In this final part of our series, I Do, we talk about the secret sauce that makes marriage work. You will perhaps be completely unsurprised to find out it’s love. But, love only works if we know what it is and how to use it. As we wrap up the last few weeks of work, that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about. Keep reading to learn more.
Love Done Right
How many of you have seen the movie Michael with John Travolta? Leaving aside the terrible theology for a moment, the movie itself is great. John Travolta plays the archangel Michael who has come to earth apparently to have a great time, do a lot of sinning, and help William Hurt and Andie McDowell fall in love. Again, as I said, terrible theology. In any event, Hurt works for a tabloid magazine in New York and McDowell is a dog walker who convinces the magazine’s editor, Bob Hoskins, that she is an angel expert. The two are dispatched to Iowa where Michael is staying with an old woman in her hotel, in order to see if the reports they’ve heard about the angel living in Iowa are true. If they are, the pair are to convince him to come back to New York City with them for an interview. He refuses to fly (get it?) and instead insists that they drive across the country through rural America in order to get back to the big city. Along the way they have all kinds of misadventures including obscure tourist stops, bar fights, and great pie. About halfway through the movie, just before the group crosses the border into Illinois, Michael starts singing a pretty well-known song and encourages everybody else to join him.
The song is “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles and the scene represents a real turning point in the film for the main characters. They finally begin letting down the armor they’ve long worn to protect them from some hard things they’ve experienced in life and realize that if they’ll just start loving more everything will get better. The song itself is, of course, hugely popular even now, more than a half century after its original release. It succinctly captured the mood of its times and did so in a catchy, appealing package. All you need is love. All of the world’s problems could be solved if we would just apply some love to them. It sounds great, doesn’t it?
There’s just one catch: What do you mean by love? For instance: I love pecan pie. In case you’re not familiar with that particular dish, it’s the midwestern version of what is more commonly known here in the South as PEE-cahn or PEE-can pie. Could the kind of love I have for pecan pie solve all the problems of the world? I mean, I guess if everybody in the world focused on loving pecan pie instead of fighting over what separates them (like everybody in this part of the country mispronouncing the word…no?) that could bring about some solutions, but I don’t really see that happening in the near future. After all, what would the folks who are allergic to or simply don’t like nuts do in such a world as that?
Or perhaps this: When you look over the full body of the Beatles work, the sense you get of their understanding of love is of a kind of generalized good feeling about other people that leaves them free to pursue the desires of their heart without judgment from others. But what if the desire of someone’s heart is to hurt other people? Certainly we can’t let that go unaddressed. Or, what if you have a desire for something that isn’t necessarily hurting someone else directly, but I have a core belief that preventing you from pursuing that desire is ultimately going to be for your benefit such that my stopping you from pursuing it is itself an act of love? Lennon might have called my efforts in that case intolerance, not love…but that depends on which definition of love you’re using. So again, the idea that all we need to solve the world’s problems is love sounds great. But unless you are explicitly clear regarding what exactly you mean by “love,” and are correct in your understanding since being clear and wrong is just as bad as being unclear and wrong, the popular sentiment is little more than that: sentiment.
Well, this morning we are in the fifth and final part of our series, I Do. If you have missed any of the previous parts of the series or you want to share one of them with someone else, you can find all of them over on my blog or the church website, both of which are printed for you in the bulletin. The big idea for this series, though, has been that while many people have said, “I do,” at some point in our lives, there is a fair chance that they did so without really knowing what to do. Part of the reason for this is perhaps that they didn’t really understand what marriage is and what it’s for. In the first couple parts of the series, then, we unpacked together a good working definition of marriage and talked about its purpose. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation. That’s simply what marriage is. If you have that, you have a marriage. If you don’t, you don’t. And relationships which attempt to parody marriage, but which leave out one of those elements will ultimately result in people getting hurt.
Given our natural bent toward meaning and purpose, though, simply knowing what marriage is isn’t good enough for us. It was created for a purpose. God doesn’t do anything simply because. In this case, the purpose of marriage is to point people to Jesus. There are certainly many other good things that marriage creates a context for us to do and experience, but the central purpose of marriage is to point people to Jesus; it is to give them a picture of the kind of relationship Jesu has with His own bride, the church, such that they will be drawn into a relationship with Him. Without knowing anything else about how to do marriage well, if we can just get our minds and hearts wrapped around these two ideas, we will set ourselves far down the road of having the kind of marriage we all desire.
That being said, it is still nonetheless worthwhile to have some more practical tricks and tools to help in our marriage journeys. As a result, for the last couple of parts of this series we have gotten a lot more specific and practical in our conversations. Three weeks ago, we focused in on the guys in the room and the apostle Peter’s warning that if we aren’t right with our wives, we can’t be right with God. If you’ll remember—and ask your wife if you don’t because she was probably taking good notes—I gave you six very practical things to do in order to move in this direction: Learn her love language and speak it, seek forgiveness when you’ve wronged her, engage more with the kids, involve her more in the relationship, give her your heart, and give yourself wholly to God. While none of those things are going to be a magic bullet to make things better if they aren’t where you want them to be, the cumulative effect will serve to move you down the road in the right direction.
Then last week we took on the thorny issue of submission in marriage. The simple message then was that getting marriage right take submission. Of course, we need to divest ourselves of our culture’s understanding of submission as the bending of the knee to someone who doesn’t deserve it and will probably abuse their position. Instead, we need to think about submission more in the terms of that Paul did: The valuation of the needs and desires of others as more important than our own in spite of our knowledge of their equality as a function of our larger submission to the God who though indisputably greater than us nonetheless serves us. If we are going to get marriage right, this attitude is essential for both the husband and the wife. Without it we will treat the thing as a competition which never ends well.
All of that brings us to this morning. This morning we are going to round things out by talking about love. Love and marriage. As the great Frank Sinatra famously sang in 1965, the two go together like a horse and carriage. You can’t have one without the other, he crooned. Indeed, while love has not always been a central feature of marriage (particularly in light of the fact that most marriages throughout human history have been arranged affairs in which love for your spouse was something you learned along the way), a great deal of cultural conditioning over the past 150 years or so has driven pretty deeply into our hearts and minds that love is really important when it comes to marriage. This isn’t necessarily wrong by any stretch. Why, the book of Song of Solomon is a passionate, sometimes even blush-inducing description of the love a husband and wife have for each other. And yet, as I said just a minute ago, if we don’t know what exactly love is, we’ll run the great risk of getting it wrong. And if we get something this central to marriage wrong, the great likelihood is that we’ll blow the whole thing to pieces. Love is indeed a great thing, but only if we know what it is. Love is grand…if you know what it is.
So then…what is love? Well, one of the most famous treatises on love ever written is found in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the believers in ancient Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul wrote some reflections on love that are read at thousands of weddings all over the world every single year. They are studied endlessly in hopes of helping us to be more loving people. People who don’t know anything about the Bible nonetheless recognize lines from this reflection and appreciate their wisdom. I probably don’t even need to read them for many of you because you have them fairly well memorized. All the same, let’s just hear these once all together and then we’ll talk about them for a minute.
From 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Let’s stop there. Love is grand…if you know what it is. And from what Paul writes here, we can have a bit better an idea on this. The sense we get is that love needs to undergird the things we do. The same activities pursued with and without love as their driving force do not produce the same results. This goes double for religious activities which are specifically what Paul has in mind here, but the broader point is true as well. Whatever it is we do, love needs to be our guide in doing it lest we either waste our time or else achieve ends that are inconsistent with our stated aims.
As for what exactly this looks like, Paul explains that in the next few verses. Letting love undergird our efforts and activities means we are patient: we treat the needs and abilities of others as more important than our own. It means we are kind: we treat the people around us as if they were more important than us. Showing love means we are not envious: we don’t let a desire for the things others have consume our focus and attention. We aren’t boastful: we don’t highlight our successes to the exclusion of the important contributions of other people. Showing love means never giving in to arrogance: we don’t hold out our own value as more significant than the value of those around us. It isn’t rude either: we never behave in an offensive or otherwise off-putting manner. Someone guided by love never insists on his own way. This one seems simple, but the person guided by love is not irritable: we are not easily offended by the words and actions of the people around us. Nor are we resentful: we don’t hold a grudge and let bitterness have access to our hearts when we have been offended by someone else. Finally, when we love, we make the good, right, true, and beautiful our aim and never delight in the wrong.
So far so good, right? But then in v. 7, Paul writes something really hard. He says that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. What is that supposed to mean? Love is grand if we know what it is, sure, but how are we supposed to know what it is when Paul writes things like this? Furthermore, while the things Paul lists off in vv. 4-6 are all great, they don’t so much tell us what love is as they do what love looks like. And love is grand…if we know what it is, not simply what it looks like.
So again then…what is love? That’s something we’ve talked about before, isn’t it? I’ve been hammering that into your hearts and minds every chance I get ever since our walk through 1 John a couple of years ago. I’ve preached on the definition. I’ve written articles about it for an online newspaper. I even once gave permission for it to be incorporated into the mission statement of a church up in Pennsylvania. I have become utterly convinced that not only is this the best definition of biblical love out there, but that it is broadly applicable to any situation of human relationships where love is concerned. I came to understand this particular definition of love gradually as I studied John’s letter, but there are four verses in particular that made it especially clear.
Look at this with me now starting in 1 John 4:8: “The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” In other words, you can’t love without God, at least, not in the biblical understanding of what love is. Apart from God we may practice a close approximation—close enough that apart from a rigorous examination it could pass as the real thing—but we won’t really be loving as guys like Paul, Peter, and John understood it. The simple reason for this is that God is love. Thus, if we don’t have God, we don’t really have love. We can’t.
In the next two verses John unpacks what exactly this means and points hard toward our definition this morning: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Do you see it? God is love and because God is love, He sent Jesus to pay the price for our sins so that we might live through Him. What does it mean for us to be living through Jesus? It means that with His help through the Holy Spirit we are becoming every day more fully who God designed us to be. What’s more, when you look back over the record of the Old Testament, the sending of Jesus was an incredibly well thought out and intentional act on God’s part. When you put all that together it becomes clear that God being love resulted in His making an intentional decision to see us become fully who He created us to be. The logic here flows pretty smoothly: God is love. God made an intentional decision to see us become fully who He designed us to be. Therefore, love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be. Verse 11, then, puts the icing on the cake: “Dear friends, if God loved us [that is, if God was so intentionally committed to seeing us become fully who He designed us to be] in this way, we also must love one another.”
In other words, because of God’s love for us—assuming we have received it—the logical response is for us to love one another after the pattern God set out for us. And what does it mean to love one another after the pattern God set out for us? It means that we are intentionally dedicated to seeing the objects of our love become fully who God designed them to be. Or, to put that more simply: love is an intentional decision to see someone become fully who God designed them to be. Love is grand if you know what it is and now we do. So, what do we do with it?
Well, let’s take this definition and use it as the lens through which we understand what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. If you were to “speak human or angelic tongues,” but not out of an intentional decision to see the people around you become fully who God designed them to be, what would you be accomplishing? You might be making a lot of noise, but it wouldn’t ultimately be to anyone’s benefit but yours. If you could predict the future or speak the words of God into the lives of His people; if you had a profound understanding of the things of God and an unshakeable confidence in Him, but were not intentionally committed to seeing the people around you become fully who He designed them to be, what good would you really be doing? The likelihood of harm would be far higher than any potential good. Think about it: have you ever had someone slam the truth in your face? Their words may have been correct, but their spirit was not, and the result was you moving further away from them and maybe even from God because of it. Grace without truth may be worthless, but truth without grace is spiritual abuse. One more: If you gave up everything you had and even sacrificed your own life for someone else, but not out of this intentional decision to see them become fully who God designed them to be, your sacrifice would be in vain.
Let’s get even more specific, though. An intentional decision to see someone become fully who God designed them to be requires patience. Such a change does not happen overnight. It cannot happen on our timetable either. It will happen on God’s…because we’re seeing them become more like Him, not us. Such a person will be unfailingly kind because God is kind. The sun and the north wind once got into a competition to see which of them could cause a man to take of his coat. The north wind went first. He blew at the man as hard as he could. Yet in the midst of the fiercest gale he could muster, the man only clung to his coat more tightly. At last, the north wind gave up and yielded his turn to the sun who just smiled on the man. He smiled the biggest smile he could and in no time the man had taken off not only his coat, but his hat and his shirt as well.
When we are intentionally committed to seeing someone else become fully who God designed them to be, we will not be envious of them at all because we understand that God did not make them and us the same. Their things would not serve us well. Neither would ours serve them, though, rendering boasting moot as well. On and on we could go like this. The point is that understanding what love is helps us to make sense of Paul’s words here. It gives us a context for grasping them that does not come by any other means. We can even make sense out of v. 7.
When seeing someone become fully who God designed them to be is our intentional aim (not merely an accidental one), we can bear and endure all things because we understand God’s power to overcome any such obstacles in His path. He can take things which seem to us to be mountains and turn them into, not merely molehills, but boulevards of grace. We can believe and hope all things because the God who began a good work in us will carry it all the way to completion in the day of Jesus. Love is grand…if you know what it is. And when you do, the possibilities stretch on beyond the horizon.
As great as all of this sounds, though, there is still a rather glaring question to answer: What does all of this have to do with marriage? In a word: Everything. When you stood at that altar—whether it was a year ago or seventy years ago—you looked deeply into the eyes of your beloved, what did you promise to do? You promised to love her. You promised to love him. And Old Blue Eyes was right: love and marriage are inseparable. Marriage doesn’t work without love. Even when they were all arranged affairs, if the husband and wife didn’t learn to love each other, it didn’t work. God may be the foundation on which the whole thing sits, but love is the glue that holds it all together. Think about it: The purpose of marriage is to point people to Jesus because marriage is as clear a reflection of the relationship that Jesus has with the church as anybody is going to see in this life. Jesus’ relationship with the church is powered, it’s driven by love. This means that if we are going to get marriage right, it has to be driven by love. And so we’re right to promise to love one another when we’re standing there before God and the audience. But unless you know what love is, that’s not a promise you can keep. Love is grand…if you know what it is.
It’s a good thing, then, that now you do. Love is an intentional decision to see someone become fully who God designed them to be. If you are going to love your spouse, that’s what you’ve got to do. If you operate on the basis of any other definition, it’s not going to work. If it is not intentional, you’ll only do it when it’s convenient, and nobody wants to be covenantally connected to somebody only when it’s convenient for them. Love takes work. Amorous feelings toward another person come easily. They go just as easily. But being committed to seeing someone become fully who God designed them to be? That’s hard. You’ve got to practice this. You have to wake up in the morning thinking about what kinds of things you can do to advance in this direction (which means, by the way, waking up to prayer because on your own you don’t know the things you need to do in order to make this happen). Then, when you lay down at night, they need to be the last thoughts on your mind. You need to have an incredibly sensitive radar when it comes to your natural drift toward putting your needs and desires ahead of hers, ahead of his, because if you’re not paying attention, you will invariably move in that direction. What’s more, when you feel your radar going off, you’ve got to act on it. Address the problem when it arises. To ignore it is to move a little step in the wrong direction. And while one little step isn’t any big deal; the little steps accumulate over time and become big leaps a whole lot faster than you’d think.
At the same time, love absolutely has to be an intentional decision to move them in the direction of who God designed them to be, because otherwise you’ll be moving them in the direction of who you want them to be, and that’s not going to work. Apart from a ton of prayer, you don’t know the mind of God and even then, it’s still frighteningly easy to drift from that. And while the difference here may sound small in language, in practice it’s enormous. You’ve seen a husband intentionally committed to seeing his wife become fully who he wants her to be. He was a controlling, manipulative jerk. You’ve seen a wife intentionally committed to seeing her husband become fully who she wants him to be. She was an incessant, conniving nag. But the husband or wife committed to seeing their spouse become fully who God designed them to be? That’s the spouse that made you jealous because their partner was getting loved like you want to be.
So then, here’s what you do: Intentionally commit yourselves to seeing your spouse—or the people in your life more generally if God has called you to singleness for at least the current season—become fully who God designed them to be and make all the other husbands and wives you meet jealous. Make them want what your spouse has. The result will be the marriage of your dreams. It will be a life of more joy and contentment, of peace and delight, than you ever thought possible before. Now, challenges will still come because the two of you are not yet perfected in Christ. But when you are intentionally committed to seeing each other become fully who God designed you to be—that is, when you are committed to loving one another—it doesn’t matter how long ago you said, “I do,” you’ll always know just exactly what to do.