I was reading some comments on a blog the other day. A question arose about how to build stronger families and marriages. How can we get Christians to have a high view of marriage? Naturally, I responded with something like, "By exalting Christ more than marriage." Someone agreed. But another further questioned, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. If one was to place heavy emphasis on loving one another, would he be guilty of exalting it over Christ?"
I responded that indeed I think one could be guilty of placing a heavy emphasis on loving another at the expense of Christ. That is the very nature of idolatry, and it happens all the time. The potential for that to happen inspired Paul to actually warn against it. "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:32-35).
Now, what exactly is Paul saying? I've gone over this text before, but will ask one question of it now. What is it usually called when a married man is anxious about how to please his wife? Is it not called love? And what is it called when a married woman devotes her life to pleasing her husband? Do we not praise her love? So it seems to me that this text warns against a certain kind of priority that we would normally call love. It is possible to love our spouse in such a way that actually hinders our devotion to the Lord.
Then again, it's possible to love our spouse in a way that doesn't. But both would be love. In other words, there's a right kind of love and a wrong kind of love. But they're both love.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke about two kinds of love in his excellent book, Life Together. In writing about love within a Christian community, Bonhoeffer states, "Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ. That is why self-centered love seeks direct contact with other persons. It loves them, not as free persons, but as those whom it binds to itself. It wants to do everything it can to win and conquer; it puts pressure on the other person. It desires to be irresistible, to dominate. Self-centered love does not think much of truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the person loved. Emotional, self-centered love desires other persons, their company. It wants them to return its love, but it does not serve them. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving."
Bonhoeffer is saying that there is a kind of love that isn't mediated through Christ, and therefore not regulated by truth. I often see this defective, yet genuine love in marriages. Rather than the love that seeks not its own, this kind of love seeks nothing but its own. Rather than joyfully providing for the spouse, it consumes and binds the spouse to itself. The result of Christ-centered love is freedom. The result of self-centered love is guilt. How do you know it your love is Christ-centered or self-centered?
One: If when you read the last paragraph, you immediately thought about how your spouse consumes you and makes you feel guilty all the time, then your love is probably self-centered. You are keeping score in a way you shouldn't be. You're so in tune with yourself, and your perceived rights, and your supposed needs that any service to your spouse feels like consumption to you. Any request made by your spouse feels like an unreasonable demand to you. You're not married for the sake of Christ, you're married for the sake of your own temporary priorities. So rather than allowing the truth of God's Word to set the agenda for your love, you set the agenda according to your own selfish desires.
Two: If you think your marriage is a partnership in which both spouses have a right to take from the other - about fifty per cent of the time - then your love is probably self-centered. If your marriage is one in which you constantly bargain and position for power, rather than seek to serve the other all the time, then Christ isn't King of your marriage. You and your spouse are taking turns being mini-kings. If the first thing that comes to your mind in relating to your spouse is "What's this going to cost me," then I can about guarantee you have self-centered love.
Three: If you and your spouse are just cruising through life, taking it as it comes, without deliberate assessment according to Scripture, then you probably have self-centered love. Even if your marriage feels like a rose garden, and is so very satisfying, that doesn't mean your love isn't self-centered. It just means your self-centered love hasn't backfired on you yet. The only way to have a Christ-centered love for your spouse is to know Christ well enough to love like him. That knowledge won't come naturally. So if you're not a Christian disciple first, and a spouse second, self-centered love will be your default position.
Fourth: If your priority is to always please your spouse, whatever it takes, then you probably have self-centered love. You may wonder how that could be possible when you're serving your spouse so much. It's possible because Christ isn't the goal of your love, your spouse is. There's got to be a reason for that. Have you considered that perhaps you're trying to please your spouse all the time for the benefit it will bring you? So that even though you're love seems so other-centered, it's really just to get your own way.
These are several ways that love can run amok in your marriage, and not exalt Christ. The kind of love that consumes, rather than serves Christ will always come at a cost. The cost of consumption may not be immediately apparent. Couples can go through life for quite some time in a man-centered love bent toward worldly things. But that kind of love doesn't bring the sense of fulfillment and peace and happiness that Christ-centered love does. Which do you have?