Isn't it ironic that in this day of Oprah and Dr. Phil, in a time where there are all kinds of marriage preparation seminars and countless books on how to be happily married, the rate of divorce continues to hover between 40 and 50 percent? Isn't it also amazing that despite the fact that people wait longer to be married, prepare more for it socially, even experiment with cohabitation before marriage, counseling offices can't keep up with unhappy married couples? Despite the many who fail at marriage, however, we continue to marry (USA, 3 million weddings - 2015) because we believe that it is within marriage that the greatest potential for happiness and fulfillment is found.
I have entitled this chapter, "Love and Marriage" because I want to focus on the key ingredient that makes a marriage wildly successful, and that is love. There are many ideas about what love really is, and what it feels like. However, if you want to succeed in marriage you have to cultivate a certain kind of love and this is the type of love I want to describe.
I never met a couple who wanted their love to last only a little while. Everyone wants the experience of love to last a lifetime. Some people marry and remain faithful to one another but eventually stop loving each other. It is difficult to be married to someone you do not love. My mother used to say that love was like a flame, it burned brightly so long as it was fed.
I agree with this idea but would add that it also depends on the kind of love you are feeding in your marriage. When it comes to love, we have many ideas concerning its nature and application. For example, someone will say that he loves pizza and also loves his wife. It is strange that in the English language we use the same word to describe how we feel about both pizza and our spouses, and be quite sincere in saying it.
The Greeks, on the other hand, had a very precise language (I say this because Greek was the original language of the New Testament). They had different words that described the different kinds of love experienced by people.
The Words Used to Express Love in the Greek Language
A. Eros - Referred to sensual love, that which gratified the senses (art, music, sex, physical activity, sport). Love based on the idea that we love what will give us physical pleasure in some way, especially sex. Eros was the Greek god of love. For example: I love baseball, music, sex and forms of physical pleasure.
B. Phileos - The word for brother or brotherly love. This word refers to the need for intimacy and sharing. It includes our cherished feelings for acquaintances, neighbors or working for a common cause (in politics), to the highest form of phileos, which is friendship. Phileos also refers to the love of humanity which is often expressed in the word, "philanthropy." Phileos is the word for the love that brings people together because of shared interests, goals or needs. For example: I love my buddies; I love the poor.
C. Storgos - The Greek root word for the idea of home. It refers to the love that exists because of family relationships. This word expresses the feelings between those who have a blood relation. Storgos is based on common heritage, social structure, common experience, the love of country or heritage. For example: I love my mom, my kids, the USA.
Now, we experience all of these types of feelings in some way within marriage: We have eros (sexual love within marriage); phileos (bonded friendship within marriage), and storgos (the development of family within marriage). These types of love, however, are all based on things that are outside of ourselves.
- Sex is stimulated by our need for gratification by the other.
- Friendship is based on things we share.
- Family is produced by adding another.
As good as these things are, they are not the source of love, they are merely the experience of love. They are not, in themselves, what makes love grow. They represent the ways we express and experience love. For the source of love, however, we must go to God because the Bible says that He is love (I John 4:16).
The source of love is not sex, friends or family - God is the source.
When we understand the nature of God's love then we will know how to begin love and feed the love that keeps our marriage relationship alive and wonderful.
The Kind of Love Expressed by God
When the New Testament writers began to describe God's love for man in Christ, they introduced an obscure word that was rarely used in Greek literature: the word "agape." This Greek word described the doting kind of love that a father would have for an only child or a special child. Today we might refer to it as indulgent love, the kind that grandparents often shower their grandchildren with.
The writers of the New Testament used this word because the nature and expression of God's love for man did not fit the categories defined by the usual words for love that had been used in the past (eros, phileos, storgos). The challenge that they faced was to find a word that described a kind of love that had never been seen or experienced before. A word for love that could reference God sending His only perfect Son to die for those who hated and disobeyed Him in order to save them.
This type of sacrificial love was not based on shared experiences, physical pleasure or common heritage; it was a love that gave without condition, and the word "agape" seemed to capture the spirit of the action in a way that the other words could not. This is why every time the word love is used in the New Testament, except for one occasion, it is used to translate the Greek word "agape." The reason for this is that there are great differences between human love and agape love. For example:
- Agape love is not stimulated by self-gratification, intimacy, beauty or shared interests. It is produced by a response of obedience towards God. He says, "Love your neighbor" and we do this as an act of obedience, not because our neighbor is nice, or shares our skin color or interests. Our neighbor has nothing to do with our loving him. Our love for him is based on our obedience to God. Just as Jesus' death for us was not based on our loveliness or worthiness, but rather on His response of obedience to the Father (Jesus loved [agape] the Father and so He obeyed until death).
- Agape love begins with an act of our will, not a feeling in our flesh. We can love those who are unlovable, those with whom we have little in common, those who don't want or deserve our love because we decide to do it, and not because we feel like it.
- Human love pleases man and is for man's pleasure. Agape love pleases both man and God because it injects God into every relationship. When we love as God loves, we become the channel through which God blesses others.
If we are to succeed at marriage with on-going love, we need to be expressing agape love not just eros, phileos and storgos type of love.
Agape Love and Marriage
I mentioned before that human love is not the source of love, merely the expression of love. This experience is fragile and temporary being subject to age, illness and misunderstanding. When the reason for human love dies, many times so does the love. For example, when virility and beauty go, so does sex. When we hurt each other's feelings, our friendship often dies. Many marriages lose their joy or even fail once children are grown and gone.
Godly (agape) love, because it is based on a conscious decision to offer our love to our partner without conditions for life, is the oil that keeps the flame burning no matter how the situation changes. Agape is the only kind of love that will survive and support this promise. It is because we are ready to offer agape love that we can promise to love and be faithful to our partner, "In sickness and in health, for better or worse until death do we part."
Agape love is effective because it was this kind of love that drew all of us to Christ in the first place, and it is this kind of love that keeps us faithful to Him until death.
What Does Agape Look Like?
I think that most people, when they hear this, say, "I want some of that agape love; what does it look like in practical terms? Describe it to me as a human being so I can practice and experience it for myself." Paul describes the actions and reactions, as well as the personality and character of agape love in that beautiful passage contained in I Corinthians 13, when he says, "love is patient, love is kind...", he is actually saying agape love is patient, agape love is kind, etc. Let us review this passage more closely in order to draw a clearer picture of this kind of love:
- Agape is patient - Willing to bear another's weakness without complaint, anger or discouragement.
- Agape is kind - Willing to serve with good acts.
- Agape is not proud - Does not overstate one's own worth or considers oneself better and worthy of honor.
- Agape is not rude - Acts politely, is considerate and has an honorable lifestyle.
- Agape is not selfish - Does not only consider one's own needs and desires.
- Agape is not sensitive - Is not easily offended, easily angered or impatient.
- Agape is not vengeful - Does not keep score.
- Agape loves justice - Wants good to win.
- Agape forgives - Ready to cover the other's mistakes rather than point them out.
- Agape is trusting - Not blind or gullible, but does not give in to every suspicion either. Gives the benefit of the doubt.
- Agape always hopes - Hopes that eventually the best will come out in the partner.
- Agape is longsuffering - God's type of love is willing to endure another's failings for a long time without becoming impatient or frustrated.
When examining your relationship, your love and your marriage, don't list how often you feel good or how many times you've had sex in the last month in order to measure success. Don't review if what you're doing together is satisfying or meets your needs as a way of determining if your love is alive.
Examine your love in light of I Corinthians 13 and see if agape love is the type of love that you are cultivating. If you are not, these other things cannot be sustained or revived if in decline. If, on the other hand, agape is what you are both striving for, then these other things will flow naturally as a result.
Summary: How do we keep love alive in our marriage?
- Decide that from this moment on we are gong to love our partner not because of what they give us but because this is what a child of God does. We love as a response to God's command, "the one who abides in love abides in God." (I John 4:16).
- Begin to practice agape love in your marriage. God will strengthen you in patience, kindness, etc. if you ask Him. Paul's encouragement in Ephesians 3:20 tells us that agape love is possible for all who seek it through Christ, "Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask.." (if we ask God to help us give and receive agape love, He will absolutely answer that prayer beyond what we could hope for).
Remember, this type of love must be cultivated because it goes against our natural desires and tendencies, and marriage is God's creation where we are placed in order to learn how to agape.
God promises in His word that if you do this, your love will remain alive, not only for the life of your marriage but forever. Paul says, "Love [agape] never fails." (I Corinthians 13:8). If you love in this way, your marriage will never fail as well.