For the past several decades Christians have been bombarded by the popular press with the message that in order to love well, one must have his or her “need” for love adequately met. This secular hypothesis was posed by humanistic theorists decades ago, and the Church has often embraced it as if it emerged from the very Word of God. There have even been some within Christendom who have gone so far as to exegete the words of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” as proof that in order to love others and God, one must first love self (Luke 12:31). While the messages of “love tanks” and “love languages” may have some helpful imagery and provide some self-understanding, they have profoundly shaped the way believers view love within marriages. In the process, they have confused believers and often generated great consternation. The counsel based on these secular theories has done very little to squelch the rising divorce rate within the Church.
What has gone wrong? The message of “love needs” feels so accurate. Anyone involved relationally with another individual can certainly attest to the fact that it is much easier to love when being loved (or having one’s “love tank” filled or one’s “love language” spoken). Yet, this view of love has led many within the Church far away from the Bible’s conceptualization of what love truly exemplifies. This being the case, it is noteworthy to briefly examine the Bible’s teachings on the topic.
Rather than framing love among believers as a “need” to be sought, Paul framed it as a “debt” to be paid. In Romans 13:8, Paul says, “Let no outstanding debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” (NIV). For the average human being (if not all human beings) this statement runs completely counter to the heart’s natural perception of things. To view love in relationship as something “I owe” versus something “I need” is incredible. Yet, it is precisely how Paul explained it. His exposition of love in I Corinthians 13 completely focuses upon the outward focus of true love in that it is patient, kind, rejoices in truth, protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.
These characteristics stand in stark contrast to secular conceptions of love such as my needs must be attended by you, or I will meet your needs so you will meet my needs in return, or I must be loved on my terms.
Paul points us to something much higher than this. He points us to the greatest commandments spoken by Jesus: “Love God” and “love your neighbor.” These words to Paul were everlasting, and could never be satisfied to the point of no longer owing obedience to the One who spoke them. Every day, husbands and wives awaken as debtors owing their lives and love to the Author of these words, and His call to “love your neighbor (mate, who is your closest neighbor)!” This is the perpetual debt of the believer. In light of this reality, reclining back in the easy chair of complacency is not an option for the husband or wife. To do so would be to assume falsely that one’s debt to God’s command has been paid, and that now a surplus exists upon which I can rest. Such a mindset is false, and very closely resembles the worldview of the modern culture.
Christian spouses owe love to each other. Functioning from this frame of reference rearranges the entire premise of relationships, and provides a far superior basis on which lasting and joyful marriages may be built. The ideas of “love needs” run counter to this biblical paradigm, and should be purged from the Christian’s thinking and the counsel of the Church. While this may sound extreme, consider the words of Jesus: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them! And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that” (Luke 6:27-28; 32-33, NIV).
Spouses should be receiving love from one another. This is the biblical way of relationship as seen in the “one another” protocols of Christian living. However, what is the primary focus: to give or to receive? Christians should ALWAYS pursue a mindset that giving love, regardless of the situation, is always a more noble and God-ordained call than falling prey to the cultural self-seeking view of I need before I give. Otherwise love is transformed from being that which is obediently given in the fulfillment of Christ’s command into a demand to be serviced. Such love is no love at all. Sometimes love out of obedience is perceived as fake or manipulative. In reality love that strokes another so that love can be acquired in return is a love on the hunt for an ever elusive satisfaction.
Not infrequently I will give a copy of Adams’ pamphlet, What to Do when Your Marriage Goes Sour? to a couple and ask them to read and highlight the five or ten statements that strike them as important, unusual or new to them. Almost without fail, they are struck with two factors. First, that love is first of all a choice and not a feeling. Secondly, they are to love even if they are not feeling loved.
Dear friend, commit yourself to love your mate. Love them when they are unlovely. Love them when they are hateful. Don’t condition your love on getting love on your terms. Always be asking yourself, “How can I love my wife as Christ would love the church?” Or, “How can I love my husband so that he will know I respect him?”
This material was adapted from a brief article by Jeremy Lelek on 7/24/07 found on the Association for Biblical Counseling website. I have revised and expanded it. It is used by permission.