Last spring, while I was visiting my girlfriend, I found out that she was reading the popular Christian novel, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, with her accountability partner. Although I knew full well that it is a book targeted towards females, I picked it up and shot through it fairly quickly. To be honest, while it was obviously a book geared towards, uh, girly emotions, it was not bad at all. The book is relatively well-written and has some good theological truths to teach. In a nutshell, the book is about how a girl who has had a hard life and has grown up in prostitution is pursued by a Christian man named Michael Hosea. The girl, Sarah (also named Angel) at first resents him and abandons him numerous times, but he keeps coming back to rescue her from her stupidity because God told him to marry her. At the end of the story, she not only sees his love but sees and experiences the redeeming love of God.
Now, if the book is read with the understanding that Michael Hosea’s character is a reference to the prophet Hosea, whom God told to marry a prostitute to represent God’s faithfulness to unfaithful Israel, then the novel creatively teaches an important truth about God: That while we were still sinners, Christ pursued us and ultimately died for us (Rom. 5:8). A unifying theme in Scripture is God’s pursuit of sinners who have turned their backs on him repeatedly, and that pursuit led Jesus His Son to willingly give himself up for our sins. It is, indeed, a mind-boggling type of love, and there is none greater. If this is what people get from this book, then all I’ll say is, “Amen.”
However, one thing that irked me about the book is its continued portrayal of Michael Hosea as practically a Christian Superman who tried to come rescue Sarah from a myriad of bad decisions; heck, in one episode, after she left him to go back to work in her brothel, he followed her and beat up everyone there to bring her out. The reason this bothered me is because I am well-aware of how many Christian girls think about finding a husband: They want to find a guy who will arrive on the proverbial white horse and “rescue” them. Of course, they won’t openly admit this or say it as crudely, but you can tell by their attitude and actions that they’re looking for a guy who will cover up all of their insecurities, affirm all of their emotions, etc. Absent in many of their considerations is their own understanding that they have an individual walk with God for which they are responsible and that their future husband/boyfriend cannot do for them.
I know how many girls will shoot back: Aren’t husbands supposed to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25)? This is where the word “analogy” comes in. In fact, believers in general are to love one another in the same manner that God showed by sending Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice (1 John 4:10-11). This most certainly does not mean that we can take the place of God and should try to save people; it means that we sacrificially love one another. In a similar vein, we have to see what the passage in Ephesians 5 says in context: The texts about making “her” holy without stain or wrinkle has to do with what Christ did for the church, not what happens in marriage. In verse 28, does Paul say that men also should make their wives holy and blameless? No; he says that they should similarly love their wives as their own bodies, which means he feeds and cares for her as he would his own body (29). It would be ludicrous to assert that husbands can do for their wives what Christ did for the church; men simply do not have that ability. Since Christ himself is holy, his bride who is united with him (the Church) becomes holy because he gave himself up for her. This does not happen when husbands love their wives because the husbands are not holy; however, what they can do (and should do) is love their wives as themselves, which means they not only physically care for them but also spiritually lead them, among others. In other words, Paul does not give the slightest hint that women are to look to anyone else but Christ for their salvation and subsequent sanctifying walk with God.
This passage, unfortunately, also has led some girls to believe that their future husbands should love them more than they love their husbands back. After all, Ephesians 5 tells wives to submit and respect, but not love like it directs husbands to do. All I will say is this: In what way does the Church actually submit and respect Christ without love? Those would be, in fact, expressions of love in themselves. In addition, while it is descriptively true that Christ loves the Church more the Church can ever love him back, that does not mean Christians should not continually grow in their love for Christ. The reason there is this asymmetric love is because Christ is the Son of God; no other man is like him. The only way girls can justify this attitude is if they again identify husbands and Jesus too closely. Paul’s use of the model between Christ and the church is to show husbands that they must love their wives as their own bodies and to show wives that they are to submit to their spiritual head with whom they are united; going beyond this to claim that one side must love the other more or to ascribe authority to man that only belongs to Christ is to misunderstand Paul’s intentions in the text. Both men and women are guilty here of misunderstanding this text to selfishly claim massive authority or to selfishly avoid the responsibility to love.
Turning back to Redeeming Love, then, I do see a danger that some readers will be encouraged in what would basically be idolatry: Identifying a man as taking the role of the Savior God. Thinking this way is bound to lead to disappointment and bitterness because it will become abundantly clear that the man cannot fulfill this role. The fault, however, would not necessarily be on the man but on the woman who expected that out of him. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but let me be clear: Your insecurities are ultimately not your boyfriend’s/husband’s responsibility to fix. That doesn’t he mean he shouldn’t care or work with you regarding them, but it does mean that he cannot solve them for you. That’s between you and God. Basically, If you’re looking for a Michael Hosea to come sweep you off your feet and save you from yourself, good luck with that; most of the time, godly guys are not told by God to marry women who do not care for their own spiritual walk, and spiritually mature guys wouldn’t even want to do so. If Christ is the center of his life, he will want a girl who similarly has Christ as the center of her life. All of this goes for guys too who think because their girlfriend or wife goes to church that that is good enough for them too. We are to love like Christ and expect that the relationship between husband and wife should be something like that between Christ and the Church. However, if we expect anyone to actually be Christ, explicitly or not, then we are not being biblical; we are being idolatrous. Hopefully, the majority of readers of Redeeming Love understood such distinctions, but from conversations from many Christians, I know such misunderstandings of relationships are still common.