I suppose it’s inevitable after being in three weddings in five weeks that I’d spend some time reflecting on the nature of love. I traveled to Dayton, Savannah, and Tampa to celebrate the marriages of three of my best friends, and through it I heard a plethora of marriage advice, personal marriage testimonies, and, of course, wedding charges about marriage and the Gospel. This year I’ve undertaken a personal exploration deeper into the essence of love, and these weddings, as testaments of the love these couples have for each other and for Christ, seemed to be the capstone. So after long weekends of travel and far less sleep than I need, I’ve compiled some of my own thoughts on the beauty and nature of love as worked out within the marriage covenant.
Of course, I’m probably the least qualified to address anything that pertains to marriage. So the thoughts below might be completely off-base. Nonetheless, the nature of love in relationship isn’t found within the experience of married couples, but rather in Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church. It is to Christ that we look for understanding the depths of the mystery of love–for in Him all the fullness of love finds its source and foundation. And as we reflect on how Christ has loved well His unlovable Bride, we come to understand in powerful ways what love looks like in every relationship, especially within the most intimate relationship of all.
Love is a self-emptying. Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwelt bodily, emptied Himself to take the form of a human servant, and in this act revealed Himself to be the Divine Love. And through this act, He shows us what love is: a kenosis. For as we empty ourselves in love, the fullness of God’s love can pour through us.
The One who was rich beyond all splendor, for love’s sake, became poor. The One who was God beyond all glory, for love’s sake, became man. The One who was life and light, for love’s sake, died in the darkness of God’s judgement. In Christ, we see that love is not merely the kindness of considerate action, but it is a self-gift and a self-release. Christ did not hold tightly to His rights as God and Heir of Heaven, but, for the love of His Bride, gave up His rights, emptied Himself of His glory, humbled Himself unto death, and opened Himself up to the horror of the Divine Judgement. Yet through this great self-emptying, this great kenosis, God poured His love through Christ onto His Bride so that we might experience all the glory that Christ gave up for our sake. So that the richness of God’s love might shower upon His Bride, Christ became poor. So that the glorious nature of God might transform the nature of His Bride, Christ became man. So that the life of God might vivify His Bride, Christ died.
Of all human relationships, it is through marriage that God chooses to primarily reflect this type of kenotic love to the world. For the husband and wife are called to empty themselves in service and sacrifice so that God’s love might pour through them on the other. Once they enter the marriage covenant, neither are their own, but each belongs to the other. There is no barrier that should be erected, no wall that should remain, no part of the one that should be withheld from the other. For if Christ, in self-protection, withheld any part of Himself from His Bride, we would be of all people the most to be pitied. But even upon the pain of death and separation from His Father and the humiliation of being rejected and scorned by His own creation, Christ gave Himself wholly for His Bride so that they might forever be joined in intimate relationship with Him and experience the immeasurable riches of the love of God. It is the great privilege of the husband and wife to reflect this love to the world through their own self-emptying and self-sacrifice, even at the risk of pain and disappointment, and by this, to make way for the even greater love of God to reveal itself.
Love is not a response. Love is not merited or expected: it is gratuitous. Like a piece of art that shares its beauty without thought of cost or recompense, love lavishes itself almost unaware and ever eager to be received, with hope of nothing in return.
While we were still enemies, while we were still rebellious traitors, while we were still sunk into the ugliness of willful and radical sinfulness, Christ loved His Bride, died for His Bride, pursued Bride. And even after our repentance of sin and clinging to Him in faith, He loves us daily in spite of our failures and sin. Christ did not respond to our obedience, our love, or even our pleas for help by dying for us. Rather, His love is completely gratuitous–unwarranted, over-the-top, causeless, completely voluntary. His love was gratuitous in the beginning and it is gratuitous still.
And isn’t this what married love is at its core? From the beginning stages of romance to the squeeze of the hand as the husband of 50 years passes into eternity, the love and affection between a husband and wife is a mystery that no objective facts about the other can explain. Mere compatibility doesn’t stir the affections, good gifts don’t make the heart race, mere physical beauty doesn’t bring the lover to his knees. Yet Christ’s gratuitous love is even deeper than the mystery of romance. It runs to the core of the loving choices the married couple makes every day despite the opposition, the sinfulness, the ugliness of the other. It’s a choice to pursue and sacrifice for no reason at all.
We see the gratuitous nature of God’s love in the creative act itself. For before we could do anything or be anything, God, in love, created us. I suppose this is why the marriage of Adam and Eve marked the pinnacle of the creation account, for it reflected most powerfully the gratuitous creative love of God and became the foundation for the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply. This is why I’ve come to believe that the whole concept of being “lovable” is incongruous to the nature of love–for love is not something we can merit or deserve. To have a quality that predisposes a tendency to procure “love” from another runs contrary to what it means for God to be love: a Creative Being who, out of the overflow of His loving nature, created something that did not merit its own existence because it is not God. And He pursued a Bride who did not merit her own rescue. There is nothing lovable about us–and there can’t be. For once we become lovable, we cannot be loved. We can be “likeable,” but we cannot–and must not–be lovable.
Thus, married love shines forth to the world as something completely gratuitous and unaffected by the actions of the other. A husband loves His wife, not for what she’s done, but simply because he chooses to.
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The world is asking the question: what is love? And it is the glorious privilege of the Church to reflect in their marriages the powerful message of what the love of Christ really is. It’s not a quid pro quo. It’s not a response. It’s not an impersonal word. It is a complete giving of oneself for the sake of the other for no reason at all with expectation of nothing in return. And who wouldn’t want to take up that mantle and love as Christ loved, no matter how terrifying a prospect? May we see the Form of Love in Christ, and may we learn to reflect that to the world by allowing the love of Christ to pour through us in the powerful gratuity of self-gift and self-denial.