Unrequited love is a universal theme — in movies, in books, in everyday life; it seems everyone has experienced it. Why then is it talked about so little, especially by the church?
That is the question Laura Smit, Calvin religion professor and dean of the chapel, posed several years ago when she and some colleagues were informally discussing their personal lives.
“Every person around the table was either in love with someone who didn’t love them back or was running from someone who loved them or was experiencing both simultaneously,” she said. “I was the older person in the group, and people expected counseling or advice from me. I went looking for something to read up on and could find nothing written on the subject.”
When Smit came to Calvin as a professor in 1999, she started talking to students about this very issue. She taught two Interim classes on the theory of romance.
“Almost everybody can tell both sides, of being both the rejected and the rejecter,” she said. “The challenge for the students was how to handle both sides in a thoughtful, Christian way.”
After several years of interviewing students and Calvin alumni, Smit wrote her recently published book in which her goal is to “offer tools for disciplined self-examination of our feelings, for accepting responsibility for things we can control and for finding grace in those things we cannot control.”
Smit’s belief is that if people, particularly young people, had more support in making the decisions they do about love, they would get married for better reasons and there would be fewer divorces.
“The church is so marriage-oriented,” she said. “There’s no room in most people’s lives for worrying about things like unrequited love. That would be seen as wallowing, when instead you need to be out there finding a mate.”
In her interviews, Smit found that pressure to marry is put on students by their families more than their peers.
“Because of this, they often marry for the wrong reasons: out of fear, out of anxiety or out of a desire to have sex,” she said.
Because the divorce rate among Christians is no less than the national average, “we clearly are not doing the marriage thing properly,” she added.
In Loves Me, Loves Me Not, Smit suggests that singleness should be the default. “You should have a reason to marry, not a reason to stay single,” she said. “You should marry someone because he or she will make you a better Christian or he or she will assist you in serving God’s kingdom. This makes choices pretty obvious; I should not be dating someone who brings out my worst qualities or doesn’t believe in God. The experience of romance should never outweigh that.”
Adopting this attitude allows for contentment in an otherwise marriage-obsessed culture, she said.
“It allows people to give up the idea that there is one person that I should be out there shopping for,” she said.
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In this book, the authors treat comprehensively the new theology and law of domestic life that John Calvin and his fellow Reformers established in 16th century Geneva. Bringing to light and life hundreds of newly discovered cases and theological texts, John Witte and Robert Kingdon trace the subtle historical forms and norms of sex, marriage and family life that still shape us today.
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