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A Holy Longing

When love hurts
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Love and the City". See series.

Sermon Three


When I was doing youth ministry, we had a standard joke that whenever kids began to lose interest and drop out, all we had to do was announce a new series of meetings on the topic of love, sex, and dating. It was sure-fire way to guarantee a packed house at the next meeting. I'm not sure it would work today. I get the sense that kids today hear so much about those topics they're sick and tired of it, which is pretty unfortunate, when you think about it. But it's pretty safe to say that whenever you bring up the topics of love and sex you are pretty certain to get people's attention, even adults'.

We haven't exactly seen an attendance spike for this series on Love and the City, but I have sensed a level of interest and engagement I don't always see on Sunday morning. One of the custodians told me that the temperature in the sanctuary rose about 10 degrees during last week's message! The most telling sign has been the volume and variety of mail I've received the past couple of weeks. Not just e-mail, interestingly, but the old-fashioned kind—personal and confidential. I want to say right up front how thankful I am for your responsiveness—for your thoughtful questions and honest sharing. I'm honored that you would take the time to interact with me this way, and to share with me some very personal and sometimes painful experiences. You have helped me to deal with these topics sensitively and realistically. I won't get to all the questions in this series, but I'm trying to cover most of the issues raised.

Many of you have mentioned how refreshing and helpful it has been to talk about these things in church and to hear positive, helpful messages about love and sexuality and marriage. But some people have found it to be a difficult series to listen to, for a variety of reasons. I've heard from single people who've said that the messages have left them feeling more lonely, wondering if they'll ever experience the kind of love and intimacy we've been describing. I've heard from once-married people who find themselves missing the love and intimacy they once enjoyed before death or divorce snatched it away. I've heard from married people who are not experiencing the kind of intimacy and delight we read about in Song of Songs. What do you do when a debilitating illness or emotional issue gets in the way of intimacy, when marital conflict drives you apart or the realities of life leave you exhausted, distracted, and out of touch with each other? I've heard from people with same-sex desires who are interested in hearing the biblical perspective, even though it's hard to reconcile with their experience. There are people listening to this series who were once in love but that love went sour, and now they feel betrayed, alone, and afraid to try again. Others for whom sex has not been the beautiful experience we described last week. They've been used and wounded and taken advantage of, even in marriage. And what do you do when sexual desire gets out of control, and you find yourself satisfying it in unhealthy ways, and you end up hurting yourself or someone you love?

Sometimes, love hurts. Hurts deeply. There's hardly a person here who hasn't at some point been disappointed or confused or wounded by love. A couple of weeks ago we laughed about the rock & roll song, Love Stinks. But sometimes that's true. So why did God set us up for this? Why did He create us with these desires if they so often lead to heartache? How are we to live with these deep longings that can so easily get us in trouble, and so often leave us disappointed?

For two weeks now we've been studying this collection of poems called The Song of Songs. While most of the songs celebrate the joy of romantic love and sexual intimacy in marriage, they're not all happy tunes. There's loneliness here, and fear and disappointment and conflict. The Song of Songs is an honest book. And the truth is, sometimes, love hurts; sometimes our deep longings are not fulfilled. So let's look at one of those sad songs, found in Songs 3:1-5

I was originally intending to make this the last message in the series. But after reflecting on the questions and conversations of the past couple of weeks, I sensed it was better to go after them now, while so many of these feelings and questions are so close to the surface. So we'll talk about longings today, and finish the series in two weeks.

We are all looking for love.

We're jumping back and forth in our discussion of this book. The collection opens with a young couple singing each other's praises and looking forward to their wedding day and night. The centerpiece of the book, we looked at last week, is their wedding night, when their love is consummated. This morning we back up to an earlier time, when they are still anticipating marriage and intimacy. The woman is speaking—the beloved. She finds herself filled with anxiety about her relationship with her lover.

Verse 1: "All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him." Most interpreters agree that the events described here didn't actually take place; it's more like a dream, or an imagined sequence of events. "All night long" is probably better translated night after night. These anxious nights have been a regular occurrence for her. It seems she is often overcome with anxiety about her lover, and in her mind she plays things out.

You know how that works. You lie in your bed at night, worried or afraid about something—someone breaking in or your kid getting in trouble—and you write the script in your head. At times your imagination is so real you break out into a sweat or feel your stomach in a knot. That's what she's doing. She's afraid she might lose him, that their love might never reach its fulfillment.

So, in her mind, she goes looking for the one she loves. The word for looking describes an active and intense searching. It's the same word we read in Proverbs where we're told to search for wisdom like hidden treasure. She is searching for the one she loves. It could be she is searching for the particular man she has already fallen in love with. Maybe she's afraid something might happen to him or their relationship. What if he loses interest, what if they have a falling out, what if someone or something comes between them and keeps them from getting married? Or it could be she is remembering and describing the anxiety she felt before she met him, when she wondered if she would ever meet anyone or fall in love. Chances are there's some of both going on—anxiety over falling in and out of love, wondering if and when she'll ever get married. Basically, she doesn't like sleeping alone. She wants to be lying close to the one she loves night after night, but she's afraid it might never happen.

We know what she's going through. Every human being yearns to love and to be loved. We want to know there are people in the world who think we're special, who want to be with us day after day. We want to be held by someone who cares about us deeply. Aside from the need for food and shelter, love is the fundamental need of the human heart. "It is not good for the man to be alone," God said.

At this particular point in her life she's a single person, unmarried. A lot of people can identify with her at that point in her life. Statistics tell us that there are over 80 million single adults in the US; that's more than 40 percent of the population, and in a city like Boston the percentage is probably significantly higher than that. Single adults are the fastest growing demographic in the country. Not every single person is looking for love with this kind of intensity, but no one wants to be alone in the world. We all yearn to be in deep and satisfying relationship with the members of our family, with friends, and usually with a lover who has chosen us out of all the world.

But it's not just single people who find themselves lonely, who lay awake at night feeling lonely and afraid. There can be loneliness in marriage, too, and disappointment. If you have your Bible open, skip ahead to chapter 5. This is where we left off last week. The couple is married now. The honeymoon is over, so to speak. In verse 6 the woman is speaking again, "I opened the door for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart had gone out to him when we spoke. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer." The two lovers seem to be missing each other somehow, not connecting. First, she's too tired or lazy to come to the door. When she finally does, he's left. She goes looking for him, but can't find him. It's a poetic description of a man and wife not always able to meet each other's needs, physically and otherwise.

"The watchman found me as they made their rounds in the city. They beat me, they bruised me, they took away my cloak. O daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you, if you find my lover, what will you tell him? Tell him I am faint with love." Once again the language is highly figurative, but it seems to be a description of the pain that love can bring, the wounds that people in love can inflict on each other. "Tell him I'm heartbroken," she says. Marriage doesn't solve your relational problems, and it doesn't always satisfy your longing to love and be loved. It's possible to find yourself overwhelmed with loneliness, even when someone is laying just inches away from you in bed. Sometimes, love hurts, whether you're single or married. And sometimes, our longings aren't fulfilled.

The search for love is worth the pain.

Verse 2: "I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him." In her dream or imagination she chooses to take action, to go out and look for this special someone. This is a good thing. She's not wallowing in self-pity, waiting passively for lover to return, or for Mr. Right to come waltzing into her life. She goes out to look for him. Once again she uses that word, "look," to describe an intense and active quest. The image of the city suggests it's a hostile environment in which she goes looking. She's left the safety of her bedroom, of her parent's house, and gone out into the world looking for love. And at first, she's not successful. She can't find the one her heart loves.

It's a good thing to go looking for love. If you're a single person, and desirous of meaningful relationships, it's good to go out and be with people, to put yourself in places where you might meet interesting and healthy people. I got a couple questions about online dating services; people wondering if that is a good way to meet someone. It might be, at least a place to begin a relationship. Several people recommended a Christian site called eharmony.com. But chatting online is no substitute for extended time spent face to face, sharing the realities of life with another person.

It can be a good thing to go looking for love, but it can be scary, too. It's not uncommon for a person who finds themselves single later in life, after death or a divorce, to shudder at the thought of being "out there" again. You're vulnerable. You can get burned, or disappointed. Sometimes it can take a long time to meet someone, longer than you thought. Sometimes it feels like you'll never meet that person, and sometimes you don't. It's risky to go looking for love. But the Song of Songs suggests that it's a risk worth taking. It's basic to our human nature.

In verse 3 she encounters some watchmen in her search. We're not sure how to interpret that. She could be referring to people who are trying to set her up with someone—matchmakers. If you're single, you're probably pretty tired of people doing that, and chances are they've been no more helpful than these watchmen. Or it could be the guards represent the social and personal barriers that hinder her from finding someone. A young, unmarried woman in that culture wasn't free to roam the streets or to go out on her own looking for love. There were certain social conventions about when and how to meet a life partner; often it was arranged by others. It could be that her own fears and insecurities are the barriers that prevent her from meeting someone; maybe she's afraid to leave the safety and security of her mother's house, of the life she's used to. The point is that finding love isn't easy; it isn't always fruitful, and at times it feels like people and circumstances are against you.

Finally, in verse 4 she finds the one she is looking for. She is so relieved she holds him tight, will not let him go, and brings him back to her mother's house to sleep beside her. But remember, this is just a dream, or her imagination. It won't really happen until later in the book. But now, in her imagination, she anticipates the joy of being close to him, of spending the night with him. It's as much about security as it is about intimacy.

And it is a wonderful thing to find someone who loves you as you love them. It's a good thing to enjoy a deep and meaningful relationship, to anticipate marriage, even. But it is not a good thing to rush it. Not a good thing to jump at a relationship to soon, to make a commitment prematurely or to the wrong person.

Notice verse 5. "Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field; do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires." This verse appears three times in the song; it's the primary subtext of the book. The basic idea is, "Don't rush love." As wonderful as romance and sex and marriage can be, don't get into a relationship just to keep from being lonely, and don't get intimate with someone outside the safety and security of marriage.

When we're lonely, we're vulnerable. The longing for love is so strong that we just want to be with someone, and we're tempted to do foolish things and make bad decisions to find fulfillment. A Christ-follower is tempted to get involved romantically with someone who doesn't share their faith in Christ; that can make for a lonely and conflicted relationship. A business traveler after several nights on the road is desperate for some conversation or passion. A person whose marriage is cold and distant turns to a friend of the opposite sex for comfort and companionship. Sometimes a person who has been disappointed with romance might look to a same-sex relationship for affection and intimacy.

So these words of caution are offered three times in the Song of Songs. Be careful with love. Don't try to rush it or force it when it's not there, or it's not right. The Song teaches us that romance is wonderful, sex is beautiful, marriage is good. But it also teaches us to wait for the real thing and the right thing. Notice that this woman isn't combing the streets looking for just anyone; she's searching for the one her heart loves. Better to be single and looking for love than to rush into a relationship and miss the real thing.

The search for love should lead us to God.

Yeah, but what if the real thing never comes along? What if you never meet that special person? It's easy for this woman to say love is worth waiting for. It came to her. She found the one her heart loves. But what if it doesn't happen that way? What then do we do with these unfulfilled longings and desires?

You bring them to God. You remember that, as powerful as these longings are, the deepest longing of the human heart is the longing for God. As wonderful as it is to love and be loved by a human being, it is more wonderful to love and be loved by God. Sooner or later every human love will disappoint us. Men and women are frail and fallen beings. No matter how deeply you love and are loved by another human being, sooner or later that person will disappoint you, sooner or later that person will be gone. But God's love lasts forever. God's love never disappoints. God's love is enough. Romance is one of the arenas in which we can experience love, but it's not the only one, and it's not the best one.

The longing for love is one of many longings we have as human beings. We long for significance. We long for beauty. We long for meaning. Each of these longings can be fulfilled to some measure in this life, but none of them can be perfectly fulfilled. We always want more significance, more beauty, more meaning. U2 sings, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." It's been over thirty years, but The Stones still "can't get no satisfaction." Springsteen sings, "Everybody's got a hungry heart." Barry White sings, "Can't get enough of your love, babe."

The longing for love, just like these other longings, is holy and right and good. But none of them can be fully satisfied in this life. They weren't meant to be. God gives them to us to bring joy and wonder to our lives, but, ultimately, he gives them to us to lead us to himself. In the end, he alone can satisfy the deepest needs and highest longings of the human heart. And ultimately, that's where the Song of Songs leads us—to the love of God.

In the 1980s a man named Brian Keenan was taken captive in Lebanon and held hostage for four years, suffering physical beatings and psychological oppression. But in his imprisonment he turned to God, and one of the books that led him there was the Song of Songs. That book awakened within him the longing for romance, the deep desire for intimacy. It reminded him that he was human; that he was made to love and be loved. It assured him that love was out there, it could be found. He ultimately found that longing fulfilled in a relationship with God.

The subject of the Song of Songs is human love, but the object of the book, the one it points to, is God, the Lover of our Souls. It points us to a relationship so intimate, so satisfying, so transforming, that even the Song of all Songs cannot adequately describe it. As wonderful as it is to love and be loved by another person, it is enough to love and be loved by God.


One hot and dusty day Jesus was walking through Samaria. At the hottest point of the day, He came upon a well, and asked a woman there for a drink of water. It must have gone down nicely—cool and refreshing. Then Jesus offered her some water—living water, he called it. Water that would satisfy her thirst like no other, once and for all. I'd like some of that water, she said. I'm tired of coming out to the well a couple of times a day. Very well, said Jesus, go get your husband and I'll tell you about it. The woman stammered for a moment. I have no husband, she explained. I know, said Jesus. I also know that you've had five husbands, and the man you're living with now is not your husband.

For years this woman had been looking for love in all the wrong places; she tried all kinds of men; she'd tried marriage, singleness, cohabitation. None of it satisfied, none of them lasted. But that day at the well she met a man who would love her like no other, a Savior whose love would always satisfy, and never fail. That same love is available to you today. That same Savior wants a relationship with you.

We're all looking for love, and that's a good thing. Love is worth pursuing, worth waiting for, and worth celebrating. But ultimately, we won't really find what we're looking for until we love and are loved by God.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We are all looking for love.

II. The search for love is worth the pain.

III. The search for love should lead us to God.