A long reflection from Valentine’s Day and introduction to some bigger concepts that inform my upcoming book on Christianity and sexuality: “The Choice”
Inevitably, I have once again spent too much time thinking about the ideas in my head and not enough time writing them down to match the expectations of the public audience for a blog post on love that emerges 7-12 days before February 14. Today the Valentine’s Day holiday season is over and non-single people no longer feel the obligation of casting sympathetic glances at anyone who does not appear laden with gifts of pink hearts and chocolate – (This year my good friends set me up with a literal date…I think it was probably organic)! Yet, the struggle exacerbated by this holiday will last the rest of the year for some Christian young adults who find themselves outside the context of a relationship with someone special. In light of the occasion, I wanted to share something I have been learning, which strikes at the heart of the identity crisis experienced by so many unmarried individuals at least one day out of the year.
In order for a relationship to succeed, the individuals involved must learn the art of submission. Submission is a touchy concept within relationships and marriage, but I believe this is the result of misunderstanding its nature. When approached from the perspective of honour and identity, submission becomes a tool of empowerment by which singleness and marriage both acquire tremendous value. Click & Tweet!
In the world of Christendom, marriage is looked upon as a holy sacrament, a demonstration of Christ and the church, the subject of political debate, or worst of all the inevitable conclusion of a heart connection between two people. The issue is not that marriage is bad for relationships, but that for many people it has become a destination to reach, not necessarily a journey to be started. The difference is similar to a mistake that is made when people view ‘salvation’ as a single event rather than a life-long process of transformation.
In my opinion, marriage is a relational process that is recognised and supported by a public proclamation of commitment to its ongoing development. To mistake the public declaration for the thing itself is to rob marriage of its full potential. It is like assuming that a person has been saved because they said some magical phrase or prayer. The ceremony and the prayer were never meant to be the destination, they are simply the celebration or recognition that a journey is in progress and has reached a certain (rather undefined) point. Unless a person has taken the time to pursue the relationship that these recognise, the formalities become laughable. After all, a contract is only as good as the people who commit to it.
Within the marriage ‘contract’, two people commit to letting another person define the context in which they will live their lives. In the relationship between Christ and the church a similar mystery takes place in which each becomes the context through which the other is fully expressed. As the unity grows, the range of expression also grows. On the other hand, without Christ, church becomes meaningless; without husband, wife is a pointless term.
Certainly the way in which each partner of the relationship expresses and responds to the other will vary, but the choice remains the same: to make someone else the context in which one will ever more fully disclose and express his or her identity. Unfortunately, for many people the disclosure of identity or the proactive limitation of individuality are terrifying thoughts. Marriage is supposed to add something, not take something away – and certainly it does. The depth of relationship that can be achieved within this context can be incredibly empowering. It is beautiful and unique, but not the epitome of goodness. In fact, unless the partners are willing to learn the art of submission, they will not discover the power that exists within this relationship.
Those who are not voluntarily limited in their expression of identity by the context of marriage can find a similar level of satisfaction and empowerment when they learn to make others the context of their self-expression. What is lacking in depth is made up for in variety. Marriage and singleness each have their own sweet reward for learning the art of actively submitting one’s life to the benefit of others.
In my understanding, this submission is not a passive affair in which one individual is dominated by another, but rather an active choice to invest oneself fully into another without expecting a particular outcome. Click & Tweet! Such an investment inevitably results in a heightened level of relationship in which one shares in the joy, success, sorrow, and failure of the other. Therefore it is very important to wisely choose where this investment is made. At the same time, though, we must remember that the very existence of such a relationship is rewarding in itself regardless of the outcome.
Sadly, there are some who believe that unless this investment results in a marriage, it has been wasted. If they see no potential for a long-term commitment, they will not make any kind of investment. They will only choose to submit their life to the context of another person if they can expect to receive something back. One reason that so many people find themselves in this scenario is that they have been hurt when their past expenditures of time and energy into another person have not paid out in the way they expected. Or perhaps they chose to submit themselves to the context of a person that was harmful for them.
The issues is not that the person chose to invest in a relationship, but that they expected the relationship to supply them with some sense of identity. Even within a marriage, the husband or wife can not provide the other with a complete sense of identity. Relationships are a context for the expression of identity, not the source of it. Both individuals must let themselves be defined by something greater which can supply purpose and meaning to their lives, which they can invest in the pursuit of a more dynamic relationship. Without this external input, it is possible to see relationships in which individuals begin to make demands of each other rather than giving of themselves to each other. These reflect the sad case of the planet earth which is under the dominion of a people who do not understand who they are and ask of the earth to give them of itself to provide them with a sense of identity. The earth has no choice but to submit and this has often caused it harm. So it is with people who enter relationships without knowing who they are and needing their partner to provide them with a sense of identity.
It is therefore impossible for a single or a married person to experience the deep satisfaction of submission without first learning what it means to submit one’s life to the context of perfect love. For example, this past week I met a wise old woman who has spent the past several years of her life caring for a husband who died, a mother who also died, and now caring for the elderly in nursing homes who have nothing to give back. Where does she get the energy to continue pouring herself into the lives of these people? If she required some kind of validating response from those she invested her life in (submitted to by making them the context of her self-expression), her situation would be tragic. However because her first submission is to a being that also makes her the context of His expression, she is constantly filled with more love to give.
Within the created order, the man receives his identity from God, but requires woman to the be context of its expression. As a part of the man, woman also receives her identity from God, but requires man to provide the context of her expression. No human being is complete without someone else to provide the context for the expression of our humanity. We were not made to be alone. Marriage is a mysterious context in which the level of trust engenders a more full expression of oneself. But why wait until this season of life to begin experiencing the joy of submitting your life into the context of another?
Who can become the context in which you express the person that God has made you to be? Where can you invest the gifts that he has given you? If you do not have a wife or a significant other, the answer may prove to be less obvious. However, it is no less important. As we learn to submit ourselves to God by making Him the context of our lives, He will give us the opportunity to give what we have to others without expecting anything in return. Though the decision of where we invest our lives is crucial, the reward of this investment is not in the result but in the giving itself.
Thus, the conclusion that I have come to is that neither marriage nor singleness is a perfected state, but simply a setting in which to experience the joy of making others the context by which I express the nature of God that is within me. Click & Tweet! Relationships are not about receiving, but about sharing what I have to give with others. I cannot do this in any other way besides through the unique characteristics, interests, and skills that God has given me. Furthermore, I cannot share these things freely unless I am certain that I will be rewarded, which is why I must first learn to submit to God (or make Him the context of my life).
As I test the waters, I am beginning to discover that is truly more blessed to give than to receive. On the other hand, it is foolish to begin taking my identity from what I can give to someone else. I will never be everything that they need. The beauty of relationship is in the limitation of my self-expression to the context of other people. Because it is a limitation, the choice of where I choose to do this is incredibly important. It is possible to submit my life to investing in other people just because I need somewhere to do it…and this is not always a good thing! To all the amazing women that I know, please take this is a plea to not compromise your potential by making a man without character and wisdom the sole context in which you express your identity. Let yourselves be defined by love (i.e. submit to God) and choose to share the amazing person He has made you with others in ways that add value and empower you to be great!
And finally, men, it’s time to stop pretending we don’t want to grow up and embrace the privilege and responsibility of maturity. This appeal is not to let go of the qualities that are uniquely us, but to develop these and to maximise their potential in our lives by learning how to submit them to the context of the people that are around us. It means choosing to take control of the direction our lives are going and wrestle, fight, pray, and shape them into something we can be proud of. This means learning to overcome our selfish tendencies by making others into the context of our self-expression.
Why wait until a marriage ceremony says that this is what is supposed to happen? Enjoy the benefits, the blessing, the joy, the pain, and the amazing experience of learning to submit your life to love (God) and then to express this in the context of deepening relationships with those around you. It is within this context (not marriage, not singleness, but submission) that the individual transcends the limitations of fear and selfishness to become the transforming power of love in the world. You don’t need a marriage relationship to begin. The best time to start is now!
More related articles and posts will be coming out as I complete the first draft of a book exploring identity and relationships in the context of sexuality and the church. Some of these will provide more detailed biblical and logical support for the broad topical overview supplied here. Learn more about my upcoming book, “The Choice” here. http://charlesheyworth.com/publications/love-lust-power/ Please let me know what you think. Agree? Disagree? Have something to add? Need clarification? Let me know and you can be a part of bringing hope and restoration to at least one small part of our world. Courage, friends!