Growing in Love
How can one justify devoting five chapters of a small book on love to sex? Easily. Even in these "enlightened" days, Christians are bewildered by the sex bomb. They do not know how to handle it. This widespread ignorance, fear and fascination for sex must be met by firm facts. Christians must receive instructions on how to manage this powerful force so that it does not explode in their faces but rather becomes for them a dynamic force for good. Love is good. But I do not want to give the impression that love is sex. Love and sex intermingle, but they are not the same.
Love in marriage embraces physical attraction, sexual stimulation and emotional satisfaction; and eclipses them. So erotic thrills must blend with the other elements of love. Then, just as clouds shot through with the sun's rays are transformed, love will be adorned. This embellishment of love has a spiritual spin-off. As Paul says in another context, it "will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive" (Titus 2:10).
As Christians, then, we have a double motive for learning to grow in love. This maturity adds depth to our relationships and it brings glory to God.
Are you "just crazy" about each other, or do you love each other?
What are these "other elements" of love?"
The love of which healthy marriages are made is described in Ephesians 5:21ff.
How do these qualities characterize your relationship now?
The beginning of this genuine love may be detected before marriage. If it is absent during courtship it is unlikely that it will suddenly blossom after the marriage has taken place, though love matures through patience, care and attention.
The kind of love which God teaches us to have for each other is unconditional. Unconditional love is the only love which heals. It is the love for which you pay no entrance fee. This love is just "there." It declares, "I am all for you, no matter what you are like at the moment, no matter what you do." This is the love Christ offers to His bride, the church. It is not a blinkered love which fails to recognize the loved one's blemishes. On the contrary, unconditional love acknowledges faults, failures and defects and goes on loving. As someone expressed it to me recently, "Rock and Disco music say to a person, 'You are O.K.' But God says, 'You are not O.K., but I love you.' " And unconditional love conveys this same message of acceptance: "I love you with your deficiencies."
The opposite of unconditional love is deserved love. This love is not really love at all. It is the reward for good behavior, the approval granted only when certain conditions have been met. This so-called love results in distressed marriages. It gives rise to doubt; "this love could evaporate." It leaves a bitter taste and gives the impression, "I am not loved for myself. I am loved only for what I have to offer." In the last analysis, this leaves the partner feeling not so much loved as used. Do you love your partner, "warts and all"? Or are you hoping to change him / her?
Many Christians do go into marriage nursing the secret ambition to transform their partner's habits, beliefs or lifestyle. I remember one bride who paused at the door of the church immediately after her wedding to whisper to me, "Let's pray now that he will start coming to church with me." In some respects that is an unfair prayer. She married a non-church-goer. She may long and pray that he will turn to Christ, but she has no right to demand that he changes his Sunday time-table just because they are husband and wife. Unconditional love requires her to accept her husband with his habitual absence from church. If she cannot accept this, she should not have married him. Of course, I am not saying that it is wrong that she should want him to turn to Christ. But I am saying that if compliance to her every whim becomes a condition of her love, this is not true love. Neither am I
saying that partners never change. They do. They must. Even God's accepting love requires change in us. But in marriage this change must not be in response to the nagging of the spouse. Rather it must be the inner compulsion of love to love. You change your habits because your love for your partner is greater than your obsession with a particular way of life.
Unconditional love, acceptance without acquiescence, is possible only when love is laced with forgiveness. And forgiveness always finds a niche in Christian love. If we take divine love for our model, we too must learn to forgive our partner in marriage. This should be neither a duty nor a burden. It should be one of the delights of love. For true love cannot bear emotional separation from the loved one, and forgiving love is love stripped of all pretence.
As Neville Ward puts it,
Forgiving love is love managing to continue though injured or dismayed or mystified. It continues not by forgetting the injury and dismay or dismissing the mystery to come other world where we shall understand everything but by including it in its appreciation of the one who is loved. This new aspect of him, revealed by what he has done, is understood as part of his reality, indicating perhaps new features of his need, his fear, his mistaken attempt to defend some area of his being from exposure. Where such revelation, though painful, does not produce hostility or even make love more cautious or apprehensive but adds to its depth and equips it for more sympathetic loving it is forgiveness that is happening here.1
This forgiving love keeps short accounts with the loved one. It does not sulk, blame and accuse another. It is not rude and unkind (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). On the contrary, it suffers for a long time that which it does not like. It thinks the best of the loved one. It "never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:8). But this kind of love is not instinctive for selfish, fallen man. It is an art-form which has to be learned. The only master artist capable of modelling this love is God.
How easily do you forgive each other?
When someone loves you, not for what you are but for who you are; when someone sees the worst about you and yet persists in loving, that person sets you free to become the person God meant you to be. This liberating love is an integral part of Christ's love for His bride, the church (Ephesians 5:27). In marriage, this involves drawing out the full potential of the loved one. It includes recognizing the uniqueness of the partner and it necessitates respect. Erich Fromm defines respect in this way:
Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect thus implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me.2
Ezekiel 16:1-14 provides an illustration of how God, the bridegroom of Israel, loved His bride in this tender, liberating way.
This kind of love elicits a response. It is love in action, love giving. John Newton expressed it well in his hymn:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
To love is to give and to give at cost. True love cares little about receiving; it always rates giving higher than getting. Indeed, not to give would be painful. The model for this kind of sacrificial love is the love Jesus bears for His bride, the church (Ephesians 5:26). His love is not so much a feeling as an orientation, a faculty, a series of choices which guarantees the well-being of His bride.
Does this describe the love you have for one another?
What do you need to work at?
Giving love is a caring love. It requires sensitivity, understanding and insight. This intuitive oneness with the loved one not only senses his /her need; it is the propellant thrusting you into the activity of meeting that need. To care for someone in this way is costly. And yet, as the Lord demonstrates, sacrificial, caring love is not impoverishment, being
cheated of one's rights. It is a sign of inner strength. Erich Fromm puts it well:
Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness .... Whoever is capable of giving himself is rich.3
This giving of oneself to another in love, this sharing, is a vital component of marital love. It, too, receives mention in Ephesians 5:21ff. Just as Jesus literally gave up His life for His bride and died to redeem her, so we must be prepared to lay down our life for the sake of the one we love. In all probability this will not be the sacrifice which leads us to the gallows. Rather, it will be the living sacrifice which lays at the disposal of the other the insights, the sensitivity, the joy, the humour, the understanding, the creativity, the spontaneity and spirituality which are essential parts of one's being. This donating of our whole self to another in unashamed sharing and investment is true love.
This sharing love does not happen overnight. It is a slow, gradual unfolding of oneself in the presence of another. That is why romance should not be rushed. It takes time for this kind of trusting love to take root.
How do you feel about investing the whole of yourself in your partner's welfare?
And does this intimacy want to embrace others? True love is not an exclusive love. From the security of real love a couple reaches out and extends a supporting hand to others. But mere infatuation turns in on itself. It is selfish, miserly and jealous.
How does your love seek to alleviate the aloneness of friends and relatives?
Or is your love turned in on yourselves?
How do you feel about your partner's friends?
That last question is vital for couples who want to grow in love. Some couples cause untold heartache to friends because of their thoughtlessness. Others provide a welcome sanctuary for the lonely single person, as Margaret Evening points out:
Perhaps those who are married are not always aware how much single people love to relax in the atmosphere of a home and within a family. It is a situation so different from the average bachelor flat or bed-sitter. Perhaps the couple do not always realise just what it is they are sharing with their single friends. For them family life has become commonplace and they have forgotten some of those aspects of emptiness that can be part of singleness.4
When we exercise this comprehensive love, we mirror the love Christ and His bride bear for the world. This love is zealous. It pushes the bride of Christ into the entire world for the purpose of drawing others into the arms of divine love.
Unconditional love, forgiving love, liberating love, giving love, sharing love and sexual love. These are some of the ingredients of marital love. In the next two chapters we focus the spotlight on two more: submissive love and flexible love. It leaves couples questioning, "Who is capable of scaling these heights?" The answer to that is "Only God." The kind of love required in Christian marriage is demanding, almost impossible. Then how does one grow into love?
How does love grow?
This kind of love does not just "happen," like catching measles. That is a myth of the age in which we live. This love grows slowly, silently, imperceptibly in the same way as the fern uncoils in early summer. But, of course, this unfurling of love requires certain conditions.
It needs persons who have achieved independence. The dependent person does not love in the fullest sense of the word. He / she clings. This clinging vine attachment strangles real love. It also strangulates the partner. As Kahlil Gibran advised, "Let there be spaces in your togetherness." 5 These spaces are the breath which is vital to the growth of individuality
which in turn strengthens intimacy.
Can you bear to be apart?
Do you need to grow in separateness as well as togetherness?
How will you go about this learning?
Allowing the other "space" demonstrates a high degree of trust. Without trust, there is no love.
And if your love is to grow, you must each possess the ability to receive love. When you drink in the love which you read in another's eyes for you, it fills you with an intoxicating sense of well-being and worth. It brings security and peace. This openness to relish love is essential. Trust grows, and it brings that deep assurance which every person needs to imbibe, "I am loved for who I am." This message rescues people from becoming mere statistics on a politician's form or a number occupying a hospital bed. It underlines your value. It is healing.
Can you receive your partner's love? What makes it difficult or easy?
But something more is required. It is not enough to luxuriate in the attention your partner lavishes on you. You must make a response. The mature person savours the delights of love received and takes the next vital step. He or she gives love in return. When you grow in love you cease to view your partner primarily as someone who will satisfy your needs: sexual, recreational, emotional, spiritual. Your partner is not a marital sugar daddy, but someone whose needs can be met by you. And more, if you truly love your partner, his or her needs will be as important to you as your own. For when you grow in love, you are concerned, not so much with seeking your own happiness as promoting the happiness of your partner. To borrow Fromm's phrase, "love is giving another a zest for life."
By now it will be obvious that, if love is to grow, the seeds must germinate in the fertile soil of God's love, for only God is capable of loving in this sacrificial way. It is as you each open yourself to the love God pours into your heart for the other that you become capable of this love which is "other-" oriented rather than self-centered. It is as you as a couple root yourselves in God that you become capable of love in action; the love which by-passes feelings and provides for the
needs of the loved one even when feelings are not warm or even particularly loving. God, by producing the fruit of His Spirit in us, equips us to love with the will as well as with the feelings. This promotes the wholeness of the loved one.
This kind of loving is required of every husband and wife whose desire is to mirror the love between Christ and His bride. This love is neither easy to practice nor to understand. As Paul says, it is a mystery (Ephesians 5:32). It is incomprehensible. But couples dare not embark on Christian marriage without it.
Is your love a growing love?
Or is it an infatuation which is stagnating?
Do you find it easier to give love or receive it? Why?
Chapter 12 || Table of Contents
1. Neville Ward, Friday Afternoon, Epworth Press, 1977, p.26.
2. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Unwin Books, 1975, p.30
3. The Art of Loving, p.26.
4. Margaret Evening, Who Walk Alone, Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, pp.82f.
5. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Heinemann, 1926, p.16.