A merger of gluttony and lust

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: occasionally I go to the cinema on my own. I’ve always thought that it’s an unusual social activity, but the first time I went to the counter to buy a ticket – just one ticket – it was rather awkward, I could feel the person at the counter judging me.

But that’s enough of a tangent before I actually begin, it is all to say that earlier this week I walked out of work with my head spinning and headed to the cinema picking the film that best suited my arrival time regardless of what it was. This is how I ended up watching ‘This Means War’. I know that’s no excuse, my taste in films is dreadful, but as usually happens, even in the most dreadful films, something catches my attention.

Curiously it was a similar theme that had already piqued my interest while rampaging through the Hunger Games trilogy all in around a week.

A girl likes two guys at the same time.

Yes, I’m back to blogging about relationships.

I had slightly accidentally eased off writing too much about relationships because I didn’t like being referred to as having a ‘relationship blog’. But you may have noticed that I have more or less eased off writing about anything in these hallowed lines of html in the past month or so. Here a minor side note: I will return to women in leadership at some point, and those who offered to write guest posts, I haven’t forgotten.

In the Hunger Games the issue lingers below the surface gradually pushing its way to the surface as the pages turn into books and one cover closes and the sequel opens as quickly as you can get to the shop to pick up the next instalment. In contrast, This Means War could not be more obvious if it tried, the posters make watching the film an optional extra.

There are stand out lines in each that sum up the main protagonist’s efforts to make their minds up. In This Means War she is told to pick the man who will make her better, in the Hunger Games the two competing love interests accept she’ll go for the one who she thinks will give her the best chance of survival.

Because we all make choices. We all have a frame of reference that informs and influences our decisions. In Bill Hybels’ book Courageous Leadership he examines how he makes decisions and the factors that come into play; it’s a combination of experience, rationality, emotion and prejudice. The things that allow us to decide when to cross the road. The things that tell us that we like one person a little more than appropriate for us to be friends.

The things that might tell us we like more than one person more than appropriate to just be friends.

Is that just crazy? Or is it really just owning up to what actually goes on in our crazy little heads? And does it force us to re-evaluate the frame of reference that we use to come to those conclusions?

First of all, this is not crazy. It happens, I don’t think I’m making some stunning revelation to dare suggest that I have, and others have too, liked more than one person at once. And in my case, I should say not at present, that dilemma has been the cause of hesitation and avoidance, and the hope that in time one would take precedence. Usually in time honoured fashion not one but both fade from my affection.

Now we’ve got over the fact that it is not analogous to polygamy to have split affections how do we deal with it? Because it’s not a sustainable place to linger. For a while you can juggle the competing claims on your heart, and rearrange the aspects of your life that tessellate with each in turn. But sooner or later you have to make a decision. And that’s where it stops being about emotion and it starts being about will.

So often I opt out of making a choice in the hope that it will be made for me. I hope that events will conspire to lead me to one and them to me. And make it clear that choosing them is like waking up each morning and the night sky eclipsed each morning as it fades to light.

Both the Hunger Games and This Means War offer a selfish view of love, but a selfish view that exists within us, and one which we often do not try to disown. We chose the partner who will make us happy, or make us better, or making it sound all to utilitarian the one who will give us the best chance to survive.

And there is something selfish in our thinking when we try and decide if we like someone and if they like us. When we might be attracted to more than one person at once maybe it is time to make you mind up and follow through on that decision. It’s not easy, or perfect, or certain, but it’s better than trying to get everything you want. That’s just a merger of gluttony and lust.

But when that phase of shadow boxing is in the past and we are committed to one person as an act of will. Then selfishness just doesn’t get a look in. It is, as marriage was recently described, something designed to gently destroy the ego.

Perhaps, in the words of Summer, we hope that one day we will wake up and just know. But I think it’s a bit harder than that.

Games of attraction

In the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ Russell Crowe’s character applies game theory to asking girls out. He explains why it is the best bet to ask out the second best looking girls. Because the best girls will be swamped with offers: guys will be fighting between themselves for a precious commodity and this will leave the way clear for him to go for the next best option.

This all makes sense in a world where beauty and attraction are objective facts, and rational choice prevails. But that is rarely the world we live in. Instead we live in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, of stunning beauty and waning attraction. We are designed to love beauty, and it comes naturally to seek it out.

So just how much weight should be given to our physical attraction to someone?

It has been said that true beauty exists on the edge of chaos, where something magnificent emerges from something that so nearly doesn’t work. The solar system finely tuned to sustain life, works of art that bring together styles, materials and forms.

It was Gustav Klimt that got me thinking about this. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to wonder why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case in which it was housed most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good, it does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I don’t even think it holds any deep symbolic value: yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan, ‘What Comes After The Internet?’ Unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses; innovation cannot be taught, only inspired. Likewise beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no ‘x’ marks the spot. Beauty may be captured, but it cannot be controlled. Something that is truly brilliant and beautiful, that exists on the very brink of chaos, has an equilibrium, it is so finely tuned that the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

So when I find a girl attractive, what cue should I take from it? Is it the indication of a deep soul connection, or a momentary infatuation?

That’s why attraction alone is never enough. Because beauty does not always win the day. The search for physical perfection leaves us hollow, it suggests that we can attain something which will not last. I have no idea who first said it but, ‘Real girls aren’t perfect and perfect girls aren’t real’.

It also lets lust win us over. If we are guided by what we find attractive we will find ourselves liking something new. Novelty too often attracts us. We grow bored by what we have and want something new. I remember hearing Pete Greig talk about materialism, and how in fact materialism as we understand it deeply rejects material goods, because it always wants to move onto the next thing. To really value something is to commit to it, to stay with it, and not be sidetracked when the big new thing comes along.

It is preposterous to think that if we are married we will never be attracted to another person. That doesn’t mean that the person is not beautiful, but this thought should change the way we respond to attraction.

So we should also be wary of our attraction if we are single. The options are more open, but if we are only ever guided by what we find beautiful we will be drawn in countless directions.

But physical attraction does play a role. I might like to think that I am only attracted to someone because of their godly character, virtuous actions or biblical wisdom. It might be more convenient to sideline my thoughts of who is good looking and who is not, and instead choose a girl based on more holy criteria.

Except, God created all of me. He created my emotions and my mind, he created my brain and my heart, he created my spirit and my body. The task is not to be ruled by our body, and this is not done by ignoring it. If we shut off our desires we are letting them win.

There’s one other interesting thing in play here: avoiding complementing someone on their looks because you don’t want to appear superficial, or just interested in them because of their physical attributes. But then what are we trying to achieve by side-lining these feelings? Are we trying to deny something that is intrinsic to who we are, or are we appropriately managing a desire within us that needs to be checked?

So guys like girls…

I’ve discovered something remarkable in the course of writing about relationships. It has sparked a lot of interest and a lot of conversations, I’ve found myself in the absurd position of offering counsel and hearing stories that range from the comic to the heart warming. I’ve heard from guys who have no idea what they should do and girls who know exactly what the guys should do.

But I’ve learnt one immutable fact, guys like girls and girls like guys.

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, that this is what I’ve learnt? Sounds like I’ve been on another planet for the past 27 years. Except we often think that we are the exception. That we are experiencing something that no one else is. So when we hear from others that they face the same challenges and feel the same, it wakes us up that something is going on.

And I have come to two conclusions. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that is that this is a big issue, it gets people thinking and talking, and considering, it evokes lively emotions and painful decisions.

The second is that we have to get talking about it. I speak only for my situation, in a church of 500-600 people, most of whom are young and single. And in that situation I’ve taken a bit of a straw poll. I’ve inquired as to people’s dating experience, who they’ve asked out, who has asked them out. And I’ve tested a little hypothesis, and I didn’t expect to get as much agreement as I did.

The hypothesis is this, speaking of the single people in my church, most of them at most times are interested in someone of the opposite sex. And usually the person they are interested in is likely to be someone who they spend time around. So take any group of people from the church and it is to be expected that there are a lot of emotions lingering in the ether. Some of these feelings will be tentative, others will be unrequited, occasionally they will be obviously reciprocated. But all the time they will affect the group.

Except that’s not how we act. We act as though we are all just friends, and we push the romantic attraction below the surface, sometimes to preserve our own frail facade, sometimes to steer clear of awkwardness, but I think most of the time because we are happy living in the now. We are happy with what we have got, and we want to make the most of it. In a crowd of singles we share a common bond, an unspoken rebellion against the cultural norm.

It’s never that intentional, most would say they are looking for a partner, it’s just they don’t say much about it. It exists as a backdrop to our community and it affects it in two parallel ways, it inhibits the formation of strong non-romantic friendships and it stifles the open pursuit of romance. So back to my little straw poll, how much dating goes on, not much. It does take place and it usually happens quietly and discreetly in a most respectful way.

But go back to my premise, if most people like someone most of the time, and the people I surveyed had asked or been asked out between zero and three times. That leaves a lot of affection that goes unspoken.

I’ve also been asked for some solutions as I’ve written, the truth is I’m all out of those.

So let me offer one other consequence if we repress our feelings too much, we are living double lives.

Harsh? Yes.

But if we like someone and continue to act around them as though we are just friends we are deceiving them and deluding ourselves.

If Jesus is my girlfriend, does my girlfriend become my god?

You know that ‘it girl’? The one with the long legs, glamorous looks and stylish make-up.

No, neither do I.

She rarely exists except on the TV screen or the fertile lands of our imagination. But the image is pervasive, it is what we think we are supposed to want.

Lust is love gone wrong. It is when we become a slave to our desires. Yet lust is usually the lens through which we try and assess love. We are drawn to those we are attracted to, and want more what we cannot have. Lust objectifies our desires. It makes what we want abstract and generalised. It means that we want something, and the nearest fit will do.

A little bit of philosophy

It turns what I want into an it. I-it, as Martin Buber would put it. We place ourselves in relation to an it. What this does is to ignore the complex reciprocal emotions that are in play and turn relationships into what ‘I’ want. I do what I can to possess and obtain, I perceive myself as alone with a universe of objects orbiting around me.

The obvious upshot of this is that we treat people as objects. We use them for ourselves. Every time we interact with people thinking only of our our needs, wants and desires, we are removing a little of their person hood. This fundamentally misses the point and it turns a them into something less than a person, it denies the self. But it also affects the ‘I’. Because I am not a solitary individual living in a world of my own creation. So when I define myself in relation to objects rather than people I settle for less than what I am made for. In my effort to personalise my life around what I want I have in fact depersonalised myself.

In contrast Buber suggests we adopt a posture towards one another as ‘I-thou’, we should accord dignity to those we relate, we must accept that we live in a conflicted space with tension and mystery and the magnitude of emotions that flow between people exercising freedom. And that freedom means that we cannot always have it our way. But as Alan and Debra Hirsch put it: ‘Through my relationships, in which I give of myself, I will become real, more alive’

The ‘I-thou’ relationship is at its most critical as I relate to God. If I treat God as an it, then I relate to him for what I can get out of him, but if I let him be Thou, then I allow him to change and transform me, and I realise that the world does not exist to serve me.

Relationship idol

Lust is bad. That’s what we hear, me must flee from it. We must remove every trace of immorality from among us. And within the church there can be a slightly sneering attitude to a world enthralled by sex, and we say that it is worshipping a false god.

I think it’s time to check our back yard. While we can be loquacious in our criticism of the world’s sexuality, we sometimes seem to be equally obsessed. As Tim Keller puts it: ‘If you are so afraid of love that you cannot have it, you are just as enslaved as if you must have it.’

We can slip into idolising relationships in two ways. Firstly, we build up a picture of a perfect relationship, or often a perfect partner. We treat the other half as an it. Because we are afraid of falling short of this standard we steer clear, we circumvent the contested space where we may discover that a relationship does not match up to our illusion.

The second, and I think bigger problem is that we pray for a girlfriend, (or boyfriend). Bear with me a moment, as that probably sounded slightly heretical. In my last post I criticised the tendency that at least I have of compartmentalising my life and leaving God out of some parts of it, and here I am saying that praying for a partner is somehow wrong. The problem is that this is often the only place we give to God in our relationships, certainly if you’re single.

If we are praying for something constantly, if it is the cornerstone of our prayer life, and importantly, if our trust in God is lessened if we do not get the response we want, then we have created an idol. So if I am praying for a girlfriend and one does not drop out of the sky, or I seek God about asking a girl out and then she turns me down, and if this causes me to doubt God then I am placing what I want above Him.

What this also does is remove our faculties, we are deferring to God when really he wants us to do it ourselves. If a guy ever says to a girl that God has told them they are to get married, I’d suggest hitching a ride on the nearest thing passing. This is not because I don’t believe that God can speak into every situation, including who we will marry, but if this is our reason for asking a girl out we are hiding behind God. We are depersonalising ourselves.

The rescue

The myth of the perfect couple is pretty damaging. It is also not countered with sufficient honesty and transparency. For those of us who are not married, life beyond the veil and the vows is a shrouded image. There is not enough acknowledgement and recognition that the problems of life are not solved by marriage. Too many people approach relationships thinking that either the institution of marriage, or the person they are looking to marry will rescue them.

Maybe I seek perfection in a girl. I look for something that is so right, beyond reproach, without anything that I might not like. Until recently I have never given much thought as to the details of this. I have not pondered what the cost of it all is, how much I might have to give to stay in love.

I have thought of love as a one off endeavour, the satisfaction at the end of an infatuation. I have rarely concerned myself with the hard work that it must entail, the dedication and the commitment, the forsaking of so much else, the constant pursuit.

What if true beauty does not ignore the blemishes. What if it is through the cracks of the broken that the light begins to shine?

My autrocious conception of love is brought into stark contrast when I realise that love does not require perfection. In fact it almost demands its absence. How easy would it be to love something that had no faults, what kind of love would that be. If God made us all perfect and unstintingly obedient there would be nothing audacious about his desire and determination to love us every moment of every day. It is that model of love, that he loves us no matter what which must make me look again at how I love, it must force a smile on my face as I realise that just as God loves me, I can love others, and perhaps, most surprising of all, others can love me.

Do I want a rescuer, do I want a girl who will save me from myself. Am I looking in the wrong place for the solution to my problems, investing far too much hope in the ways of a fellow human who I know is also covered in cracks, fragile and close to breaking point. Do I think that I could be her rescuer? That this might be my way in.

There’s an old motivational maxim, don’t let the good get in the way of the best. I think it’s time to turn this on its head. The search for the best can blind you to the good that is right in front of you. And the best you search for, the perfection you desire? Well it’s there, just not in the girl that you’re looking at. That’s God’s job. He has a monopoly on best.