovers Month – where do I start?

It IS National Novel Writing Month (though I think Peanut Butter Lovers Month is severely under-celebrated), and we of the word-crafting ilk sometimes use this month to challenge ourselves to a goal of higher output. Crank out more than 1,000 words a day and get that novel DONE!

The problem I experienced pursuing this goal was the cold, hard truth of never EVER achieving 1,000 words per day. On any given day I’d have work, chores, errands, social events, and that ever-obnoxious need to feed oneself (with peanut butter) intervening with my expectations as a writer. And even if I made it to something like 800 words – so? That’s still 200 short!

The anxiety to achieve left me joyless. I even began to believe my output was directly correlated to how pleased God was with me for using my gift. I didn’t believe there was grace for anytime I failed.

But God seems relentless in displaying His grace anyway.

On a recent Sunday morning I was getting ready for church when I realized my boyfriend would be arriving soon to head out with me to service. They tell you relationships take work, so I was always prepared to put in the hours. Thing is, I already had in mind – from stereotypes and observations of other relationships – what sort of work I’d have to do.

It would never cross my mind that the simple moment when my love showed up at my door I’d be thinking, “I’m not ready to socialize yet.” And that would be my work.

I’ve lived on my own for a decade, no roommates aside from a rather mild pet snake who takes up the space of a terrarium in my “guest room” (a.k.a. “room I’d hoped to make a writer’s haven but is really just a space for stuff I don’t use” #morewriterfailure). I go out, I enjoy time spent with friends and family, but otherwise…I’ve spent most of my days alone and am already deeply introverted.

I mentally stumbled through that morning. My emotions went all over, though I kept them tightly contained. How am I supposed to do this? I thought. And how could I ever explain this type of distress without sounding like an incapable weirdo?

We went to church, and I still wrestled with wildly competing feelings, still trying my best to fight through to a sense of normalcy – my man standing next to me probably having little idea of what was going on inside. We worshiped, we sat, and the pastor began to speak.

Within the first fifteen minutes he referenced the verse, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) It wasn’t by any merit of our own we were allowed this grace and resurrection, and I realized – it’s not by any solo effort I’ll “perfect” my approach to relationship (or writing), either. It was God’s revelation to me to say, “I can’t do this,” and lean into Him for what He would provide.

And He does provide – even a little time each day to write at least 100 words on a project. (That’s 36,500 a year, you know. Nothing to sneeze at.) I still sometimes catch myself “telling” more than praying to God that I’ll do better so I can – what? Impress Him? Prove He doesn’t have to worry? It results in rather one-sided conversations.

On another Sunday – evening, this time – my love and I watched Coco together and asked each other what legacy we’d want our family to remember us for. I still went to achievements: “I want to be remembered for the stories I told.” He said to me, “I want to be remembered as a man who genuinely loved his wife.”

It’s seriously on no merit that I deserve this man, but…maybe that’s been God’s point all along. (All y’all saps can start melting now.)

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Articles Christian Living

Being Choosey in Love

Shout out to all you long-time Harvest Mooners, reaping your pixelated produce, foraging in the mountains, and selecting a spouse from your choice of personalities and pretty faces – LONG before those copycat farm games started cropping up. (See what I did there?)

Thanks, Gill.

Choice is a glorious aspect of video games, isn’t it? (Unless you’re playing Dragon Quest, in which case “But thou must”!) With Valentine’s Day behind us, some who wait for love may be wishing for available choices themselves. In the meantime, it sure is nice to pick up those games where you can woo that character you adore – the one who’s so gorgeous, who warms to you tsundere-like or gushes straightaway. The one who says all the right things – well…with some arrogant exceptions.

Once married, you just have to go through two dialogue boxes with your loved one each morning, and your partnership is gold. Now you can get on with havin’ a couple babies and buying some cows. No more choices needed, right?

Ah, but in reality, there are choices every day – many times a day, even – to work for or against your relationship. To consider what you’ll surrender, and where you’ll stand your ground. To learn, to understand, to work.

Last year around this time I wrote an article on contentment in all relationship statuses, because in the end we are God’s beloved and bride, pledged to Him in His limitless love no human relationship could match. Well…just about half a year later, I officially entered a romantic relationship of my own. You can’t tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor.

(In case you were wondering, my beau often appears down in the comments – my devoted and outspoken fan. ;-P )

And while our Savior’s love can’t be matched by even the most ardent human effort, our earthly relationships are still a mirror of His ultimate plan. Now, what I say next comes with this caveat: I’m new to the romantic scene and know I have much to learn. But choices are ingrained in all relationships – whether with Christ or with those he places in our lives. We think of “choosiness” in terms of setting good standards, perusing our available “market”, deciding what we want in a partner and what are our “dealbreakers”. (You might want to consider arrogance in that category.)

Once you’ve gone through every point on your checklist and manage to snag someone who makes your heart flutter – guess what? They’re still imperfect. You’re still imperfect. You’ll disagree. You’ll hurt each other. You’ll see more differences than you thought were there before. What do you choose in your lowest moments? In theirs?

Our culture is rife with the idea that eros solves everything. To choose to stay in a relationship even when events turn slightly disagreeable is taboo. Have you noticed there are also those who flit from faith to faith, looking for the one that makes them feel “best”? We’re conditioned to want only the “feels” without the growth.

Now, I don’t think any rational, God-fearing single person looks to relationships to feel complete. But…I still had my preconceptions. That it would always be seamless. That every step in the process would come naturally. In truth, it still takes decision – and it takes a faith in Christ at the core.

Choosing a romance with perfect dialogue trees is a gamer’s fantasy. It’s far lovelier and God-honoring when two imperfect people come together with the intent to grow, pursue faith, and learn from each other. Once you’ve chosen your significant other, keep choosing – you may still have years of harvest to reap.

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Loved as the Bride of Christ

There’s that phrase, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” (Do guys have an equivalent? I’ve never heard “Always a groomsman, never a groom.” Clue me in on this, dudes.) It’s a bit sneery, if you ask me – whether someone says it to you, or you say it to yourself. Let me tell you: No matter who you are, no matter how many weddings you’ve participated in without experiencing the actual marriage – those words are wildly untrue.
If you’re a believer in Christ, you are always the bride.
I know if we’re being honest, that fact just isn’t as immediately fulfilling to some of us singles as the idea of being someone’s significant other – especially when you attend a few weddings and observe the extravagance surrounding the blessed couple. I mean, c’mon, man. There’s not even a REGISTRY that comes with being the bride of Christ.
The glamour surrounding marriage can make it hard for those who still go ring-less. (Please don’t misunderstand, married folks. I know love takes work once the glamour fades.) I’ll be honest: For some years I let my relationship status dictate my worth, just because I saw how much everyone celebrated my friends’ weddings.
Salvation doesn’t typically come with a big shebang (but now I wonder what would happen if we DID treat an individual’s redemption the same way we treat weddings). Still, for the married and unmarried both, as Christians we hold to the truth that in every circumstance we are the collective bride of Christ, and one day that union WILL be celebrated in marvelous fashion.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”
…Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
(Revelation 19:7-9)
In the meantime, though, how do we live? Well, I can only speak as a bachelorette, but here’s what I’d like to share:
I do my devotions at night right before bed. Once I finish reading my Bible, I lay it on the pillow beside me and leave it there while I sleep. For me it symbolizes two things: 1) If I ever do find a man with whom I’d share my life, he MUST have God’s Word resting in his heart, just like that literal Word of God rests on the pillow. If it turns out I live my life alone, 2) this Bible laying next to me serves as a reminder I’m always God’s beloved, regardless.
It may not be a union that allows me to pick out colors or arrange my reception party playlist that’ll consist mostly of favorite video game tunes. (Oh, it’s totally happening.) But Christ’s presence in my life is steady, and His Scripture brims with love songs. They fill my heart and give me comfort and strength every day, even when I think there’s no way I’ll have enough. They point to the perfect love that wants for nothing – whether we need to be embraced as His child or as His ecclesiastical bride.
(Taylor’s Valentine’s Day post will reveal more about God’s songs of love to us.)
Life and love certainly never go as planned – for anyone, I’d wager. But we have a faithful Groom who knows our every need in any season. One day, we’ll ALL be a part of His extravagant celebration.
*Married readers, feel free to offer your perspective, too.*