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Modern Romance

By: Brad Zinn, edited by Rebecca DeWhitt

Over the last several weeks we've been looking at the 10 commandments as a kind of love letter from God to us. In honor of Valentine's Day, today I want to press pause on that series and look instead at a sermon I did several months ago on modern romance.

This sermon was part of our weekly Sunday services at 123 S. 51st Street. If you're interested in talking more about this, you are always welcome to drop by West Philly for a visit.


A Brief History of Marriage

I want to start by giving a disclaimer. The average age for getting married today is 30 for men and 27 for women. I got married 14 years ago at 25, which means that it has been over a decade since I dated, and I dated for fewer years than most people do.

As a non-expert I've had to do a lot of research talking to social scientists, reading books, and listening to people in our church. What I'm discovering is that the things that lead to a healthy dating relationship are the same things required for any healthy relationship.

To set the stage, let's do a brief tour of dating through the centuries (as I understand it):

  • Several Millennia - Marriages were arranged by families, with the goal of strengthening families and support their agricultural lifestyle.
  • Industrial Revolution - As we move away from agriculture there is less need for kids to work on farms. Women achieve some rights and "single" becomes a category for the first time. Young people go on multiple dates with multiple people as fun social outings and only commit to dating a single person when they are essentially engaged.
  • The 1940s and World War 2 - With fewer men at home, the emphasis changes to coupling. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" categories emerge without the implication of a marriage commitment. When people do marry they are looking for someone to have a family with, provide financial stability or take care of the home. The expectation is that love might start small and slowly grow.
  • The 1960s and 70s - As women's roles continue to change, building a family and filling roles are no longer the priorities. Love and personal fulfillment become reasons for marriage, and people expect to be totally in love with marriage partners.

That brings us right up to...

The Era of Modern Romance

One of the people I spoke with to prepare for this sermon referenced an article they read that compared modern dating to buying jam:

If you have 3 jams to choose between, and there's one you know you don't like and one you're allergic to, then the choice is essentially made for you. But if you have 20 jams to choose from that are all more or less equal to one another, then you may start basing your decision on superficial things like what color the label is or whether the container is glass or plastic. I think with dating it's the same thing. You start eliminating people based on their beard length or the face that they don't listen to Radiohead, instead of basing your decision on whether this person agrees with your core values.

With the modern ability to select between thousands of partners via sites like Tinder and OkCupid dating has become much more like shopping. Dates are like interviews where we are being judged and we're judging others.

For a lot of the people that I spoke with this approach didn't sit well. I think that's because this kind of dating encourages us to emphasize our false self, and we miss out on the experience of feeling truly known.

According to one sociologist I interviewed, people often look to fill that hole by binging. They may hook up physically, making out or having one night stands with people, or they may do it emotionally, spilling their secrets in one-time emotional encounters. If that vulnerability isn't rewarded with commitment, shame can creep in. The sociologist told me that most people eventually find these types of interactions unfulfilling. 

I'd like to suggest that perhaps this is a fatal flaw of consumeristic relationships. In surface level dating we don't feel seen and known, and our false self is encouraged. In non-committed intimate situations if our vulnerabliity is not rewarded by commitment it's a form of rejection of our true selves.

How can we untangle ourselves from this mess, and build relationships that affirm and develop us holistically?

Finding Our Other Half

"You complete me."

That famous sentence from Jerry Maguire pretty well sums up consumeristic relationships. It sells the idea that we can and should expect another human being to fill us. 

The Bible gives us a different picture of wholeness:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.

He is the head over every power and authority. --Colossians 2:9-10

I read that to mean that fullness and fulfillment in Christ are available to everyone, regardless of relationship status. We are meant to have deep relationships with one another, but we don't need to be married to be fulfilled.

With that piece out of the way, marriage becomes less of a need and more of an opportunity. Instead of looking for completion we can look for a partner to help us grow and do bigger things in the world.

So here is my Valentine's Day suggestion for you. Maybe the person you're looking for, or the person you're partnered with, isn't primarily supposed to make you happy. Maybe they are supposed to help you grow, point you to Jesus, and imperfectly support you in living the life you are made for.

Questions for Reflection:

As you move through this Valentine's Day, I want to offer two questions that can help you orient your life towards Christ and the kind of fullness he wants for you. They may even help you sort through what kind of support you need from a current partner, or what kind of a partner you are looking for.

  1. What has God made you to do?

  2. Where do you need to grow?

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