Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Rooted in Love–What We Can Learn From the Flowers

Humans have an innate appreciation for nature.  Except for the occasional bee sting or troublesome allergies, nature often enchants all of our senses.  Smelling the crisp scent of evergreens, tasting the salty sea air, feeling the soft grass against our toes, hearing the chirping of the birds, and seeing the beauty of God’s creation around us are a few examples of how we experience and enjoy nature.  It is natural and good that we thank God for giving us these good things.  But to stop with gratitude would be to limit ourselves to self-centered appreciation of God’s creation.  We should step away from our own experience of nature and engage with something much bigger than ourselves.  If we allow ourselves to listen, the flowers remind us of the vanity of our own existence and the reality of our eternal value in Christ.

Christina Rossetti, a 19th century poet, is widely known for her gloomy, yet biblically centered poetry.  Hope and despair are prevalent themes in her writing.  While Rossetti often despairs about earthly griefs, she remains grounded in her eternal hope.  In her poetry, Rossetti constantly uses nature to re-ground herself in her hope. In “Consider the Lilies of the Field (p24,25), she writes:

“Flowers preach to us if we will hear…
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read…”

Anyone can smell the flowers and take pleasure in it.  However, very few actually learn from the flowers.  Learning from the flowers takes humility and a willingness to experience nature in a way much bigger than our own personal enjoyment.  It is easiest to view the flowers in their relation to us.  “Thank you God for allowing us to enjoy these beautiful flowers.”  And that response is perfectly acceptable.  However, the flowers can teach us so much more rather than just reinforcing a me-centered existence.

It is the natural human tendency to think of our existence in terms of ourselves.  Well, duh, you may say, we are the ones existing.  However, in a God-centered universe, we are never the main focus.  We may be the ones doing the actual living, but nothing we do can give value to our lives.  Yet we are never perfect at living a God-centered life.  We forget how fleeting and invaluable we are on our own.

This is not a new problem.  In Psalm 90:12, the Psalmist asks God on behalf of the Israelites, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Israel forgot how short their life was.  Disobedience to God’s commands is the natural result of forgetting your place in eternity.  After experiencing punishment for embarking on a self-centered lifestyle, they come crawling back to God asking him to help them remember.  In a God-centered universe, a self-centered lifestyle does not satisfy.  Especially when you are being directly punished by God!

Isaiah says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The quickly fading flower reminds us that our “blossom” is but a brief moment in eternity.  Hopeless can often be the result of this realization if we view our brief existence simply in terms of our life here on earth.  However, investing in an eternal hope through Jesus Christ allows us to live a hope-filled life while here on earth.  We live full lives here on earth, all the while knowing our ultimate value is not found in this world.  Nature can remind us of how small we are on our own and allow us to re-ground ourselves in truth—that true value can only come through God.

But the flowers’ teaching does not stop there.  They remind us of something much greater than our own insignificance.  They remind us of God’s great love for us in spite of our puny existence.  In Luke, Jesus says “If God so clothes the grass.. how much more will he clothe you(Luke 12:28).”  Nature IS beautiful! Even though a flower only blooms for a short time, it is none the less beautiful! So it is with us.  Even though we are seemingly insignificant, God values us.  Even though our life is but a moment, God concerns himself with the details of our life.

In her poem, “Consider the Lilies of the Field,” Rossetti continues,

“Flowers ….
Tell of his love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.”

The flowers do not just tell us truths about ourselves, but truths about God, too!

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is not just a happy go lucky post.   Life is not just daisies and roses.  Even with a firm understanding of your eternal value and God’s love for you, life sucks sometimes.  Sadness is a natural part of life.  From Rossetti’s poetry, it seems like she was seriously depressed most of the time.  We would be lying to ourselves if we tried to never experience sadness.  Even Jesus wept.  But at the same time, we should never be guided by our emotions.  When experiencing despair, we should always anchor ourselves in our eternal hope.  Rossetti got through her darkest moments because of her eternal hope.  So also should we, in moments of despair, cling to the One that can never be taken away from us, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help reground you in what is truly valuable.

Whether it’s in the simple hustle and bustle of everyday life or one of your darkest moments, grounding yourself in Christ’s deep love for you gives you strength to carry on.  However, being reminded of your true value in Christ is worthless if your actions do not change.   Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help you live your life in a meaningful way.

So next time you are outside, stop and listen to the flowers.  What are they saying to you?

“In this world you will have tribulation.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

*Quotations taken from “Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems.”  Penguin Classics.




Widows and Orphans: What might Ruth teach us?

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction… (James 1:27)

God cares about the orphan and widow. More specifically, God cares that his people tangibly care for the orphans and widows. In the Old Testament, God had laws and roles assigned to make sure that the undermined were taken care of. One of these roles was a Kinsman Redeemer. A Kinsman Redeemer could perform a variety of functions, including: redeeming a relative who sold himself into slavery or servitude, assisting a relative in a lawsuit, redeeming a relative’s property that was sold out of economic necessity, redeem a deceased clansman by taking his wife and raising up offspring to continue that clansman’s line. All these actions promote mercy and justice and restore clan wholeness. (taken from the Zondervan NIV Application Commentary pp400-401).

In the New Testament, there are no laws, per se, but rather commandments. Like the verse in James mentioned earlier and “love your neighbor as yourself.” It seems almost easier to take care of the widows and orphans when there are laws dictating how to do it. Like the old testament law relating to gleaners. God commands his people: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that work of your hands (Deuteronomy 24:19).”

Far too often, the undermined are still falling through the cracks in the church. For example, there are often Mother of Preschoolers gatherings, but what about single moms struggling for day-to-day survival? What about the elderly struggling to find hope? I believe the church could benefit by bringing in more concrete concepts, like Kinsman Redeemer, on serving the undermined in our midst.

When I mentioned the term “kinsman redeemer” most of you probably associated the term with the book of Ruth. Yes, that’s where I am drawing from. In the modern world, Ruth’s plight is most similar to that of single mothers. Women who struggle to survive on a daily basis, trying to provide for their families. Like Ruth, true redemption is found in long term provision. Boaz’ redemption not only gave long term provision to Ruth, but hope to Naomi (a widow), and continued on the line of Ruth’s husband. One act directly affected three people and indirectly affected many more, since Boaz and Ruth are found in Christ’s genealogy!

Acts of redemption have a domino effect. Today for example, churches could come up with ministries that would equip women with tools to get a better paying, steady jobs, thereby providing a way to secure provision for their families. By seemingly just serving the mom, her kids, her family and friends are also going to be affected. A better job and education for the mom means a better future for her kids. A better job and education for the mom means the mom is not dependent (and burdening) other people. Offering night classes with childcare or connecting single moms with business owners in the Christian community would be practical ways of helping women towards a better future.

Redemption is aimed at restoration to the community. Serving God is not an individual effort, rather it is the effort of a whole community striving to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. God is constantly using what is weak and foolish in the world to shame the strong and wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). The more “established” members of the community should not rule out the widows, orphans, elderly, single moms, mentally disabled, and countless others from playing a vital role in the community. Besides Ruth, David and Rahab were some other “bad choices” that God used to further his kingdom in a big way. Ruth was a foreigner and widow. David was a lowly shepherd boy from a lowly tribe of Israel. Rahab was a prostitute! God used other people (Boaz, Samuel, the Spies) to bring them into his community. So we, as members of the church, should not try to judge who we feel will be able to play a vital role in the community. Rather, we should love other people in a tangible way, inviting them into community with us, and allow God to use his growing community to further his kingdom.

Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions, and Living for Society

Before settling on the title “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen titled her novel “First Impressions.” As the “almost title” suggests, first impressions play an important role in the plot. Mr. Darcy’s aloofness causes the Bennets to scorn his company and drastically misjudge his character. On the other hand, Mr. Wickham, a scoundrel, soon becomes a family favorite. At the novel’s conclusion, very few are privy to the information of Darcy and Wickham’s true character; everyone else is still blinded to the truth by their initial impressions.

Due to this great error in judgement, the reader is led to question the validity of first impressions. We are constantly “performing” in hopes of gaining people’s favor. Since first impressions are so performance oriented and may not be an accurate depiction of who you really are, it seems that they can be completely disregarded as an accurate tool for interacting with other people. Yet, Austen does not want us to completely rule out the usefulness of making favorable impressions on people. She uses Elizabeth to illustrate a way of acting that is socially acceptable, and therefore pleasing to others, yet still true to herself.

In the book, there is a constant tension between pride and vanity. Mary Bennet explains the difference as, “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (p. 14) Darcy knows his own worth, and does not need other people’s affirmation. However, “weaker” characters, those less sure of their capability, are much more dependent on other’s good opinions. For example, we see Ms. Bingley constantly acting in flamboyant ways in hopes of gaining Darcy’s attention. She cares almost exclusively about other people’s, specifically Darcy’s, opinion of her.

Before falling in love with Elizabeth, Darcy is presented as a completely self-sufficient character. He does not need anything from other people. Darcy’s pride is the result of his recognition of his self-sufficiency. Since he does not need anything from other people (with the exception of his friendship with Bingley), he does not bother trying to get people to like him. This works for Darcy. His self-sufficiency allows him to act in a meaningful way (saving the Bennet family from destruction) while being disliked.

However, Elizabeth, along with all the other women in the novel, is much more dependent on other people. As a woman in that society, the only option for advancing in life is marriage. Therefore, they must make good impressions on people so as to gain favor. Elizabeth, for the most part, does this. She plays by the rules of society. Yet when it is time for Elizabeth to make the decisions that really matter (who she marries), she asserts her independence from society’s rules. Her happiness is more important than following the rules. So even though Elizabeth is outwardly submissive to the rules of society, her inner strength allows her to act independently from the expected behavior.

Darcy is attracted to this quality in Elizabeth. Elizabeth does not completely spurn the rules like Darcy does, but she does not order all aspects of her life around them like Ms. Bennet. So Elizabeth is a wise choice for Darcy—she will not embarrass him by acting inappropriately in Darcy’s higher society but she also is not afraid to think for herself.

Most of us could not afford to act like Darcy. After all, we need a job to put bread on the table. Yet we should not sell our souls trying to win other people’s favor. Elizabeth provides us with a happy medium. It is wise (and beneficial) to follow society’s rules—to a point. First impressions are important. They put you in a position to benefit from society and enable you to act in a meaningful way. However, like Elizabeth, we should not compromise who we are simply because society wants us to. This is especially applicable as Christians. We are living for our Lord, and what our Lord demands of us is often different than society’s expectations. Wise people will respect us for our integrity, yet it may mean giving up a seemingly valuable opportunity.

Everything is clearer in hindsight. Did Elizabeth make the right decision not to marry Mr. Collins? Yes, because Mr. Darcy allows her to live to her full potential. As we are making decisions, there is no guarantee that a better opportunity will come along. Good first impressions put us in a position to make that decision.

*Quotations taken from Oxford World Classics edition.