“It’s a Question of Love”

The voices. The voices. What do you do with all the voices in your head and conflicting motivations in your heart?

I’m not talking about grappling with audible sounds or crazy stuff. I’m referring to the many competing thoughts, feelings, and impulses that vie for your attention and make it difficult to confidently choose a good course of action. You may sincerely desire to be Spirit-led, but you aren’t sure whose voice is whose in your head.

“What am I supposed to think?”

On top of it, most of us are well aware of the power of self-deception, not to mention the lies and deceits of the devil. We know we’re fools if we think that every thought, “insight,” and impulse we have is sound and reliable, and are fooled if we believe our motives are always pure.

When torn between various inclinations, motivations, and ideas, what do you do? When seeking help from God, how do you differentiate the leading of the Spirit from all the other “voices”? Consider the following scenarios from the social domain of life:

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” You see a homeless person on the street (or simply get a call from yet one more fundraiser), seeking money. One voice says, “Give.” Another says, “Look the other way.” Another voice judges the person asking. Still another speaks from your heart. What’s moving you? The God of compassion, basic human decency, unresolved guilt, fear, or something else altogether?
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” You feel drawn to someone, but you’re experiencing a range of conflicting thoughts. Are you being moved by the Spirit, responding to a basic need for love or friendship, being driven by your physical desires, compensating for some unmet emotional needs, trying to avoid feeling so lonely, or what?
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” You’re sure that you’ve got someone or something figured out. Has God given you insight and wisdom, or are you simply a perceptive and astute person? Are you seeing the person or situation clearly, or are you blindly projecting yourself or your desires on to others? Are you making a sound judgment or are you being influenced by unwarranted assumptions?

It’s a Question of Love

Amid the din of conflicting internal voices and our incessant tendency to want to serve ourselves, Jesus’ teaching on the priority of loving God, others, and ourselves offers a simple but extremely practical guideline (Mark 12:30-31). Make a habit of always asking yourself, “What about the Rule of Love?” As the Apostle Paul taught, always think about how you can put love into action by “look[ing] not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). That’s love. Thinking about the impact of your words, attitudes, and actions on those your life touches, and choosing to put their best interest even ahead of your own. The rule is to make love the guiding principle in all you do.

Now, back to the hypothetical scenarios mentioned earlier. How would you apply the Rule of Love in the three situations? Here’s how I might do it.

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” My suggestion: If you want to give, give. If you don’t, don’t. But regardless of whether or not you give something, love calls for treating the person with respect. If you choose to not give money, at least let your smile communicate that you see them as a fellow human being, loved by God. And if you do give (in this scenario or any other charitable endeavor), remind yourself that God has given you an opportunity to give to serve God’s purposes in ways that bring glory to God not yourself.
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” Relationships are trickier. So many factors influence our interests in others, and every relationship is different. Here I will only make one suggestion. Remind yourself that you can best love others when you have experienced the love and grace of God for yourself, and when your relationship with others is not a substitute for the love you can only know in God. The less you “need” to love someone or be loved by him or her, the more free you will be to truly love others in ways that are life-giving rather than life-imprisoning or even destructive.
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” There’s a difference between “judging” someone, behavior Jesus forbid; and “making a judgment” based on your perceptions and evaluation, our human responsibility for survival and good citizenship. Judging is prejudicially thinking you can know someone’s motives or evaluate their choices. Making a judgment, on the other hand, is carefully determining what is good, right, and true in a given situation. When you must make a judgment, remind yourself that love cares more about building up others and restoring broken relationships than “being right” and securing your identity or status vis-à-vis someone else’s.

I keep going back to the Rule of Love especially when I’m in the midst of a complicated or confusing social situation. I do so, not because I’m so loving or spiritually mature, but because on my own, I’m not.  I need help. I need a simple way to get the right perspective, quickly.

The Rule of Love may not give you a complete answer in every complex or confusing situation. Yet asking and praying with the question, “How are my actions an expression of God’s love for those God wants to love through me?” is what Spirit-led living is all about in its purest and simplest form. The more you ask yourself this question of love, the more you will be able to discern the Spirit’s voice amid all the other voices, and feel confident about how to proceed.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-8, 11-12, NIV)

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Use Your Head!

A friend of mine gathered his family of four around the television. It was a big day. Everyone was excited. The Holy Spirit had whispered in his ear that this would be a good week to buy lottery tickets. Millions of dollars would be such a huge blessing to this family encumbered with debt and college tuition looming. They would be sure to use some of it to advance the kingdom of God, too! Clutching their tickets, they could hardly wait for the show to begin. What a surprise (to them and no one else) when none of their numbers were selected. What went wrong?

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What was I thinking?

We may raise our eyebrows at what seems like an obvious case of wishful thinking, but who hasn’t let their hopes make a monkey out of them at one time or another? We get so emotionally involved with what we’re doing that we spiritualize our own desires, biases, and preferences. We conclude that God is leading us forward when we are actually leading ourselves astray. Simon and Garfunkel sum up well this common human weakness in their hit song, The Boxer: “All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Hmmm Hmmm. Hmmm.” What’s the remedy? Various Am I suggesting that you stop trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you, contrary to what I argued in my previous essay, “Spirit-Led Living: A Simple Path”. No, not at all. Rather, I’m cautioning you against naiveté and false expectations. In any discernment process, instead of just going with your feelings and what you want to be true, you need to prayerfully use your head, too. Learning the hard way It started with an overwhelming sense of compassion and grief. None of the kids I met on the streets of Yangon had fathers. Begging for food was a daily occurrence. One orphan boy had been living on the street for much of the past three years. Their clothes were filthy, their bodies skin and bones. Was I being called to give them the helping hand they needed in order to transform their lives? Soon, everything seemed to be falling into place. We were successful at getting two of the kids off the streets and into homes, and three of them back into school. They looked so proud in their new school uniforms, and seemed so eager to ride their new bikes to school. It felt great to be doing something so concrete and meaningful for the poorest of the poor.

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Trying to sort out the truth

Four months later, I found out that the kids had been lying to me about having to pay school fees. School is free for children in Myanmar, but no one told me; and when someone did, I chose to believe the kids and their ready explanations over the adults who knew better. Then I found out that they were lying about going to school at all. Some of them actually did go to school occasionally, but I eventually found out that the one who I thought was my star pupil had been lying from the beginning. They were using the “school money” for food, games, movies, gambling, and sometimes drugs (glue). If you’re thinking, “What did you expect? You should have known better,” you are simply making the point of this essay. Yes, I should have known better, but I was too driven by my own emotions, personal needs, and desires. I wanted to believe that we were making more progress than we actually were. I didn’t check up on them as I should have, and blinded myself to what I should have been able to see. VariousWe’ve now addressed the issues, and have made the necessary corrections in how we are going to work with the kids going forward. We hope to not make the same mistakes in the future, but the past six months have taught me again how easy it is to fool yourself. No matter how experienced you may be, how knowledgeable, how prayerful, or how full of love and compassion, there simply is no substitute for paying attention to what is truly going on, facing the truth, and thinking through what you’re doing. The balance Are you struggling with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or hurt from some actions you’ve taken that you thought were prompted by God, but now question? If so, maybe you need to make some adjustments to your discernment process. Don’t over-react, but don’t miss the learning opportunity either. If you feel yourself in the grips of emotion or driven by your desires to the point that you or others are starting to question your judgment, maybe you need to take a step back and take an honest look at what’s going on. For the sake of those you care about, for your sake, and for the sake of whatever work you are doing for Christ in the world, beware of just believing what you want to believe. Pray more, not less, but don’t expect answers to come in the form of sentimental feelings and implausible revelations. And don’t expect the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance to replace your responsibility to think through your course of action. Ask God to guide you through your rational thought process as well as through your feelings and desires. Listen to those who know you well and who can be a bit more objective. Face whatever truth the Spirit wants to reveal to you, and use your head. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And,  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).

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Spirit-Led Living—A Simple Path

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Workshop participant reflecting on God’s leading in her life, Tahan, Myanmar

In its most simple form, Spirit-led living is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and then cooperating as fully and quickly as possible. Listen and cooperate, listen and cooperate, in one situation after another. Step by step, a long string of saying, “Yes,” to the Holy Spirit becomes a Spirit-led life. The concept of “cooperation” with God, normally emphasized by the Catholics (to describe the proper use of a regenerated human will) is sometimes shunned by Protestants (to some, it sounds too much like works-righteousness). Yet, in using the concept here, I am not talking about relying on ourselves to do the will of God in our own strength, but rather utilizing our human faculties to “go with the flow” of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul teaches that our wanting and having the capacity to do what pleases God—our ability to cooperate—is not from ourselves but actually comes from God (Philippians 2:13). Yet, in our experience, our cooperation feels like dropping our resistance, submitting to God, or actively embracing whatever the Holy Spirit is putting before us. Spirit-led living, then, means taking the action that flows naturally from whatever you hear the Spirit say. A simple model to grasp, to be sure, but not so simple or easy when it comes to putting it into practice. Why? But first you have to be listening, and to listen, you have to be in a state of mind that is truly open and ready to hear what the Spirit wants to say. Learning to get your own self out of the way, to quiet the competing voices in your head, to be willing to stop and change course, to be patient to wait for the voice of the Spirit, or to be willing to step out of your comfort zone is hard work. You may feel uncomfortable or unsure of yourself when it comes to listening to the Spirit. You may not be sure what is the voice of the Spirit and what is your own voice. But you can learn.

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Fatherless boys in Yangon

Lately, my workshop for learning how to better listen and cooperate has been on the streets of Yangon. Talk about challenges and the need for the Spirit. I work with at-risk youth when I’m not teaching seminarians or doing leadership training, and I frequently find myself over my head. Between being overwhelmed by their physical needs—extreme poverty, hunger, and stressful living conditions—and trying to navigate all the lying and manipulation, my head is often swimming. I often don’t know what to believe or what to think, let alone what to do. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have been critical to my ability to truly make a difference in the lives of these kids, not to mention preserve my sanity. When I start to get frustrated and uptight, sometimes I hear, “Relax. Just enjoy the kids. Let them experience God’s love through you.” Or, “Listen to their stories. See their hopelessness and desperation. What would you do if you were in their place?” My heart opens again, and I feel God’s compassion surging through me.

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A needed conversation, Yangon, Myanmar

Not infrequently, when everything seems to be deteriorating or going backwards, I suddenly realize that we’re in the midst of a teachable moment. Yesterday’s disappointment, frustration, and discouragement have laid the groundwork for having a meaningful conversation today about responsibility, values, or relationships. The Spirit helps me to see that it is not only appropriate to confront them, but doing so turns out to be the most loving and constructive thing I could offer them. I look around and see some people getting taken in and used by these kids. Others who have been trying to help them over the years have become so disappointed and burned that they want to walk away. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have helped me to avoid the extremes of naivety and cynicism. The Spirit helps me to stay calm, to be willing to step back when I have no idea what to do, and to wait until I can see more clearly what is needed; but to not lose heart or give up.

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1 woman and five kids share a 1 room shack, Dalla, Myanmar

I’m always praying, “Spirit, what should I do now?” I don’t usually get immediate answers, but living in a continual state of prayer, acknowledging my dependence on God’s leading and working, keeps me humble and keeps me listening. My desperation and distress have forced me to my knees on many occasions. There, the Spirit often reminds me to put the kids in God’s hands and to stop thinking that their well-being is all on my shoulders. When I listen, I become more peaceful. Cooperation here means letting go of what I cannot control, and waiting for the Spirit to open the door when it’s time for me to say or to do something that will be truly helpful. Where’s your workshop for learning to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit? The simple path of Spirit-led living is meant for everyone. What’s the Spirit saying to you? What’s your next step? But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)

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Between Sundays—Spirit-Led Living in Ordinary Life

U Zaw

U Zaw (pronounced oo zo) teaches and mentors poor, teenage boys who work for Helping Hands, a small social service program in Yangon, Myanmar. Annie Bell, the wife of an British diplomat, started this skills-development outreach several years ago. A deeply compassionate woman, Annie has generously opened her heart and home to these boys and to many other individuals in response to the overwhelming poverty and needs that surround her.

As Annie’s right hand man, U Zaw is responsible to teach 20 boys and young men how to refurbish furniture for resale. He’s there to help them develop marketable skills; and, just as important, he quickly adds, character. Most of those who work at Helping Hands are fatherless, with huge voids in their lives. U Zaw is genuinely concerned for each boy, and takes his mentoring role very seriously.

As a Christian, U Zaw’s faith is very important to him and is a source of inspiration for his work. I was surprised by his low impression of his own spiritual life.

Love for these kids oozed from his pores, and his dedication was manifestly obvious; but it was his wife that he praised. She is the one who truly loves Jesus, he told me somewhat sheepishly. She is the one who is committed to the church, he explained, obviously self-conscious about his own minimal participation. U Zaw works six days a week  and rarely has time to even attend a weekly worship service, let alone any other church activity. He clearly feels bad about his lack of church involvement.

We only had a few minutes, but there was no way I was going to walk away without commenting. The measure of our spiritual vitality goes well beyond what we believe or how much time we spend in Bible Study or church. Spirituality is also—maybe chiefly—about how we live out our faith between Sundays. I had to tell him what I saw in his love and dedication for those kids, that his heart and actions shouted a living spirituality and were beautiful expressions of what it means to follow Christ in ordinary life.

Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita in the Jesuit School of Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, California and pioneer in the academic study of spirituality, captures well the interplay of belief, relationship to God, and relationship to the rest of humanity. Schneiders defines spirituality as one’s “lived experience” of faith.[1] Spirituality, then, is not just belief, on one extreme, or a collection of religious experiences, on the other; and it certainly isn’t the accumulation of religious activities. Rather, our spiritual life is grounded in God’s activity on our behalf, is enlivened by our response of faith, and is marked by our experience of seeking to live out the faith in myriad ways, affecting every dimension of our life.[2]

Please don’t misunderstand me. We need to worship, and we need spiritual disciplines to strengthen and encourage us as we seek to follow Christ. Personally, I depend on guidance and inspiration from reading my Bible, fellowshipping with other Christians, singing, worshipping God, and praying.

Yet, between Sundays, the real measure of our spirituality is in how we live out our faith in the context of our daily life. It’s in how we fulfill our duties and responsibilities, and in how we treat one another. We must resist the temptation to measure our spiritual maturity by how much we’ve learned intellectually, how many spiritual practices we observe, or even how many spiritual “highs” we may have experienced. Instead, what matters most is how much we let the love of God move us and flow out of us toward others.

As I turned to go, U Zaw began shaking my hand vigorously, a huge smile spreading across his face. It was apparent that no one had ever explained to him what spiritual vitality looked like in the life of a humble, sincere follower of Christ. “You must come back and talk to me again!” he insisted. “I want you to meet my wife, too!” I would be happy to do so, I thought. You’re just the kind of person I want to be around.

 “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “The Discipline of Christian Spirituality and Catholic Theology,” in Exploring Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM,” ed. By Bruce H. Lescher and Elizabeth Liebert (New York: Paulist Press, 2006), p 200.

[2] Adapted from my book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2008), p. 6.

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Obama or Romney: Who Should a Christian Vote For?

Once in awhile someone asks me or implies that Christians should vote for one particular candidate over another. I vehemently disagree with this point of view in almost every situation I can imagine. Rather, I would say all citizens, including Christians, have a responsibility to be as informed as possible about the issues and to vote. Their decision should be based on their best effort to determine the issues, and to listen to their consciences. Unfortunately, too often, the most responsible vote requires choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, choose we must.

I value prayer as part of the discernment process for me, not as an infallible guide but as a resource to help me to sort out my own thinking and values. We have to be careful not to identify one or two issues as the whole measure of whether a candidate is acceptable to Christians. Rather, our responsibility is to vote for the candidate and party that, on the whole, will best serve the interests of our country at this time, under the current circumstances.

Then, from the perspective of faith, we must also put our hope in what God is doing—not to elevate one candidate over another, but to produce the kinds of changes needed at a deeper level within individuals and society. One of the students at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, where I am currently teaching, sent me a link to a very interesting essay written by an Asian-American pastor on Christians and voting. In it he urges Christians to look beyond the candidates to God, the one who is continually at work for good in the world, no matter who wins. Looking to God is not instead of voting, rolling up our sleeves, or otherwise working hard to alleviate suffering and provide better governance. Praying and seeking God’s help is acknowledging our limitations and our dependency on God to change our hearts and minds in ways we don’t seem to be able to do very easily on our own.

Our country and world are in mess, but that is not exactly news or a modern phenomenon. Since the beginning of human history, we have been continually in a struggle to make the world a better place amid so many destructive forces both within us and among us. We need to do all we can to address the plethora of challenges facing us, but no American politician is going to be the Savior of the world. That role belongs to Jesus Christ, and no matter who wins the election, we are going to need all the help we can get from him.

Jesus at Saint Suplice, Paris

May God give each of us the ability to be a good citizen at this critical time, and to increasingly let the love of Christ flow through us to others all the time.

A Prayer from the Apostle Paul

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” —Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)

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The Way of Jesus

On the eve of my return to Southeast Asia, I am looking forward to more conversation with my students and colleagues on the way of Jesus in a predominately Buddhist context.

Like Jesus, the Buddha is usually portrayed as a gentle and wise spiritual guide. By following his teachings and example, in pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from this world, Buddhists seek to detach themselves from all those desires that produce suffering. Along the way, they seek to live peacefully and to become more compassionate toward others. Buddhists don’t expect these changes to happen overnight, to say the least. In fact, according to common Buddhist teaching, full enlightenment will probably require thousands of (re-) incarnations, if it ever happens at all.

Meditating in the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

As Buddhists look to the Buddha for a better way to live and for hope for their lives, so Christians look to Jesus. Yet, Jesus’ way is different.

Rather than starting with the individual, or even the community, Jesus started with God. He taught us to put the Creator and giver of life at the center of our lives, and to seek to know, love, and serve God with all of ourselves. His Gospel was an invitation to increasingly experience God’s love filling us and flowing through us in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of those around us.[1] In this way, God would be glorified in his creation, and we would experience life as God intends.

Jesus expected that those who follow him would make every effort to realize God’s vision for their lives, but he never imagined that we would try to do this in our own strength. At core, his message was not, “Try harder!” No, his good news was more radical than that. Jesus’ Gospel was a call to surrender our own will and self-reliance, so that God could do in us what we simply cannot do on our own.

Followers of Buddha—or any religion or religious figure that teaches that we must somehow earn or achieve or own salvation—must forever operate under a different system from what Jesus’ taught. They hold a different basis for hope, and live out their days in an endless pursuit of something that is always out of reach.

Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, start by capitulating. They give up the vain aspiration to reach the top of the spiritual ladder in their own strength—no matter how well-intentioned or noble the path. Instead, they gratefully rely on the mercy of God, submit to the yoke of Christ, and learn how to live by the leading of the Spirit of God.

Jesus heals the blind man (John 9)—Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).

An obscure image for most of us, perhaps: a young, untrained ox paired with an experienced, disciplined partner. Once yoked together, the younger one follows the lead of the older, and stops resisting the farmer and exhausting itself. Suddenly there is less stress and distress than when it was fighting against the farmer’s will. And the field gets ploughed.

Jesus is giving us a picture of a relationship with God that is very different from one that requires our striving to some how pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Jesus is offering to gently lead us into the true life God intends for us, both by what he does for us and by what he shows us to do.

The way of Jesus makes him stand out from other great religious leaders, and his teaching from other spiritual paths. The key difference is not so much the intended goals of a becoming a better person, of creating a better society, or of attaining a better after-life. Most religions agree on much of this. No, the critical difference between Jesus’ way and all the others is how one gets there.

By being a follower of Christ, I don’t think I am better than others. On the contrary, I am keenly aware of how limited I am in my own power to become the person I would like to be. I accept this reality, and look instead to God’s love and acceptance for my sense of worth. I rely on God’s mercy and grace for forgiveness and redemption. And my spiritual journey is fairly simple—I’m seeking to learn what it means to live under the yoke of Jesus and live by the Spirit day-by-day, moment-by-moment. I take credit for nothing in my relationship with God, and am only grateful that I was given the grace to recognize the truth that would finally set me free.

A Suggested Prayer (for those tired of trying to advance spiritually on their own): “Jesus, I am so tired of trying to make my life work. I’m weary of trying to be a better person. I give up. Thank you for your gentle and loving invitation to give my life to you completely. I accept! Please teach me how to walk with you, side by side, under your yoke, under your leadership, by your Spirit, to serve God’s good purposes for my life. Please do in me and for me what I cannot seem to do on my own. Thank you.”


[1] Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 15:11-32. See, too, how John further develops this Gospel message, 1 John 4:7-19.

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“What kind of love makes a marriage flourish?”

On July 8, I had the privilege of giving the Charge to the Couple during the wedding ceremony for my son Tim and his bride Stella. Since so many people we know and love around the world could not witness this incredibly joyful experience, I am reproducing the Charge here as this month’s essay. So many longtime couples who were present at the service told me that the message was not just for a bride and groom, but for longtime couples as well.

Stella and Tim on their wedding day

Charge to the Couple

The Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion

What does it take to make a couple’s love stay strong? What kind of love is needed to not only make a marriage last, but to enable it to blossom and to flourish continually?

As you may know there are many different kinds of “love” in human experience: love for family; love for friends; romantic love; erotic love; and the kind of love that Greek writers called, agape. And when we speak about love between a husband and wife, there are also many different ideas about what marriage means: Should we think of marriage in utilitarian terms, a contract between a man and woman to produce a family and secure a couple’s well-being in old age? Is it a romantic saga wherein a strong hero rescues the damsel in distress and cares for her valiantly for the rest of their lives? Is it about passion, a union that allows for the fulfillment of every dream and desire? Or is it really about a treasured friendship between a man and woman, who simply want to be together and to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s company?

There is not one right answer to these questions, and these options are not mutually exclusive. What matters the most is not so much what answers you come up with, but that you are willing to find answers that work for both of you. In other words, marriage is not simply about trying to meet your own individual needs or to gratify your own desires, but to develop a relationship in which you work with each other to create something beautiful and good for both of you.

What kind of love do you have and will you seek for each another? What kind of marriage do you envision, and do you intend to create?

We read in Genesis 2 (verses 18-24) that from the beginning of time, men and women have left their parents in order to cling to each other in marriage. The writer is not talking about an impulse or even sexual desire, but a deep level of attraction that draws a man and woman to want to create a union between them that is like no other. But no matter how powerful the mutual attraction, this kind of love is only the beginning point for a marriage.

From the Song of Songs (2:8-14), we were drawn to the amorous feelings of two lovers. Passion is indispensible in bonding a husband and wife to each other, and can lead to tremendous satisfaction in the marriage relationship. However, eros, as the Greeks called this kind of love, is neither a superior nor an inferior form of love to other kinds. Eros brings joy like nothing else, but it is certainly only one dimension of married life; and no marriage can survive only on it. More is needed.

In reading Paul’s interpretation of agape love, we realize immediately that he’s talking about a kind of love that is more than an ideal and more than a feeling. He was not writing about marriage, but the relevance to a married couple is immediately obvious. Listen again to how he characterized agape.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

C.S. Lewis wrote about agape love in his popular book, The Four Loves. He describes agape as a “selfless love…that is passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other person”. [1] That’s well said.

Such love is not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to treating each other in the right ways, to believing the best things about each other, to being there for each other. Agape leads to sacrificial service for the sake of the other person, and for the sake of relationship that one has with the other person.

Right now you may think that you really know each other. But you don’t.

You may think you know what married life is going to be like. But you don’t.

Right now you may think that you really love each other. And (don’t worry) you do, but you do not yet know how much your love needs to still grow in order to endure for the rest of your lives.

You are about to embark upon an adventure that will be filled with many surprises, twists, and turns. Some will be wonderful, and some will be harder than you can imagine. For some things you have been well prepared, but for others, you are going to feel completely over your heads.

It’s simply not possible to prepare for all that is ahead of you, but you can commit yourselves to love each other no matter what. When times get tough relationally, you need to be committed to stay together, and to work through whatever you need to work through. No matter how much your love may falter, agape love insists on remaining faithful and not looking elsewhere or to someone else to meet the needs that are reserved for the marriage union. When you don’t understand each other or don’t know what to do, you need to seek whatever help you need, and to do your best to treat each other kindly and respectfully while you’re figuring it out. That’s agape love at its best, and where it’s most needed.

In other words, agape within marriage refuses to give up on the other person or the marriage. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does.  You need to focus more on what it is right, than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.

When I think back to my parents’ marriage, I remember distinctly that their relationship was rocky at times. They weren’t the best match for each other, and sometimes it was painful to be around them when they were arguing. Yet, one thing never wavered. And that was their devotion to each other, and their commitment to their marriage. I believe it was that kind of love that saw them through so many painful and disturbing experiences that had to endure. It was that kind of love that gave me security as a child.

And when I married, guess what? It turns out my wife and I were actually quite different. Yet it was our common commitment to our marriage, our common commitment to Christ, and our willingness to seek help from God and others when we didn’t know what to do that have helped us through the hard times. And today, having gone through a lot of ups and downs, our love is stronger and more vibrant than ever. Even after 30 years of marriage, we are still discovering new ways we need and appreciate one another; and new ways for us to serve God and live life that bring us more joy and satisfaction than ever.

I am certainly not saying that we are the “super couple.” I am saying that by being committed to one another, “for better and for worse”; by continuing to seek to grow, as individuals and in our marriage; and by being willing to admit that we needed help at times and by seeking that help, that we have experienced so much growth over the years. And God, who is the author of agape, is key to all of it.

When your life is rooted in the love and grace of God, and you learn to treat each other with that same love and grace; and when you seal your marriage relationship with an unbreakable commitment and devotion to one another, then your marriage will be strong and life-giving for both of you. You will feel secure, and you can relax in the safety of each other’s commitment; and from that place you can dare to be yourself, to experiment, to learn, to grow, and to create freely and fully as you build your life and family together.

For your marriage to be strong and healthy, you will need to discover what love truly means to each of you, and what kind of marriage you want to create with each other. That will take time. That will take openness and honesty. It will take compromise, understanding, graciousness, and a willingness to change and grow. But you can do it. With the help of God, the love and support of family and friends, and true humility and agape love, there is so much that you can look forward to you in your married life together.

Benediction. May your love become deeply rooted in the love of God. May it blossom beautifully and richly. May it flower so gracefully and fragrantly that it becomes the greatest most precious gift that you give to each other, your children, your family, your friends, and all those whose lives you touch.

Amen.


[1] Cited in Wikipedia, under “Agape,” July 6, 2012.

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