A friend of mine who works as a psychologist recently brought to my attention a crisis among our young people. She said that our young people have lost the romance out of relationships. The endless social media and online chat and leave us with uncertainty in dealing with the real people in front of us. But this is not simply an issue for hormone-ravaged teens. Those of us in relationships find ourselves looking at the one we love, waiting while they finish whatever they were doing on their phone, wondering how we might capture their undivided attention for a time, and wondering who they love more – us, or the phone, or maybe the people on the phone they’re chatting with or commenting on or lolling over or whatever.
I am no expert on romance. I was an engineer in a previous career – say no more. I do, however, sometimes, try. I did take champagne and strawberries for a picnic on my first date with the woman who’s now my wife, and we’re married now for 19 years and have four children, so it must have worked.
For me, what recaptures the notion of romance is not some sort of digital detox, but a re-orienting of value. Romance itself does not have its origin in mere passion, but in the conviction of the surpassing value of the other person. And that’s not just a human idea – it’s something that comes from the mind of God, according to his Holy Scriptures. Grab a Bible and read through Song of Songs. Note especially Song of Songs 8:6-7:
… for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Songs shows us, at least, that God created romance, and designed it for our enjoyment. But I think we can push it further. I think it is valid for us to see romance as a partial but true analogy of God’s love for his people. It’s only an analogy – God doesn’t want to have sex with us. But it’s a true analogy – it tells us something real about the quality of our relationship with God. God doesn’t just ‘tolerate’ us. He doesn’t just ‘like’ us. He really genuinely loves us, with a committed, costly, sacrificial love, which seeks our commitment, in return, to him.
The Bible uses language of God “rejoicing” over his people “like a bridegroom rejoices over his bride” (Isaiah 62:5), and “delighting” in us and “quieting” us “with his love” while he “rejoices” over us “with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, and note the context – “Yahweh your God is with you, he is mighty to save”). And when his people are unfaithful to him, God doesn’t drag them back against their will, kicking and screaming in rebellion. He images his people as a young woman and says he will romance them. Hosea 2:14-16:
Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her… There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. ‘In that day,’ declares the LORD, ‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me “my master”.
This divine love gives us value. By that, I don’t mean a pride that says “I’m special”, “I deserve it”, because “I’m worth it”. Our value has nothing to do with us! That’s my point! People are valuable, not because of our skills or what we do or anything to do with ourselves. We are valuable because God loves us. And that gives us a stability, a confidence, which enables us to sacrificially love others. Our romance is only a reflection, but a beautiful and joyful reflection, of the passion and beauty of God in his love for us.
And of course we see that passionate and beautiful love most of all in Christ’s death and resurrection for us. The gospel is that God loves sinners – rebels, who have not only broken his laws, but broken his heart – who have spurned and scorned and mocked his love. God refuses to let our rebellion prevent us from enjoying his love. So he redeems us, at the cost of his own beloved Son.
This too should make us feel valuable. But again, not because we’re beautiful to God ourselves. We should not say to ourselves “wow – God gave Jesus for me – that must mean I’m really cute and wonderful. God’s so lucky to have me dating him. I think I’ll do God a favour and put my faith in him so he can live with me forever, because heaven won’t be heaven to God without me there.” God needs nothing and no-one beyond his Triune self. He is love (1 John 4) – he exists in the infinite, eternal, mutual delight that the Persons of the Trinity have with each other.
What I mean when I say that Christ’s sacrifice should make us feel valuable is, again, we should let God’s love for us give us joy and confidence and stability. We should rejoice, not in anything found in ourselves, but in God, who is outside and above and beyond us. But we can and should rejoice that this mighty, holy God, who owes us nothing, and could rightly judge us forever, really genuinely loves us. And loved us even before we loved him – when we hated him, in fact. And again, we can and must let this evangelical love motivate us to sacrificially love God in return, and those around us – especially, for those of us who are married or in romantic relationships, to sacrificially love our beloved.
Revelation 21 describes the goal of this world as God’s people being united to him as his bride. God uses the imagery of romance to communicate to us the transcendent value of relationships. God calls us to deep, intimate relationship with him and with one another. A key part of nostalgic romance was a devotion to the person coupled with faithfulness. This is a devotion that endures through the roughest storms in life.
But in today’s hyper-connected world, we, paradoxically, don’t associate personal relationships with commitment or intimacy. Why should I give up my own immediate pleasure for someone else? People are boring and needy and annoying. Getting to know them and care for them takes time and effort. Why bother, when I can retreat to the safe space of my online world, where I can block anyone who’s boring or annoying or thinks different from me?
For Christians, the answer is: “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We take the risk of committing to someone, not just when they’re young and fun and fit and healthy, but for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And we take the time to get to know them, and we’re committed to care for them according to their needs. The people near me are valuable – lovingly created by God, and worth God’s precious Son Jesus dying for them. For Christians, resurrected romance comes out of the sacrificial, redeeming value God places in his people.