Unrequited love is the subject of many novels, television shows, and movies, and most people experience an episode or two of unrequited love in their teen years. Sally likes Bob, but Bob likes Kate who likes Jeff. Unrequited love may begin as childish crushes in the elementary years, but by early adulthood, those feelings may be overwhelmingly strong, leading to broken engagements, affairs, and depression. Christians are not exempt from experiencing love that is not returned, so how should we respond when it happens?
First of all, we need to understand that unrequited love is a loss. We need to accept the fact that, when we love someone who doesn’t love us back, we are grieving. Grief is a powerful emotion, but it is a necessary part of healing a wounded heart. There are losses that bring tremendous personal pain, magnified by the fact that we don’t feel comfortable talking about them. Those grieving the death of a loved one are usually surrounded and supported by sympathetic friends and family. They can openly discuss their loss and find compassion and empathy. But when our loss is private, such as a miscarriage, a moral failure, or unrequited love, we often grieve alone.
Grieving an unrequited love is similar to grieving the loss of an unborn child. We are sad because of what might have been. We are forced to let go of a beautiful dream that will never become reality. We also grieve over the feelings of rejection and unworthiness that come with unrequited love. It takes time to heal a broken heart, just as it takes time to heal a physical injury. But eventually we can be at peace with the fact that things will never be what we wanted them to be.
Once the initial grief has subsided, we can continue healing by turning our sorrow into thanksgiving. There is a reason the love we had for someone was not returned, so we can thank the Lord that He protected us from an unsuitable match. Clearly, the relationship was not meant to be, so we can turn a heavy heart into a grateful heart by recognizing that we were prevented from making a big mistake. We are to give thanks in every situation, not because God needs our thanks but because we need to give it (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Giving thanks, even when we are hurting, keeps our hearts in right relationship to God. It reminds us that He is still in charge and He has a plan (see Isaiah 46:9–11).
We must be on guard that we don’t turn the unrequited love into a statement about our own worth as a person. Feelings of rejection are normal, but we cannot camp on them. While sadness and disappointment are healthy and temporary, Satan would like for low self-worth to become our new identity. He suggests to us that, since that person did not love us, no one ever will; we are, in fact, unlovable. And Satan will point to many “proofs” of our unworthiness. We need to recognize his tactics and intentionally reject his lies (2 Corinthians 10:5). We can replace Satan’s lies with God’s truth. It may help to print out truths such as these and keep them in view:
• I am so loved by God that He gave His Son for me (John 3:16).
• It is God who is at work in me, molding me the way He wants me to be (Philippians 2:13).
• All things (even this) will work together for good if I love God and want His purpose in my life (Romans 8:28).
• God is near to me when I’m hurting and is even now healing my heart (Psalm 34:18).
• God will meet all my needs, even for love, so I’m trusting Him for it (Philippians 4:19).
Importantly, we need to move on. Unrequited love leaves a sting that lasts for a while, but we don’t need to keep visiting it in our thoughts. We tell it goodbye and then set our sights on all God has for us in the future. There will be other loves, other opportunities, other people we know nothing about right now. There will be twists and turns, surprises and joys, and we need to prepare our hearts to receive them all. Philippians 3:13–14 can be the mantra of those recovering from unrequited love: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”