The world and the Bible have very different ideas about love in all its various forms, so where exactly do these definitions diverge?
The age-old human tradition of rubbernecking at dumpster fires is a well-documented one and thoroughly practiced throughout all generations, ranging anywhere from the 1897 novel Irene Iddesleigh to the Netflix documentary Tiger King and beyond.
In case you’re not caught up on the most recent trash-fire to hit the internet, may I present Too Hot to Handle.
This dismal glimpse into modern, secular dating tries desperately to convince both contestants and viewers that it is possible to create a loving connection to another human being — brace yourselves — without sex…but only for a month because we’re already straining the limits of self-control here.
Jacob working seven years for his bride Rachel was so last millennia(s).
A quick skim through the most popular shows reveals modern culture’s inability to grasp either platonic or self-sacrificing love in such gems as Love is Blind, Love Island, High Fidelity, and of course the aforementioned Too Hot to Handle. Even more thoughtful shows like I Am Not Okay With This operate on the assumption that two people can’t be close friends without being sexually attracted to one another, regardless of gender.
This would go a long way to explaining the erotic fanfiction and slash-fiction between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham, Sherlock and John Watson, Captain America and Iron Man, Poe Dameron and Finn, Mr. Tumnus and the White Witch, Bella Swan and the van that nearly runs her over in the school parking lot.
Truly, nothing is sacred, and no beloved fictional character is safe.
So join me as I lean out the window and lift up my sunglasses. Let’s take a gander at our society’s warped view of love and what God has to say on the matter.
The Two Sides of Love
Possibly the most offensive non-canon romance, at least in my humble opinion, is between Tolkien’s famous protagonists Sam and Frodo. In the immortal words of my younger brother, “Why is no one allowed to have loyal friends anymore?”
The release of the Lord of the Rings movies marked a notable spike in Sam and Frodo slash fiction and heady speculation that this was 1960s’ suppressed queer romance.
In Saskia de Melker’s PBS article, she muses anxiously on this noticeable trend in modern culture and our media, “In Murnen and her team’s recent analysis of Seventeen magazine’s advertisements and articles, they found that the average number of sexualizing characteristics almost tripled over three decades.” This intense focus on only the physical aspects of a relationship or person even has a name.
The American Psychological Association defines sexualization as “occurring when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics.”
Popular culture’s relentless sexualization of everyone and every relationship is eroding our ability to value relationships and people beyond their sex appeal.
Perhaps the most natural reaction against this mentality is to neuter relationships and ignore sexuality entirely, but this works against God’s natural order. As Owen Strachan brilliantly puts it in the book Good: The Joy of Christian Manhood and Womanhood, “God doesn’t save us to be gospel blobs. We’re not Christian TeleTubbies, the redeemed androgynous.”
In the same book, Jonathan Parnell further develops this line of thought. “Nursing and exhorting, tenderness and toughness—the apostle Paul’s ministry featured two different characteristics commonly associated with two different genders. Sometimes men and women need to be strong and stand firm (i.e., act like men), and sometimes men and women need to be gentle and nurturing (i.e., act like a mother).
“Neither masculinity nor femininity is exclusively tied to maleness or femaleness, though masculine and feminine traits are most generally (and appropriately) associated with either men or women.”
Secular culture, unable to grapple with this paradox or fully appreciate the beauty of God’s order in masculinity and femininity, must resort to sexualization.
The Love of the Divine
To truly understand love in all of its many, godly forms, we must first grasp the love of God both in its masculine pursuit and its feminine beckoning.
This is so vital because our love and God’s are quite different thanks to the effects of sin, as David Wilkerson pointed out in a sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, “There is not one word in this parable that indicates the Prodigal came back because of love for his father. True, he was repentant — he fell on his knees, crying, ‘Father, I'm sorry! I've sinned against you and against God; I'm not even worthy to come into your house’— but he never said, ‘Father, I came back because I love you.’
“Rather, what is revealed here is that the love of God to us is without strings; it is not dependent upon our loving him. The truth is, he loved us even when we were far away from him in our hearts, still sinners. That is unconditional love.
“When the Prodigal came back, his father didn't go over a list of his son's sins. He didn't say, ‘Where have you been? How many harlots did you lie with? How much money is in your bag? I want an accounting.’
“No. Instead, he fell on his son's neck and kissed him. He said to the servants, ‘Kill the fatted calf! Put a new robe on him, a ring on his finger and new shoes on his feet. Let's have a celebration. Let us rejoice and be merry!’
“’He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love’ (Song of Solomon 2:4, ESV). The father's joy could not be complete until he was sitting in the banqueting hall with his son, and he had made sure the boy knew he was forgiven and his sin wiped out. They had to be sitting at the table, feasting on the Lamb!”
God’s love has a completeness that is the perfect marriage of masculinity and femininity.
In his relationship with us, we learn to most fully embody our half of love and when to borrow from the other half. This is only possible because God sets a very different standard for what love is in the first place.
The world says love is a feeling. The Bible, though, insists that love is a choice, an action. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, ESV).
There is no room in this love for unbiblical relationships, selfish gratification or objectification of God’s children.
The Love of a Friend
C.S. Lewis labeled a deep love without strings ‘Friendship,’ speaking precisely to the Sams and Frodos of fiction and real life.
He wrote in his book The Four Loves, “Friendship is — in a sense not at all derogatory to it — the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary.”
He mused on how modern society is made deeply uncomfortable by this form of love because there is no measurable physiological or social requirements and rewards, unlike love for family or romantic partners.
For this reason, Lewis pointed out, ancient people valued platonic friendship most of all. “Affection and Eros were too obviously connected with our nerves, too obviously shared with the brutes. You could feel these tugging at your guts and fluttering in your diaphragm. But in Friendship — in that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen — you got away from all that. This alone, of all the loves, seemed to raise you to the level of gods or angels.”
Since the Bible makes it clear that marriage and the making of children will not be a feature of heaven (Luke 20:34-36), it would seem that this kind of love and relationship will be what we experience with others on the other side of life and death. Our best and closest friends here on earth, whether they’re a college buddy or also happen to be our spouse, are a lovely echo of heaven.
When we are forged in the fire of God’s love, which is perfect, we will be a truly loving son or daughter, spouse, father or mother and friend to the people God puts in our lives. Listening to the Holy Spirit means loving well.
As C.S. Lewis rather scathingly concluded, “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”
I wonder what the creators of Too Hot to Handle would say to that.