Is It True That You Can't Help Falling in Love with Someone?
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“I couldn’t help it. You can’t help who you fall in love with.”
I heard a woman say this recently about her adultery with a married man with four daughters. She claims innocence. We must understand what she has done: “Love made her do it.” Perhaps we should even applaud her for being “true to love.”
The idea that we are helpless victims of love is a very ancient one. Samson was powerful and as dangerous as an army, but Delilah and her loving charms turned him into Bambi.
The Roman god Cupid, son of Venus, shoots his magic arrow. His quarry falls skewered, in love, hors de combat.
Louis XIV, a deeply pious man, had two wives, many mistresses, and an indeterminable number of “one night stands.” But he was the King of France, and rich and beautiful women threw themselves at him. Could anyone resist such love?
Elvis sealed the deal: “Wise men say, ‘Only fools rush in,’ But I can’t help falling in love with you. Can I stay? Would it be a sin? ’Cause I can’t help...” And he sang this song so beautifully and innocently that it just seems mean to contradict him.
What is love?
According to this mind-set, what is love? An overwhelming feeling of desire and passion. How does love happen? You fall into it. You are walking along, minding your own business, and the ground suddenly gives way beneath you like a trap door. You now lie bewildered and helpless and “in love.” You didn’t mean to be there; you didn’t choose to be there. You are there because of circumstances and forces that are beyond your control.
And once you are in love, you must act on it. Not to do so would be to betray love. The good person must be “true to love.”
Our understanding of love is broken and wrong.
This provides an irrefutable answer to many awkward questions: “How can you go with that woman? You are already married!” “Yes, but I fell in love with her.” “You are having sex outside marriage?” “Yes, but we are in love.” “You are beginning a homosexual relationship?” “Yes, don’t you know that I love her?” “You are a Christian, and you are romancing an unbeliever?” “Yes, I love him.”
What is the fruit of this? Shattered marriages. Children bereft of their parents. Children born to unmarried parents or, more commonly, single moms. Sexual perversion. People marrying after having had previous sexual partners. At best the result is difficult marriages loaded with damaging memories and former sexual partners only a Facebook click away.
Our understanding of love is broken and wrong. People are hurting. What is the answer to this? Yes, it would be easy to tear apart this broken view of love. But it is better to replace it—to replace it with a truer understanding, a radically different and better view of love.
God teaches us a better view of love.
The Bible tells us that love is not, first of all, an inward feeling. It is acting in the best interests of the other. It is a conviction and decision to act in a way that helps and blesses the other. The loving husband denies himself, and gives his life to protect, support, and serve his wife. The wife denies herself, and submits to her husband, supporting his leadership role. Parents deny their own pleasures to engage in the very hard work of protecting and raising and disciplining their children. Human beings love God fundamentally by obeying God, by acting in a way that gives him most glory and honor.
Strip aside the feelings of attraction and passion, and adultery is instantly exposed as an essentially unloving and harmful act. The adulterous husband betrays and wounds his wife, he betrays and wounds his children, and turns the new woman into an adulteress. He esteems his new woman so much that he is willing to join her life to a betrayer, a vow-breaker, a liar, a faithless man, a cad, an adulterer.
If the woman I described had truly loved that married man with four daughters, then the moment she sensed and foresaw any romantic link she would done everything in her power to break off all contact and all possibility of contact. If he had loved her, he would not have foisted a faithless betrayer on her. When it comes to temptation to sexual sin, the most loving thing you can do for the person who tempts you is to break off contact and leave them alone.
Sometimes we best love someone by counting them as dead to us.
In these cases, paradoxically but truly, you best love someone by counting them as dead to you.
Strip aside the feelings of attraction and passion, and you will quickly see that fornication is essentially an unloving and harmful act. You are sharing the most intimate act you can share with someone—without having committed to them. “I will do this with you, and I will leave the door open to leave later on.” Let alone the possibility of children. To have sex with a woman, to expose her to becoming pregnant with your child, before making a solemn public lifelong commitment to her, is thoughtless and reckless at best, and viciously selfish.
And no—no contraception is fail-safe. And when you fornicate, you potentially rob the other person’s future marriage. You are having sex with someone who may well become someone else’s wife or husband: you are robbing and harming the person who, unlike you at this point, will actually commit to them. When these things are considered, even for a moment, you will see that if you “love” someone, you will run away from sexual intimacy with them, you will wait until you have committed to them in marriage, or you will leave them well alone.
In short, when we disobey the sexual ethics of the Bible—no matter how “in love” we feel—we harm ourselves and others.
Probably the most sublime, passionate, and moving description of the love between a man and a woman is found in the Song of Solomon. The three-thousand-year-old Song’s daring metaphors for the human body, sexual desire, and love have never failed to shock and delight. And yet in the midst of this passionate married love comes the caution:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” (Song 2:7)
This warning is repeated in the middle of the book and again at its end. It is clearly urgent.
The message is simple. Passionate married love is good, but it is only good in the right place: between a married husband and wife. So don’t arouse love for another person unless they are the right person, and don’t allow love to waken until the right time.
Control your feelings for the person who is already married, or whom you could never marry. And if it is not the right time to marry, then don’t allow love to waken.
Our passions, desires, and instincts can—and must—be controlled.
The Song of Solomon, which teaches about passionate married love so vividly, teaches us also that we are not animals, that we are not slaves to our passions and desires and instincts, that these things can—and must—be controlled.
They can be physically controlled: if this person is wrong for me, and I am tempted by them, then I will stay away. Don’t get in touch. Don’t arrange to meet. Don’t message. Don’t start long and intimate conversations. Control your heart by controlling your contact and communication.
And control your thoughts. If you indulge in hundreds of hours of Disney and rom-coms, if you train yourself to believe that “I must give myself to love” or “I am helpless before love,” if you allow your thoughts to run wild, and if you lie on your bed and allow your mind to fixate on a particular person, then misplaced and mistimed “love” and desire will awaken.
The Bible gives humanity—made in God’s image—the supreme compliment of saying: You are better than the beasts. You can control and channel your desires. You don’t need to be dragged around by the wild horses of hormones and emotions and passions. You can tame and control these powerful desires so that, when the time is right and you are married, they can serve you and take you to very good places.
In short, in matters of love no one can say, “I couldn’t help it.” You can. And for your sake, and even more for the sake of others, you must.
For young adults these things are extremely difficult. I was there—it seems like yesterday. And I would not want to go back to that stage of life. You need all the help you can get. Seek good and wise help from Mom and Dad and trusted Christian friends. Be immersed in the Word: it is the daily bread of life that you need. Pray. Don’t struggle through this alone: take all the help your community can give you.
And if you have blown it, you can be made clean and new: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:10). Praise God that a new life and a fresh start is available to all!
Passionate married love is one of God’s wonderful gifts. Let’s not spoil or distort or misuse it. With God’s help, and with the help of church and family, let it awaken with the right person at the right time.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen; edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor