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What About Shaky Marriages?

Understanding agape love is the key to a strong marriage.

A couple came to see a certain pastor—not me. The man was particularly concerned about his wife's depression. He had tried all that he knew to help her, but nothing worked. So they came in, and the pastor couldn't do anything either. The lady was totally unresponsive. After half an hour getting nowhere at all, the pastor jumped up and pulled the woman out of her chair. He put his arms around her and kissed her. He turned to the husband and said, "That's all your wife needs about three times a week." The husband said, "Oh dear! I can only bring her in on Thursdays."

I told you this story because lots of people have problems in their marriages, and their lack of understanding about their marital problems equates the lack of understanding of that particular man. I'm afraid that's all too common.

Clint Eastwood made a movie called Heartbreak Ridge. I'm not a Clint Eastwood fan, but there is a side story in that movie where Eastwood—the 24-year-veteran Marine gunnery sergeant, Congressional Medal of Honor winner—has lost his wife, who doesn't want anything to do with him. This big macho man is quite pathetic. He doesn't know what to do, so he starts buying women's magazines. You have a remarkable picture of Clint Eastwood reading women's magazines to find out what on earth his wife really wants. The tragedy is that it's perfectly obvious to everybody else, but not to Clint. Marriages are shaky. People involved in shaky marriages don't understand some very basic facts about marriage.

There are seminars available for the study of marriage. They'll teach you to communicate, to have a more fulfilled sex experience, to handle your finances, and what to do with your in-laws. All are helpful, but something is missing. Marriage is supposed to be based on love, but our ideas of love are naive. Today, I simply want to walk you through the best-known passage on love in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. We'll look at this passage and see if it will give us some simple clues about what's wrong in shaky marriages.

The meaning of "love" from a Biblical perspective.

When we talk about love, we have an immediate problem. Love can mean so many different things. I want to talk to you about the dimensions of marital love from a biblical perspective.

The Greeks had a variety of words for love. The Greeks have the word eros, meaning physical and sexual attraction and fulfillment—a legitimate, necessary aspect of marital love. The Scriptures say we are not to engage in sexual activities outside the confines of marriage. Paul says a marriage without sexual activity is defrauding each other. Marriages need a lot more than eros love.

Another dimension is called phileo. This love has to do with friendship and companionship. In a healthy marital relationship, there will be mutual physical attraction and sexual fulfillment. There should also be friendship and things you enjoy about each other. You should feel you are best friends enjoying down-to-earth companionship.

You can have all kinds of phileo and eros and still not approach what the Bible means by love that makes marriage work best. The third word in Greek is agape. This word describes God's love for us. This word is used to describe our love as those who operate under God's principles.

In 1 Corinthians 13, when the Bible tells us the greatest thing in the world is love, it isn't saying the greatest thing in the world is eros or phileo. It is agape love. The obvious illustration of this is God's love toward us. God chose to be committed to our well being even though our condition was abhorrent to him, even though our reaction was negative toward him.

Agape love in the confines of marriage is a commitment on the part of each married partner to be primarily concerned for the well being of the other—even when one is displeasing and/or does not respond appropriately. Because that's a tall order and we fall short, there are many shaky marriages.

The Bible teaches quite clearly that agape love is directly related to the work of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5 says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love." The word used there is agape. When we talk of this unusual love—this commitment to the well being of the other person—we're talking about something related to the work of the Holy Spirit in people's lives. This is not to suggest that people who are unbelievers cannot have fulfilling marriages. Clearly they do. There are many unbelievers who behave with more maturity and dignity in their marriages than some professed believers.

When we think in terms of agape, we mean the operation of the Holy Spirit producing in us something bigger, grander, and nobler than we ourselves are capable of. We are not to assume that agape love is simply the result of the Holy Spirit working on passive people: I stand around, and the Holy Spirit loves you through me. It doesn't work like that. You will notice that the Bible also speaks of agape as a responsibility. This wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians 13 concludes with the words, "Follow the way of love."

Unfortunately, whoever divided the Bible into chapters shoved that phrase into the next chapter, but after Paul talks about love, we are told to follow the way of love. The words translated "follow the way of" mean to hunt or to pursue relentlessly—to target a goal and fulfill it. Agape love is the result of the Holy Spirit operating within our lives, but it is also the result of making a definite commitment to target somebody with agape love and pursue loving them relentlessly.

When we think in terms of the dimensions of marital love, we think of the work of the Holy Spirit and being obedient to the words of Scripture. We are to be primarily concerned for the other person's well being. Couple that with companionship and a friendship that shares a common life incorporating both physical and sexual components. Those are the dimensions of marital love.

Immediately we can see why some marriages are shaky. Some are not doing very well as far as eros is concerned. Others have little companionship or friendship at all. The relationship has simply degenerated into a mutual toleration pact. People don't begin to think of the unique operation of the Holy Spirit in producing agape love. However, let's put that to one side for a moment, because the next thing I want to do is what I will call descriptions of marital love.

Agape love is shown by certain behaviors.

Turn to 1 Corinthians 13:4. Here we have a remarkable description of agape love. It says, "Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, 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. Love never fails." There is a description of the behavior of agape.

Notice the emphasis on the word behavior there. We are fully aware of the fact that love incorporates feelings. When we get these feelings of love, they are totally inexplicable. People fall "head over heels in love." When two people begin to love each other, the chemistry is right; the bells are ringing. They walk around with a silly grin on their faces.

I remember once in England when one of the girls who worked on our staff suddenly burst into the office, did a pirouette, an arabesque, and a flip, and went out again. I simply returned to my work, being very British. Afterward somebody said, "Did you hear about Chris out there?" They said she'd just fallen in love, so I knew it was serious. The feeling was remarkable. The demonstration was remarkable. But let's face it, folks, there's a lot more to love than feelings. Love behaves; that's the key. People enjoy the feelings, but when the feelings wear off, they behave badly in the confines of marriage. That won't do.

There's a whole list of things here, and we can only touch on them.

Love suffers long. The word is macrothumia, which can mean long-suffering or slow to anger and is often translated with the modern word patience. But let's use this phrase suffers long.

Love makes you vulnerable. That's why a lot of people dare not love. That's why a lot of people will not commit themselves. That's why a lot of people want to enjoy eros without any sense of commitment at all. They are not prepared to be vulnerable. They know that as soon as they become vulnerable, they will probably get hurt. The simple fact is this: in any loving relationship, you lay yourself open to get hurt. You give of yourself, but the other person may not give in return as you've expected. You may find yourself giving more than you felt you ought to give, commensurate to what they give. Or you may find your gift is abused. All kinds of things can go wrong.

Notice that love is prepared to suffer long. Love is so concerned with the well being of the other person that even when that person causes pain, your suffering does not become more important than the person you love. It's at this point that a lot of marriages simply come apart: love does not suffer long. How long to suffer is something to be watched with tremendous sensibility. God did not expect people to be destroyed, but he does expect people in the power of the Holy Spirit to love with long-suffering.

Love is kind. A generosity of spirit in marriage works wonders. Very often there's a cramped, crabby attitude in marriages. People are not generous with their praise or time or encouragement. Some men simply expect their wives to have a meal ready, sit down to eat, and never even say thank you. They're not even close to being kind or generous in attitude. Generosity of spirit comes when we begin to be concerned about the well being of the other person.

The best illustration of kindness I can think of happened to Jill and me shortly after we came to America. I was speaking in Chicago at one of the big hotels in the Loop. Jill and I had never driven to Chicago before. It was pouring rain. I knew my gas was getting a little low, but I knew there would be lots of filling stations in Chicago. I was wrong. I ran out of gas in a thunderstorm—in the fast lane—in rush hour.

We were totally new to this country, and I had no idea what to do. I got out, and immediately my suit was drenched. To their credit, the people of Chicago did not ignore me. Everyone wound down their window and told me exactly what they thought about me, even though they didn't know who I was. A beat-up old car came along, and the window went down. I didn't bother listening anymore, so I had no idea what the man said. I stood there quite a long time hoping something would happen. Nothing happened except for the verbal abuse. Then, to my amazement, I saw this same beat-up old car coming around again. Without a word the driver pulled in behind me, jumped out, lifted the trunk, and got out a gallon can of gas. He went to my gas tank, poured it in, and still didn't say a word. He put the cap back on, and turned to walk away. I said, "Hold it! What's going on?"

"No speak English! No speak English," was his answer.

I found he did speak a little English, and I discovered what had happened. He had seen my plight and gone off the freeway to a filling station, where he bought a gallon of gas. He got back on the freeway going the other way, got off, got on again, and worked his way around to us. He didn't even want me to pay for the gas. I discovered he had just arrived from Puerto Rico. He had been in Chicago a week, and this is what he said: "Ain't nobody helps nobody in this city."

Fortunately he was one person who did not fit that category. I call that kindness—generosity of spirit. When we marry, we have all the world from which to choose. We chose one person, then we don't even care to be kind.

Love is not jealous. Now this poses a problem. We know that God is love, and we know that God is jealous. How can Paul say that love is not jealous? There are different kinds of jealousy. There's a holy jealousy committed to protecting that which is dear. I protect Jill. If people get after her, they don't just deal with her; they deal with me. If they get on her case, that's my case. If they criticize her for what she's doing, or for what she doesn't do, then I will handle that for her. (I'm getting ticked at the very thought of talking about it!) That is holy jealousy.

There is a jealousy that goes beyond protecting and becomes possessive. That possessiveness becomes a power that dominates the other person with little interest in the other's well being. In some marriages you'll find one partner or the other so committed to what they expect of the other person, they won't even listen to the other person's desires. Their jealousy has become destructive possessiveness. Love is not jealous.

Love is not boastful. The language of boasting is the language of insecurity. When a married person talks constantly about "I, me, and my," it reveals an insecure person. When a married person talks about "you, yours, and ours," you've found a person with a mature concern for the well being of the mate. The insecure person is so anxious to get approval that even in marriage, he or she will do absolutely anything to get approval—even at the expense of the partner. Such people show how good they are by showing how bad their spouse is. That clearly demonstrates a lack of agape. Love is not boastful.

Love is not proud. It's interesting to notice in Scripture that of all the bad things, God reserves some of his greatest criticisms for pride. He says, "Pride do I hate." Why? Pride is the essence of "me-ism." Pride is me shoving God off his sovereign throne and installing myself. Pride is making myself the center of the universe at God's expense. Pride spills over into marriages. Not infrequently you find two people who are totally committed to themselves instead of having a partnership majoring on friendship, companionship, mutuality, encouragement and concern for each other.

What hope is there for a marriage between two people who are each purportedly committed to the well being of the other, but when push comes to shove are exclusively committed to themselves? Not infrequently we hear people wanting out of their marriages who say they don't feel fulfilled, they're not happy anymore, or marriage isn't coming up to their expectations. They are simply self-absorbed. When we ask how their partner is doing in the marriage, their faces go blank, and their eyes glaze over. They've never thought of that. Love cannot be proud, because love is concerned with the other person, whereas pride is exclusively wrapped up in me.

Love is not rude. Rudeness despises people. Rudeness denigrates people. If it goes on long enough, rudeness destroys people. You remember Archie Bunker. What angered me so much was Bunker's attitude toward his wife. He constantly called her "silly cow!" That woman, as portrayed in the program, was totally beaten. I don't think he physically abused her, but she lived with constant verbal rudeness and denigration, which for all intents and purposes destroyed her. She had come to the conclusion that she was a silly cow. Bunker was clearly limited in his love for his wife. Love couldn't possibly be that kind of rude.

Love is not self-seeking. Self seeking is totally disinterested in serving. Self seeking talks about me. Self seeking goes to all lengths to gain my interests and priorities at the expense of your interests and priorities. When it comes down to discretionary time, there is more self seeking with disregard for what the partner would like us to do with that time. The same thing happens with the distribution of finances. All the books and charts and computer programs won't help if you're still self seeking. Self seeking is the antithesis of an honest, loving, caring, serving attitude toward the other person.

Love is not irritable. As we've already pointed out, when you get into love, you get into vulnerability, and you're going to get hurt. How do we handle the hurts that inevitably come in an intimate relationship? Supposing we open ourselves up to the other person, and we're disappointed. How do we handle that hurt?

One way is to get irritable. Irritability can be mild, or it can explode in demonstrations of physical abuse. Irritability, which is a violent reaction against that which has hurt us, cannot possibly be the fruit of love. If I love the person who's hurt me, I'm more likely to be concerned about why. What made the person act like that? I may even take time out to try to understand instead of trying to hurt them back. Love doesn't get irritable like that.

Love does not keep records of wrong. How often in marriages do we hear people getting into a fight, and they begin to bring up all the things in the past so vividly that we think, He did that to her last night. It was ten years ago, but she kept records. When things go wrong in intimate relationship, as they inevitably do, we carefully recall and rehearse what went wrong. If we continue to rehearse in our own minds what went wrong, we will find ourselves resenting what went wrong Resentment builds until we are concerned about revenge. Sometimes we have to recognize that resenting and revenge-seeking have absolutely nothing to do with what the Spirit of God wants to work in our lives: a willingness to forgive as Christ has forgiven us. Love does not keep records.

Love does not rejoice in evil. There is something unfortunate in each of us that has an interest in evil. We know that, because we can imagine evil in other persons. They do a perfectly innocent thing, but if we're out of sorts, we can imagine the most dreadful motivation behind that perfectly innocent thing. If we imagine bad motivation, then it's only a short step from imagining to assuming there are all kinds of bad motivations going on. Once we've imagined and assumed it, we look for it. So often, as I've talked with people in shaky marriages, I discover they are attributing evil motives to their partner without evidence. If we begin to imagine evil, assume evil, and look for evil, we're going to rejoice when we find it. Love's heart is broken when it sees evil in the partner's life.

In marked contrast to enjoying evil, love rejoices in the truth. When two people are committed to truthfulness, they begin to say, "If I say it, you know I'll do it." Once there is an erosion of truthfulness, there will be an erosion of trust. It is extremely difficult to build trust back in. Love rejoices in the truth.

Love always protects. Love doesn't attack the partner. Love goes out of its way to protect the partner. Love always trusts and is prepared to give the partner the benefit of the doubt over and over again. Love hopes, which means that love is prepared to hope the best is true about the partner. Love perseveres. The net result is that love never fails. That doesn't mean love always succeeds. What it means is that love keeps on keeping on.

There is a most remarkable checklist for anybody in any relationship that's shaky, especially a shaky marriage. Do take it home. Sit down together. Work through it. Go through each of these things, and see what happens.

How the dynamics of marital love develop.

Finally, how do the dynamics of marital love develop? Four things are necessary.

1. There has to be desire. I have never yet officiated at the wedding of a couple where one held a gun to the other's head. It has always been purely voluntary. They couldn't live without each other.

2. That's a wonderful start, but how do you get from there to the finish? The love wasn't nourished and nurtured. Somewhere along the line somebody quit. The desire to love has to be there, born of God's Spirit. The decision to love must be made. Agape love, remember, is a decision.

3. A dedication to go on loving is an integral part of it. If you ever have trouble loving your spouse because of what he or she has done or hasn't done, is or isn't, always remember God's love for you despite what you did or didn't do, what you were or what you weren't. Remember that model.

4. Remember also, it isn't just a model. The Spirit of God begins to shed his love in our hearts. There's a fundamental spiritual dimension here that must never be shortchanged: the dedication to go on loving and being devoted to the One who is the source of all love.

I am absolutely convinced of one thing. If you have a shaky marriage, don't rush off to seminars, buy lots of books, or watch videos until you sit down together and work carefully through 1 Corinthians 13, verses 4 through 8.

Ó Stuart Briscoe

Preaching Today Issue #89

Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).

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Sermon Outline:


I. The meaning of love from a biblical perspective

II. Agape love is shown by certain behaviors

III. How the dynamics of marital love develop