What is God’s Purpose for Romance?

By Chris Matthews, Yale Faith and Action Ministry Fellow

My first experience with the mysterious power of
romance came in the sixth grade. There was a girl in
my grade who had gone mostly unnoticed by me in
previous years. But suddenly and without warning, she
began to have a dramatically different effect on me.
Close physical proximity caused unexplained physical
reactions: sweaty palms, a racing pulse, and an almost
complete incapacity of speech. There were also
emotional effects. I was excited at the prospect of her
presence, anxious and terrified when she was present,
and saddened when I expected her to be present and
she was not. It went on for more than two years. It had
shocking effects on my life. It filled my thoughts and
daydreams and it impacted what I wore, who I wanted
as friends, where I wanted to be, even what music I enjoyed.
All the while, I had little to no relationship with
the object of my romantic obsession and just a superficial knowledge of what she was really like.

Almost every post-pubescent human being can recount
their own experience with the mysterious power
of the romantic impulse. It is something distinct
from physical or sexual attraction, fueled by emotion
instead of libido. Philosophers and psychologists
have labored to explain the origin and purpose of the
romantic impulse. In Plato’s Symposium, six Athenian
philosophers discuss it while praising the deity
Eros. Aristophanes proposes that humans are descended
from beings with spherical torsos that were
split in two by the gods, and the romantic impulse is a
desire to return to the original form. Socrates proposes
that the romantic impulse must be a result of a lack of
being, specifically the lack of beauty. For much of the
20th century, the Oedipal theories of Sigmund Freud
dominated thought about the source of both romantic
and sexual impulses among psychologists. Other
psychologists, such as René Girard, argued against
Freudian theories, proposing the source of the romantic
impulse is instead rivalry and jealousy as individuals
observe attraction between others. There have
also been more utilitarian explanations for romance.

Arthur Schopenhauer tracks the romantic impulse to
simply the will-to-live impulse that leads to a desire to
produce attractive progeny. Still others, such as former
Yale professor Robert Sternberg, see the romantic impulse
as merely a basic combination of “liking” and
the sexual impulse.

As made explicitly clear in the example of Aristophanes,
any theory about the origin and purpose of the
romantic impulse is highly dependent on one’s understanding
of the origin and purpose of human beings
as a whole. If human beings are the product of chance,
unguided natural processes and there exists no real
purpose for human existence other than survival, then
the theories of Freud and Girard might seem the most
convincing. If each human being establishes their
own sense of purpose from their own perspectives
and heritage, then the discussion of universal meaning
or purpose for the romantic impulse is precluded.
In which case the utilitarian and simplistic perspectives
of Schopenhauer or Sternberg might be all there
is to say. However, if human beings are the purposeful
creation of God, then the purpose of the romantic impulse
must find its genesis in God’s larger purpose for
human beings.

In the book of Genesis, God creates man and woman
in His own image. He charges them to be fruitful
and multiply, filling, subduing and ruling over the
earth. This charge, commonly called the cultural mandate,
and this intended state of being in the image
of God, combine to establish a basic purpose for human
existence – that is to reflect the true nature of God
while carrying out the cultural mandate. God’s purpose
for human existence cannot be reduced to merely
a function, filling and ruling over the earth. The
manner in which that function is conducted must display
the true expression of God. The purpose also cannot
be reduced to just a proper state of being, being in
the image of God. That proper state of being must and
its expression through the proper function of humanity,
fulfilling and ruling over the earth.

If human beings are the purposeful creation of
God, everything in human experience can only be
rightly understood, and therefore rightly used and enjoyed,
when grounded in an understanding of the purpose
of God for humanity— which is displaying His
glory through fulfilling His mandate. The romantic
impulse is no exception. As part of common human
experience, the romantic impulse must somehow aid
in both knowing and displaying God through fulfilling
the cultural mandate. So, how does it do that? First and
most obviously, the romantic impulse serves as one
of the motivating forces towards a union that produces
children when it is directed at its proper object, a
person of the opposite sex. Because we live in a world
marred by the effects of every person failing to live according
to God’s purpose, the romantic impulse is not
always directed at its proper object. Producing children
is a necessary part of humanity fulfilling the cultural
mandate. Our romantic impulse, as our sexual
impulses, move us towards that action.

However, if it were only rooted in motivating human
reproduction, the romantic impulse would seem
superfluous since the sexual impulse would seem a
sufficient motivator. The unique purpose for the romantic
impulse can only be discovered by also considering
how the relationship between a man and a
woman displays God’s nature or glory. When God created
man, He said that it was not good for the man
to be alone and the search began for a suitable helper
for him in fulfilling His purpose. The search ended
through God making the woman who was taken from
the man, equally made in God’s image, but made in a
distinct way to be a proper compliment to the man in
fulfilling God’s purpose. The man and woman were
designed to come together, reforming as one whole,
the two becoming one flesh in the covenant relationship
of marriage.

This unity of two distinct persons serves to display
the true nature of God in ways that individual human
beings cannot. One way is through marriage as a
one flesh union of two distinct persons which reflects
the triune nature of God who is also a unity of distinct
persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Though a man and a woman can produce children
outside marriage, it will not function to reflect the unity
of distinct persons in the Trinity without the context
of a permanent one flesh union. Marriage also uniquely
displays God’s love for human beings. In the complete
surrender of themselves to each other and the
selfless consideration of the good of the other ahead of
their own, a married couple enact a dramatization of
the sacrificial love of God for His people that led Him
to send His own Son, Jesus Christ, to lay down His life
for them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul identifies
this display of God’s loving pursuit of human beings
who would become His through covenant relationship
as the raison d’être for marriage. The mystery, now
revealed through Jesus, is that marriage has always
been about displaying Jesus Christ and his love for His  bride, the church.

In light of the centrality of marriage in fulfilling
God’s purpose for humanity, the romantic impulse
provides something that the sexual impulse does not.
The sexual impulse seeks sexual fulfillment, but the
romantic impulse seeks a person. It serves a unique
role in drawing together a man and a woman as distinct
persons in a way that sexual desire does not. In
some instances, the romantic impulse can even serve
to keep the sexual impulse in check, discouraging the
pursuit of sexual fulfillment in ways that would disregard
the romantic object.

In God’s design, romance always serves marriage,
both in drawing human beings towards marriage and
as a part of marital satisfaction. For romance is not just
an impulse, but also a satisfying reward. If romance
ever ceases to serve marriage and becomes an end in
itself, its connection to God’s purpose for humanity is
severed. It is then likely to become a destructive power
instead of an impetus towards meaningful existence.
Romance is a useful motivator when used to serve its
proper end, but it is a terrible guide. Orphaned from its
higher purpose, it becomes mere sentimentality that
will never display God’s nature and inspire sacri!cial
love instead of the pursuit of self-interest.

Twenty years after my first experience with romance,
I had my last. There was another girl who began
to produce similar emotional and life-altering effects
on my life. This time I was caught less unaware
and overcame fear to pursue a relationship with her.
More importantly, I had learned the proper purpose
for these powerful feelings. They were intended to
motivate me towards sacrificial love in the covenant
of marriage. They were not to be trusted as a guide or
pursued for self-fulfillment through indulgent sentimentality
or unrequited pining. They were to inspire
me to love another so sacrificially, so completely, and
so permanently that it would display the greatness of
God’s own love for His people and to surrender my
own rights so completely to her that we would seem
one uni!ed whole. I pursued that girl with those purposes
as my goal and romance found its proper end in
my life, a marriage that hopes to display God and His
love in a world where He is hidden.

Originally published in the Logos Fall 2013 issue on Love, Sex, & Christianity

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