Once upon a time, there was a young man who felt empty, lonely and afraid. He knew in his heart that he desperately needed to find true love to fill the vacuum in his soul, so he embarked on a quest for this priceless treasure.
The first city in which he arrived and resided was called Lustville. In Lustville, he learned to please himself through fantasizing, using others for his own immediate self-gratification, living a hidden, secretive erotic lifestyle and having compulsive sex.
After living in Lustville for many years, he felt more lonely, more empty, more afraid and more disgusted than before he had entered this city.
Since pleasing himself, or self-love, brought him no satisfaction, he left Lustville and entered into the land of Men's Applause or Approval, hoping to find true love in pleasing others rather than himself. It was in this community that he mastered the people-pleasing skills of indirect communication, conflict avoidance, the ability to always say "yes" and to never say "no," the ability to stuff his anger when others were not pleased with his performance and to feel guilty when he was unsuccessful in making others happy.
After many years of living there, he left the community of people-pleasers feeling resentful, used, abused and frustrated. He felt like a total failure and believed that he would never find true love.
He traveled to the town of Philanthropy, where he thought he might find true love in helping others who were less fortunate. It was there that he learned to give to others but not to receive from them; to be in control of those who were dependent upon him; and to have one-sided relationships. He learned the art of manipulation to make others be and do what he thought was right for them.
He thought that if he helped others who were broken, helpless and dependent they would truly love him, but eventually each one hated him for his arrogance, self-righteousness, superiority, control and manipulation. Others felt demeaned, unneeded, worthless, indebted and inferior, and he felt used, unappreciated and misunderstood.
Since he could not find true love in the town of Philanthropy, he left there and came to Workville. It was there he learned discipline, diligence, determination, persistence and self-sufficiency.
It felt good to look to himself to meet his need for true love through work. He explained to his wife and children that he worked all of the time in order to provide for them because he loved them, hoping that they would truly love him and be grateful to him in return. At first they believed him, but eventually they learned that he loved his work and not them. Work was his way of gaining emotional distance from his family because of his fear of being hurt again. In Workville, he left behind many empty, broken relationships.
He later traveled to the land of Phariseeism, the land of religious rules and self-importance, but found no true love there. Then he traveled to the land of Addictions and found one unfulfilling, enslaving, compulsive habit after another.
All his traveling led him to the city of Despair. He felt hopeless, hurt, broken and powerless. He had found that true love could not be earned, achieved or purchased. He came to believe that he could never find true love because in his heart were pride, self-centeredness, selfishness, dishonesty, fear, lust, greed, self-righteousness, shame, self-hatred and bitterness.
No matter where he went, his character defects went with him and destroyed any possibility of finding true love. He discovered that there was no geographical cure for his love-hungry soul. He discovered that sexual addictions, people-pleasing, co-dependency, workaholism and Phariseeism were cruel masters.
What the traveler didn't know was that True Love had been observing his every step of the journey, waiting for him to come to the end of himself, and waiting for him to admit his powerlessness to find true love within himself. At that point, True Love revealed himself to the traveler. True Love's name was Jesus Christ.
True Love was really a gift from God that would change the traveler's character defects, unhealthy beliefs, unhealthy attitudes, unhealthy motivations and desires, unhealthy relationships and unhealthy behaviors so that he could know the living God. For God is love, True Love.
All human love is morally bankrupt, self-seeking and self-serving, but True Love is pure, unconditional, permanent, self-sacrificing, holy and fulfilling. True Love is humble, honest, truthful, realistic, gracious and trustworthy.
As the traveler continued to grow in his knowledge of God, he continued to grow in true love. True Love has found him, and may True Love find you this Valentine's Day. Even in the wrong cities, even with imperfections, even if you have chosen the wrong roads in the quest for true love, True Love is still courting you, calling you and wooing you to himself.
The Rev. Roger Bennett is pastor of Overcomers Outreach Center, a congregation of the Southern Baptist Convention.