‘Every adult life is defined by two great love stories,’ writes author and philosopher Alain de Botton. On the one hand, there is our well-charted quest for romantic love, and on the other, our quest for love from the world (‘a more secret and shameful tale’). In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton argues this second love story ‘is no less intense than the first…and its setbacks are no less painful.’
It’s an intriguing idea, and one that has stuck in my head like a burr since I read it in a magazine article earlier this year. Because it’s true, isn’t it?
Our first quest is to be loved by someone, to be chosen by them above all others, and to choose them in return. With this love, we hope, will come all the trappings: family, security, home. In this small circle it matters supremely what others think of us.
Our second quest is to be loved or respected by others: by the whole crowd of anonymous strangers. We pass them in the street and wonder what impression we’re making. We sit next to them on the train and hope they admire our choice of reading material. We push our trolley past them in the supermarket and stage a happy-family-performance just for them.
Perhaps we want fame, success, a name that’s recognized. Perhaps we’d settle for the admiration of a smaller group: our co-workers at the office, the wider Christian community, the people in our church. If we win their respect, we’ve succeeded. If we fail in their eyes, we’ve failed indeed.
There is a third quest: another love story. It’s not mentioned in the article I read, for when it comes to this love we are blind (2 Corinthians 4:4). In this story, we’re not the ones who seek: we’re the ones who are sought, pursued from heaven to earth by a lover who laid down his life to win his bride. Paradoxically, although we haven’t sought this love, it alone can satisfy (Psalm 16:11).
When I devote my life to the first two love stories – to the quest for romantic love and the love of the world – I’m left empty, for human love is fallible and fading, and the world’s opinion shifts and changes. Worse, I’m an adulterer, turning to other lovers to give me what only God can give, giving them the devotion and service that belong to him. (Jeremiah 2:12-13; James 4:4-5)
To people-pleasers like me, so quick to seek the glory of the world rather than the glory that comes from God (John 12:43), Jesus says,
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)
There’s only one whose opinion matters, and that’s the God whose Son died in my place. It’s before his judgement seat that I stand or fall. And he is able to make me stand, for Jesus rose from the dead, speaks for me before his throne, and will one day gather me – and all who live for him – to himself (Romans 14:4; 1 John 2:1, Rev 19:6-9).
Who cares what others think of me? It’s God I seek to please. It’s his praise I long for, not the praise of men (Romans 2:29). It’s from him I want to hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25:23).
I have to remind myself of this a dozen times a day, people-pleaser that I am.