Let’s start by defining exactly what we mean by love, in light of Paul’s teaching: Biblical love in marriage flows out of our relationship with Christ into a covenantal commitment to self-sacrifice in small and large ways for the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of my spouse.
This definition embodies the heartbeat of what biblical love in marriage is all about. Biblical love requires not only understanding the love of God but functioning and living out the reality that you are loved by God. It’s not enough to know you need to love your spouse, you must do the deeds of love.
Some spouses (wives in particular) often push back on this definition because sacrificial love gets filtered through certain social and political lenses. I’ve had husbands and wives both tell me that sacrificial love – in their understanding – means letting their spouse do whatever they want, becoming a doormat to their spouse’s desires. They believe that loving another sacrificially means putting yourself in a position where you are easily taken advantage of by the other person.
Others see it as a life of self-denial and self-negation. Professor Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso, in her blog post “Love Marriage: He said, She said,” counters, “So, what is the solution, then? For me, the starting point is the idea that if Christianity is true, it has to be possible to take a positive view of self-sacrifice without promoting oppression. If Christ gave his life as a sacrifice for others, then it has to be possible to live a life of sacrifice in a way that does not, ultimately, harm my relationships or myself.”
Mancuso goes on to note that even secular research supports the view that, “more positive views of sacrificing early in marriage predicted positive relationship outcomes.” If research supports the view that a self-sacrificial love ethic promotes health in relationships, then how much more positive could marriage relationships be when that love is rooted in Christ?
When husbands and wives are confident in God’s love for them, it frees them to offer and to seek love, expecting nothing in return. This is more than just romanticism. This is more than mere sentimentality or feeling. This is the love of God incarnated in marriage.
Imagine with me for a moment the dynamic change in marriages when husbands and wives grasp the height, breadth, and depth of God’s love for them. This kind of love has the power to change marriages because it’s the same kind of love that changed you and brought you from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. – Philippians 2:1-2
Characteristics of Self-Sacrificial Love in Marriage
With a foundational understanding of love in place, we can begin to consider how self-sacrificial love works itself out in marriage. What does this look like practically? How can you equip couples to love one another self-sacrificially? Here are four principles to walk through that will help couples move from a “me-oriented” marriage to an “others-oriented” marriage.
- repents of innate selfishness
- acts before it feels
- happens in the details of marriage
- pursues spiritual health and oneness
Self-sacrificial love repents of selfishness.
Take a husband or a wife to Philippians 2:3-5 and ask them if they have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. More likely than not, if couples are honest with themselves and each other, you will get some acknowledgment that selfishness is part of their problem.
If you can get a husband and wife to pause in their marriage and recognize their self-oriented bent, there is an opportunity here for them to repent and change. Instead of playing the blame game, spouses can take a small step toward looking inward and taking personal responsibility. When they confess and repent to God, they find that he is a God who is faithful and just to forgive them and restore them (1 John 1:9).
Self-sacrificial love acts before it feels.
One of the biggest issues you will face in marriage counseling is getting couples to live out their theology. They may read passages that tell them to love one another (John 13:34), but because they don’t feel love for their spouse, they fail to fulfill God’s command.
More often than not, when we take actions of love, feelings will follow. I find that couples waste precious time in their marriage waiting on their spouse to love them or waiting for feelings of love for their spouse to return before they, in turn, will act in love toward their spouse. The result is a vicious cycle of rejection and selfishness.
A wife withholds love for her husband, waiting for him to affirm her, encourage her, and attend to her. When he doesn’t, her feelings for him grow cold and brittle. “I don’t deserve to be treated this way,” she concludes and then resolves, “I’m not going to take his rejection forever.” Ironically, on the other side of the marriage, the husband is thinking to himself, “Loving my wife is like curling up to a porcupine.” Each is waiting for the other to take action.
Often in counseling sessions, couples will talk about their love languages: giving and receiving gifts, acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, and quality time. These lenses can be wonderful when they are used as a guideline for selflessly loving a spouse outside one’s own comfort zone and according to the spouse’s unique needs.
However, I’ve also seen some couples weaponize the love languages, misusing them to legitimize selfish snobbiness about the kind of love they want to receive. They drill down on one particular “language” and say that the only way their spouse’s love is good enough is if it is expressed in exactly the way they want to be loved, according to their self-perceived needs and standards.
This is not biblical love. God’s Word does not tell us to accept or reject our spouse’s love according to their masterful sensitivity to our personal preferences or love languages. What he does call us to do is love our spouse self-sacrificially and selflessly.
This must be lived out in how we selflessly give sincere love to our spouse according to their bent, but also in how we selflessly accept sincere love from our spouse according to their bent. Awareness of one another’s love languages does not excuse us from the mandate to elevate the other’s needs above our own.
Self-sacrificial love happens in the details of marriage.
The concept of self-sacrificial love sounds a lot easier and better than actually living a life of sacrificial love in marriage. How does a husband’s “I love you” translate into the everyday details of marriage? How does a wife’s “I love you” manifest itself in the everyday actions of marriage? God desires more than our professions and confessions of love, he desires actions which correspond to our beliefs!
Paul reminds us in Romans 12:1-2 that God desires all of us: body and soul. He is not content for husbands and wives to have only a cognitive awareness of salvation; he wants faith that leads to action (James 2:14-26)! In Romans 12:9-21, he lays out a vision for what this presentation of both body and soul might look like. While his thinking goes beyond the marital relationship, what he says helps us see how our “I love yous” become embodied practices in our marriage.
One exercise I’ve found helpful with couples is to ask them to think through Paul’s statements in Romans 12 from a different vantage point. Try helping them pray through Romans 12:9–21 with their own selfishness in mind. Here are a few sample verses:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
“Lord, I confess my love is often hypocritical, especially when it comes to my spouse. My love can be manipulative and self-serving. I don’t always hate what is evil but have sometimes actively pursued things I know are bad for our marriage.”
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
“Lord, I want to be devoted to my spouse, but I often pursue my own desires and expectations. In fact, I often find others to be annoying, frustrating, and an all-around source of hardship. I don’t enjoy showing honor to others, but seek to do the bare minimum requirement, which for me is not saying much.”
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
“Lord, I confess I’m conceited and think highly of myself – my opinions, my way of doing life in the home. My pride often gets in the way of confession and repentance. I try to build myself up by putting my spouse lower, instead of embracing a humble attitude and letting you lift us both up in your time.”
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
“Lord, I confess my propensity to repay evil for evil. I need to be honest about how I treat my husband. I’m a master scorekeeper and avenger when you call me to be a masterful forgiver and peacemaker.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
“God, I confess that this sounds difficult and almost impossible. Help me to give grace and goodness in the face of hardship and rejection. God, forgive me for the times I’ve allowed myself to become overwhelmed with despair without seeking and seeing your goodness in the small, everyday moments of our marriage.”
Paul reminds us that sacrificial love is love in action. Christ’s love for his people is not theoretical or abstract. It is real and tangible. He entered our world. He emptied himself and made himself nothing. He loved us in the details of life. Husbands and wives must embrace and embody Jesus’s mission of love, and by loving each other in the details of life, they will present themselves to God as a living, holy, and pleasing sacrifice.
Self-sacrificial love pursues spiritual health and oneness.
I’m convinced that every kind of authentic intimacy – physical and emotional – flows from a robust spiritual intimacy. You cannot give what you do not have. Without fail, every couple I counsel with marital problems is simultaneously lacking intimacy with God. The pursuit of God in marriage helps build deeper spiritual intimacy. As husband and wife draw closer to God, they will draw closer to one another.
As a husband and wife pursue God, the distance between the two of them narrows. Intimacy with God has at least two positive dynamics in marriage:
- It focuses responsibility on the individual spouse. The focus is on you and your relationship with God. It’s about cultivating and tending to weeds of sin which easily crowd out your love for God. It’s about pruning and shaping your desires for Christ and others. It’s not about you changing your spouse.
- It entrusts responsibility for change to God, and not to your own abilities to manipulate or motivate that change. When husbands and wives keep their eyes on Christ, I’m amazed to find that they have less time to critique, blame, and badger their spouse. Instead, they realize that those techniques they have tried time and time again are of little use. Spouses must be entrusted to God, who alone can change the hearts of men and women.
Krumrei-Mancuso, Elizabeth, and Mancuso, Bradley J., “Love Marriage: He Said, She Said”, https://cct.biola.edu/love-and-marriage/, accessed 12.17.2019
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