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Covenant Marriage

February 15, 2004

Scripture: Song 2:1-13

This is the day after Valentine’s Day. We celebrate love on Valentine’s Day. The kids gave out Valentine’s Day tracts last Sunday. Perhaps you got one. It told you that God is love. But perhaps you also got a valentine from your spouse or a special friend if you are not married.

We know from the Bible that God is love. “ Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8 NIVUS)

We also know from the Bible that God wants us to love one another. “34  "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."” (John 13:34-35 NIVUS)

But for the world to go ‘round, God created romantic love between a man and a woman.

We find it in the Song of Solomon that we read this morning.

The famous church father, Origen, could not believe the Song of Solomon was a hymn to physical love and intimacy, so he allegorized it. He felt that Solomon used the language of romantic love between a man and a woman to describe something deeper – that the book was really expressing what it meant for the Christian to love God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength – that the bride is the Christian or the church itself burning with heavenly love for the Word of God symbolized by the bridegroom.

But either way, the one validates the other. All of life in Christ is one big panorama of truth that fits perfectly together.

Romantic marital love pictures our relationship to God in Christ, and the nature of our relationship to God in Christ is exemplified in how he created us to relate to one another as husband and wife. “22  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26  to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27  and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30  for we are members of his body. 31  "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32  This is a profound mystery— but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:22-32 NIVUS)

For the Christian, all this teaches romantic love the way God intended it to be – between one man and one woman for life – or we could also say between one God and one person for eternal life.

Now it is God’s desire for mankind to have children – to be fruitful and multiply. We find it in the first account about mankind in the Garden of Eden during creation. “27  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28  God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."” (Genesis 1:27-28 NIVUS)

Romantic married love is God’s way of keeping the parents in a family together for the good of the children and all succeeding generations. “ Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2:15 NIVUS)

The quality of life, indeed even life itself is dependent upon this holy, God-ordained bond of marriage that is as much spiritual as it is physical. To ignore this is assuredly catastrophic. “5  "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse."” (Malachi 4:5-6 NIVUS)

When a romantic bond moves beyond interest toward fulfillment, it becomes marriage when combined with promise, commitment and accountability.

Marriage has been universally recognized in all cultures of man, and in all generations of man, as what it takes to make society work, and the Bible explicitly teaches it. “2  But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3  The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4  The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5  Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:2-5 NIVUS)

For the Christian, marriage involves an oath of a man and a woman before Almighty God to honor, cherish, and submit to each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, till death comes.

But marriage in our nation, and even in the church, is in trouble these days - not to mention morality in general.

Liberal forces are attempting to redefine marriage out of commonly understood existence.

Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco defied a 2000 state law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman by authorizing the city clerk to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples by changing application forms to read ‘first applicant’ and ‘second applicant’. So the U.S. saw the first gay marriage in California this last Thursday between two very old women who should know better.

And for several weeks now, the state government of Massachusetts has been wrangling over what to do about the order by activist judges to allow gay marriage. Fortunately, the majority of MA residents are not in favor of allowing gay marriage.

There have been many recent attacks on marriage by renegade judges. Two notable cases have come to the forefront recently ---

The first case concerns Cheryl Clark, a former lesbian, now a Christian. Clark’s former partner, Elsey McLeod, sued for joint custody of Clark’s adopted daughter after Clark left their relationship. The judge ruled in McLeod’s favor on the grounds that she had been a “psychological parent.” As Clark’s lawyer, James Rouse, stated, McLeod “is being treated like a divorcing spouse even though they aren’t and can’t be married in the state of Colorado. The trial court has effectively skipped the ‘gay marriage’ issue and gone to ‘gay divorce.’”

            And that’s not all. At McLeod’s request, the court also barred Clark from exposing her daughter to any Christian materials or teaching “that can be considered homophobic.” So Clark could be found in contempt of court for studying the Bible with her daughter or taking her to church. Fortunately, Clark is appealing this outrageous decision.


The second case is equally bizarre. After David Blanchflower divorced his wife, Sian, because of adultery, Sian appealed the case, arguing that her lesbian relationship wasn’t adultery. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in her favor, finding that the state’s laws didn’t include same-sex relationships in the definition of adultery.

            Even gay activists are upset about this one, arguing that it portrays homosexual relationships as less “significant.” One advocacy group wrote in a “friend of the court” brief, “New Hampshire courts should treat gay adultery the same no matter the gender of the person with whom the spouse engages in an extramarital relationship.”

            Clearly, Sian was unfaithful to her marriage vows, but I think they’re missing the larger point. It’s not just that gay adultery is treated differently; it’s that homosexuality in general is treated differently. It is given preferential treatment in both of these cases.

Thirty eight states, including IL, have passed Defense of Marriage acts with the states of AK, HA, NE, and NV going further with constitutional amendments defining and protecting traditional marriage.

Just like there is a majority opposed to abortion in this nation, and partial birth abortion in particular, there is a majority opposed to gay marriage, but activist judges are attempting to make laws rather than interpret them in good faith.

Precariously, this moral majority is slim. USA TODAY reports 53% of Americans would oppose a law allowing homosexuals to legally marry, while only 24% would favor it.

We must make our voices heard by calls and votes to lawmakers before morality slips below the threshold of no return.

Even in the church, traditional morality is suffering extreme abuse as mainline Protestants wrangle with the issue of moral credibility regarding homosexual clergy and the sanctioning of gay marriages.

Much of our problem is our own fault – as a nation and as a church.

Columnist, Dennis Byrne, in his article, “Majority rules: Here’s the way marriage ought to be,” Chgo. Trib., 2/9/04, p. 15 writes:

          “If the majority of Americans want to stop same-sex marriage from undermining the institution of marriage – as polls say they do – then maybe those many Americans themselves ought to start showing more respect for heterosexual marriage.

Too bad that so many don’t. Judging by the last census figures, you might suspect that many Americans hold marriage in contempt. Since 1970, the marriage rate has dropped by about a third. The divorce rate has doubled and the number of cohabiting couples has zoomed. An astonishing third of all children are born out of wedlock. The way things are going, it’s surprising that more people – straight or gay – aren’t asking: ‘Why even bother with marriage?’

So last week’s ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court requiring that same-sex unions be granted the same marital status as heterosexual unions wasn’t a dagger to the heart of marriage. It was just the latest wound to an already bleeding institution.

Marriage is in such bad shape that it’s now a matter for the government, with President Bush proposing to spend $1.5 billion on developing marriage skills. Yes, it has come to that. (For every $1,000.00 we spend on public programs addressing family breakdown, we only spend one dollar trying to prevent that breakdown in the first place. The President's initiative puts the emphasis in the right place - prevention.) Strengthening marriage is now defined as a ‘public health’ issue.

And so it is, if we are speaking about the health of children. Whatever your moral or religious thoughts about marriage, you can’t ignore the evidence that the decline of marriage has been bad for children. Emotional instability, substance abuse, poverty, mental illness and even suicide are among the risks.”

If you need more statistics ---

Traditional Moral Views Continue to Fade in U.S.

Ed Vitagliano, Agape Press


According to a recent poll, more than half of all Americans believe having children outside wedlock is morally acceptable, demonstrating that the moral shift under way for the last 40 years is still moving away from traditional beliefs. 

The Los Angeles Times reported that 51% of adults in the U.S. thought it was okay to have a baby outside marriage, compared to 46% who thought it was wrong.  Such poll results would not surprise George Barna, a researcher who follows cultural trends related to religion and morality in the U.S.  In a study of Americans' moral beliefs released in November, Barna found that the majority of adults viewed once unacceptable activities as now acceptable: gambling (61%), cohabitation (60%), and sexual fantasies (59%).

            While other activities did not find approval with a majority of Americans, they were still approved by a disturbingly large minority: having an abortion (45%), committing adultery (42%), using pornography (38%), drunkenness (35%) and homosexual sex (30%).

 In both studies there was a sharp distinction between the beliefs of Evangelicals, who overwhelming disapproved of such behavior, and unbelievers, who increasingly see nothing wrong with what were once viewed as sins.

 The results indicated that church leaders urgently need to begin addressing the culture with the clear teachings of Scripture.

            "Until people recognize that there are moral absolutes and attempt to live in harmony with them, we are likely to see a continued decay of our moral foundations," Barna said.

What value can marriage truly have if we have stopped valuing the children that marriage is to produce? According to the Bible, marriage is God’s way of reproducing godly children with which to fill his kingdom, but we have gone against God.

According to an article published by the Family Research Council ---

Between 1965 and 1975, the United States shifted from enthusiastically celebrating large families and natural population growth to embracing policies designed to diminish families and achieve population decline-both at home and abroad. Title X of the Public Health Services Act successfully depressed domestic fertility rates, while USAID and its allies at the United Nations waged war against human fertility abroad. Today, population control advocates can claim a kind of grim victory: Marital fertility in the U.S. fell 40 percent between 1965-95.
            However, even the UN now admits that fertility rates are tumbling worldwide. Europe and Japan are already depopulating, and a new article in Science warns of the imminent dangers of 'negative momentum' in such lands. Economists now warn that there are too few children. Despite these developments, U.S. laws affecting population remain locked in the gloomy and dangerous Malthusian mindset that sees the birth of a child as a problem. What will the consequences of depopulation be?

What can we do about it? Gay marriage isn’t going to produce children. But will gay marriage hurt your family? In an article in the February/March issue of Focus on the Family, p. 17-19, author Glenn Stanton writes ---

Opposing same-sex marriage is not about:

·        Whether homosexuals are nice people or good citizens. Some are, some aren’t – just like heterosexuals.

·        Whether homosexuals can form loving relationships. Of course they can.

·        Whether homosexuals can love children. Few would deny this.

·        Whether homosexuals should be treated with dignity. Every member of the human race deserves respect.

This issue is about:

·        Whether we have the right to redefine marriage to be something it has never been.

·        Whether men and women need each other.

·        Whether being male and female has real meaning beyond body parts.

·        Whether children need a mother and a father.

·        Whether God designed humankind for heterosexual marriage.

Stanton continues to make his case in support of traditional marriage ---

·        Same-sex marriage proponents have a shallow understanding of marriage.

·        Marriage exists as much for society as it does for the couple.

·        Marriage gives men, women and children what they need.

·        Marriage affirms our masculinity and femininity.

·        Marriage between one man and one woman is not intolerant.

Bridget Maher gives us some additional benefits of traditional marriage in an article published by Family Research Council.

The Benefits of Marriage by Bridget E. Maher


How Marriage Benefits Children

·  Children living with married parents are much safer than children living with single parents, because they are less likely to be aborted and less likely to be abused or neglected.

·  Compared to children in single-parent families, children raised in married-parent homes have better emotional and physical health and engage in fewer risky behaviors, such as premarital sex, substance abuse, delinquency, and suicide.

·  Children with married parents do better academically and fare better economically.

·  Children raised in intact homes are less likely to cohabit and more likely to view marriage positively and maintain life-long marriages.


How Marriage Benefits Adults

·  Married people have better emotional and physical health and live longer than do unmarried people.

·  Married couples have greater incomes than do single adults, and the longer they stay married, the more wealth they accumulate.

·  Married couples enjoy greater sexual satisfaction than do unmarried people.

·  Married women are safer than unmarried women. Never-married, cohabiting, separated, and divorced women experience higher rates of domestic violence than do married women.


How Marriage Benefits Society

·  Marriage helps ensure that human life is protected and cherished, since married women are less likely to abort their children than are unmarried women.

·  Marriage makes homes safer places to live, because it curbs social problems such as domestic violence and child abuse.

·  Communities with more married-parent families are safer and more attractive places to live, because they are less likely to have substance abuse and crime among young people.

·  Marriage is the best antidote to poverty and welfare dependency.

·  Married people are more likely to be healthy, productive, and engaged citizens, benefiting businesses and, ultimately, the economy.

In support of traditional marriage, Congresswoman, Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), has proposed an amendment (FMA) to the U.S. Constitution that reads, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”

(And, by the way, Musgrave is also proposing another constitutional amendment that would eliminate abortion in this country by defining life as beginning with conception.)

This FMA amendment is supported by most national pro-family groups such as American Family Association, Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

President Bush challenged Congress to get behind the FMA amendment, start hearings, and get people thinking about the issues involved. It needs to be passed by 2/3’s at the federal level and then ratified by 3/4’s of the state legislatures.

The Family Research Council has also set today, Sunday, February 15, in concert with Valentine’s Day, as Covenant Marriage Sunday to uphold and celebrate God’s gift of covenant marriage to mankind.

The definition of covenant marriage is marriage in accordance with biblical principles. Their statement reads ---

Covenant Marriage Sunday on February 15, 2004 (Family Research Council)

As the attempts to redefine and counterfeit the institution of marriage continue, I believe that we as the body of Christ need to strongly affirm God's intent for marriage. Christians across America will have such an opportunity on Covenant Marriage Sunday, February 15, 2004, to corporately celebrate marriage as a covenant relationship. As your congregation comes together for worship, I encourage you to join with thousands of other believers in recognizing the importance of building strong marriages and protecting marriage from redefinition.

Indeed, marriage is not dead. According to an article in the Chgo. Trib., 2/11/04, p. 8 ---

A 35-year-old Frenchwoman married her dead boyfriend this last Tuesday in an exchange of vows that required authorization from President Jacques Chirac, becoming both bride and widow in the ceremony. The deceased groom was a police officer killed by a drunken driver in September 2002. The bride said that her feelings for him had not dimmed. French law allows such marriage ceremonies, if authorized, when it can be proved that the couple had intended to marry before one of them died.

This in itself shows that among mankind, marriage is a deeply abiding institution that, at least for some, survives even the onslaught of death.

Charles Williams, a personal friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, formed a “theology of romantic love” as written about in an article by Rodney Clapp in Christianity Today, What Hollywood Doesn’t Know About Romantic Love.


I admit at the outset that falling in love is a crazy thing. The kind of love we fall into—romantic love—is a boiling mix of the sensual and the spiritual. It can be ecstatic as well as heartbreaking. It is ardent and particular; that is, we find ourselves intensely attracted to one woman or man but not another. Psychologists say romantic love involves similar basic world views, or "senses of life," and "complementary differences." Not even the scientist fully understands it, though, and is inclined to agree with the sage that the "way of a man with a woman" is one of life's great wonders (Prov. 30:19). This much is clear: the romantic looks at life differently than others.

To understand romantic love, Williams began with the doctrines of the Incarnation and Creation. Since God was flesh in Christ, the body was not and is not intrinsically evil. The body, Williams said, has not fallen "farther than the soul." Second, each person is created in the image of God and thus uniquely reflects some aspect of God's glory. Human beings are not mere mortals. As Lewis said, "the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."

How does this apply to romantic love? Let me appeal to my experience, which is a common one. I have noticed that romantic love is a sort of vision. Conventional wisdom regards it as a vision, as a way of seeing. We often hear the phrase, "I don't know what she sees in him." Parents frequently cannot understand how sons fall in love with ordinary Janes, or daughters with workaholics. Friends are baffled when someone they care about falls in love with a freeloader, even a criminal. The parents and friends are looking rationally, but only rationally. They see how ordinary our lover is, or how flawed she is. When I am in love, though, I see something different. In the words of an old George and Ira Gershwin song, "She may not be the girl some men think of as pretty, but to my heart she carries the key." I see not how ordinary or how worthless she is, but how extraordinary and priceless she really is. This, of course, accords with the Christian faith. To God, no woman or man is worthless or ordinary.


For Williams, then, the romantic vision was not confused, but illuminated. The lover sees through the beloved's flaws to the image of God. The lover is not blind to pigeon toes and ill manners but, caught up in love, discerns the true creature, the one who, when perfected in heaven, "you would be strongly tempted to worship." It is this truest and deepest self of the person—the person as created and potentially redeemed by God—that Williams called that person's "eternal identity."

Romantic love is a grace, a gift, a reality again shown in the way we casually speak of it. We admit that we "fall" in love. It awaits us and is given to us. The eternal identity of every person (something hinted at in Rev. 2:17?) is always present, but we may become acutely aware of it in the state of romantic love.

All this is why Jane Johnson Struck gives us 5 reasons to celebrate marriage in another Christianity Today article entitled, Why I Love Being Mrs.

·        Exclusive membership. (know)

·        Double your pleasure. (share)

·        The power of two. (complement)

·        A shoulder to lean on. (support)

·        Higher goals. (inspire)

And it is these very same reasons to celebrate marriage that carry us through the seasons of marriage as outlined in yet another Christianity Today publication article, Love’s Time Line; How to make sure your marriage gets better with age, by Gary Oliver.

·        Face to face. (infatuation – the foundation of romantic love or eros)

·        Shoulder to shoulder. (invigoration – the security of friendship love or phileo)

·        Soul to soul. (inspiration – the depth of sacrificial love or agape [unconditional commitment to an imperfect person])


As we close, remember these thoughts:

·        A successful marriage is a triage between God, man, and woman.

·        The husband/father is like the Dept. of Homeland Security.

·        The wife/mother is like the Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare.

·        Together they are in the “futures” investment business of raising godly offspring.

·        If hetero couples at large what to stop same-sex marriage, they should respect hetero marriage more than they have been doing.

·        Your marriage vows are just that – a promise to keep forever.

·        Marriage is a picture of God’s relationship to his people.

·        The Bible celebrates and protects true romance, and so should we.

“6  Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. 7  Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7 NIVUS)

CT Classic: Does the Bible Really Say All That About Romance?
The Bible pictures God as a passionate, pursuant, and perfect lover.
By Rodney Clapp | posted 2/14/01

The Bible speaks not only of ardent love between men and women, but it presents God himself as a lover and his courting of creation as the Great Romance.

The symbol seems a strange one, considering the Christian reluctance to embrace romantic love. Yet it is distinct throughout Scripture. God desires Israel for his bride: "For, as a young man weds a maiden, so you shall wed him who rebuilds you" (Isa. 62:5; all quotations from the NEB). He fondly recalls the days of harmony, "the love of your bridal days, when you followed me in the wilderness" (Jer. 2:2). Yet Israel is unfaithful—God is the unrequited lover. "Will a girl forget her finery or a bride her ribbons? Yet my people have forgotten me over and over again. How well you pick your way in search of lovers!" (Jer. 2:32). God is a passionate lover, and passion can fuel anger. Like the country singer who wonders, "if I saw you, would I kiss you or want to kill you on sight?" God storms at his lover for her prostitution.

After all, he rescued her as a newborn baby lying in her own blood, raised her to full womanhood, gave her fine clothes and jewelry, provided for her the best of foods, and presented her with sons and daughters (Ezek. 16:114). In return, she imperviously fornicates. "How you anger me!" shouts God (Ezek. 16:30). He threatens to turn her over to her many lovers, to strip her naked before them. The lovers will rob her jewelry, stone her, and hack her to pieces (Ezek. 16:39-40).

Which is it, then, kiss or kill?

Wait, for God is the perfect lover. He vents his anger, then whispers: "But now listen, I will woo her, I will go with her into the wilderness and comfort her" (Hos. 2:14). He follows her through fires, floods, dark woods, wherever she goes, then pleads "How shall I deal with you? Your loyalty to me is like the morning mist, like dew that vanishes early." Don't you see, he adds, "loyalty is my desire, not sacrifice" (Hos. 6:4-5). Love will heal: it will reveal the eternal identity and make all things new. Come, God says, and Israel may be "fair as the olive" and "flourish like a vine" (Hos. 14;6-7).

Then the persistent lover takes another tack. He is not out to woo only one tribe, one people, but all, and all of creation. This wild lover will stop at nothing. He condescends and assumes the nature of a slave. He walks among us and heals and proclaims peace and routes demons (and takes up a whip to show some of that old anger too). He demonstrates his power over death by raising the dead, he tells story after story to win our trust. He looks on us adoringly, and yearns, "How often have I longed to gather you children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings: but you would not let me" (Luke 13:34).

And still we will not let him. He is embarrassing us. He keeps company with prostitutes, for one thing. Sometimes he acts too happy, and he eats and drinks more than a holy man should. Worst of all, he makes outlandish claims that he is the same God who has been chasing us all along. Finally, cruelly, we turn our backs on him once more, and nail his back to a cross.

But he is God, and mad in love enough to bear it, to take all our anger and guilt. Three days later, he is backand this shocks us into trying to love him better. Our infidelity is long and habitual, though, and we still slip often. There are yet many other gods winking at us, seducing us. Our resolve to be unfaithful is weakened, just the same.

We have been betrothed to our "true and only husband" (2 Cor. 11:2). We have seen that love really is stronger than death, stronger than life or angels or principalities or powers or anything else. In the end, there is no fighting it. We already hear fiddles scratching away at a distant feast, and we wonder more and more why we ran so hard from this lover. "Happy are those who are invited to the wedding-supper of the Lamb!" (Rev. 19:9).

We hear much of the wedding day, of great, jubilant crowds rumbling like a dozen waterfalls or rolling thunder. They have stopped running and, at long last, accepted true love. "Alleluia!" they cry. "The Lord our God, sovereign over all, has entered on his reign! Exult and shout for joy and do him homage, for the wedding-day of the Lamb has come! His bride has made herself ready, and for her dress she has been given fine linen, clean and shining" (Rev. 19:7-8).

Ah: the bride. Finally she is made new. God's people bear renewed bodies; bodies sown in humiliation but raised in glory, mortal bodies clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:43 and 53). And so suns and moons, rocks and trees, all creation drawn into the heart of God, consummating the praise for which it was made (Ps. 148:5-6). Consumation is what weddings are all about.

Soon, very soon, the wedding of all weddings will begin. Heaven will crash open and the bridegroom appear on a white horse. God's people may yet be panting from their headlong dash away from him, but they will gather breath to shout.

"'Come!' say the Spirit and the bride.

"'Come' let each hearer reply" (Rev.22:17)

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 1984, issue of Christianity Today. At that time Rodney Clapp was CT's editor of arts and sciences. He is now editorial director for Brazos Press.

CT Classic: What Hollywood Doesn't Know About Romantic Love
Celebrating Valentine's Day in the spirit of the Song of Solomon.
By Rodney Clapp | posted 2/14/01

Christians celebrate Easter and Christmas as religious holidays. In the United States, we find some religious significance in Thanksgiving and even Independence Day. Christianity Today, in its 27 year history, has devoted two dozen articles to the themes of Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. Valentine's Day (even Saint Valentine's Day) is another matter. The pudgy Cupid, bow and arrow in hand, is obviously pagan. Cute, maybe, but pagan. We can make something religious of prayerful pilgrims or the birth of "one nation, under God." But a naked, overfed, flying imp? Or candy, flowers, and cards? The word "cute" cries to be said again. Valentine's Day is fun and cute: deathly cute. No wonder it is not considered a Christian holiday. No wonder Christian magazines never fail to have Easter essays, but rarely (if ever) rise to the challenge of Valentine's Day.

I am here to break the tradition. Valentine's Day is too, yes, cute for my taste. But I like what's behind it. The idea of that obese baby shooting arrows through hearts never appealed to me. Falling in love did. And does.

I admit at the outset that falling in love is a crazy thing. The kind of love we fall into—romantic love—is a boiling mix of the sensual and the spiritual. It can be ecstatic as well as heartbreaking. It is ardent and particular; that is, we find ourselves intensely attracted to one woman or man but not another. Psychologists say romantic love involves similar basic world views, or "senses of life," and "complementary differences." Not even the scientist fully understands it, though, and is inclined to agree with the sage that the "way of a man with a woman" is one of life's great wonders (Prov. 30:19). This much is clear: the romantic looks at life differently than others. "The proper study of mankind is man," Alexander Pope declared in 'a levelheaded moment. No, "The proper study of mankind is woman," Coventry Patmore corrected in a romantic moment.

Levelheaded or not, romantic love is no joke in our culture. It is the linchpin of a multibillion-dollar advertising industry, the subject of innumerable movies, novels, and television shows, and the personal preoccupation of millions of people on any given day. Christians agree with the cultural consensus of much of the West that romantic love is a desirable base for marriage. Parents do not arrange marriage. Instead, young adults socialize, then pair off in dates or what could be called little experimental romances. Sober and rational counseling may come after a couple has fallen in love and decided to marry, but we mostly agree that it would be a shame for a couple to get married if they had not first fallen in love.

This fact alone ought to move Christians to reflection. What place does romantic love have in our life and thought? Romantic love offers both bliss and turmoil for the unmarried adult. How can the single Christian handle this experience? The married Christian has another set of questions: Can romantic love deepen and strengthen a marriage? And how does the married Christian react if he or she falls in love with someone other than a spouse? British author Harry Blamires has already asked such questions. The church, he laments, has had little to say about "the meaning of youth's keen responsiveness to beauty and love." Christianity "must be presented … as something more exciting than a lot of prohibitions aimed at disinfecting life of its torrential delights." If it is not shown to touch people "at the points of profoundest personal longing and joy, it will indeed be condemned … as being unrelated to real life."

But Christianity, of course, is related to real life. Seen from the Christian perspective, romantic love is far from a chronic and threatening problem. It can, in fact, enhance all relationships—teaching us to treat all persons with the dignity they deserve. Romantic love and dignity? The two have a lot to do with one another. And that leads us to the dignified, if eccentric, world of a man named Charles Williams.

Charles Williams's Theology
Most Christians have done one of two things with romantic love: condemn it out of hand, or sloppily paste it to marriage and then inadequately say no more about it. Charles Williams was one twentieth-century Christian who thought there was more to it than that, and he took the trouble to construct what he called a "theology of romantic love."

As a personal friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Williams was among those Oxford Christians we know as the Inklings. He had a slight build and was, according to Lewis, "ugly as a chimpanzee." His hands, due to a mild nervous affliction, trembled enough that a barber had to shave him. Despite Williams's appearance, Lewis wrote, "he emanates more love than any man I have ever known," and talked in such a way "that he is transfigured and looks like an angel." Lewis observed that "women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan." Not a bad man, Williams was married 28 years until his death at the age of 58.

To understand romantic love, Williams began with the doctrines of the Incarnation and Creation. Since God was flesh in Christ, the body was not and is not intrinsically evil. The body, Williams said, has not fallen "farther than the soul." Second, each person is created in the image of God and thus uniquely reflects some aspect of God's glory. Human beings are not mere mortals. As Lewis said, "the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."

How does this apply to romantic love? Let me appeal to my experience, which is a common one. I have noticed that romantic love is a sort of vision. Conventional wisdom regards it as a vision, as a way of seeing. We often hear the phrase, "I don't know what she sees in him." Parents frequently cannot understand how sons fall in love with ordinary Janes, or daughters with workaholics. Friends are baffled when someone they care about falls in love with a freeloader, even a criminal. The parents and friends are looking rationally, but only rationally. They see how ordinary our lover is, or how flawed she is. When I am in love, though, I see something different. In the words of an old George and Ira Gershwin song, "She may not be the girl some men think of as pretty, but to my heart she carries the key." I see not how ordinary or how worthless she is, but how extraordinary and priceless she really is. This, of course, accords with the Christian faith. To God, no woman or man is worthless or ordinary.

For Williams, then, the romantic vision was not confused, but illuminated. The lover sees through the beloved's flaws to the image of God. The lover is not blind to pigeon toes and ill manners but, caught up in love, discerns the true creature, the one who, when perfected in heaven, "you would be strongly tempted to worship." It is this truest and deepest self of the person—the person as created and potentially redeemed by God—that Williams called that person's "eternal identity."

Romantic love is a grace, a gift, a reality again shown in the way we casually speak of it. We admit that we "fall" in love. It awaits us and is given to us. The eternal identity of every person (something hinted at in Rev. 2:17?) is always present, but we may become acutely aware of it in the state of romantic love.

Windfalls of Love
Williams proposed that romantic love reveals the true person.' I want to go a step further. Romantic love strengthens and enhances the beloved's eternal identity, her truest and deepest self. Under such love, Robert Farrar Capon writes, the beloved "blossoms into a fullness of being." Her clothes, hair, and skin are more "becoming" than they were. "We all recognize her in a process, not of ceasing to be what she was and becoming some alien thing, but of being called into the fullness of her own being. We see, not a foreign perfection forced upon her from the outside, nor yet some inevitable development built into her bones; we see a creature in pursuit of her own goodness as pronounced by her lover." We don't have to get overly mystical on this point. French psychiatrist Ignace Lepp can speak psychologically of the dynamic Capon mentions. In friendship, Lepp said, we may not understand why we are attracted to a certain person, but the unconscious "may have divined between him and us mysterious affinities that will perhaps take years to become fully conscious." The unconscious may even sense what the other person is "capable of becoming, perhaps precisely because of our friendship."

Romantic love (and friendship to a lesser degree) not only recognizes the vastly appealing eternal identity in a man or woman, then, but can draw them toward achieving that glory. I remember the high school experience of falling in love and suddenly working harder—but more naturally and comfortably—at everything from studies to football. Being loved, realizing someone sees something uniquely attractive in us, does that. Loving in return, we are drawn out of ourselves to build up another. For the Christian, romantic love cannot begin and end in the lover. No, building up another entails helping him or her to love others and God more intently. We help that one to create what Kierkegaard calls "heart room"—the spaciousness of heart that allows a loving family of five to live in a room cramped by one unloving person.

Heart room is what we need so as to dare to love as indiscriminately as Jesus did. The risk of loving is real and terrible. As Capon says, "What is love if it is not the indulgence of the ultimate risk of giving one's self to another over whom we have no control?" We may be rejected. We may be manipulated, cheated, or used. Still, God commands us to love, to love even our enemies, who are indeed likely to reject and use us in return. Romantic love, with its irresistible power and attraction, compels us to love at least one person. Being romantically loved by another in turn, we are assured of our unique worth. We can then risk being rejected or used in other kinds of love.

Because it is often stronger than our fears, romantic love can drill into us a bitter truth, and point to a way beyond it. It can teach us that we are incomplete in ourselves. Christian psychologist William Kirk Kilpatrick says it well. "We are, as Lewis put it, `one vast need.' Our intuitive feeling when we are in love is that we were only half-living up to the moment we fell in love. We realize then how much our wholeness depends on someone outside ourselves. Take away our love, and we feel reduced to almost nothing." This, Kilpatrick believes, is a "peek at the real nature of things." We do need other people. Ultimately, of course, we need God, and are completely dependent on him. In a very basic way, romantic love is concerned with humility. No one can fall in love without facing and admitting humility. The lover's conviction that the romance is "too good to be true" is another way of saying, "This is too good to happen to me."

On a more mundane level, romantic love can help lovers carry out their everyday tasks. An impressive example comes from the letters of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's first wife died in 1914. America was being sucked into the dark whirlwind of World War I. German submarine warfare had begun in British shipping lanes. In 1915, the Lusitania was sunk and 128 Americans died. At that time, in Winston Churchill's estimation, President Wilson"played a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man." And Wilson was falling in love.

During days filled with urgent briefings and nights of sleepless anxiety, Wilson somehow found time to write Edith Gait and tell her he was "absolutely dependent" on her love for the "right and free and most effective use of my powers." With her, he experienced a "new confidence God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. Duty looks simple and the tasks of the day pleasant and easy."

Romantic love, naturally, is better from the inside than the outside. Edith Galt's love certainly lifted Wilson from the depression he suffered after his first wife's death, and was his still point in a chaotically turning world. But it is also true that Wilson's aides worried that the 58-year-old world leader was acting like a smitten college boy. They even concocted an (unsuccessful) plot to break up the couple.

Problems of Romantic Love
Like Wilson's aides, Charles Williams realized that romantic love is not above abuse. Anything experienced by imperfect creatures is bound to be flawed in the process. He saw three principal misperceptions: (1) the assumption that romantic love lasts forever, when in fact it nearly always passes with time; (2) the assumption that the glory we now behold only in particular persons does not reside in all; and (3) the assumption that romantic love is sufficient in itself, while God and God alone is. Williams did not approve a romantic love unchecked by the intellect. "Accuracy, accuracy, and again accuracy! Accuracy of mind and accuracy of emotion," he wrote. Once romantic love occurs, it "desires and demands the full exercise of the intellect for its exploration."

It is indisputably wise, when we fall in love, to back off occasionally and ask sober questions—perhaps in consultation with a friend or pastor. Romantic love can be immature or sick, just as some parents develop a sick love for their children and "smother" them with affection. Rationally examining our feelings and drives can help us determine if they are part of a deep and true romantic love, or something such as masochism or worse. Even here, with a distorted or stunted romantic love, there can be growth in Christianity. Millions of women and men have given up a love for an other for the good of the other. Millions more have done it because they realized their warped romantic love was thwarting their love for God. They have done so despite great pain, and have earnestly followed the example of Christ to give up self and follow God. The very depth and intensity of romantic love can make it a profound arena for living out true spirituality.

Marriage is the ideal instrument for exploring the ramifications of romantic love. Williams called marriage the "great experiment." He did not mean wedlock was tentative, to be abandoned if troubles arise, but that marriage was to be an arena in which to "experiment" how to better love our spouse and all individuals. Romance in marriage passes, Williams wrote, "but the things that have been said and done in the light of that quality remain; vows, if they have been serious vows, remain."

Chesterton considered the wonder of one woman enough for a single lifetime. "Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman," he said. "To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it."

To begin to realize the depth of one woman (or one man) is enough to impress us with the rich depths of all persons. There are hitches. I have been married a short time—only six years but long enough to know that living day in and day out with the same person can be boring (do not think I believe my wife's experience is different). I have gone months, even years, thinking I knew my wife's every habit, every talent, every fault. Then something happens, as it did in the summer of our fourth year.

We had reached something of a crisis. I wanted to move from Oklahoma to Chicago. She and her parents did not want us to. My mother-in-law said so, and my reaction was one of anger. Sandy's reaction angered me more, because she obviously sympathized with her mother. I considered myself betrayed. It took two weeks of angry (sometimes tearful) conversations before Sandy convinced me she was not betraying me. She was empathizing with me—and with her parents. She was torn by an amazing ability to empathize with and understand everyone concerned. Finally I saw that I had misunderstood not only her but her parents, and all ended well (though I still relish mother-in-law jokes, and my mother-in-law remains adept at converting them into son-in-law jibes). I saw something new then in Sandy, something I had not seen in four years of marriage. Now I trust her uncanny empathy, and I believe that when she has a gray head and wrinkled hands, new treasures of her character will still turn up.

In such ways the lovers' cup fills and overflows. We are humbled for one another, and the humility flows over into other relationships. We are charitable to one another, and charity is engendered for others.

Of course, romantic love is not exclusive to marriage, and may even be felt after marriage. Here, perhaps, is one of its greatest potentials for destruction. If the years can bring boredom with my wife, I meet other women I have never had time to be bored with. I see my wife at her worst as well as her best. But the women in the neighborhood, or at work or church, I see only at their best and it can be a very attractive best. Falling in love, head over heels, would clearly threaten my marriage (something Charles Williams learned the hard way, as Alice Mary Hadfield's new biography shows). But the marriage ceremony does not magically remove all the rich complexities of personality that cause us to fall in love. No Christian affirmation of romantic love can eliminate the hard work or (sometimes) sheer drudgery of staying true to the marriage commitment.

But Williams saw that the romantic vision of a married person does not have to be denied or repressed. On such an occasion, to "observe and adore the glory is not sin, nor to receive the humility and charity shed from the glory." The vision is true: another person is seen in depth, a hint of an eternal identity glimpsed and appreciated. No equivocation: sexual expression must be reserved for marriage. It alone is the great experiment. We are only to "observe and adore the glory," not appropriate it as we do the glory of the one we married. Again, ruthless and rational analysis is necessary. When are feelings getting out of hand, when is innocent appreciation becoming out-and-out temptation? A good rule of thumb is that any feelings or actions we are afraid to discuss with our spouse are probably dangerous.

I would suggest that marriages will differ: some spouses will be more comfortable with cross-sexual friendships than others. "Tenderness," writes Joseph Joubert, "is passion in repose." I suspect there is more space for such tenderness than many Christians have admitted, but the dangers are no less real and can never be ignored. It is imperative that cross-sexual friendships be carefully maintained as friendships (not romances), and that passion remain in repose.

Realization of the Vision
The ideal, of course, would be not to betray marriage and still know all persons as delightfully and completely as our spouse. Could Jesus have had something of the sort in mind when he told the Sadducees, "The men and women of this world marry; but those who have been judged worthy of a place in the other world do not marry" (Luke 20:34-35, NEB)? Howard Marshall comments, "At the resurrection, all relationships will be taken up to such a high level that the exclusiveness of marriage will not be a factor in heaven as it is on earth." It is not that in heaven marriage will be less. Rather, all relationships—husband to wife, lover to lover, parent to child, friend to friend, and yes, enemy to enemy—will be infinitely more joyful than we can now imagine.

Lewis guessed that all earthly experiences (sensory and emotional) might vanish in heaven "not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun." We see reflections of this blazing sun in romantic love. A single reflection bedazzles us and takes our breath away. If we saw the eternal identity of every person we would surely collapse under the overwhelming weight of it, weakened as we are in our fallen condition. Imagine being "in love" 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and "in love" not simply with one person, but with everyone you pass on the street or glance through a revolving door. Only resurrected creatures will be strong enough to endure the weight—indeed, to enjoy it and see in each person a unique aspect of God's beauty. Perhaps in this sense hell is merciful. It may save the selfish one from a weight he could never bear and will not give over to God, may spare his corrupted eyes a light that would burn them more than the fires of hell.

The Song of Solomon
Several overarching biblical truths (Creation, the Incarnation, Redemption, and the Resurrection) contribute to a Christian understanding of romantic love. I have not, however, quoted at great length from the Bible nor shown that it explicitly addresses romantic love. But it does.

The Song of Solomon is the most clearly romantic book, enough so that, even though it is firmly ensconced in the canon, Christians are still hesitant about it and uncertain what to do with it. It starts out steaming: "I will sing the song of all songs to Solomon that he may smother me with kisses" (Song of Sol. 1:1, NEB). Finally there is as unmitigated a declaration of love's power as we may find anywhere in literature. Love is "strong as death, passion cruel as the grave; it blazes up like blazing fire, fiercer than any flame. Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away" (Song of Sol. 8:6-7, NEB).

The book bothered Origen enough that he forbade it for simple, uneducated Christians, fearing they would take the eroticism literally. It was to be interpreted allegorically. Leave the Song to Christians who understood that, Origen said, and feed the simple with milk.

Surely we can agree with Andrew Harper that the Song of Solomon, above all other books in Scripture, can remind men that their "highest moments" of earthly love, when love has become a "pure flame of utter devotion, are typical of what the relation between the soul and God ought to be." But at the same time we cannot forget that the Song exalts physical love. Verse by verse, it unrolls an ardent catalogue of nearly every part of the body: neck, eyes, cheeks, breasts, hair, teeth, lips, stomach, legs, feet, navel, nose, and arms. The Song may be symbolic of spiritual love, but a property of the symbolic object is that it must remain what it literally is even after the symbolic value is attached. Physical love may symbolize spiritual love and remain physical love, just as a wooden crutch can symbolize dependence on God but must first actually support the crippled man's weight when he leans on it.

Do we dare celebrate Valentine's Day in the spirit of the Song of Solomon? Why not? Lived in light of our faith, romantic love can help us to love, to love romantically but also with agape love. It can teach us humility and the reality of our dependence on God and others. It can show us, in a special way, the beauty of God—seen through his image in a person he had made. It provides us an arena for sacrifice and charity; it can draw us toward being better than we are or could be on our own. It reminds us of the wonder of gifts, and so that gift of all gifts, grace.

Romantic love is not a unique road to salvation. It is not even, by itself, at all a road to salvation. It is, I believe, part of God's incredibly rich creation. We, our teenagers, our friends, keep enjoying (sometimes hating) the delicious experience of being "in love." As psychologist Nathaniel Branden puts it, lovers are "moved by a passion they do not understand toward a fulfillment they seldom reach, they are haunted by the vision of a distant possibility that refuses to be extinguished." Can this haunting, this vision, strike us with the lover's real beauty and—by the joy reflected in his or her eyes—with our own? If so, romantic love is not merely a childish infatuation, but a true call—an echo from heaven.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 1984, issue of Christianity Today. At that time Rodney Clapp was CT's editor of arts and sciences. He is now editorial director for Brazos Press.

Why I Love Being Mrs.
5 reasons to celebrate marriage

By Jane Johnson Struck

With two decades of marriage to my husband, Rich, under my belt, I've experienced my share of moments when I've decided I couldn't live with him. They've usually occurred after we've argued about something or when my hormones have been on full battle alert. Rich and I have struggled through the challenges of raising teenagers, battled cancer together, survived job stresses, a layoff, and a tumultuous relocation that didn't pan out. Over the years, tensions have run high as we've had to grit our teeth and hold tight to that commitment we made before God and our friends and family many years ago. We've been childish, selfish, and have both said things we regret. We each entered into our union with unique baggage and unrealistic expectations of each other that still crop up even after years of loving and living together.

Yet even during those moments when I'm tempted to mutter, "I can't live with him," I know I'd marry Rich again in a heartbeat. Here are five reasons why I love being married.

1. Exclusive Membership
While my husband certainly can't read my mind, he does know how to read my body language. He knows that particular glance we use at social functions that says, I'm ready to leave—now! He recognizes the phrase we always use to break the ice after an argument: "Do you love me anyway?" Together Rich and I have coined the funny nicknames we've used for ourselves, our kids, even our dog. We have private jokes that crack us—and only us—up. These demonstrate one way we've become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). After all, part of what binds you together are the unique looks, gestures, phrases, and memories that become part of your marriage's DNA.

It's hard to find someone in this world who gets you. But that's one of the great things about marriage. It means you can enjoy the privileges of a club of which you and your spouse are the only members. No other human being knows better what I like, what I worry about, what I cry or laugh over, than my husband—and vice versa.

2. Double Your Pleasure
Remember that Doublemint chewing gum ad with the slogan, "Double your pleasure, double your fun"? I've learned that my spouse's passions and hobbies can expand the scope of my interests and double my fun.

For instance, last weekend Rich and I took a spin to one of our favorite local destinations: Illinois's Starved Rock State Park. But we didn't get there by car. Oh, no—we went dressed in black leather, riding on our motorcycle.

If you'd asked me six years ago if I ever envisioned myself a "biker babe," I'd have scoffed at the possibility. But then Rich purchased a motorcycle five years ago to celebrate the end of his radiation therapy. I knew this was something he enjoyed and, while I was nervous at first (the phrase "road pizza" ran through my mind), I hopped on the back, clutching my husband for dear life. As we gained more experience, my inhibitions retreated, and now I'm having a blast. Would I have hopped on a bike on my own? Never. It was only because of Rich's newfound love of biking—and my choice to sidestep my innate timidity.

My friend Sharon and her husband, Phil, realized they lacked some shared couple fun, so they tried photography lessons. It never clicked. Then they tried golfing lessons but their interest waned. Convinced couple time was important, Sharon finally decided her husband's love of fishing was worth investigating. Now they're doubling their pleasure when she joins him on an occasional Saturday morning, helping him hook "the one that got away."

3. The Power of Two
Rich is what I call "stoic." At times, his detached manner has frustrated me to no end. I typically react to circumstances based on feelings, while he depends on logic. I bring fun and enthusiasm into our relationship; he brings reason and practicality. But then I also excel at envisioning worst-case scenarios while Rich sometimes comes across as unemotional.

The reality is, our traits have upsides and downsides. But amazingly, most of the time we balance each other. Individually, we're each a little incomplete, but together, we comprise a good team, whether it's serving together in our church's annual food drive, entertaining in our home, or parenting our kids. In marriage, God combines two struggling, incomplete people, brings them into intimate community, and transforms them into a unit with the potential to accomplish so much more than they'd ever be able to do alone.

4. A Shoulder to Lean On
Right now we're going through a tough season that's bruised us—my husband's out of work, plus his brother's struggling with advanced lung cancer. That's why it's so healing to start and end each day in each other's arms. When circumstances drag us down, strip us of self-confidence, or pile on the stress, it's wonderful to know we have each other to lean on. I don't have to impress my husband, earn his love, or have all the answers to a problem for him to love, accept, and encourage me. There's great comfort in knowing that in marriage, we don't have to face hardships alone. If Rich is feeling battle-weary, I'm right there on the front lines with him, ready to buffer the blows for a while. And he'll do the same for me.

We're not perfect comforters for each other; only the Holy Spirit can be. But I love the intimacy of finding and giving comfort to the one who loves me warts and all.

5. Higher Goals
Marriage for marriage's sake is self-serving. But marriage for believers owns a higher purpose, a larger mission in life than a series of accomplishments and acquisitions, or an attempt to end loneliness: It's to reflect Christ's relationship with his church to a watching world.

I'm convinced God intends marriage to stretch us in ways it's hard to experience otherwise. After all, you're in the trenches of living daily with another flawed human being in need of grace, forgiveness, patience, and love, just as you are. Through the years I've been married, I've been caught short by my appallingly selfish and controlling nature—and exhilarated by moments of utter selflessness. As I'm willing, God uses the most mundane aspects of our life together to transform me to become more Christlike. So even during those moments of "can't live with him" (or his moments of "can't live with her"), marriage is teaching us constancy, commitment, and faithfulness. It isn't always easy or pleasant—but I love being married and watching God at work.

Jane Johnson Struck, editor of sister publication Today's Christian Woman magazine, lives with her family in Illinois.

Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.
Fall 2002, Vol. 19, No. 3, Page 32

Love's Time Line

How to make sure your marriage gets better with age

by Gary J. Oliver

Mike considered himself a good lover. That is until his wife, Tina, asked him to move out after nine years of marriage. "It has become painfully clear that I don't know much about what it means to love," he admitted. "I mean really love."

Why is love so difficult? Why do so many couples like Mike and Tina start out with good intentions and then stumble? The answer is that many don't really understand love. Over the years, I've counseled couples whose functional definition of love could be summed up as "a feeling that you feel when you feel that you're going to feel a feeling that you've never felt before." Add to this confusion the expectation many couples have that love will never change—and disappointment is guaranteed.

But just as each year has different seasons, there are also seasons to a relationship. God designed each season to produce a different kind of love.

The First Season
Falling in love is the first, and sadly for some couples the only, season of love. Often couples confuse infatuation with love. A husband might see his wife as he would like her to be—a warm, caring person who always keeps his needs foremost in her mind. Who she truly is—a woman who can be angry and upset with him at times—is irrelevant.

Judith Voist, in her book Love & Guilt (Simon and Schuster), provides a humorous, and yet truthful, distinction between love and infatuation. "Infatuation is when you think he's as gorgeous as Robert Redford, as pure as Solzhenitsyn, as funny as Woody Allen, as athletic as Jimmy Connors and as smart as Albert Einstein. Love is when you realize that he's as gorgeous as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Solzhenitsyn, as athletic as Albert Einstein and nothing like Robert Redford in any category—but you'll take him anyway."

Tina and Mike, in their nine years of marriage, had never moved beyond infatuation. During their courtship, they experienced the electricity of eros, or romantic love. It was new, exciting and intense—everything they assumed love would be.

When they were dating, Tina and Mike experienced an all-absorbing involvement in one another—seeing each other daily and talking by phone late into the night. They yearned for physical closeness and held hands whenever possible. "Our love felt so real," Tina says, "and I thought those feelings would last forever."

Of course the feelings didn't last. Soon after their honeymoon, life got in the way. Mike worked hard to establish himself as a top salesman in a major communications company. His 60-hour work weeks didn't leave much time for his wife. By their fifth anniversary, Tina was busy, too, keeping up with three active preschoolers.

Looking back, they realized that since their wedding day, they had done little to cultivate their relationship. In fact, with each passing year, they ran their life more as "married singles" than as a married couple. What communication they did have focused on housekeeping and childcare.

Like many couples, they were treating love as a commodity. But love isn't like a piece of furniture that sits off in the corner, needing only an occasional dusting. Love is more like a plant that requires careful, long-term attention. For ten years I lived in Nebraska, where I learned about farming. The first lesson was that planting a seed is only the beginning of the growth process. Many long hours are spent cultivating, fertilizing and watering before the seeds grow into mature plants. It's not always fun, but when the harvest comes it's worth it. And so, in the romance stage of love, the seeds are planted. But without constant care and attention, romance can't grow into mature love.

Mike and Tina were relieved to learn that there were steps they could take to turn their disillusionment into a deeper level of love. I encouraged them to find three other couples who would pray for them and their marriage on a daily basis for the next six months. Then I helped them shift the focus away from the tension between them by having them concentrate on becoming friends as well as lovers.

To help establish that friendship, I recommended that each day they read a devotional from Quiet Times for Couples (Harvest House), by H. Norman Wright. The devotionals are short and easy-to-read, and rather than focusing on problems they focus on growth.

Finally, I encouraged Tina and Mike to go out on a date at least twice a month. Often I encourage couples to see a movie, but with two stipulations. First, the film must end early enough that they can go to a restaurant afterward to discuss it. Whether they liked the movie or not is irrevelant. The point is to share thoughts and feelings. And second, during their dates, they can't bring up any conflictual issues. A date is a time to enjoy one another.

By nurturing their friendship, Tina and Mike were able to move beyond the disillusionment of lost romance. This is a necessary step that bridges the first and second seasons of love.

The Second Season

Many couples miss the rollercoaster highs and lows of early romantic love. But as their love deepens, they will enjoy the beauty of phileo—the bond of friendship. Friendship love combines the intensity of romance with the stability of knowing a spouse is committed to learning how to appreciate you for who you are rather than what he or she thinks you should be.

In this second season of love, couples begin to understand that love is a deliberate choice—not merely a feeling. To build on this deeper level of love, I often encourage couples to choose a meaningful act they will perform for each other. I ask them to write it down somewhere so they can keep track of what they've done. Most of us tend to overestimate the loving things we do for our partner, and underestimate the loving things they do for us.

The action can be something simple like taking out the trash. It might be a phone call or a card. My wife, Carrie, and I have devotions together in the morning. I always try to get her a cup of coffee before she asks. I like to anticipate her need and go ahead and meet it.

The deeper sense of friendship that develops in the second season leads to a different kind of communication. You're eager to learn how to read your mate. What are his or her unique needs and desires? What shows that she's hurt or discouraged? What indicates he's unhappy or anxious?

Several years ago, Carrie and I decided to read the book Prayer by Richard Foster (HarperSanFransciso). We would read a chapter independently, then talk about it and practice a particular approach to prayer. Often we found out more about one another in meaningful, intercessory prayer than we did in long conversations.

While partners are learning more about one another, it's also a time to learn what methods of communication are most effective. For Mike and Tina, their pattern of communicating—a brief comment here, a short observation there—created what Paul Tournier calls "dialogues of the deaf." They were talking but not being heard.

Carrie and I have experienced that in our marriage. I sometimes hear my wife express concerns in prayer, things she has already expressed to me, but her words didn't register before because we were communicating on the run.

An excellent tool to help spouses draw one another out is the workbook Experiencing God (LifeWay) by Henry Blackaby and Claude King. I encouraged Mike and Tina to set aside at least 30 minutes a week to share what God was teaching them about their individual relationships with him and to ask some open-ended questions of one another.

I reminded Mike that in conversation, men like to get to the bottom line. But women aren't looking for a summary statement. For them, the bottom line is the process of sharing together. What may seem like "small talk" to Mike is probably "important talk" to Tina.

While romantic love is almost always a face-to-face relationship, friendship love is often shoulder-to-shoulder. Spouses are working together on something greater than both of them. They don't just find their oneness in each other, but in shared interests and in working toward a mutual goal. Spiritual growth was such a goal for Carrie and me when we worked through the Experiencing God workbook and applied the truths to our marriage.

The Third Season

As Mike and Tina made progress in the friendship stage of love, they were excited to learn that in the third season of marriage they would experience more passion and intensity than ever before. Couples build on the foundation of romantic love and the security of friendship love and then discover that real love involves an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person. That's when agape, or sacrifical love, begins to take root.

In Mere Christianity (MacMillian), C.S. Lewis observed that many people have the mistaken idea that "if you have married the right person you may expect to go on 'being in love' forever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. … Let the thrill go—let it die away—go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow—and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time."

Couples in this season experience a sympathetic sensitivity that accepts each other's weaknesses and shortcomings. This mutual acceptance comes largely with time. When God makes a squash, he takes six months. When he makes an oak tree, he takes 100 years. Couples who want a deep, sacrificial love know that growing such a love, like growing a tree, takes time.

While acceptance is vital in this stage of love, author Leighton Ford adds an important twist to it. He said, "God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way." The third stage of love goes beyond acceptance to growth. Because you love each other, you want to see your mate become the person God designed him or her to be.

The seasons of love don't always follow a set sequence. Rather, the growth of love is more circular. I've worked with couples who are experiencing all three stages at the same time. Also, none of the stages has a prescribed time limit. I know couples married less than ten years who were already enjoying the harvest of love in season three, and others married for 35 years who were still riding the roller coaster of the first season.

Most people don't have a clear understanding of the depth and breadth of true biblical love. For that reason, I encourage couples to look up three different versions of 1 Corinthians 13. I then have them write out their own paraphrase, in 1998 language, of this chapter of Scripture. Couples have told me it helped them personalize God's truth about love.

To make love practical, as well as personal, I challenge every spouse to do one thing for his or her partner every day for the next month. Pick an act of kindness, and practice it for 30 days without calling attention to it. Observe the difference that comes when you work to build, encourage, nourish and cherish the love you and your spouse share.

Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies and professor of psychology and practical theology at John Brown University.

Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail
Summer 1998, Vol. 15, No. 2, Page 66

Men Are Computers Women Are Cell Phones
Can we stay connected?
By Rhonda Rhea

"I don't know how we're going to sort out tonight's schedule," I gushed as my husband, Richie, came through the door. "You're late—and Andrew has a game an hour away. One of us has to get him there by 7:00. Jordan has a game here. Kaley is cheering at Jordan's game, but she also has a game right before his. And it's the same time as Andrew's away game. That's also the time Allie and Daniel are supposed to have practice at …"

I hadn't even gotten to the dinner dilemma part of my list, when I knew by Richie's wide-eyed, zombie stare that he'd shut down somewhere just after "You're late."

I've seen the look before.

How many other wives have seen their husbands processing information when suddenly their "screen saver" kicks on? My husband is able to process a lot of information. I know—I can dish it out in hefty chunks. There are times, however, when something seems to happen to his internal processor. Everything locks up and I feel as if I need to, well, reboot. It's as if I'm living with a computer!

Funny thing is, Richie tells me he's living with a cell phone.

The night he arrived home late, he'd had a long problem-filled day at work. He'd been looking forward to coming home, to his refuge where he could simply veg out and not have to think.

As he opened the front door, his peace bubble exploded into an outline of the evening's agenda. I'd been poised at the door, ready for the attack. Every word about every game and every place the kids had to be came at him nonstop.

Richie told me later that my actions were akin to settling into a comfy seat at a movie theater only to have his cell phone blast.

I'm a "cell phone"? I thought. And I realized I can go off unexpectedly and sometimes at the most inopportune moments. I'm also faithful to keep "calling" until I'm answered. Oh no! I thought. I am a cell phone!

Different wiring
I don't know about that whole Mars/Venus thing, but I think I can safely say men and women certainly operate on different hardware. We're wired differently. To me, it seems as if men are computers and women are, well, cell phones. The computer's communication is most often a one-way communiqué. Cell phones, on the other hand, require two-party participation. They're all about communication.

Dr. James Dobson hits on the wiring problem in his book, Love for a Lifetime. He writes: "Research makes it clear that little girls are blessed with greater linguistic ability than little boys, and it remains a lifelong talent. Simply stated, she talks more than he." Dobson suggests that God may have given Mrs. Cell Phone 50,000 words per day while Mr. Computer may average 25,000. By the time he's walking up the driveway to his relaxing safe place, he's most likely used 98 percent of his daily word store—he's practically in "sleep mode" already—that mode that's used after the screen saver's been on for a while. She, on the other hand, is ready to give him most of her 50,000—and she wants a similar number from him. But all she gets is a busy signal. How can we find common ground?

Getting connected
Cell phones and computers do have something in common. They both need a connection, just as husbands and wives need a connection. And isn't it interesting that techno-smart people are finding more and more ways computers and cell phones can work together to make life better? I was stuck at an airport recently and occupied myself by watching the lady next to me check her e-mail and send out a message or two—all on her cell phone!

Powerful connection can result in a powerful, productive, and satisfying marriage. Try these six couple-tested ideas to find your own techno-compromise. You can get connected—even in a technically challenged relationship.

1. Season your speech with grace. Sarah was at her wit's end. She tried talking to her husband, Jeff, but found him clamming up during almost every conversation. After hearing a sermon about kindness and the art of listening, Sarah did a communication evaluation on herself. She discovered she was dominating most of their conversations. She also noticed she was spending a big percentage of their talks crabbing at Jeff.

The sermon that impacted Sarah's speech included Colossians 4:6: "Let your conversation be always full of grace." She realized that to promote healthy communication in her marriage, she needed to get rid of the static—any unkind, graceless speech. She's working on incorporating more grace in her conversations and becoming a good listener as she works toward encouraging Jeff to share with her more openly.

2. Be open and honest. Angie's communication struggle was different. She couldn't figure out why her husband, Bill, didn't clue in to her signals. She thought he should be sensitive enough to pick up on hints for attention. When he didn't, her "silent treatment" response only complicated the communication glitches.

After Angie shared her disappointment with a mentor, she learned that computers can't process information they haven't been given. Instead of giving Bill the "Well, if you really understood me, you'd automatically know I need you to listen now" speech, she's working more on her ability to lovingly level with him.

3. Let your computer be a computer. Lynn spent the first three years of her marriage trying to remake her husband, Doug. Doug resented her motherly corrections and they argued at almost every encounter. When they decided to talk to a counselor, Lynn was sure he could whip Doug into shape. Was she surprised when the counselor hinted that she was a big part of the problem! The counselor encouraged her to let her husband be himself. She had essentially been trying to make a computer into a cell phone.

Lynn is learning instead to accept their differences, including what she once thought were Doug's "weaknesses." She's finding that some of the characteristics she'd been harping on as his weaknesses are actually some of the same ones she considered his strengths when they were dating. Lynn turned over a new leaf in her marriage when she decided to enjoy Doug "as is."

4. Make God your source of fulfillment. Sue had become a smotherer. If her husband, Mike, didn't hang on her every word and dote on her when they were together, she interpreted his inattention as indifference. So she pouted their time away. And Mike was wearing out.

After yet another evening of pouting, Sue finally called her mom for advice. Sue's mother said, "Husbands aren't meant to supply every emotional need. Only God can do that." Sue's mom told her she was putting a heavier load on Mike than a mate can handle. It was just too much for his mainframe to manage. Sue's mom reminded her that the Bible tells us to "Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7).

Sue has seen her marriage become stronger and less frustrating as she has deepened her prayer life and her Bible study time, and strengthened her dependence on God. And she's finding great blessing in living in a virtually pout-free household!

5. Make room for friendships. Sue also discovered she'd neglected her need for friendships with other women. She was thrilled when she discovered she could unload several thousand words on her mom or another interested friend (and let her friend unload a significant percentage of her 50,000 word store too). Sue found it was great not only to get another woman's take, but to give Mike a break. Since women have a greater need for conversation, Sue and her friends help each other out in the dialogue area—person to person and phone to phone.

6. Grow in Christ together. As Sarah and Jeff have worked on better techno-compromise, they've found that spending time praying and studying God's Word together builds conversation that really counts. They find they're both more ready to compromise and give to meet the needs of the other as they're aiming at becoming more like Christ.

What a great target for each of us—computers and cell phones alike. As we continually ask God to impact our marriages, we can become better talkers and better listeners, hearing him through his Word and prayer.

Can you hear him now? Good.

Rhonda Rhea, author of Amusing Grace (Cook Communications), lives with her family in Missouri.

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.
Winter 2003, Vol. 20, No. 4, Page 34

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