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It’s that time of year again.
The tarantulas are rambling across the deserts of the American Southwest.
Brown tarantulas are large, hairy, solitary spiders – about the size of a saucer – that seem perfectly designed to play the starring role in a horror movie. In reality, they are exceedingly gentle. They rarely bite and make better-than-average pets. They can even be induced to walk on a leash. If you have the opportunity to give that a try sometime, please let me know how things turn out.
If your heart still hasn’t been at least slightly warmed toward these slow-moving arachnids, consider the fact that few animals have such a sad love life.
Every fall, when hormones start flowing and the thoughts of a young tarantula turn toward love, these creatures emerge one-by-one from their lonely desert burrows and start walking in search of a mate. Virtually blind (despite their eight eyes), equipped with almost no sense of smell, tarantulas have to bump into each other, by chance, to succeed in this all-important mission. Their only asset is their sense of touch.
Their journeying may take them several hundred feet to several miles in any direction. Most tarantulas never find a suitable mate, and go bumping blindly across the landscape until the end of their forlorn days.
Incredibly, millions of people do no better. We look desperately for love. Most of us grow up with distorted images of romance. We only know it is supposed to be fabulous.
Without highly developed senses, we wander from setting to setting hoping that love will bump into us. We take risks, too, using the “touch system” favored by tarantulas to check out potential mates. But at the end of the day far too many of us are still walking through life alone.
In her book iGen, sociologist Jean Twenge describes the ambivalent emotions concerning intimate relationships that are typical of American young people born between the mid-1990s and 2010 (often referred to as Generation Z). Gen Z men and women aren’t sure what to think about sex. They yearn for intimacy but fear commitment. Twenge notes that “catching feelings,” or developing an emotional attachment to a new sex partner, has now become a slang term, suggesting that getting too close to someone may lead to “a disease one would rather not have.” One Gen Z website offers this tip before hooking up with someone for the first time: “Go into it with the attitude that you’re not going to develop feelings toward this person.”
No wonder sex is so confounding for so many of us. It’s supposed to be this wonderful thing. But in practice it seems like such a mess.
Why doesn’t God make it easy? Why doesn’t God link us up with ideal partners in a timely fashion, and ten minutes after we are married flip a switch that forever locks in our sexual urges, like a tractor beam, to that one person standing beside us?
The answer seems to be that God does some of his very best work – his extraordinary labor of character-building – by means of our trusting him at every stage of a love relationship. The Puritans called marriage “the church within the church” – the setting where disciples best learn, over a long period of time, what it actually means to love and be loved.
One thing’s for sure: Whomever we live with will require an endless supply of compassion, tolerance, understanding, and forgiveness. The schmaltzy tagline of the movie Love Story was, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But precisely the opposite is true. Real love demands daily mega-doses of humility and repentance, not to mention a lively sense of humor.
When Jesus is asked in Matthew 19:1-12 about the realistic possibility of spouses staying together in the midst of a fallen world, he points to the danger of hard-heartedness. The greatest threat to a love relationship is when the inner world of its partners, instead of remaining soft and pliable, becomes hard and cold – when our hearts become fossilized. Instead of serving the one I love, I want to be served. Instead of seeking forgiveness and restoration, I want to dish out blame.
All too many people conclude, “I married the wrong person. Real love cannot possibly feel this horrible.” Marriages may seem hopelessly lost, but hard hearts can soften.
In her landmark study, Does Divorce Make People Happy? Linda Watson of the University of Chicago surveyed couples who rated themselves as “very unhappy” in their marriages. Of those who chose to stay together and keep working through the chaos of their relationship, 80% rated themselves as “happy” five years later. Of those who gave up on their marriages, only 19% described themselves five years later as being happy.
What is our hope? It’s not that your spouse or partner might suddenly be magically transformed into the fulfillment of your fantasies, but that God’s love and grace can still break through the hardness of your heart. If we trust him, God is able and willing to swap out old hearts for new ones.
Let’s return briefly now to the text we’ve been considering all week, the John 8 account of Jesus’ interaction with a woman being presented, in the company of her accusers, as a test case for sexual infidelity.
Somebody in this story is missing.
Since adultery is not a solo activity, and the woman was apparently dragged straight out of the bedroom, where exactly is the guy?
The text is silent. Speculations abound. Perhaps the woman’s partner is someone with a public reputation and the accusers are shielding him from shame. Some have suggested that one of the accusers (or someone in league with them) deliberately linked up with this woman for the express purpose of presenting her as a “sinner” before the watching world, all in an effort to snare Jesus. If that is so, it would be the very height of cynicism.
Or it could be that the accusers are simply following a very old playbook. When it comes to sexual misbehavior, women have often been considered more culpable than men.
This idea is utterly incompatible with biblical teaching. Old Testament Law could not be clearer: Accountability and consequences for those convicted of relational offenses must be entirely mutual.
The absence of the second party in John eight is telling. And disheartening. It stands as a reminder that even after twenty centuries, there is still so much for us to do to elevate the honor, dignity, and personal rights of women.
But in this story we also notice something else.
It’s true that the woman brought before Jesus is forced to bear, all by herself, the shame of this situation.
But she’s also the only one who departs this situation with a cleansed heart and hope for a better tomorrow.
Even if we ourselves have been rambling aimlessly for years across our own private versions of relational desert, coming face to face with Jesus changes everything.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.