It’s not a purity ring or a promise ring. It’s definitely not an engagement ring.
My parents gave it to me as a birthday gift. That birthday, my nineteenth, I was dating my first serious boyfriend; I’d spent the summer working in the states at the camp I grew up attending, while he stayed in Toronto working and traveling and generally not being in the same area as me. Long distance sucked, especially since we’d only begun dating that spring.
I was coming back to town on my birthday. We hadn’t seen each other in three-ish months. He was going to come – until he texted me saying that his car had broken down on the highway and that he wasn’t going to make it in time. So I arrived at my parents’ house, disappointed, only to find him standing in the corner of our kitchen surrounded by balloons and presents. I screamed and cried and hugged him. There was cake and confetti and selfies and I opened all the presents and felt floored by all the love and by him and by the fact that someone would do all this for me.
And my parents gave me the ring. It didn’t necessarily have any meaning. It was just something beautiful, a gift for me – a little token of their love and a memento of that special day. I’ve worn it every day since then. I look back on that birthday and think of how happy I was – how much it all meant to me: the boyfriend’s surprise arrival, the fact that he’d planned with my parents in secret to make it happen, me putting confetti in his hair and tearing up because I felt so special. But I also think of how much I didn’t know, and how innocent I was, and how much the next year was going to suck.
Our story was the kind of story that doesn’t have a punchline — or, at least, it was the punchline that neither of us wanted. We ended painfully. I left the relationship bearing wounds that I wouldn’t really understand until a year later, on a mission trip to Peru where I still felt the bitter memory of it every single day. It was there in Peru that I realized what it was, realized its true name: emotional trauma.
I don’t say that lightly. Trauma isn’t a joke. I didn’t want to claim that sort of pain for myself because I knew people who’d been through much worse. It wasn’t that bad. He didn’t mean to hurt me. I wasn’t perfect, either.
But it was that bad.
It was bad enough for me to still get caught up in negative thought loops about it during the most menial, unrelated situations, even a year later. That was just one of the signs: there were flashbacks, nightmares, moments where he entered a room and I had to get out and didn’t understand why my body was entering fight-or-flight mode. In honesty, deep down, I knew that it was that bad because despite all my prayers and attempts to “keep my head up” and “take charge of my emotions” and “just push through”, I wasn’t healing.
During that time in Peru, a friend saw it in me and called it out. Emotional trauma. When I teared up immediately, she gently said, “Look at you. You’re crying. You knew what this was.”
It felt like the truest thing I’d ever heard. It was so good to name my pain. It was a relief to accept the real weight of how shattered I still felt, to really face the shame I carried for allowing myself to get hurt so badly… as if I had any control over someone else’s actions. It did break my heart. But it was also the first step to healing.
A week later, I was curled up on the couch, a few days into a painful bought of food poisoning. I’d missed half a week of the campus ministry that I’d gone to Peru to be part of. That same friend came to visit me, and we talked a little bit about the realization we shared. Then she opened her Bible and told me she was going to read me 1 Corinthians 13. She told me, I want you to think about what this passage says that real love is. I want you to know that this kind of love is real.
So she began to read.
I’d heard this passage a thousand times – after all, I’d been to weddings. But this time, curled up on the couch with my stomach aching and my head on a pillow, I closed my eyes and really thought about the words in the context of everything I’d been through.
Love is patient and kind.
Love does not envy or boast.
It is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8 ESV)
I remember thinking, I’m going to cry. I said, “I’m going to get a tissue.”
I got up and ran to the bathroom, where I promptly vomited and diarrhea-d – is that a verb? Either way, don’t believe the lies that international travel is glamorous. My friend, at the door of the bathroom, said, “Julia? Do you need me to hold back your hair?” Then: “That doesn’t sound like blowing your nose.”
While the first half of 1 Corinthians 13 is beautiful, it’s the second half that I love the most and that I believe often gets overlooked.
As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (I Corinthians 13:8-12)
I think of this passage as sort of a disclaimer to follow Paul’s claims about love, as if he’s saying, this is what love should be, but remember that how we love on Earth will never be this way.
It’s wrong of me to think that someone, someday, will be able to love me with a flawless 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love. No human is capable of that. What’s more, no human relationship will ever be able to truly fix my hurt or the deep brokenness of my human nature. It will always be a struggle to love and be loved. We’re going to hurt the ones we love no matter how hard we try not to, and the ones we love will hurt us back.
But here’s the point: perfect love is already here. It’s not something we have to wish for, wait for, or pine after. It’s embodied by the person of Jesus, the face of God, who came to us first. We can love at all because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
My prayer throughout my journey of healing is that I’ll understand my pain someday. I hope for a moment in the future when I’ll be able to look back on that time of my life, and even on this time of healing, and understand why I had to go through it all. Sometimes I am flabbergasted by just how much sense it doesn’t make to feel such hurt, and just how deeply wrong it feels to be hurt by another person. My wish is that God will bless me with that clarity during my time on earth.
But he might not. Even so, he’s still a good Father.
As a finite human, I can’t grasp the eternal significance of my pain. I can only see it through a mirror, dimly – even though God stepped down as Jesus and tore the veil separating himself from us, I’ve still experienced only a whisper of the fullness of his presence. Despite the real, far-extending impact that knowing Jesus has had on my life, Paul writes that I’m still living in a fog, in the time where Creation awaits the second coming of Jesus and the full arrival of his kingdom here (Romans 8:22). It’s a now, but not yet time. Jesus is here now, but our sufferings don’t really make sense yet. We can know him, but not see him face-to-face yet.
As believers in Jesus, we can know that we will someday. Our pain will have ended, and as Paul writes, our knowledge and prophecies will have ended, too. Only love – the love of God – will last forever.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes that “Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved… Heaven, once attained, will work backward and turn even that agony into a glory.” It’s as John writes in the book of Revelation: there will be a time when Jesus’ kingdom is restored when he sits on the throne and says, “‘Behold – I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5 ESV). Everything from our sins, to our failures, to our deepest heartaches will not just be made new: they will even more fully reveal to us how much God loves us. That’s when immanuel – God with us – will be completely realized:
“’Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
(Revelation 21:3-4 ESV)
I guess that’s what I think of when I look at the ring on my finger. Not the promise of a future relationship. Not the desperate hope that someone, someday, will love me enough to make me feel better. Because Jesus is here: he took my pain on himself to pay the price of my sin. And on that day when I’m with him, I’ll finally see clearly.