When I was in college, my friends and I joked that if someone went on staff with InterVarsity, God would reward this sacrifice by blessing the person with a spouse. There wasn’t much dating in my college fellowship. And yet, like (divine) magic, the handful of people who went on staff each year suddenly wound up in relationships.
Over the years, those of us who pursued other (presumably less holy) paths bemoaned our ongoing singleness and the painful dating scene, while watching our peers in ministry marry off. It was almost enough to make a single gal fill out a staff application.
When I finally began dating, I was determined to work hard at it and do it right. I’d watched friends drift from God as their dating experience expanded and frustration mounted. I wanted to stay faithful.
By my mid-20s, I’d barely been kissed. It felt like both a badge of honor and of shame, depending on the context. But even if I was mildly embarrassed to admit my inexperience in some circles, I knew, deep down, that God was pleased. And that’s what I wanted most.
A Gift of Grace
But instead of true love, I got a badly broken heart, endured countless uneventful (and often awkward) dates, and watched the few promising starts fade to nothing.
Meanwhile, a friend who had “drifted away” suddenly found herself in a wonderful, healthy relationship with a man who loved Jesus and adored her. And she wasn’t even looking for that kind of relationship. In fact, she might once have described it as boring. But their relationship grew, and her faith sparked back to life.
One day as we talked she began to cry. “I have this incredible sense of this relationship as a gift,” she said. “It’s so clear I don’t deserve this. It’s just grace.”
A relationship as a picture of God’s grace: beautiful.
Except I was pretty sure I did deserve a good relationship. So why was I suffering in singleness while my rebel friend received, as grace, what I was working so hard for?
Racking Up Holy Points
A few years later, to my surprise, I did come on staff with InterVarsity. And soon after that, for the first time in my life, I had my very own boyfriend. Was God finally rewarding me?
The truth is, I was no longer sure I deserved it. While I’d never stopped following Jesus, I’d struggled to trust and obey God in my dating life. As I gained dating experience, I’d made choices that hadn’t pleased God.
One morning, when I was feeling particularly unworthy of forgiveness or good gifts, I read a psalm about God’s grace and provision to Israel in spite of their disobedience. With a pang, I remembered the bitterness I’d felt at my rebel-friend receiving what I, for all my faithfulness, had not.
I realized that, for most of my dating years, I’d been believing that my goodness entitled me to good things. It was like I’d enrolled in a frequent-obeyer program, where every good decision racked up points I could cash in for love from God—and someday, from Mr. Right’s.
The Best Benefit
Certainly, it is good to be good. But being good can also provide fertile soil for the lie that good behavior earns God’s blessing. We know God loves us—but we aren’t sure that love would last if we misbehaved. What looks like holiness may just be fear of losing God’s favor.
External goodness may also make us blind to our internal sin—subtle misbeliefs, errant loves, attempts to grasp control—and consequently, blind to how we experience God’s love in spite of our goodness, not because of it. Sometimes it takes a fall to recognize the constancy of God’s love, the grace permeating our lives.
But even when we follow God wholeheartedly, it’s not our obedience that obtains good gifts. (Click here to tweet this.) A gift is, by its very nature, grace.
That doesn’t mean obedience is a waste, of course!! Obedience may not earn holy points. But habitually saying yes to Jesus allows us to grow in our experience of God, to abide in God’s presence, to flourish in our secure identity as God’s beloved—in short, to know God. (Click here to tweet this.)
Which means that all that time I waited for a boyfriend, I had something even more satisfying: I had God.
So on this Valentine’s day, whether you’re single or dating or married, as a former member of the frequent-obeyer benefits program, let me remind you: The real benefit of following Jesus is not earning good things with good behavior, or even receiving them as grace. It is God’s own presence. And that’s even better than a boyfriend.
Also, because God was pleased with my grade-A holy dating life and overall Christian walk, surely I too would one day be rewarded with a spouse—just like those InterVarsity staff.
Jeannie Rose Field works as the Assistant Coordinator for the New York City Price of Life Invitational. It offers countless opportunities to see and receive from Jesus in the ordinary. Learn more at priceoflifenyc.org.