1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now there remain: faith [abiding trust in God and His promises], hope [confident expectation of eternal salvation], love [unselfish love for others growing out of God’s love for me], these three [the choicest graces]; but the greatest of these is love.”
“I love you.”
Just three words.
Proof that something does not have to be complicated sounding to be profound. Throughout human history, I dare say, no other phrase has captivated the human heart and imagination more. Novels, epics, poems, songs, pages upon pages upon pages have been penned trying to communicate the meaning of these three words. People have died for love, fought for love, crossed cultural, economic, and social barriers for love. And, for most people, a primary life goal is to love and be loved.
Perhaps that is why it is so ravaging when love does not turn out the way we had hoped. When a relationship ends and we are left to pick up the shattered vision of what we thought our life was going to be, who we thought our future would be shared with, it is devastating.
Love is blissful, but love can also be painful.
Letting Go of Love
Letting go of love. It’s something every person who has loved and lost has had to wrestle through.
But how do you let go of love?
This is a question I grappled with after the ending of my first relationship.
My first love was my high school sweetheart. We started our relationship when I was 16. He was gregarious, kind, intelligent, and most importantly he really loved the Lord. He quickly became my best friend, and my family loved him. Shortly after I turned 20 we got engaged. It seemed like the thing to do. Our relationship appeared to have all the ingredients necessary for a successful marriage. There really wasn’t any reason it shouldn’t work. We’d talked about our future together for years, and it was hard to see a future that didn’t have him in it.
But I couldn’t shake the doubt which lurked in the corners of my mind.
At the time, I couldn’t articulate what it was. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with him. No major flaw either personally or relationally I could pin it on, and perhaps that was what tormented me the most. I didn’t feel like I had a good enough reason to break up with him even though I had all this doubt.
That, and I did actually love him. I wasn’t just pretending to love him. I cared deeply about him.
I just didn’t want to marry him.
I knew it when I said yes. But, I didn’t think I had a reason to say no.
After months of knowing what I was going to have to do, but not wanting to do it, I finally told him. And we broke off the engagement.
Picking up the pieces of A Broken Engagement
I wish I could say all relational turmoil ended there, but we yo-yoed each other’s hearts for a few more rounds of relational ambiguity. That season was the toughest in my life.
After trying, on my own strength, to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and patch-up the splinters of a fractured relationship, I knew I couldn’t do it. I needed God to help me.
I didn’t want to be angry at my ex. I didn’t want to be angry at myself. I didn’t want to view our time together as wasted time, or lessons learned, or any other classic view people take when a relationship dies. I wanted a renewed vision of the time we had spent together. I wanted God to take my feeble natural perspective on things and help me see what He saw, and if it wasn’t asking too much, I still wanted a way to be able to show my ex I cared.
In the story of Corrie Ten Boom’s life from the pages of The Hiding Place, I love the advice that Corrie’s father, Casper, gives to her when her love for a young man named Karel is not able to lead to the marriage she had hoped it would.
“Corrie, do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill the love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or, Corrie, we can ask God to open up another route for this love to travel. God loves Karel even more than you do and if you ask Him, He will give you His love for this man, a love nothing can prevent, nothing destroy. When ever we cannot love in the old, human way, Corrie, God can give us the perfect way.”
I didn’t want to kill the love I had for my ex. I wanted to remove the romantic feelings, but I still wanted to care. This probably seems weird. It definitely isn’t the subject of many blogs or books, “How to Continue to Love Your Ex After He Breaks Your Heart (or You Break His)”. But love is supposed to be a life force for Christians. We don’t get to pick and choose who we love; we are supposed to love everyone. So shouldn’t that include exes?
Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not telling you to pine after your ex. But love is not pining. Love is not always romantic. In fact, the majority of love in our lives is NOT romantic. I’m saying it is possible to continue to love someone you once loved romantically in a non-romantic way. I know, it’s crazy. In fact some people would probably say that it is impossible or they just couldn’t do it, and once again, they are probably right. But God can do anything, and I don’t mean that in a cliché way. I mean it sincerely.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
A redeemed perspective
When I set out to love differently, it was not an instant switch for me. It took a lot of intentionality, a lot of surrender, a lot of prayer, and retraining how I thought about my ex. But God did something beautiful in me during that process. He helped me weed out a lot of selfishness and a lot of insecurity. I was able to look in the mirror and take ownership for my relational failings while recognizing and forgiving him for his. And through all that, I was able to gain a new perspective on my ex, His perspective.
Here are a few key ways God transformed my perspective:
- His Son, My Brother: My ex was a child of God and my brother in Christ. I didn’t think about him in terms of “my ex” (even though I know that’s how I’ve been writing about him, but the topic of this blog necessitates that). Not that I didn’t ever refer to him as that in a conversation, but thinking of him in this way still made me feel like I had some sort of claim over him, which I didn’t. Rather I thought about his identity in Christ and as my spiritual brother. There was still the “my” word in there but with the word brother attached it helped curb any lingering romantic feelings.
- A Future Husband: My ex was going to be someone else’s husband. I needed to treat him as such. I also was going to be someone else’s wife, so I needed to make sure I was guarding my heart for my future husband, which also helped me surrender any remaining romantic feelings I may have had.
- Eternal Perspective: One of the things that helped me most to lay aside all my hurt, to extend forgiveness both to him and myself, was to embrace the reality that none of it was going to matter in heaven. We were going to both be spending eternity together with Jesus, and everything was going to be made right. I could start to live into that reality this side of heaven by not letting bitterness, longing, or unforgiveness (or anything else people hold onto after a breakup) get in the way of friendship.
- Boundaries: The first 3 gave me the framework I needed to create clear boundaries and stick to them. This is especially important if you still see your ex on a regular basis, which I did. Boundaries can seem unloving, but are actually one of the most loving things you can do. The boundaries I made still showed I cared about my-ex, but kept me from flirting with him, pouring my heart out to him, or pining over him. My boundaries helped me be a relationally healthy and safe person for him to still talk too when we would see each other in person (one boundary happened to be only in person communication), and they also helped him heal since they removed any relational ambiguity.
I don’t share these things to try to make myself look good. I am not feigning humility when I say I could not have done any of this on my own strength. I’ve never been more aware of my own weakness than during that time in my life. God is the one that gets all the glory for how He healed and created something new. He gave me the strength and the grace I needed to persevere in love. I share this to show you that it is possible to do things differently, but it won’t look the same for everyone. For me, my ex and I ran in a lot of the same circles. I didn’t force myself to stay in his life in order to keep relationship. That would have been a bad idea. If you have a relationship that ends and you naturally go your separate ways, there is nothing wrong with that. You can still love and respect someone by speaking well of them, renewing how you think about them, forgiving them for wrongs they have done, and asking them for forgiveness if you need too.
This is my story. I realize this wouldn’t work for everyone. I realize there are abusive relationships where the necessary thing is to absolutely cut someone off and out. But, I also know that there are lots of awkward situations out there that could be something beautiful if people allowed God to transform their heart and mind. Because I had allowed God to transform my love for my ex, I was able to watch him fall in love with his future wife, and I was able to go to their wedding and rejoice, rather than feel any sort of jealousy or pettiness.
God is in the redemption business, and I thank God I chose a redeemed love over letting love go.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken