Podcast listener Nora writes in: “Hello Pastor John, I am a freshman in college and just started a relationship. We are both Christians and want to keep God in the center of our relationship. However, I find myself making our relationship and my boyfriend an idol. I depend on him for my happiness, and I think about our relationship more than I think about my relationship with God. How can I stay away from that? And what does relational idolatry look like for someone in a new relationship like mine?”
Amen to their mutual desire to keep God central. It seems to me that Nora already has a significant picture in her mind of what idolatry looks like, because she thinks she is in it, at least in some measure. I think she is being really honest there, but her heart is against it, which is a good sign.
I wonder if it would be more helpful for me to her in describing the positive alternative to idolatry in a new relationship so that she might recognize idolatry as the opposite of these things and so would be able to put her energies not so much into avoiding something, as pursuing something. So that is the approach I am going to take. It seems to me that there are at least three ways that Nora can think about the way her new romance relates to her relationship with Jesus.
First, she can think about it comparatively. How does her affection for the boyfriend compare to her affection for Christ? She is sort of thinking that way already. Second, she can think of her relationship to this young man as an expression of her relationship to Jesus. And, third, she can think of this new romance as a way of strengthening or building her relationship with Jesus. So let me take those three one at a time and just point to the Scripture and how she can think about those.
1) The Bible speaks of our relationship to good things or good persons that God has made as if those things were, in a sense, nothing in comparison to him. But it does so comparatively speaking. That is, in relation to the infinite value of Jesus, the value of other things or other people are as nothing. So, for example, Psalm 73:25–26: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” She loves her boyfriend. “Nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Or here is the way the apostle Paul puts it in Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss” — boyfriend included — “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Now we know from other things that the psalmist and Paul say, that the good things that God has made, like the people of God, whom both the psalmist and Paul say they find great delight in — I mean, in Psalm 16:3 and Philippians 4:1, both the psalmist and Paul talk about the people of God as their great delight. So they are not nothing. They are a great delight.
And so we know from those statements that God’s creation is not counted as worthless or as merely an occasion for idolatry, but the test of our faithfulness. And the test is: Are we able to say with the biblical writers that if I lost everything, God would be enough for my everlasting joy? That is the comparative idea. So she could view this relationship comparatively, and that is the one she is having trouble with. So maybe these next two will help her manage that one better.
2) Nora should cultivate this new relationship with this new young man as an expression of her relationship with Jesus — a way of acting out or showing her relationship with Jesus, not just a threat to her relationship with Jesus or in competition with it. For example, Ephesians 5 describes the marriage relationship between a man and a woman as a drama or a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.
Now that deeply changes the way a man and a woman look at their relationship. It is not just about them. It is about showing him, expressing him and his covenant relationship to his bride and the church, and therefore an intense love for a man by a woman or a woman by a man can and should be transposed into the music of a divine drama, so that the intensity of the emotion for the person is not in contrast to emotion for Jesus, but an expression of emotion for Jesus.
So here is the principle that Paul laid down in Galatians 5:6. He said, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” In other words, faith doesn’t exist in a vacuum of spirituality. Faith expresses itself. Faith shows itself. And the fundamental way that faith shows or expresses itself is in the fruit of love, “faith working through love.” So Nora should ask herself: As I love my new boyfriend, is it merely competing with my faith in Jesus or is it expressing my faith in Jesus?
3) And the last one, the third way to look at her relationship with him is: Is this relationship strengthening and building her faith and his faith? When the Bible thinks of relationships in general, it uses this principle: “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). That is the meaning of relationships. Let everything be done for building up. For example, Hebrews 3:13 says, “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” So the aim is that the relationship would serve faith and serve holiness — serve the overcoming of sin.
So the question for Norah is: Is the new relationship working? Is it having the effect to build me and him up in our faith? Are we trusting God more? Are we loving God more? Are our lives marked by more passion for holiness because of what we are finding in each other? Is it strengthening or is it weakening our love for Christ?
So here is a summary. Nora, pursue the relationship in three ways: 1) Pursue it as a good thing which in comparison to an infinite thing is a no-thing. 2) Pursue it as an expression of your faith in Jesus, not a competition with your faith in Jesus. Find ways to express your faith in this relationship. 3) Pursue it as a means of strengthening and building up your faith and his faith, not weakening them. And if those three aims are being realized, I think the Lord is keeping you from idolatry.