God and Unrequited Love

One of the top songs at the moment of writing is Bruno Mars‘ “Grenade”. It gets played on almost every radio station I turn to at some point of the day, everyday. Thankfully, I like the song. It has a catchy tune, fun to sing along and play along on the guitar, and it speaks of the near universal experience of unrequited love.

Erotic or romantic love is one of the most powerful human emotions as well as one of the most mysterious. There’s no exact science to calculate why we would be infatuated or enamoured with one person but not another. In reference to the song, for instance, we can legitimately ask, “If she was such a bad woman, how could you love her in the first place? Or even be willing to die for her?” But, alas, that’s the mystery of romantic love. Almost all of us, at some point in our lives, experienced an infatuation or a crush on someone who didn’t feel the same. It is this emotional chord that Bruno Mars’ song plucks – in rather overdramatic fashion – to great success.

“Grenade”

Here’s the song’s video and lyrics:

Easy come, easy go, That’s just how you live, oh
Take, take, take it all, But you never ever give
Should have known you was trouble from the first kiss,
You had your eyes wide open, Why were they open?
Gave you all I had And you tossed it in the trash
You tossed it in the trash, you did
To give me all your love is all I ever asked,
Cause what you don’t understand is
I’d catch a grenade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Throw my hand on a blade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’d jump in front of a train for ya (yeah, yeah , yeah)
You know I’d do anything for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah) Oh, oh
I would go through all this pain,
Take a bullet straight through my brain,
Yes, I would die for ya baby;
But you won’t do the same

No, no, no, no
Black, black, black and blue beat me till I’m numb
Tell the devil I said “hey” when you get back to where you’re from
Mad woman, bad woman, That’s just what you are, yeah,
You’ll smile in my face then rip the breaks out my car
Gave you all I had And you tossed it in the trash
You tossed it in the trash, yes you did
To give me all your love is all I ever asked
Cause what you don’t understand is
I’d catch a grenade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Throw my hand on a blade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’d jump in front of a train for ya (yeah, yeah , yeah)
You know I’d do anything for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah) Oh, oh
I would go through all this pain,
Take a bullet straight through my brain,
Yes, I would die for ya baby;
But you won’t do the same

If my body was on fire, ooh
You’ d watch me burn down in flames
You said you loved me you’re a liar
Cause you never, ever, ever did baby…
But darling I’ll still catch a grenade for ya
Throw my hand on a blade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’d jump in front of a train for ya (yeah, yeah , yeah)
You know I’d do anything for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah) Oh, oh
I would go through all this pain,
Take a bullet straight through my brain,
Yes, I would die for ya baby;
But you won’t do the same.
No, you won’t do the same,
You wouldn’t do the same,
Ooh, you’ll never do the same,
No, no, no, no

God as Unrequited Lover

What does God have to do with this? Well, the song reminds me of how God was cast as a jilted lover in some biblical passages. In the Old Testament book of Hosea, especially, we see God as “the deeply wounded, betrayed lover who remains totally committed to the original bond” between a married couple, i.e. God as faithful husband and Israel as cheating wife (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 333). This imagery is expanded in the New Testament to Christ and the Church as bridegroom and bride, for example, in Revelation 21 and in Ephesians 5: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” (v. 25).

In this imagery, idolatry or worship of other gods/idols is metaphorically equated with adultery. God is a “jealous” God (Exodus 20:5) who desires his people for himself, and like a jealous husband, refuses to share them with any other suitors. It is also a staple of Christian theology that all of us, Christians included, are not immune from idolatry and from sinning against God. Thus, this image of God/Christ as a deeply wounded, betrayed lover of an unfaithful, uncaring, insensitive spouse, namely us, always lurks in the background of Christian spirituality.

That is why “Grenade” reminds me so much of this imagery. In fact, as a song of human romantic love, “Grenade” is over the top and stretching the limits of credibility because who, in their right mind, would really die for a mad, bad-from-hell person, even out of love? Of course, the song uses hyperbole or exaggeration to express a very common experience – loving someone who “burned” you in return. And there’s a metaphorical or emotional “death” in the experience of being spurned.

But, allegorically, the song fits rather nicely, in my mind, to God’s self-sacrificial love for humanity: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 TNIV) That is, while we were still spiritual adulterers inducing hurt and pain to Christ, he was willing to die for us. Even now, Christ patiently awaits humanity to turn from their adulterous and self-destructive ways. Only at the end of time, as pictured in the book of Revelation, will Christ and his bride fully “consummate” the marriage.

Dangers to Avoid

All this is not to stereotype men as faithful heroes and women as cheating whores – far from it! Part of Grenade’s appeal, I suspect, is that people – male or female, gay or straight – can identify the “mad woman” in the song as symbolic of a hurtful partner of any sex. Likewise, we should NOT read into the God/Christ/Husband-Israel/Church/Wife metaphor as suggesting any sort of ontological categories or moral prescriptions/descriptions for either sex or gender. I know some Christians have done so but often done poorly and/or against the original historical contexts in order to support a particular social agenda. That’s a topic for a whole blog post itself, which I touched on briefly in “Are Paul’s Writings Anti-Women?” And I hope to touch on the topic again in the future.

Neither does this imagery elevate the male-female romantic relationship – unrequited or otherwise – above all other forms of human relationships. Familial relationships, friendships, collegial relationships, community belonging are all equally important in our lives. Nor does it give a glib divine justification to the “happily-ever-after” romantic mythology in North America. I am not suggesting that singles that either haven’t or wouldn’t find their “Prince/Princess Charming” are somehow deficient or lacking in their lives!

Romantic Love and Agape Love

The point I do want to make from reflecting on this spiritual metaphor is how romantic love might overlap with agape love. “Agape” is one of a number of Greek terms for “love”. It denotes a love that is more social and moral rather than emotional and erotic. The Bible’s use of agape turns it into a synonym for unconditional, sacrificial, commitment-bound love. Agape is what God manifests to humanity, as pictured by that imagery of God as the unrequited lover, who suffers betrayals, pain and even death, for the hope of redeeming and saving humanity.

But agape is also commanded of Christians. The verb “love” in the greatest commandment to love God and neighbour is agape in the original Greek (Luke 10:27). In the above referenced Ephesians 5:25 instruction to husbands to love their wives, the verb there is agape, not eros. But erotic/romantic love is certainly part of a marital relationship. Hence, on the human side of things, it seems that romantic love and agape love are not exclusive of each other. They not only can co-exist but also co-mingle toward the same person. In fact, when you think of it, you find the same co-mingling of agape in familial love – when family members sacrifice for each other – and even in friendship love – when friends sacrifice for one another.

It seems then that all our human loves can slide into agape love, which is what God requires of us. God’s command to us to love him and to love our fellow humans with agape love, therefore, is not an alien or supernatural request but a natural one. It is not a call to do something extra human or greater than our human nature; rather, it is a call to be truly human, to do what we were created to do – to love (agape).

Longing for God?

This could be another clue to Grenade’s popularity. The song’s version of unrequited love points towards that agape love; it suggests a co-mingling of eros and agape. And why do we find such sacrificial love compelling? Do we yearn for such unconditional, sacrificial, committed love from our special someone, from our beloved family, from our friends? Why?

Such yearnings maybe signs of our spiritual longing for God and for God’s “rightness” of things in all our relationships. When we long for truth, justice, beauty and happiness in their most ideal forms, as we do with love, we are also longing for God’s “rightness,” for a world that is better than our current one, for what the Bible calls in Hebrew, “shalom” – where everything is the way it was meant to be.

John Van Sloten wrote:

First, if God created and implanted these yearnings, then surely what we yearn for is, in some way, akin to what God created us for. Our hearts are compelled to pursue things that emanate from God’s heart. Second, if God implanted all of these yearnings with the intent that they draw us to him, then surely each and every one of them is meant to find its ultimate fulfillment in God. (The Day Metallica Came to Church, p. 90)

Such spiritual longings co-mingled with natural, human longings are what the 16th century theologian John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis (Latin), “an inner awareness and compulsion toward God, a sacred homing device implanted in the soul of every human being” (The Day Metallica Came to Church, p. 83). When we search for the ideal loving partner to fulfill our deep hunger for romantic love, we might ultimately be searching for something more – for meaning, for ultimate value in the world and in our lives, for God.

If you don’t like a religious professional’s take on this, I leave you with the insight of a moderate atheist:

No belief system comes closer to granting us transcendent meaning than the religious worldview, which tells us that not only do we live in a universe of supreme value, but the source of that universe loves and exalts us. It is no wonder that every search for meaning is a search for the sacred. (Bruce Sheiman, An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than Without It, pp. 1-2)

Related Post: Hearing God in Heavy Metal?

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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