And they lived happily ever after.
If you were like me, your childhood was filled with stories that ended with this happy refrain. Whether you watched lots of Disney movies or read fairy tales, and epitome of happiness seemed to be…in a relationship. In falling in love with that special guy or girl, depending on your gender.
Oftentimes, though…once you grow up, thing seem to get messier. We begin to find that friendships and relationships with the opposite sex are complicated, confusing. With the passion of youth, and the lies of the media, ringing in our ears, we put our identity, our worth, in him or her. Because by doing so, life truly can be an Ever After.
But what is love? And what if you love someone who doesn’t love you? And where does God fit into all of this? These are the questions I will wrestle with in this post.
Note: This story I am about to tell you has defined so much of who I am today. I’ve struggled with how much I should divulge, and have tried to keep it as short as possible. Yet this might be one of the longer posts you read.
My junior year was a year of relatively peaceful “spiritual weather” in which God spoke gently. My friends and I did Bible studies, reading books like 1 John and Philemon. I remember these books talked a lot about loving one another. Feeling tired of such messages, I began to get exasperated. “I know how to love,” I thought with annoyance. “Love is not that difficult.” Most things God said in His word were easy, I believed. Why didn’t Christians just follow Him? Hardships would probably be a lot easier to handle, people wouldn’t be depressed or in pain, families and friends would show each other love and forgiveness.
Then I met *Peter. It was senior year in high school. There was a senior meeting at my house. Another friend said she was bringing a boy named Peter who she wanted to set me up with. So on the day of our meeting, I opened the door to let him in—and there he was. Dark hair that was just a bit tousled, light grey eyes, a slow but friendly smile.
I knew. I knew I would like him, and I felt a small voice inside me say that day, “This is going to be very hard.”
We began talking a lot and hanging out, and before I knew it I had given my heart away completely. He was funny, we could talk easily, he was kind, we had fun together. He read his Bible and went to church. He was perfect. Not to mention cute. There was hope that he liked me, I believed. He definitely didn’t mind hanging out with me, and I could tell he enjoyed himself. Yet at the very end of November, a good friend had these words to say: “Teryn, I just thought I should let you know that Peter doesn’t like you in that way. He said there just wasn’t any chemistry.”
There wasn’t any chemistry? I felt sick inside, but I laughed it off. It was no big deal, I assured her. I hadn’t liked him that much. But I went into the bathroom that night, turned on the faucet in the sink, and cried—the rushing water of the sink drowning out the quiet trickling of confused sobs. These were the first of many, many tears shed.
I couldn’t show Peter how I felt, though. So I washed my face, took a deep breath, and practiced my cheerful smile. I decided I’d be his friend and that I’d be okay with it.
So we were friends, and he trusted me with many things he didn’t trust with anyone else. The closer we got as friends, the more I began to realize how much hurt he had—a lot of deep issues, a lot if self-hatred. He didn’t understand God’s love or forgiveness. It broke my heart, because I wanted to help him.
Yet I cared for him much more deeply than he did for me, and the closer we got the worse it felt. “You are the only one I can trust with this stuff,” he’d say. Why didn’t he like me then? I was trying so hard to be a good friend, and he didn’t notice me. There wasn’t any chemistry, he said. Why not? What was wrong with me?
Finally, the inward feelings of pain and confusion I was trying so hard to hide from everyone began to surface in external ways. In early December, I toppled headlong into the first true depression I’d ever experienced. One particular night, I felt swallowed in a sea of darkness, utterly alone and lost, with only self-deprecating thoughts to keep me company.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked myself again and again. “Why doesn’t he like you?” I remember getting up at 1:00am and reading Psalms to take my mind off things. Where was God in all of this? I cried and cried that night. And from then on, tears were always close to the surface.
Depression was followed quickly by illness. I lost twenty pounds in three weeks, and I had pain that ran up and down the left side of my body. My mother and I went to countless doctors trying to figure out what was wrong, but no one could figure out anything. During the spring of my senior year, my life consisted of mental haziness and physical pain, of sterile-smelling rooms and doctors who shook their heads in bewilderment. A strange, lingering sickness that would not be resolved for another 5 years.
I’ve already mentioned that during this time of illness and depression, I began to dabble in anorexia. Partly because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and why Peter didn’t like me. Partly because I desperately needed to control something in my life. Partly because I felt as if I’d failed God because of the darkness I found myself in, and I needed to be punished.
* * *
Unrequited love is a strange and painful thing. And I did love him. It took me months to wrap my mind around the feelings that were so confusing to me. These feelings were not, “I like him. I want to date him. I want to go to movies with him and have dinner with him.” It was more than that—it was a deep and acute longing to support and be there for him. Nothing else mattered but to care for him, to help him, to cherish him. I wanted to show him God’s love because he didn’t understand it.
However, my love was far from pure. In early March of my senior year, God showed me how much I’d loved Peter in a selfish way. Having never thought of God’s glory, I’d wanted him to see me as the girl who’d saved his life. I’d replaced God with Peter, and nothing but darkness could be the outcome. I had to love God more than Peter. I had to learn what Real Love really was.
No matter what I thought I had known my junior year in high school, I didn’t know anything about how to walk the life of a Christian. Life was extremely difficult without leaning on Him. I couldn’t guard my heart, or love, or forgive without Him. I couldn’t be faithful to Him without His help. I realized I would be a selfish, prideful girl with horrible ulterior motives in all my relationships if God didn’t refine my stubborn heart. Aghast at myself, I repented and begged God to help me learn how to truly love.
* * *
Yet the journey was far from over.
The summer after senior year, I had decided to take a year off between high school and college, hoping to go to college the following fall. Peter was still around, and we were “just friends.” However, that summer he began to fall away from God. I watched as he began pushing friends away, not returning phone calls, being rude and aloof. Angry with him, I wanted to abandon him and let him figure out life on his own.
“No,” God told me gently. “Stand by him. Love him.” Those two simple requests—stand by him and love him—were to shape the next twelve months of my life. As I struggled to obey God in these simple requests for a friend, I realized anew how selfish I was. You see, I interpreted the command to love him as a sign that it was romantic love. That I should love him, and that he would love me back. But God didn’t say that. He meant agape love—selfless love that thought of nothing in return. So throughout this entire year, I was struggling with what I wanted and what God was really saying.
Peter didn’t make it easy to learn to love. One time, he didn’t return my calls for three weeks. This frightened me because I had legitimate reasons to be concerned about him. Yet he didn’t ignore other people. I knew for a fact that he’d called other friends and had them hang out. Why was it just me he treated with special disdain? Finally, he answered the phone. “I just didn’t feel like it,” was all he said to justify his actions. He began to lie to me about everything, making false promises about phone calls and hang outs. I was so angry with him, I told God I wasn’t going to love him or be his friend anymore.
“Would you love him if you knew he’d never love you back equally?” God asked me one morning in my devotions. Struggling for many minutes, I finally prayed, “No. I can’t. Not on my own strength. But if You want me to love, then take over from here. I cannot love him on my own.” Peter would never love me romantically. I wanted him to, but there would never be anything between us. Yet I still had to love him with agape love, and not cave into bitterness and anger about everything that had happened between us.
It was from that moment on that the refining fires of God’s love began overtaking my cold human heart. These fires were intense and painful as I learned to serve Peter with no thought of love in return. I called him and wrote him encouraging emails. He never responded. I prayed for him every day. And he didn’t care. In fact, he never acknowledged any of these acts of friendship. There were many times I sobbed from the pit of my stomach because I felt so much pain, and I didn’t understand why God would put me through this. Yet I had to learn to lean on God’s love, His agape love that loved the entire world who rejected Him. To a very remote degree, I began to understand God’s heart for the world, and God’s heart for Peter.
Because Real Love loves no matter what. Real Love is the kind of love that is there for people. Real love sees a person’s pain and prays for them, listens to them, interacts on deep levels with them. And even when that person may lash out or reject you, Real Love never succumbs to bitterness or unforgiveness. It still loves. Real Love doesn’t seek its own interests, but that of others. Real Love is God’s Love for us at the cross, when Christ emptied Himself to the point of death—even for us, horrible sinners who spat in His face.
Finally, one day before summer, I met with him in Starbucks. I felt God wanted me to speak to him about His love. I sat there holding my Bible nervously. “Peter,” I said, “God loves you. You don’t have to do anything to make Him love you. You don’t have to do anything to make Him forgive you.”
He just stared at me with tears in his eyes. “Teryn, you’ve always been there for me, and I don’t know what I would’ve done without you,” he said quietly. “I don’t think I would’ve survived this last year without you. So thank you.”
Peter walked away from me that day with a huge smile on his face. Yet I only saw him two times that summer. One time I drove to his house to give him a book by Philip Yancey I was reading that I thought would really encourage him. To my knowledge, he never read it. Another time I gave him a picture I’d drawn. The act of drawing this picture was my way of visibly forgiving him for all the pain he’d caused me.
Yet ultimately none of it mattered. Peter went his own way, he fell away from God. He began to lie to me more and more frequently, and the false promises continued. That summer, I found out he was dating someone. He had tried to keep it a secret from me, but a friend told me about it. Again, this wound opened up in my heart as I realized that the person I loved did not love me and never would.
In August, right before I went off to Chicago for college, I threw a going away party. I invited everyone weeks in advance because it was so important to me that people come. But Peter didn’t come. He actually scheduled work the night of the party. I remember crying very deeply and brokenly as I realized he had walked out of my life. The tears were not because I was angry; I was overwhelmed with the amount of pain someone could inflict and yet the amount of love I still felt in my heart for this boy.
In reality, I still loved him. I still wanted him to love me. I was hurting very deeply, yet loving very deeply, and I didn’t understand why God had decided love could be so painful. Why had God said, “No” to a relationship? Why had He taught me love, only to take away the one I loved?
Over and over, I sang a Sara Groves song in broken whispers: All I have need of His hand will provide. He’s always been faithful to me.
Peter did not ever say goodbye.
It is painful to look back on that time in my life, because there are still so many confusing elements. Yes, God humbled me through this experience. My self-righteousness and self sufficiency was shattered as I realized just how hard Real Love truly was. God broke into my heart during this time. My relationship became real and raw with Him. I began to see into His heart—to see the way the world rejected Him as Peter rejected me. Yet He was a God with a never-ending love that could not be quenched, who called His followers to share that kind of love with the world.
However, as the years have passed—I have processed this period much more. Looking back with a maturity in Christ I lacked as a senior in high school, I can see that I put my identity in Peter. If he didn’t like me, if he wasn’t there, then my whole world was shattered. He could treat me how he liked—manipulate me, lie to me, ignore me. I didn’t care. He was an idol, and I justified many of his passively-abusive actions towards me without acknowledging the wounds he was causing me.
You see, because of this friendship, I have struggled with abusive tendencies ever sense. He treated me like I was nothing most of the time—just someone to dump his garbage on when the time was right. He did not care whatsoever about my pains, my struggles. He liked almost every one of my girl friends except me—even when he knew I cared for him deeply. It was a one-way friendship where he took, took, took.
By the time I left for college, I was completely drained of self-worth. I didn’t know where I ended and Peter began—which were his problems or my problems, his pains or my own pains. His issues rubbed off on me in deep, complicated ways.
His treatment of me was also damaging. I began to believe somehow that I deserved to be treated in such a fashion. I believed I was simply a tool to be used for the gain of others. And I believed I should be punished, ignored, or manipulated when I wasn’t perfect—by others and by myself. My own emotions couldn’t be shared, because that is not what a relationship is supposed to be. A relationship is about the guy, who simply takes.
These are the lies I had to fight all four years of my college career. I only dated once during that time, and I attracted someone vaguely similar to Peter simply because that is what I expect. This relationship only confirmed what I felt about guys and myself. It is a terrible truth that once a woman is treated in a self-deprecating way, it is very hard for her to ever value herself as she should again. Many do not understand this unless they’ve gone through a damaging friendship or relationship.
To my knowledge, Peter never came back to God. When Peter began to slowly leave my life, I struggled with intense anger with God. Why are You taking him away? I’d ask. Why don’t You let everything end happily, like it’s supposed to? What was the point of all this pain unless something good actually happens? What is the point of Love if people still walk away from it? This are questions I still struggle with to this day.
Something a professor said to me my senior year in college is true: This professor spoke of “vicarious suffering.” Vicarious suffering is when you walk alongside someone bearing a great pain, and you ache for them. You help them bear their pain. Just as Christ suffered on our behalf, carrying the burden of our sins on His back. “If you avoid suffering, you sometimes avoid helping people,” this professor said. Sometime, we don’t get anything for helping others. Sometimes, we get a stab in the heart. Pain. Yet is it worth it to show love? Christ did.I suffered to help Peter. I truly loved him, and I tried to help him. And I did help him through a very difficult year. Love is sometimes pain. But Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13).
Yet God took him away because my story with him ended. God took him away because He knew that my friendship with him was damaging me in ways I couldn’t see at the time. Even if I was supposed to love him with agape love, I was not supposed to be in a romantic relationship with him. If I had had my identity in Christ at the time, I could’ve been a friend to him, yet still retained my own sense of worth in God’s eyes. If I had truly submitted to God’s commands to agape love, I wouldn’t have longed for him to love me romantically. That never should’ve happened, and God protected me from the dangerous thing I craved at the time. God always knows what’s best for us, even when it seems as if He is so cruel sometimes.
* * *
A year at college passed. My story with Peter had ended, and a new one had begun.
Or so I thought. But the last part of the story took place the summer after my freshman year of college. A mutual friend was leaving for Mexico to be a missionary, and she had a going away party. As I drove up, I saw Peter’s car parked in front of the house. At first, I was overwhelmed with sorrow and went into a bedroom before he could see me. A friend prayed with me, and I was able to go out and sit down in the living room with composure. It was there he came up to me after a few minutes. He said hello, and I responded back. “It’s been a long time,” he said. I agreed.
We did not talk much besides that first initial acknowledgment. I didn’t think we needed to. Yet as we all laughed, played games, and reminisced about our friend, I realized that I still loved him. It was not romantic love anymore, but agape love. I looked at him and didn’t see the pain, the hurt, the confusion, the tears. I did not see what I had so desperately wanted—love in return. I just saw Peter. He was forgiven and loved by God, and I felt God’s love inside me well up for this prodigal son. It felt like my heart was bursting with joy, burning with Real Love.
“Don’t you understand now?” God whispered to my heart that night. “That’s how I see you. I love you because I love you. This is My love.”
Some wounds run deep. It is usually the wounds of the opposite gender that cut the deepest. Yet I have seen God faithfully walk me through the process of healing. I am no longer the girl desperately longing for love, who let an unhealthy boy define her worth. God has grown me up, stood me on the solid ground of His Love, and is leading me onward and upward.
I have long ago forgiven and healed from Peter. God used it in His plans to change me and humble me and learn a deeper meaning of love. Still, sometimes there is still a little girl crying in me, yearning to be loved rightly. Yearning to be honored and treated with true respect by a man. To be loved back in the same deep fashion that I have learned to love others, and which so many in the world have no understanding. This has yet to happen.
But in the end, I know this: That God is ultimately the Love that can heal the deepest wounds. God is the One who loves us when all others fail. He alone must be my identity. A person’s love will always fall short of the Love we have in Christ Jesus, who poured out His life to the point of death, even death on a cross.
*Names and slight details are changed for privacy sake.