How do you love someone without idolizing the relationship? I have a tendency to idolize my past relationships, and I’m so afraid of messing up again this time. It makes me almost want to not be with anyone because I know my heart will always default to idolatry. How do other people function and enjoy God’s blessings without turning them into idols? I know I should operate out of love, not fear, but fear is driving my decisions now. I’m so afraid of the past repeating itself and I don’t trust me
My very dear wonderful friend: I had the very same exact issue, and in many ways, I’m still inclined to idolize relationships as my entire source of approval, attention, value, and validation. I have a tendency to get “addicted” to things and to squeeze the life out of them, and it’s a lifelong struggle. I’m sure many others here will also tell you they feel the same way. You’re not alone on this one.
Your instinct to say “I don’t trust me” is actually right on. I commend you for this, because there are way too many cocky people who just do what they want and call it “freedom.” There are too many dumb philosophies that say “Follow your heart” and “Go be yourself” and “Do what you feel” without any context for reality, and people get crushed. So you’re not far from the truth — our hearts are certainly prone to wander.
Yet God also does NOT want you to live in fear of “possible idolatry.” Then you can just as quickly begin to idolize anti-idolatry, and that will crush you too. My friend: you can’t beat yourself up about this.
If you’re worried about messing it up all the time, you will end up trying to control your flesh with your flesh, which simply leads to other problems. It’s just sin-replacement, which you already know is not working. By trying so hard not to mess it up, you’ll simply mess it up somewhere else. We easily overthink ourselves into unlikely death-trap scenarios, which never actually frees us from idolatry. We are officially done with that fear.
So here are some suggestions for you. Please feel free to skip around.
1) If you conclude that you can’t handle a relationship right now, then take a very long extended break from the whole dating scene. Just start over. You need to flush all those addictive tendencies out of your system. Let it go. Maybe even for a whole year. I know this sounds like legalism, but trust me: you will thank me later on this one, even if three weeks from now you meet the hottest Christian ever. In your current state, it would NOT be wise, and you’ll end up ruining both of you.
There are a few of us who need the gift of singleness to invest for our future, so it’ll be like fasting for a good long season. You’ll be able to get your mind right.
That also means you quit the half-flirtations, the late-night texting, the collection of Snapchat buddies, your Instagram follows with all the suggestive pictures, and any possible source of chemistry. Don’t turn your opposite-gender friends into possible dating candidates. Quit dragging them through the attraction-evaluation in your brain. You need a time-out to regain perspective and remember who you are in Christ.
2) Just be friends. I know you’re human and you’ll catch some feelings here and there, but it’s up to you with how you act on them.
Feelings do NOT mean they have to lead somewhere. We live in this weird overly sexualized culture where people think “emotions” instantly means some grand romantic opera is happening, when it’s really just your reproductive organs making you dumb. And then we allow those emotions to fuel the relationship, which heads into idol-territory.
Yes, a guy and a girl CAN be friends, if we can quit thinking that every person you meet is a romantic possibility.
A lot of this random “crushing” is from our culture of “What can you do for me?” — which leads to objectification and dehumanization. I know that sounds pretentious, but even objectifying an idea of romance or some ideal mystery-dude is still using someone for what they can do. That tingle-twitch you get from flirting is really just an ego-boost because you like it when someone might like you back. It’s a stupid game that on a long enough timeline leads to people getting hurt or becoming shallow self-marketing meat on display.
Friendship is the only way to cure that whole thing. When you practice the disciplined art of being friends with the opposite gender, you’ll find a love for them that does NOT regard their physical appearance or “dating material” level. It only regards them for who they are. This is tough to do, but if you can hang out in groups and protect your friends’ dignity, your mind gets rewired to enjoy them for them. It is how God loves us and how we’re called to love others.
3) Quit listening to everyone else, including me, and think it all the way through. You’re going to hear a ton of opinions on this, and there is a lot of bad advice on dating in both non-Christian and Christian subcultures. I sense this tension in you where you want to do what’s right — you said, “I know I should operate out of love, not fear” — but this is causing you even more anxiety.
Ultimately this is an ongoing conversation between you and God. While others will have good things to say, when it comes to dating they can just confuse you, and I have a feeling some of this might be the source of your fear.
Look: Everyone from your pastor to super-bloggers to your roommates to the local Christian bookstore is pressuring you into a decision. Even those cool Christian bloggers are telling you to “relax” and just go date. I’m personally not against dating and I think some of this advice is good stuff. But some of these voices — not you — are paralyzing you with an unnecessary fear that you’re somehow doing this wrong. It’s hard to know where to step when everyone is yelling at you to watch out, and it feels like you’re paying some kind of penalty for not listening to others.
You did confess that you have an idolatry problem, and that’s a good first step. Yet you might be freaking yourself out even more. Maybe your fear of idolatry was pushed to an extreme, or even worse, someone said “you should-should-should” and that choked you with more anxiety.
All that to say: No one has the right to shame you into dating nor scare you out of it either. It is your dang decision under God and it is your process to work through with Him, so don’t let my word or anyone else’s be the final word. Step back from it all and think hard about this. You don’t have to listen to a word I’ve written here. Pray about it as if you’ve never heard a single thing about dating, and remember: you are different than anyone else. God has a word for you.
4) If you get with God on this one, you will confront the honest raw truth about yourself and then find healing. Get honest with Him. Over time, you’ll know why you idolize relationships. You’ll be able to trace it back to your parents’ broken home, or some past abusive partner, or a need to people-please, or a fear of being alone.
When you can figure out all the insides of what’s going on: you can begin healing in all those areas of your life you might have ignored or only skimmed over. You can make the right godly decisions. You can have God take over and He alone will tell you when you’re ready. He has grace for your past and for your future too. He alone will love you into a whole heart so that your relationship will always take a second place to Him — which is exactly as it’s meant to be.
This is a messy imperfect process, but it can begin today, now. Don’t delay it.
5) Get on your God-given adventure. Find the calling God has for you. When you begin giving your life away within the specific blueprint that God has wired you for — you will slowly be able to love without expecting anything back. You’ll be able to remove your desperate tendrils that suck the life out of others.
A lot of times, idolatry is about expectations. We try to squeeze from both people and things what only God can give us. But when they don’t deliver, we tend to crush the idol, crush ourselves, and become controlled and controlling. The way to break free of idolatry is not to not-sin, but to walk into the purposes of God with full abandon.
If you are becoming who God has made you to be and giving your life for His glory — then you automatically enter into the habit of love without expectation and forgiving without retaliation. You become less attached to an idea and begin to appreciate things more for their essence in itself. When your sleeves are rolled up in the mess of broken people who can do nothing for you, you will experience a kind of selflessness that makes self-centered living look like a joke — and you won’t want to go back.
Find your calling in Christ. It doesn’t mean your idolizing tendencies will disappear. But it does mean that when God is your active priority — both in your heart and your hands — you will have an appropriate measure for the blessings in your life. Then along the way, as you live your God-made adventure, you’ll find someone alongside you running to Him too.
This post is now in my book on sex, dating, and relationships here!