“Love or Lust?” Identifying the Role of Physical Attraction in Healthy Relationships
So, sexual attraction is a powerful force. If you are like me, you grew up in the church being told this, and that as a result, sexual lust was to be avoided like the plague and feared as dangerous as an inescapable labyrinth. And there are many who can testify to the powerful vice-grip that lust can be. However, I was also raised that physical attraction is good. It is celebrated in the Songs of Solomon, where it’s power is recognized, and depicted in a way appropriate for God’s intended experience of it.
Yet, we all know that this “intended experience” is in marriage. That being the case, what about the single person? How does the single person “honor” and “celebrate” feelings of physical/sexual attraction, without falling prey to lust?
I believe this is a question that many young Christian singles ask themselves, and it specifically manifests itself in these questions: “how much weight should be give to feelings of physical attraction when choosing to date/ select a mate?” “What is the role of sexual attraction in finding a spouse?” and “what is the appropriate way to balance fleeing shallowness and lust, while not ignoring or denying God-wired impulses?”
These questions are some that Laura Smit tries to provide some help on in her book Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love. I wish that I could tell you that she has the perfect solution, a pithy saying that perfectly crystallizes how to walk this tight-rope. In my critical reading of the book, I would say that she spends 93% of the time just giving examples of the problem, and 7% of the time offering some sort of helpful ideas. And it’s the content of this 7% I want to pass on to you today, along with some commentary.
So, “what role do feelings of physical attraction play in dating/ chosing who to date, and who to marry?” Here are ideas Smit suggests:
1) If sexual impulses are good (God-designed), then sin corrupts something that is good. Thus, these impulses are not evil in and of themselves. Thus, when it comes to thinking about the topic, it is important to remember that these feelings are not to be ascetically purged from us. The truth is “much more complicated. Our task is not just to love what god loves and hate what God hates, but also to love appropriately (emphasis mine), to give our loves the proper weight, to rank our loves in the proper order” (155).
2) We must differentiate between two kinds of physical attraction: 1) superficial attraction (what you experience about someone you know nothing about), which is a matter of biology, and 2) “bestowal love,” or the way our bodily attraction to another person reflects the deeper human attraction we have to their personality and soul.
3) Superficial attraction is not evil. It does become sin, however, when it becomes lust.
4) Bestowal love is also not evil. However, it is also not inherently good. Bestowal love can also become an idol, and this sort of love can also wrap us up into actions of rebellion or obsession with these feelings that have developed inside of us. It can be virtuous, but it can also be a snare.
5) The most important factor in deciding if you are experience lust or love is not you physical response, but “your mental construct through which you interpret a relationship” (157). Thus, superficial attraction is to be viewed as being natural, but as such, should be an acknowledged response you have to a particular person/ body, but as such, should not be given much weight as an indicator of one’s “compatibility” or “fit” with another. Bestowal love, however, can hopefully be a blessing you experience as you go through the process of actually discovering and knowing somebody, but it also must be both a) checked and guarded, and b) perhaps used as an indicator as to whether or not this person is marginable, but is definitely not the be-all-end-all. Instead, consider it one possible litmus test to use from the many in your bat-belt of love and compatibility widgets.
So, are these points helpful? Well, I wouldn’t say she turns the haze completely into a clear Sunday day, but she provides helpful reminders about how we should use our minds to interpret our emotions. Especially in our western culture, were “love” marriages are practiced over arranged ones, and where longings and fantasies over one’s future spouse are nurtured in boys and girls from the time they leave the women, it is important to remember that our feelings are not fine tuned compasses of God’s will. But rather, some simply result from neurobiology and how we are wired. And, we can take it at that. However, even when we become attracted to someone because of their inner (dare I say, “Shallow Hal” style) beauty, we must elevate this as some all-seeing determinant of marital success. As long as we primarily base our hopes on criteria that we feel will guarantee a “happy marriage,” we run the risk of staring a marriage that is doomed to fail. When individual happiness and self-satisfaction become the most valuable commodities of marriage, covenant, servant-sacrifice, and grace will always fall to being second fiddle. Thus, the best reminder I received from this reading was not to only beware the danger of waiting or holding out for an unrealistic fantasy of a spouse, but even after finding a winner, making sure your theology of marriage is shaped by the paradigms of covenant, versus a paradigm of consumerism.
And, having even today walked the grounds of a well renowned Christian University, and being able to feel the “spring magic-fever” of romance in the air, this last paradigm is one that many more of us fall prey to than we might think…