Photo taken by Rebecca Roberts
For some seven years of my life, I longed to be in a romantic relationship almost every single day.
I imagined that a relationship would bring me someone who truly knew and loved me, and vice versa. We’d be so happy sharing our life, joys and fears, and helping each other grow closer to God. We’d understand each other all the time and weather the storms of life together. Our love would bring us both self-fulfillment and fullness of life.
When I got into a relationship around two years ago however, I found that the reality was quite different from my ideals. God had to lead me to confront many unhealthy defense mechanisms I never knew I had.
1. “Do you trust Me?”
There were many times—especially during moments of misunderstanding and conflict between my girlfriend and I—when I strongly felt the need to defend myself. I did whatever it took to prove my point to her, to defend my position so that I didn’t have to apologize, to manipulatively use what she said to me before against her, to withdraw from her emotionally when I didn’t want to get hurt further, and to undermine her in a passive-aggressive way, among other things.
Over time, God helped me to understand that these defense tactics arose from my underlying fear of being hurt. Furthermore, He led me to realize that this boiled down to the fact that I didn’t trust God enough to protect me from hurts. I eventually learned to apologize to my girlfriend and repent before God.
God brought to mind that my best role model comes in the person of Jesus. When He was arrested, beaten, spat on, mocked, whipped, and crucified, He kept silent throughout this ordeal and chose not to retaliate even though He was never in the wrong and could have called upon legions of angels to crush those who were mistreating Him (Matthew 26:53). Jesus trusted the Father totally. He knew that God would vindicate Him and right the wrongs done to Him.
So when God asked me, “Do you trust Me?”, He was asking me if I would trust Him, just as Jesus did—enough to give up my “rights” and to let Him work in me and my relationship in the midst of my fears and wounds.
2. “Why don’t you live out what you want to see?”
Another major defense mechanism I’ve had to come face to face with was blaming. When God asked Adam why he ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam blamed Eve for giving it to him, and Eve blamed the serpent for deceiving her (Genesis 3:8-13). Whenever issues arose, I too found myself blaming my girlfriend. “If only she’d change,” I’d think, “then things would be fine.”
This was something God wanted me to die to as well. He convicted me to take ownership of my own issues and to work on changing myself first. One day, as I was grappling internally over some issues between us, God asked me, “Why don’t you live out what you want to see?” Instead of me expecting her to change to fit me, God challenged me to set the tone for what I’d like to see in our relationship.
He brought to my mind the picture of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. When Jesus served His disciples in this manner, He modelled for them what the full extent of love looked like, and told them to do likewise (John 13:1-17). In the same way, I am to take leadership by role modelling the kind of behavior I would like to see in my relationship with my girlfriend.
3. “If she doesn’t change, would you still love her?”
Another time when I was wrestling with an issue that I perceived as a problem with my girlfriend, God asked me, “If she doesn’t change, would you still love her?” That question caused me to search my heart and ask myself if I really loved her as unconditionally as I claimed.
God was reminding me to accept and love her—unconditionally.
4. “How does Jesus love you?”
One night, after an argument with my girlfriend, I lapsed into another one of my unhealthy thought patterns: comparing and complaining. I thought of how I would do certain things for her, but she didn’t seem to do the same for me. As I began comparing, I began complaining about things I felt were unfair in our relationship.
In the midst of this, it occurred to me that since my girlfriend and I were journeying towards marriage—in which the husband is to love his wife as Jesus loves the Church and the wife is to love her husband as the Church loves Jesus (Ephesians 5:22-33)—I had to prepare for that by learning how to love her in a Christ-like way.
That’s when God asked me, “How does Jesus love you?” It stopped me in my tracks, because I realized that Jesus’ relationship with me is very unfair. He reached out to me in love even when I was God’s enemy (Romans 5:10). Now that I am a Christian, He still loves me more lavishly than I can ever love Him, He gives me more than I can ever give back to Him, He forgives me much more than I deserved to be forgiven, and He gives me more grace than I should ever dare to ask.
I understood at that point that I was to love my girlfriend in this way. Instead of complaining about any perceived unfairness between us, I was to commit to out-give and out-forgive her, and to always give her more love and grace, because that’s how Jesus loves me. The Holy Spirit was reminding me to be like Jesus and to love like Jesus.
It’s really about how much I love Jesus
One year ago, when I was telling a pastor about the various difficulties I was facing in my relationship with my girlfriend, he said, “Your relationship with her is actually about your relationship with Jesus.” I didn’t fully understand what he meant back then, but I now see his point: Unless I know Jesus and grow in living and loving like Him, I cannot love my girlfriend well. American writer Liz Wann, addressing women, wrote, “If you want your boyfriend to turn into a husband who loves you like Christ, make sure he is walking with Christ. How else can he love you like Him?”
So, in order for me to be more Christ-like, I need to first know Jesus and walk with Him so closely that, as I’m more and more transformed into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18), it becomes clear to others that I have been with Him (Acts 4:13). This involves me being willing to die to myself, so that Jesus can live in me (John 12:24-25).
Dying to myself, loving like Jesus
To be sure, my girlfriend and I are very happy together and we do share our joys and fears with each other. We’re growing in knowing and loving each other better over time and in drawing each other closer to God. But the intimacy and understanding we have now didn’t just occur easily, but came through a hard-won process of learning to be more Christ-like.
Throughout this time, God has taught me that giving up the self is the way to true self-fulfillment, and that dying is the way to fullness of life. I don’t get it right all the time, but I am committed to dying to myself, so that I can love my girlfriend—and, God willing, future wife—with the love that our Bridegroom Jesus has for His Bride, the Church.