Dear Church Family,
This past Friday was Valentine’s Day. Many people celebrated their love for someone remembering how they “Fell in Love!” Counting the ways we love each other is a romantic way to express our feelings for the one we love now. I wonder if anyone stopped to think about How God Loves Us? His love is not as fickle as our love and His love is a great example of how we should love.
It is sometimes difficult for a modern person, who associates love with uncontrollable feelings, to understand how the Bible can command love of God, neighbors, even enemies. But in the Bible the many terms translated as “love” do not refer primarily to feelings. They refer to decisions of the will. This voluntaristic notion of love is recalled in modern wedding services, where the bride and groom say “I do” and “I will” when they are asked to make their vows, not “I feel like it.” In the Bible, when God’s people are called upon to “love,” they are being asked to do something loving and responsive to the love of God, whether they feel like it or not.
If God has gone to the ultimate lengths of love for us, we can only respond by making tangible sacrifices of love for one another. We may express our love in words, but our words are empty if they are not accompanied by actions. We may have warm fuzzy feelings inside, but our feelings remain private pleasures if they do not translate into deeds. We are even called to love others when warm sentiments are absent. Human feelings ebb and flow. True Christian love is not a slave to such emotional fluctuations.
As a Pastor and Marriage and Family Counselor I see lots of families who are hurting and struggling with their emotions of love. Unfortunately, many of these, by the time they come see me have already made up their mind to divorce. They just come see me so they can say, “Oh we tried that counseling stuff, and it just didn’t work for us.”
A few years ago, some dear Christian friends explained why they had gotten divorced by writing, “We exhausted our spiritual resources.” It was one of the strangest explanations I had ever heard, especially from two Ph.D.’s and Christian educators who knew very well that God’s spiritual resources are inexhaustible. Apparently, they were unwilling to admit what had really happened and to say, “We quit trying.”
More recently, another close Christian friend, a teacher in New Testament studies no less, and a long-time educator, left his wife for another woman, who herself was seminary trained by saying to his wife, “I haven’t loved you for the last seven years.” What he meant, of course, was that he didn’t have the same kind of feelings he once had for her. But in the Bible love is primarily a commitment, obedience to God’s commands, rather than an emotion.
Just this fall, a long-time friend told me about how he had “made a mistake” and cheated on his wife. In fact, he used the expression several times in our conversation. Never once did I hear the word “sin,” however.
I guess in a world in which politicians “misspeak” when they lie, in which athletes “make bad choices” when they commit crimes, and prostitutes are called “sex workers,” I shouldn’t be so surprised.
But how about the innocuous and even heart-warming, “I fell in love”? As sweet as it sounds, it’s not a biblical expression. And if you can claim you’ve fallen in love, then you can say you’ve fallen out of love, as lots of people do. In a country in which even many Christians think the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right (no, just because the American Constitution declares it so doesn’t make it true), is it any wonder that people justify leaving their spouses because they just don’t feel good or make them happy anymore?
Paul, in his famous love chapter, writes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Notice the use of “always” a few times? And the adjectives and verbs used to characterize love don’t have that much to do with emotion, except perhaps when they refer to keeping it under control.
Twice in my life, I’ve had friends who were in the process of divorcing their spouses who looked me straight in the face, and admitted, “I know, I’m reneging on my wedding vows.” At least they were honest. That’s what it’s really all about – promise keeping.
If I can’t trust someone to remain true to their word when they have made the most solemn pledge of their entire lives before God, spouse, and a Christian congregation, why should I trust them for anything else?
Now, of course, God is a God of amazing grace, wonderful forgiveness and countless fresh starts. And I have dear friends who sinned miserably with their first spouses and are having godly, inspiring second marriages.
But they repented. They called sin sin. They confessed to God and fellow humans. They prayed for forgiveness. They received godly counsel and, often, counseling. Their lives genuinely changed. The words we use for labeling concepts do matter.
Most countries and cultures in the history of the world that have practiced arranged marriages have had extremely low divorce rates. At least those couples recognized that it wasn’t feelings or emotions that made or unmade marriages. They were also less likely to define love as a feeling or an emotion in the first place.
1 Corinthians 13 ends with the famous 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” If love is eternal and love is the greatest of the attributes we will share throughout eternity, maybe we’d better start paying more attention in this life to what it truly involves. Richard Walker, a former pastor and founder of AMOR Ministries, working with Brazilians in the Upper Amazon basin, put it well, “Love is the giving of the very best you have on behalf of another regardless of response.” – even when it’s thrown back in your face. Isn’t that what Jesus did with and for us?
Jesus obeyed his Father when he didn’t “feel like it.” Because he obeyed in spite of his emotions, we are now empowered to love God and each other, as John admonishes us: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
SO, how should we love in accordance to God’s Plan?
Americans need advice on love and marriage. Our society leads the industrialized world in teenage pregnancy: one out of three girls in America becomes pregnant by the age of 20, 81 percent out of wedlock. Ninety percent of our youth have been exposed to pornography by the age of 18. Fifty percent of first marriages, 67 percent of second and 74 percent of third marriages end in divorce.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1.8 million sexually transmitted diseases were reported in 2012. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV infection. Since the epidemic began in 1981, more than 641,000 Americans have died of AIDS-related causes.
Clearly, our love rules aren’t working very well.
Taylor Swift has been making entertainment headlines since she released her first album at the age of 16. Her net worth is estimated at $220 million. An online magazine recently compiled “Taylor Swift’s Rules About Love: A Comprehensive List.” Here are some of her rules on the subject:
• “I never chase boys. They don’t like it.”
• “[Guys] can be a part of your life but never let the guy be your life. They can live in your world, but never make the guy your world.”
• “Relationships are like traffic lights. And I just have this theory that I can only exist in a relationship if it’s a green light.”
• “Deciding not to play games is the best way to go because it keeps things simple: If he messes it up by playing around with your heart, you’ll know he doesn’t deserve you.”
• “I think you can love people without it being the great love.”
However, she also says, “I have rules for a lot of areas of my life. Love is not going to be one of them.” So maybe her rules aren’t rules after all.
What if we applied God’s rules for love and marriage? His word offers a “top 10″—10 principles that, if practiced, would transform our homes and society. Let’s set them out as clearly and concisely as possible.
Rule #1: Sex is God’s gift for heterosexual marriage
God created humans as sexual beings, instructing us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Before the fall, “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).
Our Creator intends sexual intercourse to be between a man and his wife (Gen. 2:24). Jesus reinforced his Father’s intention that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5; cf. Ephesians 5:31).
Rule #2: Sex outside of marriage is always wrong
We are repeatedly told, “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18; Matthew 19:18; Romans 13:9). We are not to have sexual relations with anyone who is not our spouse (Leviticus 18:6-18).
Rule #3: Marriage is intended to be permanent
Scripture teaches that “a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives” (1 Corinthians 7:39; cf. Romans 7:2). There are three clear exceptions:
• Divorce is permitted for adultery: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).
• Abandonment by an unbelieving spouse is also grounds for divorce: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
• I believe that abuse constitutes a third ground for “biblical” divorce, as life must be protected: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
Malachi rebuked men who were faithless to “your companion and your wife by covenant” and asked, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” (Malachi 2:14, 15).
Rule #4: Sexual purity begins with the mind
Job testified, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). Scripture consistently affirms such integrity:
• “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
• “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
• “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
• “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God . . . For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, 7).
Rule #5: Sexual relations between people of the same gender are forbidden
This is a much-debated subject but these Scriptures are clear and relevant:
• “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22; cf. 20:13).
• “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27).
• “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
• “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:9-10).
Rule #6: Celibacy can be God’s intention
The Bible forbids homosexual activity, not homosexual orientation. For those who are attracted to the same sex, God teaches purity and thus abstention. His Spirit will help those who are called to this difficult lifestyle: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7).
Jesus taught, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:12). The Apostle Paul affirmed celibacy: “To the unmarried and widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8; cf. Revelation 14:4).
Rule #7: Sexual sin harms us
Scripture consistently warns that sexual immorality harms those who choose it:
• “He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away” (Proverbs 6:32-33; cf. 5:3-14).
• “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality . . . orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19, 21).
• “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
Sexual sin will always take you further than you wanted to go, keep you longer than you wanted to stay, and cost you more than you wanted to pay.
Rule #8: Wives should encourage and respect their husbands
Now we come to perhaps the most misunderstood teaching in Scripture regarding love and marriage. Ephesians 5:22-24 instructs: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Could any teaching be more counter-cultural today?
Actually, Paul does not mean what most readers think he does. “Submit” translates the Greek word hypotasso, which can be rendered, “the voluntary decision to encourage and respect another.” The verb is in the Greek middle voice, literally translated “place yourself in submission.”
The wife is not in any sense inferior to the husband: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Rather, she chooses to respect and support her husband. He is created in such a way that he needs his wife’s affirmation more than he needs the affirmation of any other person.
Rule #9: Husbands should put their wives first
In turn, men are taught: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). “Love” translates agape, which can be rendered, “the unconditional commitment to put another person first.” Husbands are told to cherish their wives as their highest priority under Christ. Wives are to be more important than a husband’s career, ambitions, goals, or any other relationship.
A wife is created in such a way that she needs to be cherished by her husband, to know that she is his “first love” under God. When wives encourage and respect their husbands, and husbands cherish their wives unconditionally and before all others, they align themselves with God’s word and enable the Lord to bless their marriage.
One expert summarizes: “Men are motivated and empowered when they feel needed. . . . Women are motivated and empowered when they feel cherished.” Every marriage needs encouraging respect and unconditional love.
Rule #10: God calls us to purity
Our bodies were designed for purity: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13). As a result, “sexual immorality and all impurity and covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).
God’s rules for love and marriage can be summarized simply: marriage is a covenant. Our culture views it as a contract which can be ended whenever either party wishes. Our Lord sees it as a covenant to which we make a permanent commitment.
John Adams once noted in his diary, “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! . . . What a Utopia, what a Paradise would this region be.” Suppose our society took his advice, living by God’s rules for love and marriage. What would be the impact on divorce, adultery, pornography, sexually transmitted disease, children and the family?
You may not be able to lead our nation to live by Scripture, but you can set an example for those you influence today. An evangelist was once asked how to begin a revival. His advice: “Go home, take a piece of chalk, and draw a circle around yourself. Then kneel inside that circle and pray until your life is right with God. When you are done, revival will have begun.”
Can a moral revival in our culture begin with you?
In Christian Love and With Many Prayers,
Based on articles:
James C. Denison, Ph.D. God’s Top 10: rules for love and marriage
Craig L. Blomberg, Falling in Love?
Hazel Offner, A Deeper Look at Love