Perhaps there is nothing the human heart craves more than true love. We are wired to love and be loved. The problem is that we don't actually understand what love really is. We get all kinds of definitions from the culture and from our own feelings.
In fact, I think it's helpful to think a little bit, not about what love is but what love isn't. So here are five things love isn't:
1) Love Isn't Having Someone Fulfill All My Fanciful Dreams
When we think about the love between a husband and wife, we often think of that "soulmate", that person who just magically fits into all the areas I need and will make my life better. These expectations, which we carry into marriage, do more to derail relationships than anything else. And this is selfish. It's a humanistic, godless thinking. It views the other person as our benefactor that must meet all of my needs. But God didn't purpose marriage for my own fulfillment, but as an opportunity for me to a) display His glory b) grow in character and grace by adjusting, sacrificing, and loving another and c) fulfill the mandate by establishing another generation of godly offspring. And here's a secret of marriage that I'm still figuring out after ten years: my dreams are petty compared to God's dreams for me. When I hold them loosely and allow God to shape them (by giving me a spouse who bumps up against my desires), I discover a joy and fulfillment I would not have found on my own.
2) Love is Loving the Person I Expect Someone to Be
This follows closely on the lie of expectations, that I only experience love when someone is everything I expect them to be. A wife gets married, not to a fallen sinner who needs grace, but to an idea of what she thinks this man might be to her. He's the composite of all the princess movies, romance novels, and stored up dreams. But after the honeymoon is over, she meets another man, the sloppy guys who leaves his underwear on the floor, stays up too late playing video games, and sometimes buys boats without asking her. A husband gets married to a perfectly shaped beautiful goddess, whose every word is inspiring and motivates him to greater heights, who will satisfy his basic needs in every way. Then he gets home from the honeymoon and finds another woman in his home. This girl has occasional mood swings, yells at him for the smallest things like leaving his underwear on the floor, and she often burns the meatloaf. So then the husband and the wife have a choice. They can manipulate their mates into being what they need them to be, spark a lot of useless arguments and friction, and ultimately choose divorce. Or, they can confess their idolatry, realize their own brokeness, and recognize that love is about loving all the parts of those we are supposed to love, even the areas we really don't like. It's loving on those days when you don't want to and loving the person you see before you, not the person who wish or hope they can be.
3) Love is always saying nice, but meaningless things, to each other.
Love is action as we've said. Love is a committment. Which means sometimes we must speak the truth in love. This is not to be confused with tearing down, hurting, destroying someone's soul for the sake of our own selfish gratification (see 1 and 2 above). This is the love that has the courage to tell someone when they are seriously going down a wrong path. The is the kind of love Jesus demonstrated with his disciples, when he repeatedly corrected their wrong ideas. We have this idea of love that it overlooks sin and that just sort of winks at poor life choices. Ahh, but love is not this way. If you truly love someone, especially someone you are married to your called to care for, you will gently, in the right timing, powered by the Spirit of God, communicate the loving truth. And you will receive correction as an act of love from another. In marriage this means you sometimes hear the hard, but true words of a spouse and take them as God's loving act of discipline on your soul, shaping you into the character of Christ. I will tell you that this is never my first response to rebuke from Angela. But it should be. And often later the Spirit whispers to my soul, "You know, she's right and if she didn't love you, she wouldn't have said what she said." Then I have to go back to her and say, "I'm sorry. You're right. Forgive me. I'll work on that." I have to say that after ten years, the person I credit with most of my spiritual growth is my wife. Marriage can and should be a discipleship relationship, provided both are committed to following Christ. As one of my favorite authors, Gary Thomas, says ,"God's desire in marriage isn't to make us happy, but to make us holy."
4) Love Isn't Conditional On Good Times
Bad times actually test your love, especially in marriage. They reveal our hidden idols. So, for instance, when money gets tight, this is usually a trigger for an epic argument. It's easy to blame the other person. If she didn't spend all that money on shoes, we'd be able to pay the electric bill. or If he had a better-paying job, we wouldn't be in this mess. or If only he'd step up and do the budget, it wouldn't be so hard on me. or, If she would just be happy with what we have. Or perhaps its trouble with a child. Again, we blame: If he'd get off the iPhone and pay attention, our kid wouldn't act out so much. or If she'd just loosen up, maybe the kid would respond better. or, If he'd get home at a decent hour. or If she'd stop worrying so much about the house.
You see what happens. Hard times bring all of our hidden anxieties and insecurities to the surface. The idolatry of financial security. To be financially secure is a good and worthy and biblical goal. But hard times come and threaten that. So if financial security is your idol, when it's ripped away, you'll kick and scream and do damage to your relationship. The idolatry of a well-adjusted family. Again, well-behaving kids in a safe, harmonious house is a good and worthy and biblical goal. But it's a poor idol. And when this is ripped away for a season, if this is the altar at which we worship, we'll kick, scream, and do damage to our relationships.
The point of all this is this: we think love would flourish if only our circumstances were better. If we had a bit more money, if the kids wouldn't misbehave so much. But the truth is that real love, lasting, deep, abiding love grows during times of duress. But this only happens if you put Christ at your center and give up on the small, petty dreams and realize God is active in the midst of your hardship, to bring about His glory. Trials can be a catalyst for deeper marital love. They have for Angela and I. We wouldn't want to repeat any of the terrible things we've faced, but we can both look back and say this cemented our love and commitment to each other.
5) Love Isn't Found Elsewhere
When you're in a bad season of marriage, brought on by strife, difficulty, tragedy, it's temping to think you'd be happier elsewhere. But real love is only found in renewing your commitment to each other in marriage. Love says, "I'm here for the duration. I'm committed. I'm going no where else." Love is actually living out what we stood and said on our wedding day: "In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, as long as we both shall live." Love is not saying, "As long as he has a job. As long as we have a house. As long as she our kids our healthy. As long as she doesn't get sick."
And here's the secret: when you are absolutely, 100% committed to each other, it makes it easier to work out your differences. Why? Because you're forced to. You've got no other option. And so each of you must give, bend, sacrifice. You must commit to grow, change, and serve. Now, to be clear: your willpower and commitment to stay alone won't give you a great marriage. You need gospel of Christ which initiates the cycle of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. But I would argue that the gospel is the very catalyst that keeps you committed, because you realize you are in marriage for way more than your own expectations and self-fulfillment.
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