Valentine's Day can be painful. I learned that in the third grade. Mrs. Kendrick asked me to staple every kid's Valentine sack to the bulletin board. The stapler got jammed, and I accidentally stapled my thumb. When she noticed that progress had ceased, she looked up from reading Eddie's Menagerie aloud to the class and said, "Oh, Lord. You didn't!" I did. That was my first Valentine's Day wound, but it certainly wasn't my last.
Ever feel like the foil character in the play of life? If you remember back to high school literature class, the foil character is the one who is there to reveal more about the star of the show. The foil character is the moon to the sun. The foil character is second fiddle, less important, a sidekick. Some would even say disposable.
February the 14th is one of those days on the calendar when I can start to feel like the foil character in someone else's story. When the cast call came out, I got the role of "extra." I'm on the outside looking in. I'm like a British tourist in Boston on the Fourth of July. The celebration is not for me, but it is worse than that—the celebration shines a spotlight on my defeat.
Lurking behind the curtain, you're watching the action as an outsider. Unnoticed, unmissed, unloved. That's what I imagined the brother felt like in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Maybe it has been a while since you have read this parable. It is the story of a family. One brother asked the father for his inheritance early so that he could leave home and live the high life—do as he pleased. After squandering everything, reduced to living a life of poverty in a literal pigsty, he decided to return home. He planned to ask for forgiveness and offer himself as a servant to his father. He assumed he could no longer live in his father's household as a son, but longed to be accepted in any capacity. The reception he received when his father saw him walking home from a distance takes my breath away.
If you have never spent time reflecting on Rembrandt's depiction of The Return of the Prodigal Son, I highly recommend it. I had the privilege of living a short walk away from The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia where the original is displayed. I never got tired of looking at it. It is a beautiful painting. An amazing use of light and dark. If you just glance as you stroll by, you will miss it. It takes time to notice the brother, lurking in the shadowy background, hiding behind his curtain of bitterness. He is not included in the loving embrace. He is not joining in the celebration. He is excluded. Do you feel his pain? I know that feeling well.
As fewer and fewer days stand between now and February 14, I imagine that quite a few of us are expecting to share in the pain of V-day. This pain is worse than a staple to the thumb. It is piercing to the heart.
Does having an unfulfilled desire for a very good thing mean that God is withholding his best from you? Don't answer so fast. Think about it. Let's return to the prodigal's brother. He thought that the father was giving the best gifts to the wayward son.
"All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends" (Luke 15:29).
He believed he was overlooked, unappreciated, maybe even unloved if not loved less. The father had forgotten about his well-behaved son and gave everything to the black sheep! Was it true? Don't move on too quickly. Answer the question. Don't overlook the real riches because you focused on the tokens.
The brother got into trouble when he started making comparisons. I fall into that trap, too. Why hasn't God given me a husband like he has given to most of my friends? The Bible says it's not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)—doesn't he care that I am alone? Has he forgotten about that detail of my life? What do I do with my desire and what I know of his character? Can they co-exist in a way that results in contentment?
The brother overlooked the abundant riches and gifts that the father freely gave him his whole life. So what am I overlooking when I focus on the gifts I have not been given? I am not sure that I am finished answering this question, but I can give you one example. Marriage is a picture of Christ's love for the church—of Jesus' love for me. Yes, it is a beautiful, multi-dimensional reflection of our relationship with God, but it is a picture. The true relationship marriage points to is one I already have. I want to be pursued, yet I have already been pursued by the King of the universe. The brother elevated a ring, robe and roast over the real riches that he already owned. They were examples—tokens of the father's love. When I focus on the earthly relationship I don't have, I am being completely ungrateful for the love I already have—the only love that truly satisfies. It is like going on a dream vacation to Hawaii and yet getting angry that I didn't receive a postcard of the trip!
So does this mean that I should stuff my longings and pretend like Valentine's Day isn't painful? I don't think so, but I also want to take care not to fall into the trap of bitterness like the brother did. I can actually celebrate that which I do not have because it is just a shadowy picture of that which is already mine! I am not overlooked. I am the apple of his eye! I am not unappreciated. I am cherished! I am not unloved. I am fully known and infinitely loved!
Bring on the conversation hearts and flowers! Cheer on the romance of others! Go watch Pride & Prejudice! Let's just remember that while celebrating what we do not have, we can be profoundly grateful for the greater gift that is ours.
Cheryl Boyd is on staff with Cru where she currently serves in launching a new ministry among young professionals in cities across the country. For 12 years she called Russia home as she helped give national leadership to the campus ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Follow Cheryl on Twitter @cheryloboyd.