Boy meets girl and lives happily ever after. (Or perhaps, boy swipes through 647 photos of girls on his phone, ‘likes’ 53 of them, gets lucky with one, and things get serious.) Witty flirtation, sexual attraction, and forbidden love that conquers all. In short, the modern love story, elevated in status to the point of being our ultimate hope and desire. We cheer at the end of the latest romantic blockbuster in which our protagonist forsakes all for their lover, be it their family, culture, religion, current marriage, or even their life. And often, we now seek to live out this storyline in our own pursuit of love. There’s almost nothing that can taint the acquisition of our romantic or erotic desires.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. For most of human history such ‘romance’ was the stuff of legend, and a luxury few could afford. The popularisation of this form of romance (thanks, in part, to the Hollywood machine) is a fairly recent product of the abundance in Western nations. Now we can afford to indulge our desires when for so many this was and is an impossible fantasy. It would be naïve to think that the pleasure of romance is greater now than it was for our ancestors, but our relative wealth has freed us from the less appealing reasons people have entered into marriage: a secure future, a stable home, and a solid arrangement for children.
The problem is—and we all know this to some degree—that the modern idea of romance is based on a lie. Whether we’re reading the latest erotic novel or entering the meat market of the Tinder-swiping generation, we know there must be something better and that this is not real love. So, what is the lie? Simply this: that love is desire and desire is love. The natural conclusion from this way of thinking is that a relationship should only last as long as our romantic or sexual desire lasts. Everything we see, hear, read, and have come to understand about romance reinforces this perspective. Hence, divorce rates have climbed in recent decades and families are no longer a lifelong unit. When we hide our desire under the guise of ‘love’ (so-defined) we can justify anything, even abandoning our own children.
The alternative isn’t to forget about romance and settle for loveless arranged marriages or dysfunctional families. On the contrary, it is to reclaim romance apart from our flippant desires and redefine our notion of love, which can and should remain our highest value. There is romance in the earnest promise ‘till death do us part,’ that grows not from a promise to always ‘feel’ a certain way, but to be there no matter what you feel. There is greater selfless love in the partner who faithfully serves when nothing of their natural desire prompts them, but their commitment does. Think of the old man taking care of a wife who has lost all memory of their life together; does he desire her in the way we think of love? Is it not rather that he has committed to her, and his love is shown by his faithfulness above all?
What I’m describing is unconditional or covenant love, a love that can overcome even ourselves. To choose to love, to choose to serve, and to choose to value, in spite of ourselves and our selfish desires, is the real virtue of love. Self-sacrifice: if it doesn’t cost you, it isn’t love. But how can we love in such a way? When our natural inclinations give us little to no aid in the task, where can we turn?
I would suggest that we need an example. No one has taught or exemplified such selflessness as profoundly as Jesus. His willing death on the cross is the crowning moment of God’s utterly selfless commitment to us, to humanity. Jesus stands as an example of how far perfect love will go in its willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the beloved—in this case, the human race.
But the good news is that Jesus did not come only as an example. That would only serve to show our failures and weaknesses, since who among us could ever live up to such a model of true love? He also came as a saviour.
His death was more than an extravagant (but ultimately pointless) display of self-sacrifice, because his death actually accomplished something. It had to have a purpose. And what purpose was that? Just this: that any debt of guilt we have accrued through our selfishness (including the hurt we have caused others in our failure to really love, as we have sought to gratify our desires) he took as his own and paid in full. He cancelled the debt. And all of this was motivated by God’s desire for us. Like a groom in search of his bride, he pursued us with his perfect love and removed every obstacle that stood in the way, including our wrongdoing. This, I believe, is what love really looks like.