There is a big difference between loving God and “falling in love” or “being in love” with God. It is not only junior high girls who struggle with this issue, however. Confusing romantic love with “chesed”—God’s rich, loyal, covenant-keeping love—is an ancient tradition.
Song of Solomon
The origin of confusing loyal love for God with romantic love may stem from a sincere attempt to apply the Song of Solomon to the Christian life. Up until the late 19th century, the most common interpretation of this book was allegorical; it supposedly referred to the love Christ has for the church (and vice-versa).
The Song of Solomon (a.k.a., “Canticles” or “Song of Songs”) is a collection of romantic love songs. A number of interpreters have postulated theories to enhance the story line to help the book flow, but most modern conservative interpreters understand this book to be a collection of songs that describe the romantic (and erotic) love between a man and a woman (within some sort of narrative). It is intended for a mature audience; the rabbis would not allow a young man to read it until after his bar mitzvah (age 13).
Since this book was interpreted for so long by so many as a book depicting the relationship of Christ to the church, this assumption naturally created confusion between the love God has for us and the romantic love between a man and a woman.
We see imagery from this interpretive grid work in our hymnal. For example, the phrases referring to Jesus as “The Lilly of the Valley” and “Fairest of Ten Thousand” come from romantic references in the Song of Solomon.
Although the song “In the Garden” is supposed to recreate the scene when the risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene at the garden tomb, it is more reminiscent of a romantic rendezvous, is it not?
Jonathan Edwards drew much of his inspiration and perspective from Song of Solomon. John Piper, in modern times, was greatly influenced by Jonathan Edwards. So Piper’s views—indirectly—are sometimes influenced by Edward’s allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon.
Christ’s Bride, the Church
Another source for the confusion between romantic love and an appropriate love for God is in the imagery of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. There are a number of references to this in Scripture, most notably perhaps Ephesians 5:22-33 and John 14:1-7.
In my mind, it is completely understandable how sincere Christians could confuse romantic love with loyal, steadfast love. Between not knowing what to do with the Song of Solomon and the repeated imagery of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride, it is not much of a leap to jump from one type of love to the other. But it is still a leap.
Beginning particularly with the Jesus movement of the 1960’s, Christian gatherings began moving toward emotionalism and away from cultivating the mind (loving God with our hearts only while dismissing anything that rung of intellectualism). As time went on, it seemed that many choruses could have been played on secular stations as love songs, and no one would have been the wiser.
The Bible nowhere commands us to “fall in love” with God. We are commanded to love God, and the evidence of loving God is not warm wigglies, but keeping His commandments (John 14:15, 21) with an emphasis on the heart, not mere mechanical obedience (Matthew 15:8). Our love for God and others is a response to His initiative: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Although many Scriptures are emotional and personal (like the Psalms), they never enter into the romantic. God’s love may overwhelm us emotionally and may help us cope with a lack of romantic love in our lives, for example, but it is not intended as a drop-in replacement. For that matter, the love of God helps us cope with a variety of losses, stresses, griefs, deficiencies, and problems. God’s love does not eliminate the pain, loneliness, or grief. His love, rather, helps us through it; after processing our time of grief, He channels our attention in better directions (as exemplified in the Psalms).
If you are happily married and enjoy romantic love in your marriage, you have a blessing that many do not have. Give thanks to God for it. But if such is not your lot, God’s love—while not romantic—is richer, deeper, and more important than any other. If you can only have one of the two, there is no contest.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.