What is love? What better authority is there on the subject than our Designer and Creator? God is the key to learning love. The Bible says that the one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:8) To help us understand a little more about the meaning of love, I would like to focus on three Greek words that are all translated as love. The first word is “eros”. It has a bodily, sexual, passion-filled connotation which we recognize in the word “erotic”. This form of love is sensual, passionate, desiring to have another person for oneself. There seems to be a natural, mysterious, and God-given human drive which draws us to that special one and makes us want to connect with them. When God created the first man and woman, there definitely was a strong attraction to each other, a kind of “Wow, this is the person I have been looking for!” (Genesis 2:23) I believe most couples experience some mystical attraction, physical at first, but then developing into a second level of love explained below. Perhaps this initial erotic form of love lends to the romantic side of the relationship, but unfortunately, after getting married, this initial passion which most call falling in love, often disappears. The marriage becomes difficult as imperfections become more visible, partners become offensive to each other, and the realities of daily life cause those initial feelings to cool and fade. Interestingly, the Bible does not choose to use the word “eros”, no doubt because of man’s fall and separation from God, resulting in love’s corruption. The corrupted form of eros is presented in the Bible as self-centered lustful and uncontrolled desires that lead to immoral sexual encounters such as adultery, rape, and “love-making” outside of a marriage commitment. What God may have meant as a good urge with the purpose of drawing mates to each other and giving a romantic flare to their relationship, got twisted and became an out-of-control passion that often causes persons to lose their rational senses and to give in to their lustful desires and pleasures. (Genesis 34:1-4; Romans 13:13-14) Physical aspects of love by themselves do not make for lasting and satisfying marriages.
A second Greek word for love is “phileo”, found for example in the name of the city, Philadelphia, and it means “brotherly love”. Such love develops into a passionate longing to be together. It is a feeling of wanting to spend the rest of my life with the person I like and of being willing to do anything for them. It is a feeling of bliss and happiness and of feeling fulfilled. This form of love is a friendship kind of love, a fond affection for another. I have heard people say, “If I marry someone, I want us to be friends before we marry.” Why is that? Because a friend is associated with qualities like loyalty, a true friend will stick with you no matter what. (Proverbs 17:17; 18:24) This level of love realizes the qualities of the other: they are smart, or they listen to me and understand me better than anyone, or they accept me with my faults, or they are fun, or they like to do things with me, or they would make a good parent, or they come from a good home, or their spirituality matches mine, and so forth. People want a relationship not based on sexual attraction or selfish possession alone, but rather, they want the other person to be trustworthy, kind, and giving. A “phileo” kind of love acts more out of thoughtful tenderness than mindless passion. Friends talk together, discuss issues and make decisions on what is good for them as a couple. (Proverbs 27:9) But married partners cannot meet all of each other’s needs and friendships can end. (Job 19:14; Proverbs 17:9; 19:7; 27:14; Psalm 41:9) The problem with this kind of love is that people change, we are let down, differences cause conflict, or resentments build and begin to erode our friendly and loving feelings. Those original love feelings seem to last only if the reasons we liked our mate continue. If they no longer meet our expectations or our wants, our feelings change and we now feel like we no longer love them as we once did. If things progress from bad to worse, as often happens even in good marriages, we can end up thinking, “I don’t love you anymore”, or “This is too hard, I want out”. One partner may feel trapped and divorce becomes the answer. In some cases, the leaving one has found another person. They may be thinking that true love is all about exciting feelings, and they are looking to recapture the excitement of love with someone else. Such love as eros and phileo, working in conjunction with each other, can keep a marriage together so long as each person is mature enough to work through the problems that develop. Although including aspects of the other two, there is a third meaning of love that goes beyond “eros” and “phileo”.
“Agape” is the word that is used in the Bible for God’s love. Agape is partly defined in 1 Corinthians 13, a passage many couples use in their weddings. This definition of love includes the following statements: (1) “Love never fails”. If that is true love, then why do so many marriages fail? Has agape been unreached? (2) “Love does not take into account a wrong suffered?” Then why do so many marriages divorce with the reason that my partner is to blame? Is it because they have not yet experienced agape? (3) “Love is kind.” If that is true of love, then why are so many married partners unkind to each other? Where is agape? (4) “Love does not seek its own”. If agape is true love, then why are so many married persons selfish and demand things be their way? Few seem to experience and practice agape. Why?
One thing that distinguishes God’s love from the others is that it is commanded. Few persons have the kind of relationship with God that leads to agape. (Matthew 7:21) Agape does not act necessarily by how we feel toward our mate, but by how we respond to God’s love. We love because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19; John 15:12; Ephesians 5:25) We experience God’s love when we are able to come to the point of seeing and admitting our failures and weaknesses, and turn to Jesus for mercy, forgiveness, and help. The experience of being loved and forgiven by God awakens in us the desire to love as He loved us. Without this experience of God’s love, which is found in the cross of Jesus, we cannot get to what true love is all about. Agape does not love only so long as the other person pleases me and is deserving of my love, but rather it is a love that gives to meet the needs of my spouse. Experiencing God’s love is a powerful motivator that moves us to action. It is this true love that can rescue marriages from divorce and help bring back original loving feelings, making marriage the kind of marriage we dream of; minus, of course, continuous rapture and happiness, which normally comes and goes.
One of the keys to a lasting and fulfilling marriage is to determine who is the boss in your marriage? Who says how things should be? What if neither married partner considers him or herself to be the boss? What if each partner becomes willing to be subject to a third person? What if each person acknowledges Jesus to be the rightful Lord of their lives and they agree to allow Him to tell them how they should conduct their marriage? What if they each trust His word to be what they need for their relationship to become increasingly loving and harmonious? What if we all decided to “play by His rules”? We likely will fail to do it perfectly all of the time, but what if we knew that His way was right and we kept working at learning how to live married life His way?
The most important question for each and every married partner to ask is this: Is Jesus Lord? And if He is Lord, is He my Lord? Jesus made this point very clear when He said, “If you call me Lord, why do you not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) Of course, one of the reasons we do not is that we cannot. (1 Corinthians 12:3) Our corrupted nature will not allow it. Therefore, if we are genuinely sincere about following Christ, we need to discover how He changes our corrupted nature so that we desire His will above our own. (2 Peter 1:4) We need to have the nature which was displayed in His own relationship with His Father; a humility and love that showed when He faced a very difficult task requiring total commitment, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” (Luke 22:42)
How can we develop the kind of love that makes our marriages lasting and meaningful? John 15:1-13 gives us an answer from Jesus’ teachings. Love is part of the fruit Jesus has in mind when he tells his disciples that he is the vine, God is the vinedresser, and we are the branches. (John 15:12; Galatians 5:22) According to John 15, the fruit of love is produced in our lives when two things happen; when we are pruned and when we abide in Christ. Pruning is the act of cutting back the things in our lives that prevent love from happening – things like selfishness, impatience, and unkindness. God works to cut out our poor attitudes and character defects by using other people, our own conscience, pain that comes from the consequences of our actions, or troubles that arise. There are many ways God may use to seek to correct our prideful behaviors. (2 Samuel 16:5-13)
Our mate is a likely source God uses to prune us so that we can be better lovers. Consider the words of clinical psychologist, Sven Wahlroos, in his book, “Family Communication”. He writes, “People with family problems often come to a psychologist to find out what is wrong. The fact is, however, that if they would only listen closely to the diagnoses which other family members offer concerning what is wrong and accept their suggested remedies, they would often not have to seek professional help at all…the people you live with have observed your behavior for a long time, know you intimately, can hear things in your voice and in your choice of words that you can’t hear, and can see feelings reflected in your facial expressions that you yourself may not be aware of…whatever a family member says about you must be taken very seriously and must be seen as valuable information.” The Bible agrees: “Better is open rebuke, than love that is concealed; faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:5-6) If we are willing to accept words from our spouse, not intended to hurt us, but to help us, we are more likely to grow in love as God wants.
In addition to pruning, God produces true love in our lives through our abiding in Christ. (John 15:4-5) God commands us to love because He knows love is not going to come about naturally; there is too much of self in the way. The pruning takes care of our “self-being-in-the-way” issues, and the abiding takes care of Christ doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, that is, produce true love. To their credit, many married people care and try to fix their broken or disappointing marriages, but often their efforts do not seem to work. Developing a closer relationship with the Lord Jesus is what can enable us to experience his love in such a way that it becomes part of our nature so that we can give it to one another. In our marriage we may feel we are tired and don’t feel we can give any more. We may feel the relationship is too far gone to bring it back. Nevertheless, our goal can be to experience Christ’s love for ourselves, learn to love as he loves, and depend on him for godly results. It is good to learn to please our heavenly Father by practicing His love in our present relationship. We abide in Jesus by believing His love for us, by meditation in His word, and by obeying His teachings. (John 15:7, 10)
The communication we practice in marriage makes big difference in whether love becomes intimate. (Ephesians 4:25, 29) Partners must learn to avoid words intended to hurt the other – gossiping words, name-calling words, accusing words, blaming words, defensive words, and threatening words. Most often these words come out of pride or anger because our partner criticizes us or has not met our desires, wants, needs, or expectations. Rather than these evil words, partners need to use truthful and helpful words, even though they may be hurting words. (Proverbs 27:6) We do not like to hear words of criticism; we do not like to have our faults pointed out to us. Pride and power struggles in marriage are obstacles that prevent us from listening. (Proverbs 29:23) But does not love have the right to say words that hurt, when they are said, not for the sole benefit of oneself, but for the benefit of the other, that he or she might become a better person? To fail to hear hurtful words from one who loves us is a mistake, for God may have put that person in our life to help us see areas of our life that need to change, so that our relationships can be strengthened, and love can increase. (1 Thessalonians 3:12)
Jesus offered one primary reason for divorce. When questioned as to why God permitted divorce in the Old Testament laws of Moses (Deuteronomy 24:1-3), Jesus, referring to God’s created order, responded, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way”. (Matthew 19:3-8) Jesus knew that a hard heart was the cause of most marriages dissolving. What did he mean by a hard heart? The Bible says, “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.” (Proverbs 29:1; 28:14) “He who hates reproof is stupid.” (Proverbs 12:1) Hardness of heart is stubborn pride that thinks oneself to be in the right; it is a dangerous place to be. Over the radio, I once heard a humorous, but wise quip, “If you find “Mr. Right”, make sure his first name is not “Always”.
We have called love a passion. Interestingly, the word passion is also used for Christ’s sufferings. (Acts 1:3) Married love involves suffering. People who love each other are willing to suffer in the sense that they are willing to die to their own desires in order to meet the needs of their beloved. Unfortunately, we are more often concerned with what we want over against what our mate wants, or needs; selfishness wins the day over love. To die to our self-centered desires is agony, but to suffer such a death is to love. The Bible teaches us that we are to love one another as Christ loved us. Wives are to respect their husbands, and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25, 33) This kind of love is agape. True love is rare. That is why we must be humbled, want it, and unceasingly ask God for it.
Loving each other is supposedly the reason couples get married, but there are many reasons. The phrase “love is blind” has validity because often we do not allow ourselves to be totally honest about some of those other reasons; we push some of them into our sub-conscious, and ignore others, depending on how awry we think they are. What were some of the reasons you got married? I think it is good to ask ourselves that question because if we get married for poor reasons, we might have to work through them to make our marriage work.
I recently asked my wife if we loved each other when we got married. She answered, “We loved each other with as much love as we had.” Yes, we did. And, as with everyone, our love had to grow for us to enjoy being married. To you who want to leave your marriage: Did you love your spouse when you married? Did you feel he or she was the one for you? Was your beginning wonderful? Then is it not worth the fight to have it return, and through the renewed effort, and learning to love as God loves, have your marriage be better than ever?
A man once shared with me that he was experiencing intense mental and emotional pain because his wife was in an adulterous relationship with another man and he did not know what to do. He was being torn apart between vengeful thoughts and angry emotions, and his Christian beliefs of wanting to have a right attitude and do the right thing. His dilemma included, “shall I divorce her or not.” Part of the cause of his frustration and confusion was his firm belief that God did not condoned divorce. Also, because he loved his wife, it was a constant and unwanted heartache to have his love being trampled on. Shall he divorce to ease the pain? Because of his sincere faith in God, deep respect for God’s word, and his desire to want to do God’s will above all else, I mentioned to him that God experienced this same problem. God loved and took on a bride (Israel) who was unfaithful to him. (Ezekiel 16:32) God was deeply grieved, but honest with her about his feelings and about her wrong and hurtful behavior. Rather than enabling her, he allowed her to face the consequences, even administering some of them Himself. He warned her that she would eventually face disaster and the loss of the good things she had in their relationship. But, after many generations of exercising warnings, and much patience, giving her many opportunities to repent, eventually due to her persistent unfaithfulness, God did give her a writ of divorce. (Jeremiah 3:8) Yet, He continued to love her, kept the door open to receiving her back, and also planned ways to make that option a future certainty. (Isaiah 54:4-8) In a sense, He did not finally divorce her after all. (Romans 11:25-27) Such is God’s love. Perhaps the truth in this for us is in God’s longsuffering. Perhaps in a similar situation we ought not be too quick to seek divorce, but be renewed in our efforts to “hang in there” and see what will happen. Perhaps we can be encouraged with the thought that sometimes people we love, but stray, need to experience, like the prodigal son (Luke 15:13-19), and Israel, that their way of living does not result in the happy life they thought. They see that their choices are destructive for self and others, at which point, they may decide to return to what they had; hopefully changed, and better than what they were. If such a scenario was to happen to us, our renewed relationship can become richer than ever, making it worth the effort and pain to give the situation time to see what happens. Admittedly, this wait does not always work as one might wish, but to learn to keep loving is a benefit to one’s own personal growth, and it will make you a better person in the future, no matter which way your current circumstances turn out. Who can choose to walk a path such as this? Only persons with insight and great fortitude, or persons deeply committed to Jesus Christ as their director and sustaining resource. We cannot control people who exhibit a contrary mind; we can only offer them love, own our own faults, and keep trying to do what is right according to the truth and wisdom of God. Things may not turn out as we wish, the hardened person may leave (1 Corinthians 7:10-15), but we survive by clinging to our hope that no matter what, God will not forsake us, He loves us still, and in the future He will make all things new. (Revelation 21:5)
The Bible says our love can increase more and more and should do so in real knowledge and all discernment. (Philippians 1:9) What does this mean? Love is giving to meet the needs of others. It may also include the giving of what fulfills another’s wishes or wants. Love does not give to promote evil or wrongdoing. Love does not support people’s bad or destructive habits. Love wants what is good for people – to support their well-being; to be concerned for the whole person. Love helps people grow and be strong in areas that are wholesome and right and good. Love provides. Before I can give the right kind of love, I need to know another’s needs and situation. Love needs to be based on true knowledge of a person and what is needed, and it must exercise discernment about what is proper and good in their situation, and what is not. The more information I have the better I can appropriately meet the need. What is needed is not always material goods, but may be a word of encouragement, or saying “no” to some inappropriate request, or teaching and instructing in how to do something. I must determine the best way to meet the needs or wants and for this I must have knowledge and discernment. I cannot love from afar, but must get closer to the person and situation, like Jesus who came into our world and became one with us. He entered into our human experiences and understood who we were and what we needed. Sometimes it is tempting to think “what is the use, what I do fails to produce desired affects.” Love is in control of what it does, not swayed by feelings, or out of context with clear thinking and moral guidance. Love takes risks. Our love can be hurt, rejected, belittled, or taken advantage of. But true love continues to give because, in Christ, it is in our nature, and it is the right way to live. Love comes from a strong person who decides to act, not out of being pressured, or forced, or manipulated, but to positively benefit those to whom it is given. And it is best when it comes out of a relationship with God and desires to love as He loved us. (1 John 4:7-11, 19)