Valentine’s Day is one week away, and I cannot think of a better way to prepare than to meditate on love with one who has been practicing it, modeling it, and teaching on it for a long time. Pastor Ken Smith, who was my minister during my days in seminary, is one of the most loving men I know.
Ken has been married to Floy for 56 years, and they have 3 sons and daughters-in-law and twelve grandchildren. He was ordained on June 13, 1952 in what was the Central-Pittsburgh Reformed Presbyterian Church, which is now the North Hills Reformed Presbyterian Church. Ken says, “Floy and I took a Scrabble board with us on our honeymoon, and we’re still playing. (Is she two games ahead?)”
“You don’t have to be in love in order to get married,” I said. Their faces took on a surprised and questioning look. “No,” I said, “It’s natural, enjoyable, and desirable; but it’s not a necessity.” They were reflecting today’s cultural view, and I was intentionally painting them into a mental corner. We were in a pre-marital counseling session.
Today’s culture here in America has tended to become emotionally oriented when making judgments of all kinds. Having lost touch with absolutes in their thinking, they move from one desire to another without considering any principles involved. When Francis Schaeffer was ministering in L’Abrie, Switzerland, about 35 years ago, he observed over and over again how our society had adopted certain values they treasured: peace and comfort. These two idols had all but destroyed any thought of moral principle. Those of us who have been pastors know all about this when speaking to people about the church they could or should attend. Their ideas were often grounded in those two basics: peace and comfort. “I like a contemporary service.” Or, “Their pastor is too strict.” “I don’t like the size of that assembly; they’re too small for us.” And so forth. Only on occasion would seekers inquire about this church’s theology and our attitude toward the Bible. Those inquiries were all too sparse.
But let’s get back to this counseling couple and their questioning looks. “No, it’s not a necessity for you to be ‘in love,’” I continued, “but if you decide to marry, then you are bound to love one another. That’s what the vows are all about. And you recall from your experience at weddings, the vows are ‘for as long as you both shall live’. It’s a lifetime commitment.” Their looks changed. They caught on. And it’s this very important distinction on which I want to expand. I am essentially thinking of professing Christians when writing what follows.
Now too many youths have bought into the culture’s view of interpersonal relationship as largely emotional; and it has become almost a “no boundaries” mindset. In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit describes her struggle as a Jewess to preserve her purity (read virginity) during her college years. The pressure was suffocating! “Follow your feelings” characterized her classmates. But she won out. She would not give in to “how I feel” point-of-reference. And later she married with a good conscience, loving her husband and committed to love him till death. While she’s not yet a Christian, she had followed the biblical model.
Now Christians are to have this mindset, and they keep it for God. And it is a mindset, for while they will love (read like) their life partner, there is much more to it than warm feelings. So let me pick up a bit on that Christian mindset and value system which has dominated western culture up until recently. And I want to explain now what I meant when I stressed in marriage vows – and they are vows, promises made before the living God, not just each other – to love one another. And to do this let’s look into what God has said in His word about “love.”
Traditionally there are three, perhaps four, terms for love in the ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament, two of which are in the Bible. “Phileo,” which has the inference of “liking” someone or some thing, is used some 23 times as a noun, but incorporates a number of terms such as the word used to make “Philadelphia,” philo (love) with adelphia (brother), hence the city of “brotherly love.” It blends closely to what we mean when we speak of liking someone. We are friends. (My wife Floy knew a college president who called his spouse “friend wife.” He liked her.) And this would be very close to the way we use love in our western culture today. In the Bible it is never used in terms of “loving God,” and it’s rare to see it as an active verb. It’s more often descriptive of what is or should be. It is never used in the imperative.
However, the word used most frequently in the New Testament is “agapao,” an active verb meaning “to love as in one’s being treated as deserved.” For example, when the Bible says we are to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength,” it’s to treat God as He is to be treated. The same is true of the second great commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ll say more of this word later, but it appears in the New Testament over 250 times as a noun or a verb.
There is a third term “eros” from which we get the suggestive term erotic, having to do with sex. “Playboy,” for example, is committed to eros, designed to stimulate sexual lust. It’s interesting that this word “eros” does not appear in the New Testament at all. So when the Bible calls upon a husband and wife “to love” one another and to love their children, it speaks of “agapao,” that is, doing for the other person what is good for one’s partner or children. And let me just tuck in here that this aspect of love deeply affects how one approaches sexual intercourse: that is, how can I express my affection so as to satisfy my spouse, not exploit her for myself. “Agapao” embraces a selfless attitude toward others. The Bible is full of it as the Christian lifestyle; and as far as all relationship with others is concerned, such love is “the mark of the Christian.” “…By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Now how does this come to bear on the marriage vows? It really means that when one promises (read vows) to love, cherish, and honor one’s partner, it does not condition it with how one “feels,” for remember it is a lifetime commitment to “do” something for one’s spouse. And do it whether one feels like it or not. To love my wife is to care for her…wherever… whenever. To love my wife is to keep myself pure from other women regardless as to how I feel. And the same for the wife. Here’s where the mentality, the principle rules! I am committed to my wife, that is, I am to love her as my wife and her alone! And it’s for life! I have no business flirting with other women no matter how they make me feel. Eroticism has no claim over my commitment to love my wife! And that is one of the reasons pornography has become such a destructive force in our culture’s marriages. Men think they can go off by themselves with their computer and have a sexual experience? That is full-fledged breaking one’s vow to God, and as I said before, the vow is to God! And the word of God is “You shall not commit adultery,” including porn! Jesus Himself put it clearly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when He said, “…I say unto you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus knew pornography as a business was poised around the historical corner.
Let’s now consider why, back in the days when the Bible seemingly had more influence on the culture, divorce statistics were so much lower from today’s. The vow “to love… as long as we both shall live” was carried out. Now that does not mean that every home was a happy home, and I’ll get into that in a moment. What it meant was that the culture looked on the term “love” as an active verb to do the right thing for one’s partner. And it never crossed one’s mind to say, “But I’m not sure I love him or her anymore.” Can you see the switch in the use of the term “love?” That remark may be true in terms of how one feels, and certainly not all the homes of yesteryear were happy arrangements, but most did not break up! They “did the right thing” before God for the spouse, the children, and the witness to the community. They “loved” in the biblical sense. They never thought of a breakup simply because they didn’t “feel” like continuing. God was in the picture and the vows were binding for life!
But you may ask, “Yes, but were all the husbands and wives faithful to each other?” Certainly not. However, evidence seems to show the majority were. And in Christian terms not everyone felt such intercourse out-of-wedlock necessitated a breakup; because in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness! There is repentance! There can be renewal of those vows. The whole idea of the gospel of Jesus Christ is “reconciliation.” And remember that when Jesus granted in specific cases the option of divorce, He noted the cause as His critics saw it as attached to their hardness of heart. And that’s another way of saying “no repentance” and/or “no forgiveness.” So where the Bible is considered the touchstone of truth, redeemed sinners can and do find happiness in each other’s embrace and companionship. But where that reconciliation occurs, it does not come about from feelings as the motivation, but rather faith in God’s promise to bless obedience to Him and His word. And here I’m reminded of Jay Adams’ book The Myth of Incompatibility. The title says it!
The Scripture to which I have most often turned when speaking with a beleaguered wife ready to give up is I Peter 3. And I always pause on the first expression in verse 1: “In the same way….” What does that mean? Reading the last verses of chapter 2 explains. Jesus was on trial before Pilate, the Roman judge. He was sinless, guilty of nothing. But the word says He “kept entrusting Himself to Him Who judges righteously.” I think this passage helps a woman who has experienced mistreatment, even abuse. And here I hasten to say the passage does not condone abuse. Not at all! Nor do I!
So what does this word in Peter say to such wives? In the same way that Jesus submitted to God when He was tried and then crucified, believing wives are to“…be submissive to your own husbands….” Like Jesus. And be aware that husbands recognize a submissive wife. But the instruction goes on. “…Even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.” Peter expands on that term “behavior” in the next verses. But let me pause here to say that here is a perfect example of what it means to “love.” As Jesus submitted to the Father’s will and went to the cross to fulfill His love for a lost world, trusting His Father for the results, so Christian women are to submit to God’s will for them by “loving” (read agapao) their husbands in submission to him. And may I affirm here with emphasis that God blesses such faith-full obedience? It’s is often difficult; but the wife who has come to Christ and submitted to Him knows what it means to submit. And really she’s submitting to God by submitting to her husband.
Many years ago I heard the story of the conversion of Jim Vaus. I read his book Wiretapper, then later I came across his wife’s book. It’s fascinating! Jim, the son of the president of BIOLA (Bible Institute of Los Angeles) was kicked out of school for quite a litany of bad conduct, not academic failure. He had in fact a brilliant mind and was very proficient in the field of electronics. Consequently he took a job with the Los Angeles police installing listening devices enabling them to monitor the phones of gangsters and mobsters like Mickey Cohen. It was a dangerous job, but he did it without discovery. Then Cohen himself heard of Jim and hired him to remove those devices. So here he was, working for both the police and Cohen at the same time. Obviously he was in a most hazardous position. But for a time he was able to walk this “tightrope” without discovery, and it ruled his mind and schedule. He said he would often come home well after midnight, tired and hungry.
His wife, a true Christian, was applying I Peter 3:1ff all this time in faith and obedience, hoping for his conversion. She lived in submission and hoped. She prayed for him constantly. It was moving to hear Jim tell of his coming home late at night, the lamp left on for him revealing her open Bible. And when she heard him come in, she would greet him in a soft tone, “Hi, honey.” As he unfolded the story to us, he said her greeting was like a knife to his heart, it so convicted him of his abusive and hypocritical lifestyle. Ultimately, he said, it was her faithful obedience to I Peter 3 that eventually brought him to his knees before Christ in surrender to Him. I was impressed! Here was a living example of victory. Love won the day!!
But Peter also has a word here for husbands in verse 7, and it, too, begins with the words “in the same way.” So we men are also called back to the Savior’s submission to the will of His Father as our template for treating our spouse. As one reads this instruction, he knows exactly the attitude and spirit a man should honestly portray toward his wife: understanding is first. And if any man will understand his wife, he has to listen to her, not argue with her. And he needs to converse with her, not ignore, grunt or shout. After all, she is a person and has been given to him to be his helper. So give her credit to have something to say to you. Weigh it. Think about it. A woman needs such companionship! Don’t rob her of it! After all Peter by the Spirit says you and she are “fellow heirs of the grace of life.” Think on that a bit before you speak harshly to her.
And before I leave this picture of the Christian home, the first observation has to do with answered prayer. Is this the reason men don’t pray? They’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work?
The problem may not be their prayer. It may be their treatment of their spouse that’s the fault.
Many husbands have misread the scene. God answers the prayers of men who treat their wives in a loving (think agapao) way!
But the second observation is not in the verse. It’s a picture of children witnessing day after day how their parents relate to each other. They are observing and they are learning. One does not need to teach children what love is all about when they have been living in the atmosphere of their parents’ committed love. They begin to understand what God did for us in sending His Son to lay down His life for us. It wasn’t that He just “liked” us, for we were not likeable. No, He “loved” us. He did for us in Jesus what we needed, desperately needed. And that is the meaning of the marriage vow to love, honor, and cherish one’s spouse. And frankly it is here that kids assess whether or not their parents’ commitment to Christ is fake or true.
Love in the Bible and the history of the English language (and Greek) when used as a verb is active. And when Christians begin to capture this, or better be captured by it, they can get along with just about anybody. No, they don’t have to like them. But we are even taught by our Lord to love – remember the true definition – our enemies. And the classic illustration in Jesus’ ministry in terms of spelling out what it means to love one’s enemies is the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 15. And if one wants to love someone who at the moment may be very hard to like, do to him or her as he or she would have done to them. But it’s doing, not just feeling.
We used to give new couples a “wedding book” written by a bygone saint called F. B. Myer. We were familiar with many such marriage books, but this one had a chapter “Supposing.” The scene portrayed by the author was the morning after the night before. The couple had been married the previous day. As she woke up, she struggled with the horrifying feeling that she had made a great mistake in marrying the man beside her in their bed. She felt miserable. What was she to do? All kinds of emotions swept over her. She lay there thinking, praying as he slept on. Her situation was overwhelming. She trembled about the future.
Do you get the picture? What follows from the pen of Dr. Myer is quiet, sound counsel.
Love him. By the grace and energy God gives you love him. Be sure these simple instructions are freighted with hope. He then describes how such a response to this sudden emotion does indeed conquer. He tells of couples who experiencing his exactly described dilemma began actively to “love one another.” Sure enough over time they began to like and enjoy each other’s company. The affection came and grew!
And may I testify that while I was certainly blown away by the girl who became my wife, we were committed to love one another as described above, took our vows seriously, and have grown in respect and delight toward one another over the fifty-plus years. And she’s still my best friend and companion. We have a love relationship; and through seeking Him together daily, and then as a family, God has enriched our joy in being together as husband and wife.
I haven’t said much about “affection” in this paper; but there’s much to say about it. God forbid I should describe a biblical marriage as a sterile and stoic “letter of the law” kind of relationship. That is not agapao love! And by the way I have known of such unions. They are cold and uncaring. Kids bolt from such environments as soon as possible! And worse are those relationships where the boys (I note them especially) have no idea of who their father is. They conclude love is to exploit, yet they can’t explain the gnawing ache inside longing for the love and affection of their dads. Emotions are real.
Take the story of the good Samaritan. Jesus shows him as a man, hated by the Jews, seeing a Jew lying by the road. The story says he was the victim of an attack by robbers who beat him up and left him lying there helpless. Other Jewish passers-by left him there. But this Samaritan was “moved with compassion.” Then he did the right thing. That’s feeling! On other occasions Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of his religious critics by saying while they were so meticulous to keep little details of the ceremonial law, they had lost all feeling for mercy and compassion. And the Bible speaks of joy, boundless joy, among the people of God. And so on.
Never let it be suggested, therefore, that agapao love is passionless. To love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength – and one’s neighbor as oneself – summons every part of our being. My point in this paper must not be missed: love in the Bible is doing the right thing for the benefit of others. And so marriage vows, for example, trump feelings! We actively love one’s spouse in devotion to the God Who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to forgive us and give us eternal life!! Just do it! Be a promise keeper! God will take care of your feelings. And nothing trumps a good conscience before God and others!
Let me conclude with something I heard on the Island of Cyprus in 1973. One of the men I was interrogating about their culture, marriage, hopes and fears, and things like that described one of his fears: “I hope and pray our marriages and family life do not fall apart as we have witnessed in America, especially in your movies.” We discussed that for a little while, turning more pointedly toward marriage, and then he said, “It seems that in America you marry the girl you love; in Cyprus we love the girl we marry.” I caught that. He was not simply word-crafting. I realized that their culture still had “arranged” marriages. Families conferred with each other and arranged the marriages of their children. So getting married seldom involved a time of courtship. But when they married, they then loved (think actively doing the right thing) one another. They loved the person they married. Quite similar to Abraham’s seeking a wife for son Isaac. So Isaac loved the girl Rebecca whom others chose for him. That’s what my Cyprus friend meant. While I am not proposing arranged marriage, I believe the Bible clearly calls us actively to love our spouse. To do so is to call down on a couple and their children the blessing of God for coming generations. And may I say, too, that this understanding of the word love provides hope for husbands and wives whose present or past relationships have lost any resemblance of such loyalty and faith. God’s love in Christ is the model; the Bible says “His lovingkindness is everlasting!” And He is faithful.