vocation

Changing My Dating Theology

Is it just me, or do any other you other single ladies on the planet feel like God hates you because you’re single? That something is wrong with you because you are single? That you have some thing you have to do or some kind of line you have to cross to “earn” your husband?

Usually, I know all of those questions are just bullsh*t. But wedding season is upon us once again, so these pesky doubts and fears are flooding my brain once again. It’s basically becoming an annual tradition to freak out about my singleness before the first wedding of the season. Oh, and now on my birthday too because God knows how us ladies are only fertile for so long. Yeah, it was particularly fun birthday this year where I experienced a dating disappointment, realized I’m a year away from my fertility peaking, and had my period. Cue a disproportionate amount ugly crying. 😀

So many well-intentioned friends and family members have been offering advice, going through the benefits of the latest dating app or online service, setting me up, and whatever else to try to “fix” this situation. But I’ve started to realize my singleness isn’t a situation that can be “fixed.” I wish people would just love me and accept me for exactly where I’m at: single and freaking out occasionally. 

I don’t need well-intentioned advice. I need to know I’m lovable for exactly who I am. I don’t need an online dating app. I need to hear that you doubted someone was out there too. I don’t need to be set up. I need your friendship. I don’t need to be “fixed.” I need you to listen to my fears and doubts.

Despite the usual cacophony of fears and doubts, I am so at peace to go to my good friend Cece* and her fiancee’s wedding this month. These two are such an example of true, mature, Christian love. Instead of making me feel inadequate, they give me hope for the future. They have been through a lot as a couple and how they continue to loving walk with one another is nothing short of inspirational.

The first huddle they faced was dating long distance. He lived in Milwaukee for his job. She lived in South Bend, Indiana, while working on her Masters at Notre Dame. Then they got engaged, and the next biggest hurdle they used to face was obeying her parents’ wishes to have a two-year engagement. Her sister had gotten engaged a few months earlier, and her parents didn’t want to handle two weddings in one summer. They obliged and bemoaned the fact they had be engaged longer than they were dating.

But then their next biggest hurdle was a doozy: a newly diagnosed crazy rare neurological disorder.

I remember exactly where I was when I received that fateful email from Cece. We hadn’t see each other since she, her fiancee, and I got brunch together. Too, we hadn’t talked in several months, merely out of the chaos of our schedules. She was busy with her Masters program. I was busy with work. But I was not too busy at work to check my personal email at work, however, on April 29th, 2016.

I was overseeing a handle of patients in our small, internal waiting room, watching for results to pending labs and radiology scans. I didn’t think much of her header, “Updates…so I don’t get yelled at. ;)” However, when I read how she’d been having “some weird neurological symptoms on the left side of my body” since Thanksgiving, my stomach dropped.

After months of symptoms and multiple visits to the doctor that I didn’t know were happening, she had an MRI. The MRI found a handful of tumors all over her brain, which were found to be benign. As she wrote, “Basically, the conclusion is that I am a mutant. Not a cool mutant like the Ninja Turtles or the X-men. No, I’m a mutant who has the super lame superpower of growing benign tumors.” Her doctors concluded she had a rare genetic disorder, which later garnered the name neurofibromatosis type II.

I was shocked. I hated that all I could do was pray and nothing more. There was no way I could see her in the next couple days. My schedule was packed, and I knew she was occupied with exams and her sister’s upcoming wedding.

We texted a few weeks later. She and her fiancee had gone to a genetic counselor to figure out her chances of having a baby with this condition. Said genetic counselor basically told her it was a 50-50 chance and that if she had a child with this, she’d recommend abortion. Cece was not cool with that. She sent me a long rant about how horrible medical professionals can be. I agreed. We can be really horrible.

We then discussed the pain of our individual crosses. I had months earlier been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, and I knew in a way the heaviness of despair when hope disappoints. She, of course, dropped some wisdom on me  when she said, “I’m learning how to love my cross. The cross itself is easy. It’s the unplanned splinters that really get me. I didn’t account for those.” (Really,  those pesky splinters are the worst!)

But in this encounter and in her previous email,  I started to learn what true, mature, Christian love was all about.  She had closed her email with this: “Please keep me in your prayers. And my family/fiancee. They are taking it much harder than I am.” And when we texted that day, she said how she and her fiancee were on the same page that they would love and accept a child with this disorder. And I knew that her fiancee was loving and accepting Cece for exactly who she was, newly diagnosed crazy rare neurological disorder and all.

Both Cece and her fiancee were more worried about the other person than themselves. Instead of trying to “fix” the other, they had always been supportive of one another, walking along side them in whatever they were suffering. In seeing these two love one another in spite of and in part because of their weaknesses and burdens, I’ve realized these doubts, fears, and questions I have about my future spouse are even more bullsh*t than I realized.

  • Does God hates you when he allows you to have a newly diagnosed crazy rare neurological disorder? NO!
  • Is something wrong with your marriage or relationships that your significant other gets diagnosed with something? NO! 
  • Do you have to do some thing or cross some kind of line you have to cross to “earn” your healing? NO!

Getting married is not the race; life is. Despite traditional markers of success telling us otherwise, it does not matter when we reach certain markers in life. It more matters how we live out our lives. Peter was older and had already been married when he was called by Jesus while John was much younger. Therese of Lisieux died at age 24 while Mother Teresa was 36 and over a decade into her work as a nun before receiving her “call within a call” and started the Missionaries of Charity. Age does not matter; our lives do. 

I sincerely wish all of the pressure to get married, have children, and fulfill my vocation just came from secular society. That I can handle. The world tells me to do a lot of stupid things to make me feel “successful.” Unfortunately, most of the pressure to measure my success by my romantic relationships comes from within Christian circles. We have unwittingly adopted a theology of prosperity when truly our collective Christian creeds teach a theology of accompaniment.

The theology of prosperity also known as the Prosperity Gospel is “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith,” according to Kate Bowler, historian of the American prosperity gospel and author of the book Blessed. It started with Essek William (E.W.) Kenyon, a pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church who founded the Bethel Bible Institute around the start of the 19th century and popularized the idea of positive thinking in American theology. Kenyon taught that Christians should avoid words and ideas that “create” sickness and poverty, such as wallowing in misery, and instead repeat that “I am blessed.” (Thus, the name of Bowler’s book.)

Positive thinking is pervasive is our American secular and Christian culture. Have you seen the un-ironic use of the hashtag #blessed recently? Have seen how the new American Health Care Act punishes the chronically ill? (There’s a great piece in the Atlantic tying the Prosperity Gospel and the AHCA) Have you read The Secret and learned how everything in life is tied to positive thinking?

As Christians, we ought to be calling bullsh*t to all of this!  Job never did anything wrong and had a handful of tragedies happen to him. The people that Jesus cures are children, people lame and blind from birth, people who did nothing wrong. Jesus never sinned and was crucified!

Yet, Christian culture is embracing this false Prosperity gospel in droves. Mega-pastor Joel Osteen preaches: “Choosing to be positive and having a grateful attitude is going to determine how you’re going to live your life.” 

Um, false. Jesus was not tortured to death for my sins from a lack of positive thinking.

We might laugh because we know this, but do we think it? But as much as we say we reject this theology of prosperity, it pervades our thinking. Try talking to a friend or colleague about a problem, whether it’s dating or a disease or the most recent unthinkable tragedy you saw at work. Before long, you’ll usually hear chords of the theology of prosperity: “everything happens for a reason.” (I’m chiding myself here too. I do it all that time!)

But what if it doesn’t? Because really, I’ve begged God to explain some of the worst things that happened in my life, and I have yet to receive an answer aside from comfort.

I think we crave cause because we crave order. And craving cause is not a bad thing in the least! Knowing that dependent things have a cause is how we can intuitively know God exists. But when we crave order so much that we assign a “cause” to people’s every sickness and misfortune, well, that’s a perversion of truth. It’s not even Biblical.

One of my favorite Gospels is the healing of a blind man in the Gospel of John. Before Jesus even approaches the man to offer him healing, both physical and spiritual, His disciples pose a question that any believer of the theology of prosperity needs to ask:

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

John 9: 2-3

What if our misfortunes, illnesses, sufferings were not part of God’s massive plan in life but just happened? And what if God could use anything that happens so that the works of God might be made visible through us?

It is a fine point but important clarification that God does not cause our suffering but can work good through it. As St. Augustine wrote: “For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 311). But God does not cause our suffering though He allows it.

So, we’re just broken human beings in a broken world? There’s no line we need to cross or blessing we have to earn? That’s the question Bowler herself asks in her op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. She’s 35, married with small children, and recently diagnosed with stage IV cancer. As she writes,

This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos…people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

– Kate Bowler, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me”

Tragedies are not just tests of character. Tragedies are not opportunities God uses to torture us. We see again and again in the true Gospel that Jesus mourns with His loved ones and His heart is moved with compassion. He says, “Wow. That’s awful” and walks with us. And as much as we want to believe in “everything happens for a reason” because we crave order and control, positive thinking does not guarantee that tragedy will not strike!

Fulton Sheen said it best:

The law He gave was clear: life is a struggle; unless there is a Cross in our lives, there will never be an empty tomb; unless there is a crown of thorns, there will never be the halo of light; unless there is a Good Friday, there will never be an Easter Sunday. When He said, “I have conquered the world,” He did not mean His followers would be immune from woes, sorrow, and crucifixion. He gave no peace which promised a banishment from strife…If the Heavenly Father did not spare His son, He, the Heavenly son, would not spare His disciples. What the Resurrection offered was not immunity from evil in the physical world, but immunity from sin in the soul.

The Divine Savior never said to His Apostles, “Be good and you will not suffer;” but He did say, “In this world you shall have tribulation.”

– Ven. Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ

As Sheen references, Jesus warns His beloved in John 16:33 “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.”

The Greek word Jesus uses for “trouble” or “tribulation” is θλῖψιν or thlipsis, or most properly, internal pressure and a sense of being hemmed in with no options. (Hm, no options? Sounds like my love life!)

Thlipsis is the same word that His first disciples use when encouraging one another to bear their hardships. At the end of their first mission, St. Paul was just stoned to the point people thought he was dead, and then he and some disciples went around doing this:

They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Acts 14:22

The earliest disciples did not deny their suffering. They embraced it with their comrades and knew an inner disposition of peace was better than a physical sense of one. Despite threats of death, the disciples walked with one another in faith and held up one another when they were afraid, doubting, and otherwise weak. The apostles prayed where the community needed them the most and went there. They wrote letters to encourage one another. They looked potential suffering in the eye and kept going because they knew Jesus was with them in those hardships. They died penniless, often tortured and beaten, and otherwise shamed by the world. Where’s the theology of prosperity in that?

Like it or not, we are going to suffer if we are going to live. That’s life. As Fr. James Martin wrote in his excellent book Between Heaven and Mirth:

Suffering – interior and exterior – is the lot of all people, including believers, including devout believers, and including those who strive to lead joyful lives. Although the prosperity gospel has a number of important highlights – its focus on joy is a needed corrective in Christian circles; its emphasis on a rock-ribbed faith in God is essential; its encouragement to believe in a God who desires our ultimate joy is an antidote to so many terrifying images of God – its denial of suffering means that it doesn’t fully embrace the human condition.

– James Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

If Jesus teaches anything by His life, He teaches this: To suffer is to be human; to offer it up to God, divine. Life is going to be hard no matter what. Yes, a good attitude can be helpful, but it only goes so far.  We need to stop lying to ourselves that it’s just our attitude that determines everything!

But we lie to ourselves about having a good attitude because it’s frightening to think that nothing, not even a good attitude or character, can protect us from pain. We want a cause for our suffering so we can reverse it. But when we stop assigning a divine cause for everything, we can come to know God for who He is. Instead of a cruel God who acts like a puppet master, sending us tests and trials who we need to constantly impress, we have a God who will walk with us in all of our suffering, who has suffered the same pains if not more, who will not just rejoice with us but gladly suffers with us. 

I like to think of God as the best E.R. nurse in the world. As an E.R. nurse, you never know exactly how the day is going to go or who is going to come into the department, but no matter what, you know how to handle the emergency. Chest pain? EKG, chest X-ray, trop, BMP, CBC. Massive trauma? 2 large bore IVs, type and screen, CBC, BMP, lactic, ABG, tamponade the bleeding if possible. Stubbed toe? Maybe an Xray. 😉

In the E.R., you did not cause the emergency, but you know how to handle it. So, too, Jesus can handle whatever tragedy enters into our lives and in the world, even if He did not cause it.

When we deny our suffering and cover it up with positive thinking, we are not only denying our human experience but we are denying an opportunity to show compassion to our neighbor and suffer with them. Jesus never denied His human nature, and we should not either. Jesus openly showed His suffering, and He gives us a beautiful model of how to do it in our own lives as well.

The most frightening feature of a theology of prosperity is how it abandons the most vulnerable and places blame on them for their situation. A person suffering from a debilitating disease deserves to be comforted, not subtly chided for not believing in God enough. A person who is struggling in their faith deserves a vulnerable conversation to strengthen them, not an empty exhortation to trust that “everything happens for a reason.” A single person who is doing her very best to wait patiently and find God’s will in her current state of life deserves friendship, not a lecture about how to find a husband and “fix” her situation.

Now, does this mean I have a right to be moaning and miserable? As much as I’d love an excuse to complain, NO!

But it means when I have a moment of weakness where I’m so happy for my friends to be married but hurting a little because I have not found my spouse yet, I want compassion, not a lecture. It means I want you to walk with me and accompany me in my pain, not for you to lecture me to think more positively. It means I’m going to start to practice a dating theology of accompaniment, not prosperity.

The difference between the cacophony of positive thinking and true accompaniment is small but important. Positive thinking harps on the other person to change. Accompaniment challenges us to change ourselves by admitting we do not have all the answers either.  

My dear friend demonstrated this so beautifully.  We were catching up over a happy hour months after her wedding. We talked about our graduate studies, families, and current struggles. She talked about the difficulty of having her husband a plane ride away, and I discussed the struggle of being single. Then she asked the best thing I’ve ever heard: “My friend is struggling with being single like you too. What’s the best thing I can do to support you guys?

That, my friends, is a theology of accompaniment. And that is what we as Christians ought to be modeling for one another. We need to walk with each other, not be racing against each other towards external measures of success to appease our inner self.

As with all my posts, most of the writing is to convince myself to change. For too long, I’ve measured my success by what I have in life, what “finish lines” I’ve crossed, and how I measure up against everyone else. I’ve driven myself to despair when God hasn’t given me what I’ve deeply desired. I’ve thought He’s hated me because I haven’t prayed enough or done enough or even been enough. But that’s not Jesus.

Through all the disappointments, doubts, and moments of weakness, I’ve realized all those feelings of inadequacy are bullsh*t. Those pervasive questions of “am I enough?” coming from an inaccurate theology of prosperity that measures worth on exteriors. God desires my joy. But He desires so much more for me than physical wellbeing, a spouse, kids, and other external and temporary signs of prosperity. He desires my heart. He has been attempting to show how much He’s loved me in every single moment of my life, and I keep trying to measure His love by external measures of success.

For too long, I’ve mistakenly believed in a theology of prosperity while the Lord has been teaching my over and over again His theology of accompaniment.

But as He’s shown me time and time again, getting married is not the race; life is. Too, it more matters who is racing along side us and helping us along the way than us reaching markers of success alone.

I can only hope and pray that one day, I will turn and find my spouse running with me, so maybe we can end our lives, our race, hand-in-hand like this sweet couple:

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 10.46.15 AM.png

So, however long it takes me to reach that “line” that is marriage, I’ll keep going, despite stumbling, falling, and failing along the way, knowing that my Lord is along side me. Like my sweet comrades, He is helping and encouraging me along the way, as much as I freak out from time to time.

I am overcome with joy to celebrate the marriage Cece and her fiancee who have given me a model of accompaniment I hope to emulate in my own relationship some day. Congratulations! 😀

* Name altered to protect her privacy. But too bad she cannot escape being friends with me. Sorry, girl. 😀

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