If He had an online-dating profile, it would read something like this: “33-year-old man of Middle Eastern descent. Olive skin, shoulder-length hair, well-kept beard. Never judges, loves unconditionally, able to read your deepest thoughts. Nonsmoker, but enjoys wine on Sunday.” Until recently, Jesus Christ was my one and only. It was an open relationship (I shared my love with an estimated 2.2 billion faithful worldwide), but the vibe was definitely romantic. Once, at a meeting of single, twentysomething evangelical Christians (sort of like an episode of No Sex and the City), one of my girlfriends described her romantic encounter with Jesus the night before. “I knew I just needed some time to soak in his love, so I took my Bible down to the park by the beach and watched the sunset,” she said. “He was speaking to me so clearly then, just telling me that he loved me, and that he made all of this for me, that I was beautiful… I really needed his presence, and he totally came and met me.” Put a ring on it, right? Actually, what this woman described is a pretty common occurrence in evangelical circles like the one I grew up in — circles where dating is rare and sexual purity is paramount. You would find yourself alone, again, in your bedroom on a Friday night, and into your life walks this tall, dark, take-away-all-the-loneliness dude named Jesus. Naturally, your heart starts pounding. Looking back today, it occurs to me that I may have had my senses awakened to this purest of loves in the early 1990s by my mother, whom I once caught passionately singing along to Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply.” When I pressed her on why she, Mrs. Christian Music, would stoop to secular pop, she explained, “If I pretend I’m singing it to Jesus, then I like it.” The words, as I’m sure I don’t have to remind you, are an epic love ballad sung by what my young mind pictured as Leonardo DiCaprio standing at the top of a mountain. And yet here was my mom, singing a love song not to my dad, but to Jesus. As I got older and even more wrapped up in the culture of evangelical Christianity, my romantic love for Jesus picked up steam. At 22, I could be found standing in a softly lit room full of other angsty Evangelicals, swaying, kneeling, perhaps crying lightly, and all singing, “Jesus, Love of my soul, Jesus, I will never let you go… I love you, I need you, though my world may fall, I’ll never let you go.” Both men and women were encouraged to explore those feelings — to ask Jesus to show us His love, and to respond with words, tears, or perhaps even a dance. I mainly just cried. For us ladies, there was an added component; we were encouraged to turn away from the lurid and degrading portrayals so common in the dominant, MTV-inspired culture, and to find self-worth in the church’s paradigm of womanhood. In other words, to see ourselves as Jesus saw us: in Christian-ese, as “Daughters of the King.” But there’s a tiny hang-up in this idealized world of swashbuckling romantic ideals: Mr. Jesus Incarnate didn’t get the email. After all, as our relationships with Jesus got deeper and deeper, our standards for future IRL relationships were getting more and more out of touch with reality. With each Bible study evening, our hopes and expectations were drummed up to new and feverish heights. Stuck in wifi-free missionary housing during our early 20s, my girlfriends and I would compile lists of every ethereal, desirable quality in a man — and an ominous gulf opened between expectation and reality.
To find real, carnal love would mean opening up to an actual human being
Here are the hard facts: 85% of single Christian missionaries are women. What about the pool of available, eligible, Jesus-loving men who are both as outwardly attractive as Tom Hardy and virtuous enough to qualify for a halo? You could fit them all into a shot glass, not that you’d ever find one in a missionary house. Add to that the double whammy that, in the church, unmarried women don’t have the same social status as unmarried men — and that premarital dalliances are not tolerated. And now the picture of loneliness is complete. While the typical evangelical woman smugly perceives her secular sisters as hopelessly lost in self-sabotaging Tinder trysts and doomed to marry a partner of less-than-saintly character, she herself is hopelessly stuck in the Jesus-is-my-boyfriend camp. Yearning for a relationship and social fulfillment, but paralyzed by a tyranny of unattainable standards, she distracts herself with a pseudo-romance that she can share with her entire community. I have watched as female friends slipped deeper into this spiritual vortex, attending a weekend conference that affirms and exalts their God-given feminine allure, only to return home to the same female roommates they’ve had since they were 23. They pray desperately for a man to come into their lives. But to find real, carnal love would mean opening up to an actual human being who doesn’t always heap unconditional love over their heads — or know the deepest fears and insecurities they harbor. After a decade-long domestic partnership with Jesus, I eventually cut romantic ties with my maker and started a real-life relationship with a real guy. At first, it was exhilarating. While Jesus held my metaphorical hand, this man held my actual hand — and told me he loved me, with a voice that was audible. He was also frustrating, though; he made a habit of misreading my thoughts, and was notably short on patience. After all, God doesn’t ignore you when the NBA is on. For me, having an actual boyfriend has meant dismantling many of the constructs I lived with for years. Instead of seeking perfection at every turn, I’ve had to admit that I’m also flawed, and that I sometimes act more like a bitch than a heavenly Princess. Through clenched teeth, I now recite 1 Corinthians 13:5: “love...is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” Ultimately, while dating Jesus filled me with feelings of piety, having a boyfriend who is not “without sin” has tested and challenged me to put into practice all my Christian ideals. So while there are moments when I long for the simplicity of the just-Jesus-and-me times, bringing a third party into the relationship has, ironically, brought me closer to my maker.
Mary Murphy is the pseudonym of a writer living in the United States.