Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Portrait of Biblical Love

When I saw her in for the first time, I was captured right away. For me it was love at first sight. For Sarah (not her real name), it was the same! We were both freshmen at Baylor. We both were Christians. We were both interested in missions. What else was necessary?

We spent every moment we possibly could together. We went to football games and basketball games. We attended Baptist Student Union events. We ate every meal together – school schedules permitting. We walked the grounds of the campus. We talked for hours about our future.

One Sunday, we both answered an altar call to become foreign missionaries. We told the pastor, that we were in love, planned to get married, and go to the mission field together. The pastor was wise enough to merely mention to the church that both Sarah and I were called into missions. He conveniently chose to ignore our statement about being in love and planning to get married. I was disappointed. I wanted the audience to know that we were in love. Really in love!

It is humbling to admit, but that relationship went south before I began my sophomore year at Baylor. I was all of 19 years old and I knew little about love. What I thought was love, I would not call love today. It should be obvious since Sarah and I are not married. But it took me years to truly grasp what marital love looks like.

When it comes to love, we have two problems. First, there are many things we call love that simply do not rise to the level of what love is. We will call that “faux love.” My relationship with Sarah is a painful reminder of this fact. Secondly, we lack a clear definition of what biblical love is and what love does.

Watch Out for Faux Love [1]
It is important to realize that counterfeit love wears very convincing masks. Let us look at four examples of faux love.

1. Physical Attraction
Physical attraction is an amazing thing. God displays His creative glory in ten thousand different forms of human beauty. We all don’t look the same, and we all don’t look at each other the same way. We see beauty in different ways and are attracted to different people as a result. Physical beauty is a powerful attraction because it is – physical! We live in a material world, so physical beauty is one of the things we all care about in some way. Physical attraction is not in itself wrong or dangerous. It is possibly the first thing that connects you with someone of the opposite sex.

What is really scary is that people get into serious relationships (and even marriage) based solely on physical attraction. You are drawn to someone because of her beauty. You want to be near her and with her. You may even be fantasizing about life with her before you have gotten to know her. This is how powerful the draw of physical attraction can be. You may even have allowed yourself more physical contact with her than is appropriate before marriage, thereby deepening the physical attraction. You may think you love this person, but you really don’t. No, what you love is her physical beauty. What you think is love is self-love in the mask of true love. You want to be with her not because you love her, but because you love yourself and you want to decorate your life with her physical beauty.

Know this – physical beauty get normalized in marriage. You wake up that first week to a person with baboon breath and rat’s-nest hair. He falls out of bed and puts on rumpled sweats and stumbles to the bathroom where he makes sounds you’d rather not hear. Then it hits you: you married a fantasy but got the real person. Real people have imperfect bodies. Real people get bellies, gain weight, lose hair, and get old. Marriages that are built on physical attraction are an example of faux love.

2. Emotional Connection
An emotional connection with a man or woman is an exciting thing. To find someone that you can relate to, talk to, and feel comfortable with is fun and fulfilling. Who wouldn’t want to experience this? It’s fun to be able to talk without ever feeling one of those uncomfortable periods of silence while you’re searching for the next possible topic. It’s enjoyable to be able to relate to what the other one is experiencing and feeling. It is nice to have your personalities complement one another. It’s nice when you think and feel the same way about things. It’s enjoyable when you are in a relationship relatively free of stress and tension. It’s good to be able to anticipate how the other will respond and react to something that you will share together.

In a marriage, this emotional connectivity is important. You cannot have a long-term relationship with a person who is never on the same emotional page as you. But you can have all of this and not have love. Here is the point – like physical attraction, emotional connection can actually be self-love wearing the mask of true love. Could it be that you are powerfully attracted to someone because he is easy and enjoyable to be with? Being with him doesn’t take a lot of commitment or effort because you are so emotionally alike. Maybe you are attracted to him not because you have come to love him, but because you love yourself, and he is comfortable to be with, and you are drawn to the effortlessness of the relationship.

Let’s be honest – Most of us don’t enjoy hard work and will avoid it if possible. I think this tendency to work-avoidance and ease-attraction has gotten many marriages off on the wrong foot by convincing couples that they are experiencing love when what they are really experiencing is merely emotional connection – i.e., faux love.

3. Spiritual Unity
Spiritual unity is even trickier. It is essential that a husband and wife have spiritual unity. This unity is first based on the fact that they are both members of God’s family and therefore indwelt by the same Spirit. But this unity is more than that; it is unity of biblical worldview, of theological persuasion, and of Christian experience. It is very powerful when you are around someone who seeks in every way to look at life through the lens of Scripture. It is very powerful to be with someone as God is making His Word understandable and relevant to you both. It is very powerful to be in services of worship where you are led to celebrate God’s life-changing grace. These things create a connection and a unity that is like no other.

All of these things are good things, but they are things that you could probably experience with many believers. You can share a platform of spiritual values with someone you don’t actually love in the full sense of what love is and does. This will trouble some of you, but it must be said: the powerful attraction of spiritual zeal and unity may not be love; it may actually be self-love in the mask of true love.

I can’t number how many women I have known who married men because they were attracted to their “spirituality,” their biblical literacy, or their theological knowledge – only to sadly come to realize that the men didn’t love them! Their future husbands were attracted to them because they shared a platform of spiritual unity that may make building a relationship a lot less work than it otherwise would be. And in almost every situation, the men were drawn by the way the women looked up to them as a theological mentor. But when the women demonstrated that they are sinners and not always students and the men showed that they love the theology of the women more than they do the women, the house of cards came crashing down. Spiritual unity was merely another example of faux love.

4. Cultural Similarity
Cultural similarity is a huge issue in marriage. You always drag your familial and cultural influences into the development of a relationship and ultimately into your marriage. God has crafted locations, situations, and relationships for you that have formed your cultural instincts and tastes. You have certain likes and dislikes (food, clothing, entertainment, etc.). There are experiences in life that have formed your sense of what is important and what is not, what is enjoyable and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not. You come to every relationship you have with certain assumptions about what is proper and to be expected. You have a certain definition of father, brother, sister, friend, worker, neighbor, boss, etc.

We carry with us differing definitions of what is polite and what is not, what is tasteful and what is not, what is expensive and what is not, what is casual and what is dressy, what should be public and what should be private, and the list could go on and on. So you bring to your potential partner a whole set of assumptions and unspoken rules. They become one of the lenses through which you look to evaluate the people in your life, so it is very compelling when you are in a relationship with someone and you share the same assumptions, expectations, and unspoken rules. It is hard not to be drawn to that person, and it is tempting to mistake your cultural unity and the attraction it creates as love.

Once again, the powerful attraction of cultural continuity may feel like love, but it may actually be self-love masquerading as love. Perhaps you are drawn to your spouse not because you love her, but because you love yourself, and you are stunned by how much she agrees with you. She is attractive to you because she thinks you are right about life as much as you think you are, and you find this to be a very attractive thing. Perhaps you don’t actually love her. Perhaps what you love is the similarity of your cultural assumptions. This too will almost always be challenged in marriage as you come to realize that you are not clones of one another and you are faced with the reality that there are many places where you disagree and look at life differently. Again, what looks like love may be just another compelling form of faux love.

Group Questions – Breakout Session #1

What in the World is Love Anyway? [1]
Sharon thought she was ready, willing, and able to love Carson – and because of this, she was excited to get married. People around them told them not to rush, that there was wisdom in waiting, but Sharon didn’t want to wait, and neither did Carson. They were both convinced they were ready. Sharon was persuaded that there was no way she could love Carson more than she already did. She was convinced that there was nothing she would not be willing to do for him.

As she looked forward to marriage she thought of it as an extended date. I am afraid that many people do. She had found Carson to be a great companion. He was good looking. He was a hard worker around the house. He was a good step-father to her child from her first marriage. He was a great student of the Scriptures. He was also known as being very gifted in the area of Children’s ministry.

Sure, Sharon knew Carson wasn’t perfect. He was a perfectionist and there were times he could be pretty stubborn. She knew that he liked to be in charge and that she naturally struggled to submit to others. But she loved Carson and they had managed to get along pretty well so far. Thus, she didn’t think being married would be that much of a struggle.

Sharon told herself that she was ready, willing, and able to love her future husband forever – but she wasn’t. It wasn’t long after their wedding that she began to be driven crazy by Carson’s controlling personality. She struggled with his constant criticism of her messiness. She hated how he rearranged the refrigerator and spice rack. She struggled with his stubbornness and refusal to admit that he was over the top, even when it was clear that he was! She struggled with the reality that she had no independence left. She resented having to discuss everything with Carson. She felt that she had fallen in love with her boyfriend and ended up marrying a monster!

The problem with Sharon was that she (and Carson) did not really know what love is and what love does. They confused the enjoyment of shared experiences as love. They had confused physical attraction, emotional connection, spiritual unity, and romantic affection with love. They had confused brief moments of patience with love’s long-term commitment to sacrifice.

Sharon learned quickly that you don’t get your best definition of love from a Web article. You don’t get it from Wikipedia or from You don’t get it from Webster or Shakespeare. The reality is that love is best defined by a set of abstract concepts. Let me explain.

There are few discussions in Scripture of what love is that are more helpful and more practical than the words found in 1 John 4.

Read 1 John 4:7-12, 16b-21

This passage tells us that we get our best definition of love from an event, the most important event in human history. You get your best definition of love from the cross of Jesus Christ. Christ’s sacrifice of love is the ultimate definition of what love is and what love does. In this passage John is calling us to cruciform love. That is, love that shapes itself to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (cruci = “cross” and form = “in the shape of”).

Look at the words of verses 10 and 11: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” When it comes to love, the cross of Jesus Christ is our ultimate example. John says it clearly: if Jesus loved us in this way, in the same way we ought to love one another.

So what does cruciform love look like? Let me give you a definition and then unpack it. Here is the definition -- Love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require reciprocation or that the person being loved is deserving of that love. Let’s unpack this definition.

• Love is willing. Jesus said: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). The decisions, words, and actions of love always grow in the soil of a willing heart. You cannot force a person to love. If you are forcing someone to love, by the very nature of the act you are demonstrating that this person doesn’t in fact love.

• Love is willing self-sacrifice. There is no such thing as love without sacrifice. Love calls you beyond the borders of your own wants, needs, and feelings. Love calls you to be willing to invest time, energy, money, resources, personal ability, and gifts for the good of another. Love calls you to lay down your life in ways that are concrete and specific. Love calls you to serve, to wait, to give, to suffer, to forgive, and to do all these things again and again. Love requires you to lead when you really would like to follow, and to follow when you really want to lead. Love again and again calls you away from your instincts and your comfort. Love always requires personal sacrifice. Love calls you to give up your life.

• Love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another. Love always has the good of another in view. Love is motivated by the interests and needs of others. Love is excited at the prospect of alleviating burdens and meeting needs. Love feels poor when the loved one is poor. Love suffers when the loved one suffers. Love wants the best for the loved one and works to deliver it.

• Love is self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require reciprocation. The Bible says that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. If He had waited until we were able to reciprocate, there would be no hope for us. Love isn’t a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” bargain. Love isn’t about placing people in our debt and waiting for them to pay off their debts. Love isn’t a negotiation for mutual good. Real love does not demand reciprocation, because real love isn’t motivated by the return on the investment. No, real love is motivated by the good that will result in the life of the person being loved.

• Love is self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require reciprocation or that the person being loved is deserving of that love. Christ was willing to go to the cross and carry our sin precisely because there was nothing that we could ever do to earn, achieve, or deserve the love of God. If you are interested only in loving people who are deserving of your love, the reality is that you are not motivated by love for them but by love for yourself. Love does its best work when the other person is undeserving. It is in these moments that love is most needed. It is in these moments that love is protective and preventative. It stays the course while refusing to quit or to get down and get dirty and give way to things that are anything but love.

Now , maybe you’re thinking: “Paul, where in the world do I get this kind of love?” John answers the question for us. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). These words carry a rich content of many things, but one of the things surely meant by these words is that true love doesn’t best grow out of the soil of duty. No, true love grows out of the nutrient soil of gratitude.

Imagine me plopping down on the couch next to my wife and with a stern, unexcited, sadly flat, and monotone voice saying to her: “Debi, I have come to the understanding that it is my responsibility to love you. So I am going to do my duty. I am going to love you because that is what I am supposed to do.” Do you think Debi would throw her arms around me and say: “Thank you for loving me so!” No, she would be heartbroken because she would instinctively know that what I have expressed is not love.

Love is not born through begrudgingly succumbing to duty. No, love is born out of remembering and celebrating. When I remember the lavish, faithful, patient, forgiving, and empowering love that has been poured on me – that I could never have earned and will never be able to fully reciprocate – I will want to give that love away to someone else.

John says one more thing that is very powerful while being ground-level practical: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (vs. 20). John is saying that if you want to know the true character and quality of your love for God, examine the quality of your relationship with the person near to you. Your love for your future husband or future wife is a very accurate barometer of your true love for God.

These words call us to face the fact that we must fix our marriages vertically before we ever fix them horizontally. Why? Consider my own marriage. My core problem is not that I don’t love Debi enough. No, my problem is that I don’t love God enough, and because I don’t love God enough, I don’t love Debi as I should.

When I fail to love God as I should, I insert myself into His position, desiring to be sovereign over my little kingdom of one and demanding that those around me do my bidding. If I am not loving God as my king, I will set up my own kingdom and live for myself.

I would ask you, right now: “Is your plan for marriage fueled, moved, and motivated by real God-worshipping, other-focused, self-giving, willing love? Have you made and are you willing to make this commitment? Where do you need to seek forgiveness and commit yourself to a new and better approach?”

Marital Love in Action [1]
Even though we have attempted to carefully define cruciform love in the context of your future marriage, you may still be fuzzy as to what this kind of love looks like on a practical level. Here are some concrete descriptions of how real, Christ-like love thinks and acts. As we work through this list, I invite you to examine your commitment to this type of love for your future spouse.
1. Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of your future husband or wife without impatience or anger.
2. Love is actively fighting the temptation to be critical and judgmental toward your future spouse, while looking for ways to encourage and praise.
3. Love is the daily commitment to resist the needless moments of conflict that come from pointing out and responding to minor offenses.
4. Love is being lovingly honest and humbly approachable in times of misunderstanding, and being more committed to unity and love than you are to winning, accusing, or being right.
5. Love is a daily commitment to admit your sin, weakness, and failure and to resist the temptation to offer an excuse or shift the blame.
6. Love means being willing, when confronted by your future spouse, to examine your heart rather than rising to your defense or shifting the focus.
7. Love is a daily commitment to grow in love so that the love you offer to your future husband or wife is increasingly selfless, mature, and patient.
8. Love is being unwilling to do what is wrong when you have been wronged but to look for concrete and specific ways to overcome evil with good.
9. Love is being a good student of your future spouse, looking for his physical, emotional, and spiritual needs to that in some way you can remove the burden, support him as he carries it, or encourage him along the way.
10. Love means being willing to invest the time necessary to discuss, examine, and understand the problems that you face as a couple, staying on task until the problem is removed or you have agreed upon a strategy of response.
11. Love is always being willing to ask for forgiveness and always being committed to grant forgiveness when it is requested.
12. Love is recognizing the high value of trust in a marriage and being faithful to your promises and true to your word.
13. Love is speaking kindly and gently, even in moments of disagreement, refusing to attack your future spouse’s character or assault his or his intelligence.
14. Love is being unwilling to flatter, lie, manipulate, or deceive in any way in order to co-opt your future spouse into giving you what you want or doing something your way.
15. Love is being unwilling to ask your future spouse to be the source of your identity, meaning and purpose, or inner sense of well-being, while refusing to be the source of his or hers.
16. Love is the willingness to have less free time, less sleep, and a busier schedule in order to be faithful to what God has called you to be and to do as a husband or a wife.
17. Love is a commitment to say no to selfish instincts and to do everything that is within your ability to promote real unity, functional understanding, and active love in your future marriage.
18. Love is staying faithful to your commitment to treat your future spouse with appreciation, respect, and grace, even in moments when he or she doesn’t seem to deserve it or is unwilling to reciprocate.
19. Love is the willingness to make regular and costly sacrifices for the sake of your future marriage without asking anything in return or using your sacrifices to place your future spouse in your debt.
20. Love is being unwilling to make any personal decision or choice that would harm your future marriage, hurt your future husband or wife, or weaken the bond of trust between you.
21. Love is refusing to be self-focused or demanding but instead looking for specific ways to serve, support, and encourage, even when you are busy or tired.
22. Love is daily admitting to yourself, your future spouse, and God that you are not able to love this way without God’s protecting, providing, forgiving, rescuing, and delivering grace.
23. Love is a specific commitment of the heart to a specific person that causes you to give yourself to a specific lifestyle of care that requires you to be willing to make sacrifices that have that person’s good in view.

Gospel Implication
Let’s be honest. You and I are not up to this task. Can you honestly look at yourself in the mirror of God’s Word and say: “I do all these things well”? In fact, when I consider God’s call for me in my marriage, I think: “The bar is too high; I’ll never reach it!” Hear what I am about to say next: this is exactly what marriage is meant to do. It is meant to be a tool in God’s hands to expose your heart and to drive you to the end of yourself. Marriage is meant to expose your self-focus and self-reliance. It is meant to convince you that you are needier than you thought you were and to encourage you that God’s grace has more power to transform than you thought it did. [1]

As John begins that long discussion of love that we have already considered, he says these words: “God sent His only son into the world, so that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9). John says that the purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth, suffering and dying, and rising from the dead is that through Him we might have what we need to be able to live the life to which He has called us. And the life to which He has called us in fundamentally, comprehensively, and perseveringly a life of love. John is saying that Jesus died not only so that we would have forgiveness for not loving as we should, but also so that we would have the desire, wisdom, and power to love as we should. [2]

As you give yourself to love, He showers you with His love, so that you would never be without what you need to love. He was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of love because He knew that that was the only way that you would ever get what it takes to love as you have been called to love. Jesus knew that your struggle to love is so deep that a certain system of wisdom or a certain set of provisions wouldn’t be enough. He knew the only thing that would help you would be if He gave you Himself. So that is exactly what He did. He gave Himself so that right here, right now, you would have the resources you need to live a concrete and continuing life of love. [2]

So don’t let regret paralyze you. Don’t be overwhelmed by love’s call. Don’t be discouraged by the size or number of the things you are facing. Don’t let the failures of the past rob you of hope for the future. No, left to yourself you don’t have what it takes, but He is with you, in you, and for you. Walk forward in hope and courage, and commit yourself to real, active, and specific cruciform love, knowing that the gospel of Jesus Christ really does have the power to make you ready, willing, and able. [2]


[1] Paul David Tripp, “What Did You Expect”
[2] Dave Harvey, “When Sinners Say I Do”
[3] Dennis Rainey, “Preparing for Marriage”
[4] Lewis and Hendricks, “Rocking the Roles”
[5] John MacArthur, “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Titus”
[6] Chad Brand, “Christ-Centered Marriages: Husbands and Wives Complementing One Another”
[7] Piper and Grudem, Edited by David Kotter
[8] Gerhard Delling, “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”
[9] Rebecca Jones, “Submission: A Lot More Giving In: Biblical Principles on Radically Honoring Husbands”
[10] John MacArthur, “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians”
[11] Paul David Tripp, “War of Words”
[12] Gary Chapman, “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married”
[13] Piper and Taylor, “Sex and the Supremacy of Christ”
[14] The Village Church Position Papers

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