I know many people who have met their spouses or partners through online dating, but I think still have yet to meet anybody who enjoys online dating. They must exist, but everyone I’ve ever heard talk about it lands somewhere on the spectrum between “it’s just what you have to do these days” to “it’s the 11th through 29th circles of Hell.”

From what I can tell, having never participated in it myself, online dating seems to combine everything that is bad about regular dating with everything that is bad about social media. Apparently, it has all of the awkward conversations, terrible pickup lines, and conflicting expectations that plague regular dating, but with the exaggerated rudeness, mis- and dis-information, and carefully curated images and interactions that have little-to-no connection to reality that are all the worst aspects of social media.  

It’s even helped spawn a whole lexicon of new words and phrases to describe the worst aspects of modern dating. There’s ghosting, when someone whom you’re talking with or even actively dating suddenly stops sending or returning messages without any explanation, and you can’t get them to respond anymore. There’s zombieing, which is ghosting but then the person “rises from the dead” a few months or even years later and starts trying to engage as if nothing happened.

There’s benching or breadcrumbing, which are slightly different versions of the same thing: when someone engages with you just enough to give you hope and keep you interested, but are really keeping you as a backup in case the person that they’re really interested in doesn’t work out. Given that all of these behaviors are common enough to be categorized, it’s no wonder that so many people are down on the experience of online dating. And those who manage to persevere through all of that enough to connect with someone with whom they can build a long-term, mutually loving relationship all pretty much say the same thing about it: “I’m really lucky, because it was like finding a needle in a haystack.” 

Which is exactly why a new school of thought on how to navigate online dating is called “Burn the Haystack.” The name comes from the only effective way to find that proverbial needle in the haystack. You don’t go combing laboriously through every single strand of hay trying to see if you can find a needle; you burn the haystack to the ground, which leaves nothing but needles for you to pick up easily from the ashes. So the idea in this form of online dating is to burn down the stacks of people who aren’t really compatible for you.

You do that by turning the conventional wisdom of dating on its head: instead of creating a profile to try and fit in to the wider dating scene, appeal to the most people possible, and interact with anybody that seems even plausibly interesting, you instead become extremely clear and direct about what your relationship values and goals are and refuse to interact with anyone who doesn’t share them. Realistically, that will omit well over 90% of the profiles on the sites, which is exactly the point: it leaves you with a small gathering of needles who share your values and goals rather than piles of haystacks to comb through that are all playing the usual game of online dating.

So while it might seem at first like you are limiting your options, what you’re really doing is revealing them, because you’re getting around all the curated nonsense of online dating and focusing on the ones where you actually have a good chance of a real connection, of building a relationship in which you truly belong to one another.  

Brené Brown, the social scientist and best-selling author whose research is particularly well-regarded on the dynamics of shame and vulnerability, makes a helpful distinction in this vein between “fitting in” and “belonging” in terms of human social relationships. “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

While that’s a wonderful distinction to help navigate the pitfalls of online dating, you don’t have to be in that world to understand the truth of that statement. We confuse fitting in with belonging all the time; just let your mind go back to any school cafeteria you’ve ever been in, and you’ll understand that. All of us, at some point, have known what it’s like to be thirsting in the desert of loneliness for the life-giving sustenance of truly belonging, whether that has been in middle or high school, in college, in a new community to which you have moved, in a work environment, in church, or even in a personal relationship (there are few places more isolating and lonely than being in a dysfunctional or toxic relationship, after all).

And all of us have at least been tempted to pursue the mirage of fitting in as a kind of solution to that experience: if we just change our hair, or our dress, or our accent, or our language, or our interests, then we’ll be able to fit in somewhere, with someone. It’s why every “non-conformist” social group is so rigidly conformist in itself, from beatniks to hippies to punk rockers to skaters to metalheads, and even to more insidious groups like gangs or white supremacists, because they create a social space for those who don’t fit in elsewhere to fit in there, as long as they display the identifying markers that show where you belong.  

This famous exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees is actually about this exact issue, right down to the core of the conflict. The Pharisees, trying to trap Jesus, set him up with this question about paying imperial taxes. It’s a pretty good trap. If he says yes, pay the tax to the emperor, he is violating Jewish Law, because the coin depicts Caesar with claims to his divinity. If he says no, then he is violating Roman Law by encouraging political resistance, which is inherently sedition in an authoritarian state like Rome was at this point.

But what they were really testing is whether Jesus was telling his disciples to “fit in” by going along with the Roman Occupation or by aligning with the resisters. Jesus, however, turns the tables on them (metaphorically, in this case). Show me the coin to pay for the tax, Jesus says. They comply. “Whose imagei is this, and whose title?” he asks. “The emperor’s,” they reply, perhaps sensing a trap themselves but not able to see it yet. Then Jesus springs it: “then give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor, and give to God the things that belong to God.” And the astonished Pharisees wander away, wondering how they failed to get him on that one.  

Jesus’ whole point is about belonging, not simply fitting in: “give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor, and give to God the things that belong to God.” Okay, so if the coin belongs to the emperor because it bears the image of the emperor, then what belongs to God? Well, what bears the image of God? Human beings. And only human beings; while all of creation may reveal God’s fingerprints, human beings alone bear the very image of God: “God created humanity in God’s image; in the image of God, God created them,” it says in Genesis.

That’s why the Second Commandment prohibits the creation of any image of God for worship: nothing that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. No loopholes there, because God has already provided an image of God: human beings themselves. Every human being bears the image of God. There are endless theological debates about what that precisely means, but there is no disagreement about its uniqueness or universality: only human beings bear the image of God, and all human beings bear the image of God. So to harm or denigrate or devalue a human being is to desecrate the very image of God.  

And if every human being belongs to God because they bear the image of God, then that means that every human being belongs to God, is not only allowed to be but required to be exactly who they are in terms of the fullness of their humanity, not to become what is necessary in order to be accepted by others. The Christian Church has forgotten that distinction all too often, focusing on determining who fits in because of their ethnicity or socio-economic background or language or gender or sexuality or even things like dress and music preferences.

But at the same time, precisely because of what Jesus is saying here, the Christian Church is both able to and responsible for practicing belonging as both a gift and a calling. Sure, give the emperor the shiny trinkets he put his image on, he’s saying; they belong to him, after all. But give God what has God’s image on it, too: human beings themselves, each and every one of them. They belong to God, after all. Jesus is saying that we belong to God no matter how shiny or how dirty we are, how pristine or bent we may be, we are stamped from the beginning first and fully by the image of God. And that means that we have infinite worth in God’s eyes, and that God will never lose us or change us in or throw us away.  

Even when we cannot see the outline of God’s image in someone else, God still can. Which is why Jesus doesn’t simply say, “remember that everyone is a child of God.” He says, “give to God the things that belong to God.” It’s not ultimately about what we see or don’t see in others, but how we respond to the gift of God’s image in and through our own life; by giving our life to God as God’s own, and honoring the image of God everywhere we encounter it, which is in every person we meet.

And when we do that faithfully, we will not simply help others to discover their belonging to God; we will discover our own belonging more deeply and powerfully and profoundly than we could ever do on our own, because we are all sharing together in that gift of truly belonging to God and one another: not through our shared opinions or interests or activities or backgrounds, but through our unity as those created in God’s image and called to live together, to belong to one another, as a community of God’s people. Thanks be to God for this extraordinary gift.