(Note: A few weeks ago I gave a talk, and this blog post is essentially my transcript for that talk. I just edited a few bits to put it more in blog-form.)
So, the topic I’m talking about today is unrequited love. By that, I mean love that is not returned in kind: the situation when you love someone and they don’t feel the same way about you. It’s most commonly seen as a romantic situation, what with the trope of love-triangles and all, but it also happens in the context of friendships and other relationships; sometimes in terms of wanting to begin a relationship with someone and them not being as keen, and sometimes in terms of feelings changing over a period of time.
This may seem a bit of a random or oddly specific topic, but the reason I chose it is that the vast majority of us experience unrequited love in one form or another at some point in our lives, but for some reason it’s not something that gets spoken about very much. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, really; when you’re experiencing unrequited love it’s generally a blend of several strong and awful feelings: rejection, inadequacy, bitterness, helplessness, and just plain sadness over the whole thing. And because it’s such a sensitive issue you could really do with someone giving you some advice or wisdom about the situation, but again because it’s such a sensitive issue, people aren’t all that keen on talking about it.
So, I’m not very wise, but I’m going to do my best to say a bit about how our Christian faith can guide us when we’re dealing with unrequited love, and also how the experience can bring us closer to God if we allow Him to guide us through it.
As I said earlier, unrequited love is so often a messy situation, and it can be very hard to keep a clear perspective on what’s going on, because FEELINGS. More often than not, the experience can lead to a huge imbalance in your mind – you so badly want this other person to return your love, and it’s all heightened because when you love someone you can see every little thing about them that makes them awesome. But they don’t feel the same way, and so your achey, rejected heart tells you that it’s because they’re so much better than you, and they are up on this pedestal of awesomeness, so of course they don’t have the same feelings for you because you know yourself and you can see ALL your faults and failings and reasons that they would not want any kind of intimacy with you… and so, without even realising it, you end up with this picture in your head of yourself as a tiny pathetic mess of a person, weeping in a ditch, whilst the object of your affections is way up there, sitting on a throne on top of a golden mountain.
I exaggerate, of course. But you know what I mean. There is something very clearly wrong with this image of love, this situation. So how should we love, in this situation? The Bible is a good place to look for advice. Now, going to admit, I don’t know my Bible as well as I should, but here’s a quotation I do know, and that I’m sure you’re all familiar with:
Matthew 22:39 – “You must love your neighbour as yourself.”
Now, this means, of course, that we need to treat others as we would like to be treated. But in order for loving your neighbour as yourself to be a good thing, you have to love yourself as you ought to begin with. And that means treating yourself with the dignity that you were made with, as a child of God. We have all been made equal, that’s the point! Of course other people are brilliant and complex and wonderful, and there are numerous reasons for loving them. But if your love for someone is making you devalue yourself, then something is going very wrong. When we love other human beings, we should be seeing the other person as an equal, even (and especially) when they don’t love us in the same way.
Another thing that can happen in cases of unrequited love is growing bitterness towards the object of your love. When you feel that you are pouring out your heart in your efforts to please them, and you aren’t meeting with the response you’re hoping for, it’s easy for frustration to rise. This is particularly the case in long-standing friendships I think – you know when you’ve been friends with someone for ages, and they mean a lot to you, and then you can feel them growing apart from you, and you can’t understand why? And the more you try to reach out to them, and your efforts are not returned, the more resentful you become. How can you make them understand how important it is to you that they return your love?
The answer is, of course, that you can’t. And it sucks. And the fact that you feel helpless in the situation just makes you feel more resentful towards the person in question.
Does anyone else see the problem here? Let’s look at what love is meant to be like, according to 1 Corinthians 4-7:
‘Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.’
No mention of resentment there. And the truth of it is that when our love becomes more about trying to get a response out of someone than it is about sincerely wanting the best for that person, then there’s not much love left there. Sometimes in order to love unconditionally you have to accept that this person is not going to take up the place in your life that you so desperately wanted them to. Sometimes in order to love unconditionally you have to take a step back from this person, so that you can stop feeling so bitter and resentful towards them – and so that you can have some peace from feeling vulnerable and rejected and all of the other messy feelings. So that you can breathe and accept that, at the end of the day, you are two human beings created equally with free will and dignity that has to be respected.
And, of course, we have God to guide us. As far as the question of unrequited love is concerned, He definitely got there first. When you’re looking at the Bible as a whole, as the story of God’s relationship with humanity, it’s one heck of an unrequited love story. One of the things I love the most about being a Christian is that we are able to go to God with our grievances and woes and just know that He knows how we feel and how much it hurts, and this really is never more the case than with unrequited love.
There’s a whole lot of stuff in the Old Testament here that could be talked about on this topic, and I’m sure many of you know better than me on the subject. But when we get to the crux of God’s unrequited love for us, we of course come to Jesus on the Cross. God who became Man to die so that our sin, our lack of love for Him might be forgiven – and who was put to death by that very lack of love.
John 1:10-11 – ‘He was in the world that had come into being through Him, and the world did not recognise Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not accept Him.’
God is the One who utterly deserves to be loved by all – but He does not force us to have a relationship with Him. There is something in that. His death transformed the world, but we still have the choice of whether to love Him or not.
There are of course limitations between any comparisons we can draw between our own experiences and the love of God. But I think that the experience of unrequited love can help draw our attention to God’s own love for us. It reveals things about it, and can help us to know Him better.
If you think I’m trying to find silver linings here, you’re absolutely right. I’m kind of an optimist by nature, so finding silver linings is something that comes easily to me most of the time. One of the few exceptions, though, is finding the positive side to someone not loving you back. That is hard to deal with in an optimistic fashion. Even once you’ve got over the thing, all the grief and heartbreak, the question that flits around is why. Why did it have to happen in the first place? Being in unrequited love with someone costs you an awful lot in your heart, and getting over such a situation is also emotionally draining. The aim seems to be to return to some kind of balance and normality – but wouldn’t it have been simpler if it just hadn’t happened in the first place? What good comes out of this bad?
These are questions that don’t just apply to the pain of unrequited heart, of course. Our hearts can be bruised and broken over so many things in this world, and it is so hard to see why sometimes.
A while ago on Tumblr, I came across a concept: kintsukuroi, which means “to repair with gold”, and refers to the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold or silver. The idea is that mending something shouldn’t be about hiding the fact it’s been broken, but celebrating the fact that its history is part of its beauty. And I like to think that this is God’s attitude toward our hearts. When we give our broken hearts to Him for healing, He brings the beauty out of their brokenness.
This in turn reminded me of this quote from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, which says:
“Broken things are precious. We eat broken bread because we share in the death of our Lord and His broken life. Broken flowers give perfume. Broken incense is used in adoration. A broken ship saved Paul and many other passengers on the way to Rome. Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.”
Now seems like an appropriate moment to tell a small story. Somewhat predictably, I’ve got my own unrequited love stories, in their varying forms. I won’t give you my autobiography here and now, but suffice it to say that I’ve had to deal with being in love with someone who didn’t see me that way. And I won’t go into details, but let’s just say, it hurt rather a lot. And I went through all the various stages of coming to terms with what was happening, and what I should do, and trying to make sense of it all.
The thing that comforted me most was the thought of God’s love for me. Whenever the feelings of not being good enough arose, I reminded myself that He thought I was worth loving. Whenever I felt lonely and discouraged, I reminded myself that He knew my pain, and was sorrier about it than I was. Jesus’s love for humankind on the Cross was unrequited. Of course He understood.
And thoughts grew into other thoughts. I was hurting enough about my own situation – about a friend who did not love me the way I loved him. And, you know, my friend was not obligated to love me. And it wasn’t even that he didn’t love me at all; he cared about me a great deal as a friend! And still the situation hurt so much. If this situation was so awful to me, then how much worse was it for God – our all-loving, all-good God – to reach out to mankind, and be met with rejection?
And more thoughts. One of the hardest things I’d found about the situation of unrequited love was the sense of having to hold back all the love I wanted to give to my friend. He didn’t feel the same way, and so he couldn’t take up the place in my life I wanted him to. So I knew that in order to put things into the order they should be in, I had to put some space between him and me – but even though I knew this was the right thing to do, it felt so wrong to have all this love and be unable to give it to the person I wanted to give it to. For that gift of my heart to be an inappropriate gift.
But it struck me along the way: my heart was not an inappropriate gift for Jesus. In fact, all this while, Jesus was longing for me to return the enormity of His love. All that love I couldn’t give to my friend, I could give to Jesus. I could give my wounded feelings to Him to look after, and make it my focus to love Him more and more.
The wonderful thing about loving God is that it puts everything else in its proper place. As I said earlier, when you’re dealing with unrequited love, the main thing that we’re aiming for really ought to be unconditional love. And it is through loving God that we can best understand how to love others. There’s a quotation from C. S. Lewis that puts it rather nicely:
“To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator. When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now… When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”
Lewis here speaks about his “earthly dearest”, but his words really are true of all people. Loving God helps us to better love others, and it is the order that it should go in: Love God, love all people. And of course, we’ve come full circle. If we could re-examine the quotation from Matthew I used earlier, we will see, as I’m sure you all know, that it goes like this:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second commandment resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
It is the love of God that is our best comfort when our hearts are breaking, and He is our strength and our support. And it is through loving Him that our best healing comes, and things are put to rights – and, in fact, transformed. To love God with all that we are is the greatest and first commandment: our first calling as Christians is to meet God’s love for us and make it requited. And there is no gesture of love that we can give Him that is too small – every gesture of love towards Him is met with delight and held as precious. Don’t hold anything back from Him!
I talked about silver linings before – it took me a while to get over the aforementioned situation, but everything turned out fine in the end. There have been plenty of times even since getting over it that I’ve looked back and kind of cringed at how nasty it all was at the time – but I know that, coming out of the experience, I loved God a good deal more than I did before it happened. And that’s enough of a golden lining for me to be able to say I’m glad it happened, and that God used the experience as He did. With His grace, may we give all our experiences to Him, especially the painful, seemingly inexplicable ones, and through them may He bring about an increase of love for Him and all His creation.