If 12-year-old me were to look at my 23-year-old self, sitting in my bed alone on Valentine’s Day with brown smudges of chocolate staining my crisp, white sheets, she would probably be shaking her head and saying, “Girl, get your life together.”
Because this was not how my 20s were supposed to go.
In my 12-year-old mind, I figured I would probably meet a solid, Christian guy when I was about 18, and we would date a respectable length of three years or so. Then he’d propose at the end of college, and I would be blissfully wed by 21 years old. (I don’t know—I was 12!)
But even if that was a bit unrealistic, I still never expected to be 23 with a dating history about as fruitful as the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6. I thought I’d at least have had a few solid relationships to look back on, all of which would end for completely legitimate and mutual reasons like moving far away, realizing we weren’t “equally yoked,” or discovering that he didn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re.”
I fervently believed I would have those kinds of relationships because it seemed like that was just what happened to good Christian girls. They spend their youth staying pure and doing good, and then they are rewarded with solid marriages and live happily ever after.
Except, that is, when they aren’t.
I grew up a child of the True Love Waits movement, meaning I was indoctrinated from a young age to believe that my waiting (in Christianese, waiting almost always refers to sex) would result in a happy and fruitful relationship. I heard horror stories of young women who didn’t wait and endured hardships of teenage pregnancy, STD’s, and relational abuse. That is not meant to delegitimatize the realities that can sometimes come with premarital sex. It is meant to emphasize the opposing philosophy I grew up believing: if premarital sex leads to pain, then purity must lead to paradise.
This purity-to-paradise philosophy led me to a separate belief, a belief in the relational prosperity gospel and the notion that if I stay pure until marriage, then I will inevitably be blessed with a future happy relationship.
The Relational Prosperity Gospel
The relational prosperity gospel, also described as the sexual prosperity gospel, is a relatively new term that falls under the prosperity gospel umbrella. Unlike the more generic prosperity gospel, which emphasizes health and wealth as key indicators of a solid faith, the relational prosperity gospel is a subtler form, one that equates faithfulness with relational reward. Within the relational prosperity gospel ethic, there is the idea that a person’s faith can be judged by their relational success. Those who are married are deemed more faithful and good, while those who are single or divorced are seen as lacking in faithfulness.
It’s a belief system that has no real Scriptural rooting, but something I clung to nonetheless. Believing in the relational prosperity gospel gave me a sense of control. It made me feel that if I attended enough Sunday services, consumed enough grape juice and matzo crackers, and listened to enough Christian music, then God would bless me with a man. I continued to wait for God to reward me with the man of my dreams delivered directly to my door, conflating my Christian piety with the plenitude of a healthy relationship.
When God didn’t reward me for my good behavior, I began to wonder what I was doing wrong. The longer I was single, the more convinced I became that it was a result of a lack of faith or some hidden sin. Every date I went on (however infrequent) contained deep religious anxiety for me as each unsuccessful connection seemed to testify to some deep-set sinfulness. Dating eventually became so painful and stressful that a mere offer of a blind date set-up would trigger panic as I tried my hardest not to hyperventilate and think about the existential spiral that would inevitably result.
And yet, despite my dating anxieties, I still longed for a relationship. I longed to reach that benchmark of religious success and have that golden stamp of approval that I was worthy in the eyes of God and men. But the more I tried and failed, the more I begged God to reveal my great sin, the thing keeping me from total love and affection.
The True Gospel
Finally, after countless prayers, it clicked. Maybe there was no great sin that was keeping me single. Maybe my greatest sin was believing that there was anything I could do to earn my way into God’s good grace in the first place.
After years of striving to do more, be more, and love more, I found rest for the first time in God’s sufficiency. I realized that God’s love is not something to be earned, and blessings are not a result of good works. God’s grace is based on God’s goodness, not my own.
The moment my mentality switched from seeing relationships as something to be earned rather than something to be experienced, I felt years of existential guilt and shame melt from my being. I grew less anxious on dates since rejection no longer indicated a lack of God-given worth. I stopped envying my friends in relationships since relational status no longer represented some sort of moral superiority. And most importantly, I felt less alone because I finally realized that what I lacked in romantic relationships was made up for in the peace of God’s goodness.
Now I look back at my 12-year-old self, the one who thought her worth was dependent on the eyes of men and of others, and I wish I could tell her how loved she was. If I could, I would wrap her up in the warm embrace of God’s grace and tell her that she didn’t need to be perfect or faultless. She would sin, make mistakes, and mess up, but none of that would or could ever change God’s unending love. With one’s repentant heart and spirit, God’s forgiveness and grace know no bounds.
Sweet girl, I would whisper into those ears ringing with fears and religious insecurities, you are not alone. You are loved and beloved by God.
God’s grace is enough.