Why Relationships Fail: Love is an Action, Not a Feeling
Have you ever heard the saying, “Love is an action, not a feeling?” It’s not an original saying—some of us who have been through a few sermons or study groups have gotten the concept time after time. But maybe some of us might be new or potential Christians still trying to figure out what any of this means. We hear something like “Love is an action, not a feeling,” and it sounds like one of those bumper-sticker sayings or somebody’s self-made slogan we might see on a Facebook meme somewhere. Say we come into church and start walking toward faith, then we have that moment where the preacher says, “If you don’t know Christ, then you don’t know what love is,” and we feel like Forrest Gump all of a sudden, saying, “I may not be very smart, Jenny, but I know what love is.”
In our culture, when we think of love, we think of love primarily in romantic terms and secondarily in familial terms. But as Christians, we are called to think of love from a third point of view—one that does not come naturally to us as human beings because it is a Christ-like way of looking at love that has nothing at all to do with the way we feel about it. That is the kind of love I’m going to talk about out of 1 John today, but first, let’s look some more at this idea of love as we know it.
What is Love, Anyway?
First, there’s that romantic kind of love. When I look around at the faces in my church, I see a lot of couples among us. I see young couples, middle-aged couples, and more seasoned couples. You might be in love; you might be out of love; you might be looking for love. Whether or not you’re a part of a couple right now, I can say with ultimate certainty that I know you have, in your mental and emotional makeup, some personal definition of what love is.
We think, What do you mean, love is not a feeling? I’ve felt love! That’s because most of us have felt emotional feelings of love. We know what we have experienced, and we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what other people’s definition of love feels like because we’ve only felt our feelings about what love should feel like.
On top of that, we’ve been programmed by the culture in which we live to expect that feeling all the time. We are surrounded with the impetus to understand love as this fluffy, emotional, romantic notion—the stuff they write songs about—and sometimes we get married before we figure out the fluffy stuff isn’t what life or love is about.
So what happens? Life happens. The shine wears off. Some of us haven’t been there yet, but a lot of us have. We’ve been on cloud nine with this person we’re infatuated with, but the real world is still here, waiting for us to get back. We’ve been on an emotional high for a month or six months or a year or maybe even two years, and now we come back down to earth. Eventually, inevitably, the honeymoon is over. And I don’t know about you, but I was very disenchanted when I came down off that high.
Gary Chapman (1995) is the author of The Five Love Languages, and if you haven’t heard about this book yet, just hang out around church groups or couple's counseling, and you will. Basically, the author talks about the five different ways we as human beings are wired to give love and to receive love, and whether you’re in a relationship or thinking about being in a relationship, these are good things to know about ourselves and about other people.
But for me, the part of this book that changed my life comes before the author even gets into those five love languages. The book begins with a few introductory chapters before Chapman gets to the point, and one of those introductory chapters is called “Falling in Love.” There’s so much good stuff in these few pages, I would really like to just copy and paste the whole chapter for you, but we’ve got a lot more to talk about, so I’ll try to just hit some of the highlights that radically altered my perceptions about what love is “supposed” to be like.
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
“At its peak, the ‘in love’ experience is euphoric. We are emotionally obsessed with each other. We go to sleep thinking of one another. When we rise that person is the first thought on our minds. We long to be together. Spending time together is like playing in the anteroom of heaven. When we hold hands, it seems as if our blood flows together. We could kiss forever if we didn’t have to go to school or work. Embracing stimulates dreams of marriage and ecstasy” (p. 29).
“We have been led to believe that if we are really in love, it will last forever. We will always have the wonderful feelings that we have at this moment. Nothing could ever come between us. Nothing will ever overcome our love for each other. We are enamored and caught up in the beauty and charm of the other’s personality. Our love is the most wonderful thing we have ever experienced. We observe that some married couples seem to have lost that feeling, but it will never happen to us. ‘Maybe they did not have the real thing,’ we reason” (p. 30).
You know how it was when you and your beloved started dating. It was the two of you against the world. You had a love that inspired battle and romance and a passion you would defend to the death. You spent hours laying on your backs just gazing into each other’s eyes, resting in the warmth of each other’s embrace, feeling each other’s hearts beating, breathing in the balm of your souls revolving in harmony… yeah, admit it. It was magical and intoxicating and powerful and head-spinning. You had the kind of love they write songs about.
Then comes the reality, when it's time to either get married or call it quits. In the chapter “Falling in Love,” I read this:
“Dr. Dorothy Tennov, a psychologist, has done long-range studies on the in-love phenomenon. After studying scores of couples, she concluded that the average life span of a romantic obsession is two years” (p. 30).
I read those words right after my beloved and I passed our two-year mark as a dating couple. The realization hit me like a load of bricks: we weren’t even married yet, and the honeymoon was over.
Personally, I was not ready to let go of that feeling, even though, for the first time, it made perfect sense to move past it. Of course, the craziness of that in-love phase is a completely unsustainable psychological state. Of course, that level of obsession with another person is not a healthy, long-term fixation. But man, as much as it made sense to grow up, I wanted to keep living in my little-princess magic fantasy land forever because for the first time in my life, I'd felt like that kind of love was finally real.
Luckily, I kept reading. On the next page of Chapman’s book, I read this:
“Once the experience of falling in love has run its natural course (remember, the average in-love experience lasts two years), we will return to the world of reality… [A couple falls] out of love, and at that point either they withdraw, separate, divorce, and set off in search of a new in-love experience, or they begin the hard work of learning to love each other without the euphoria of the in-love experience” (p. 32-33).
All I can say is thank God I read that before I got married. Chapman goes on to quote the work of another psychiatrist named M. Scott Peck, who, according to Chapman,
“concludes that the falling in love experience is not real love for three reasons. First, falling in love is not an act of the will or a conscious choice. No matter how much we may want to fall in love, we cannot make it happen. On the other hand, we may not be seeking the experience when it overtakes us. Often, we fall in love at inopportune times and with unlikely people.
"Second, falling in love is not real love because it is effortless. Whatever we do in the in-love state requires little discipline or conscious effort on our part. The long, expensive phone calls we make to each other, the money we spend traveling to see each other, the gifts we give, the work projects we do are as nothing to us… so the instinctual nature of the in-love experience pushes us to do outlandish and unnatural things for each other.
"Third, one who is ‘in love’ is not genuinely interested in fostering the personal growth of the other person. ‘If we have any purpose in mind when we fall in love it is to terminate our own loneliness and perhaps ensure this result through marriage.’ The in-love experience does not focus on our own growth or on the growth and development of the other person. Rather, it gives us the sense that we have arrived and that we do not need further growth. We are at the apex of life’s happiness, and our only desire is to stay there. Certainly our beloved does not need to grow, because she is perfect. We simply hope she will remain perfect” (p. 33-34).
So when we go into that magical, head-spinning, tap-dancing-on-the-rooftops kind of emotional feelings of love—that courtship phase where our bodies dump a bunch of dopamine into our brains to drug us into thinking this man is perfect and this woman can do no wrong and we’re going to live happily ever after together forever—every one of us goes through that spell where we tell the world, “Well, our relationship is different. You just don’t understand the kind of love we have. I’ve never felt this way about anybody, and there’s no way I could ever lose this feeling.”
Here’s the thing: the honeymoon does not last forever. The new-car smell wears off. There comes a time in every romantic relationship when we come to a fork in the road and we go one of two directions: either we move from feeling love to doing love, or we fall out of love and can’t understand what happened.
This is the point when Chapman says,
“Research seems to indicate that… we can recognize the in-love experience for what it was—a temporary emotional high—and now pursue ‘real love’ with our spouse. That kind of love is emotional in nature but not obsessional. It is a love that unites reason and emotion. It involves an act of the will and requires discipline, and it recognizes the need for personal growth. Our most basic need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving. That kind of love requires effort and discipline. It is the choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that if his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction—the satisfaction of having genuinely loved another. It does not require the euphoria of the ‘in love’ experience. In fact, true love cannot begin until the ‘in love’ experience has run its course” (p. 35).
And if you’ll notice, there are a lot of really biblical principles in this concept of “real love,” the way Chapman puts it. When we think of that romantic kind of love, we’re completely obsessed with how we feel. It is something that happens to us, and it is about how someone treats us, and it is about how good we feel when someone pays attention to us. We think of our feelings of love in terms of getting love, not giving love, and if we love someone, they’re supposed to love us back.
This is why so many of us struggle so much with this biblical concept of loving our neighbors. We go out of our way and bend over backward to show love for the people we want to love, but what about the rest of them? We know that the Greatest Commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we look around at our neighbors and we think, God, I don’t even like my neighbors. How can You expect me to love them?
That’s because we think of love as a feeling or love as a noun we receive, and we can’t wrap our heads around the idea of feeling love for people we might not even know, much less want to love. So many of us have this self-gratifying view of love as a feeling and love as something we are owed. But when we look at Scripture, we find time after time that love is something we give and that love is an action... that it “requires effort and discipline,” the way Chapman writes it.
And as Christians, our relationships change. Love is something we share with God the Father and God the Son. Love flows into us from the Spirit and through us among our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are children of God. Love is something we pour into our body of believers, and it is something we bring to a fallen world full of other people who don’t feel the same way we do. In fact, sometimes, the greatest love we can share is the love we give when we don’t feel like it.
Love (or Not) in the Family
But some of us in the church and especially outside of the church don’t have that experience in our backgrounds. Some of us have felt like we’ve grown up with this myth around us—you know the one about a mother’s unconditional love for her children and a father’s uncomplaining sacrifices for his family?
The fact of the matter is, looking around at the faces around me on any given day, I know that some of us had abusive parents, absent parents, divorced parents, step-parents, parents who abandoned us, parents in the military, parents in prison, parents we’ve never met at all, parents we wish we’d never met. Some of us grew up hearing about what a family is “supposed” to be like and for us, it all sounded like a lie, because our family was nothing like that. How many of us are nodding right now?
Here we have a disconnect that can really impact our early Christianity, not to mention all of the relationships in our lives. We can grasp the idea of romantic love because we’ve all seen plenty of movies that show us what that kind of love is supposed to look like, but some of us grew up in circumstances where familial love was simply not something that we saw modeled for us in our daily lives. So we can read the Bible, and words like mother and father, brother and sister, son and daughter—those words might ring hollow for some of us, or they might arouse some very deep-seated feelings of anger or betrayal because that kind of love is not something we have felt, and so we have a hard time believing in it.
So let’s just set all of that aside for now, because whether or not we’ve experienced it for ourselves, we are all at least familiar with the ideal. We do know, even if it’s just a rumor to us, what a family is “supposed” to be like. And we all know that until we’ve experienced it, we don’t know what it’s like... because that's what we're told. As a woman, I’ve heard the same thing every other woman has heard: You don’t know what love is until you become a mother. Perhaps some of you men have heard someone say, When you have kids of your own, then you’ll understand.
To a degree, I believe that is true. Personally, I don’t know what it’s like to fall in love with my newborn child because I have not had that experience yet. I have not felt that. I want to. I hope to. But in the meantime, so far in my life experience, I do not know that kind of love for myself. I can only try to take everyone’s word for it and be open and hopeful and faithful that when I do have a child, that will happen for me, too.
But if I go with what I know, you see, my experiential background provides me with no parameters for that kind of love. I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t experienced it, so in my experience, that kind of love doesn’t exist. Are you starting to see how limited we can be in looking at love in terms of feelings that we have felt?
So again, I ask, let’s set aside our personal experiences for a minute, and let’s keep our eyes on that ideal about what familial love is “supposed” to be like.
Love in God's Family
We’re going to start transitioning into 1 John at verse 3:10, but before we begin there, I want to point something out to you. If you have your Bible open to 1 John, as you’re on your way to 1 John 3:10 with me, I want you to pause for just a moment at 3:7 and see what it says there. Look at the way John addresses this letter: Dear children.
Now, I’m not going to make you flip back through 1 John with me to look at all of the other places where John writes, Dear children. I’ll just tell you what I’m getting at: the word children is used fifteen times in fourteen verses throughout the epistle of 1 John in the New International Version of the Bible. This is an epistle that is only five chapters and a little over one hundred verses long. Five of those times, when John uses the word children, he uses the term children of God. Nine of those times, when John uses the word children in his letter, he is writing the words, Dear children, as an address, the same way we might still begin a letter today.
And when John writes Dear children, John is writing to a church of believers just like any one of our churches of believers. You see, the reason John’s letter to his church is included in our canonized Bible two thousand years after he wrote it is that the principles of his letter are just as relevant to our church today as it was to that church in John’s day. So when John writes to that church, Dear children, he is also writing to The Church, with capital letters, which includes our church, Christ’s church—the church we live in today.
Let’s look at a couple of other words that we see a lot in 1 John, before we begin our reading from this letter today. We’ve looked at the word children, and now we’ll look at the words brother and sister. Those words go together, right? Where there are children, there are oftentimes brothers and sisters. The words brother and sister appear together twelve times in the epistle of 1 John. One of those times, in 1 John 3:16, John is speaking to the church and refers to “our brothers and sisters.” In 1 John 3:13, addressing the church directly, John writes, “my brothers and sisters.” The other ten times John uses the words brother and sister, he is writing about “anyone” in relation with a brother or sister, meaning “whoever” is among those brothers and sisters.
Moving on, the word Father, capitalized, as in God the Father, appears twelve times in 1 John. The word father, not capitalized, as in you fathers within the church, appears three times in 1 John. Now, get this: the word Son appears twenty-two times in 1 John, and when the word Son appears, that word is always capitalized, as in the Son of God and God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Here’s what I want us to get out of this, before we start reading today. This is a fact of biblical composition and structure that we are taught in our inductive Bible study classes at the university level when we set out in pursuit of our ministry degrees: we are taught that when authors of the Bible use the same words a lot, that’s on purpose. This is something you can take home with you, so when you’re reading your Bible by yourself, and you notice the same word a lot, that’s the author telling you “Hey, I’m making a point here. I’m repeating this word because I want you to notice this word, and I want you to look at what this word means.”
In the case of 1 John 3, we’re seeing a lot of repetition of some very emotional terms. Familial terms in particular, like children, brother and sister, Father and Son—these are words intended to evoke an emotional response by creating sentimental associations. By addressing his church members with the words Dear children, John is suggesting a much more emotional connection with these readers than if he just said, Hey, you guys. And by referring to his church members as brothers and sisters, John is suggesting a much deeper relationship within the body of believers than if he just referred to all you people who show up at the same time on Sundays.
With the intentional, deliberate repetition of these familial terms, John is really driving home a point here, before he even gets into this topic of love and action.
So what do we Christians generally know before we even start reading from 1 John 3? We know, for instance, that we are children of God, and we know Him as God the Father and God the Son, and in Christ, we know we have brothers and sisters in the Spirit, and we know we are His church. So when we look at this word love in 1 John, the first thing I want us to do is to shift our thinking away from this idea of love as a feeling—love as a romantic thing—and I want us to look at love first of all as a family thing, because that’s the next identifiable kind of love as we know it, right? There’s the romantic kind of love we hear about in all the poems and song lyrics, and then there’s the kind of love we’re supposed to have in our families, where we all love each other because we have to, right?
Okay, that’s a little bit of sarcasm, but now we’re getting a little closer to the biblical concept of love, where we’re moving away from that idea of love as something we want for ourselves and something we give exclusively to people of our choosing. Now we’re looking at an idea of love as something that is shared in a familial sense among parents and children, brothers and sisters, and when you bring God into the family, the way 1 John shows us here in the third chapter, then we can begin to grasp this concept of love as an action, not a feeling.
Love in the Church
So here we go, reading 1 John 3:10-18 from the New International Version, and it goes like this:
“This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
“For this is the message you heard from the beginning: we should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
So, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the verse we’re going to hone in on today is that last verse of the reading, 1 John 3:18, which says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” What does it mean to love with actions and in truth? What does it mean when we become children of God? What does it mean to love our brothers and sisters in Christ? Those are some questions we’ve been working up to so far, and the answers begin with developing a deeper and more meaningful understanding of this word love.
In the King James Version of the Bible, the word love is used forty-three times in twenty-four verses throughout 1 John. Almost ten percent of appearances of the word love in the New Testament occur in 1 John, which is one of the shorter epistles in the New Testament. In eight cases, the word love appears in reference to “love for God” (2:5), “love for the Father” (2:15), or loving God. References to love for other people, as in loving “their brother and sister” (2:10) or loving “one another” (3:11) or “each other” (3:14) appear thirteen times in 1 John. References to Christ’s love or God loving “us” (3:1) appear nine times throughout the letter. Finally, the statement “God is love” appears twice (4:8, 16).
Let’s look at the word love in that context, then, because that’s another thing they teach us in biblical studies: always look at the immediate context within Scripture before you look to outside sources to answer your questions. So let’s look at that immediate context, and first of all, let’s see who John is talking about when he says we should love one another.
First of all, there’s a continuous contrast throughout 1 John which draws the line between those who “know” Christ and those who “claim” to know Christ. In 2:14, John states, “I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father.” These “children” who “know the Father” are, in fact, “children of God,” along with John, as indicated by the collective pronoun we in verse 3:2, which states, “Dear friends, now we are children of God.” John’s us-versus-them contrast is then made plain in 3:10, where he states, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” Therefore, loving “brother and sister” is a condition of being “God’s child,” meaning that references to “brothers” and “sisters” throughout 1 John refer to God’s “children,” or those who “know” Christ. Are you still with me?
Using those familial references to speak to fellow believers, then, John is drawing upon relational imagery to illustrate the type of emotional connections manifest in “love” between believers. Here’s the kicker: love for a brother or sister is not merely an expected outcome of knowing Christ, but it is in fact a defining mark of being a brother or sister, as stressed in 3:10. As 1 John 3:16 defines for us, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our life for our brothers and sisters.”
By John’s definition, love is therefore a sacrificial action of God, and in loving “brothers and sisters,” John’s fellow believers and our fellow believers, as “children of God,” are bound to the same sort of sacrificial action toward one another. Again, as 1 John 3:18 tells us, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
So there we have a pretty good start on our application of this verse: we are the people John is writing to here. We are fellow believers, children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, and according to John, we need “not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
Love as an Action
Now the question remains, what does it mean to “love with actions and in truth”? Again, we can look to the immediate context around this verse to help answer this question for us. Right in the previous verse, in 1 John 3:17, John presents a clear benchmark for his original audience that stands for us as believers today: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
Remember, John points to the sacrifice of Christ, on behalf of God’s children, as the measure by which love for “brothers and sisters” should be shown. As fellow believers—as God’s children—we Christians today are called to the same sacrificial love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. The contrast between those who “know” Christ and those who “claim” to know Christ directs us to share in this sort of sacrificial love among our brothers and sisters, specifically, loving our family of believers in the same way as we would act on behalf of members of our own household in an ideal state.
That is what John tells us is the differentiating factor between us Christians and the rest of the world. We give of ourselves to “a brother or sister in need” just as Christ gave of Himself for us, caring for one another as fellow believers in Christ just as we would care for our own blood relatives if we loved them the way God wants us to love. Throughout this entire epistle, John’s use of those familial references in terms of loving one another drives home the kind of love he pictures within the church. Verse 3:17 puts that love into tangible perspective, tying the emotional connection among believers with an active outcome of love for Christ: if we love God, then we love each other, and if we love each other, we take care of each other. As members of God’s family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we sacrifice for one another.
What does that mean? John tells us plain as day in 3:17: if there are those among us who are in need, and we are not taking care of them, then we are not doing what is right, and we are not living in the love of Christ. And if we are not loving each other, if we are not caring for our brothers and sisters, then how can we call ourselves children of God?
John makes it even more clear for us than that. He’s not saying that if we want to be brothers and sisters in Christ, then we should love each other; he’s saying that if we are brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are loving each other. He’s saying that if we do not love each other, then we are not brothers and sisters in Christ. Verse 3:10 says it: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” So doing “what is right” goes hand in hand with “loving one another.”
Why is doing “what is right” so intrinsically linked with the concept of “loving one another”? Simply put, it does not come naturally for us. Our instinct is not to sacrifice ourselves for the wellbeing of other people. We have to make conscious decisions to go out of our way for others, and remember, that’s another difference between “real love” and “romantic love.” Let’s look back at The Five Love Languages and reconsider those three distinguishing factors that make “falling in love” different from “real love,” and let’s redefine that “real love” in terms of loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember...
- Falling in love is not an act of the will or a conscious choice. Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is a conscious choice to be willing to act.
- Falling in love does not require discipline or conscious effort on our part. Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ requires discipline and conscious effort on our part.
- Falling in love is not concerned with fostering the personal growth of the other person. Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is about fostering the personal growth of the people around us.
Now let’s look just a little further into the usage of this word love as John uses it. Strong’s Concordance (2015) tells us the word love in 1 John 3:18 is a verb that means, when it deals with other people, “to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of.” The original Greek word here, when John is talking about the way we are to love one another, is agapaō, and if you use Strong’s Concordance, then the entry you’ll want to look at is G25. In 1 John 3:16, when John is talking about the kind of love Jesus Christ has for us, he uses a different word for love, agape—which is Strong’s G26, if you’re into that—and it means “affection, good will, benevolence, brotherly love.”
Here’s something else for you to think about: in the King James Version of the Bible, the word agape is translated as love eighty-six times, and it is translated as charity twenty-seven times. Now, remember what John was just talking about in 1 John 3:17? “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” Does it sound like John might be talking a bit about charity there?
Let’s put the pieces together: when John talks about the love between us as brothers and sisters in Christ, he uses love as a verb, as something we do and as an action we take. When John talks about the love Jesus Christ has for us, he uses love as a noun, as something given to us, and that secondary translation of love as charity gives us a pretty big clue about what Jesus Christ is giving us in His love for us, doesn’t it?
When we look at 1 John 3:16, how did Jesus love us? “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” How are we to love each other? “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” What does it mean to lay down our lives for each other? From verse 3:16 to verse 3:17, John goes straight from Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to the kind of sacrifice we are to make: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need…” Hint, hint.
Let’s go back to The Five Love Languages for a moment. Remember how Gary Chapman was saying one of the reasons “in love” isn’t “real love” is that “falling in love” is effortless? Remember the kinds of things we do for each other in a relationship when we’re in that tingly, starry-eyed, electrostatic love phase? Chapman wrote that “the instinctual nature of the in-love experience pushes us to do outlandish and unnatural things for each other” (p. 33).
Get those words: “outlandish and unnatural things.” Women, how many of you have waited up all night long for someone to get off work just so he could call you and say good night? Men, how many of you have spent an entire vacation searching one gift shop after another after another to find a little souvenir key chain with her name on it? Women, how many of you have spent hours and days and months creating a photo collage of all your happiest memories together to give to him on his birthday? Men, how many of you have surprised her with a Jacuzzi suite for Valentine’s Day? Women, how many of you have spent all week planning the perfect meal to prepare for him to celebrate his new job? Men, how many of you have spent a whole weekend helping her move into her new apartment? Women, how many of you have sat through every one of his baseball games even though he’s sitting on the bench with his arm in a sling all season? Men, how many of you have followed her endlessly around the mall while she searches for just the right shoes to go with a purse she hasn’t even picked out yet?
Love that Takes Effort
The things we do for each other when we are in love are “outlandish and unnatural,” and we don’t even think twice about doing them, do we? Why do we do them? “Because I love him,” or “because I love her.”
But when we begin to grow together and to mature in our relationships beyond that in-love phase, though, then it starts to take some work to sustain those expressions of love for each other, doesn’t it? After a while, we look back on all those crazy things we did for each other when it was all fresh and new and exciting, and we just laugh and shake our heads about it. It doesn’t come so naturally to keep doing things for each other like we used to.
Sure, we spend the evening preparing dinner for him and cleaning up after him. Yeah, we spend Saturday morning working on her car so she can get to work on Monday. When we were dating and we were high as a kite on the in-love feeling, we never would’ve given a second thought to all the things we did for each other, but now that we’ve been married for a few years, it seems like we spend an awful lot of time doing things we’d really rather not be doing. Sometimes, we stop thinking of those actions as expressions of love for each other, and we start thinking of them as things we have to do for each other. We start thinking of our actions in terms of obligations and consequences.
For example, men: if you don’t get her car fixed this weekend, then you’re going to have to get up early on Monday morning to drive her to work, and then you’re going to have to leave your job early to go pick her up and take her to go pick up the kids, and then you’re going to have to hear her complain the whole time about her piece-of-junk car and how she needs a new one you can’t afford because you keep leaving work early to drive her and the kids around, and so on and so forth.
And for example, women: if you don’t have dinner ready for him before he gets home, then you’re going to have to try to cook around him and pay attention to him while he’s stomping around in the kitchen getting cleaned up and telling you about his day, and then you’re going to have to try to keep dinner warm for an hour because he’s out in the garage getting some project ready that’s going to take him the rest of the night, and then you’re going to have to clean up the dishes by yourself because he’s already getting ready for bed and you haven’t even had a chance to sit down yet because you’re still getting caught up from the day, and on and on.
Why do we do these things? “Because I have to, or else…”
How many of us do Christianity like that? How many of us view our actions in terms of obligations and consequences? How many of us go to church and read the Bible “because I have to, or else”? And the thing is, we don’t have to. God isn’t going to make you love Him. We choose to love Him.
When it comes to any of our relationships, after the honeymoon is over, either we move on to the next relationship, or we choose to keep loving. We develop the discipline and the conscious effort to think of our loved ones’ needs, and we give them our time and our material possessions because we love them.
Men, your wife would really rather just come home and take a long, hot bath and get on the phone with her girlfriends to vent about everything that happened at work today, but she lays down her life for her husband and she takes care of you because she loves you. Women, your husband would really rather get up early on Saturday morning and go pack up the cooler and disappear down by the creek with a fishing pole and some peace and quiet for the day, but he lays down his life for his wife and he takes care of you because he loves you.
Brothers and sisters, when we have kids, we’d really rather do just about anything else in the entire world besides sit through the movie Frozen ever again, but we lay down our life for our children and we take care of them because we love them. If we have a brother or a sister or a cousin or a niece or a nephew who hasn’t found Christ yet, we’d really rather not get out of bed in the middle of the night when they call to say they got kicked out of the bar again and they’re too drunk to drive home, but we lay down our life for them and we take care of them because we love them.
And when a brother or a sister in the church is going through a hard time with a job or a marriage or a relative or a tragedy, we’d really rather just go home and pray that someone else will be there for them because we have enough hard times with our own jobs and marriages and relatives and tragedies, but we lay down our life for our brothers and sisters in the church and we take care of them because we love them.
Do you see the kinds of sacrifices we make for each other when we love each other? That’s the kind of love John is talking about when he’s drawing on these terms like brothers and sisters. We are God’s children, and if we love Him, then we love each other. And like John says, it’s not about words or speech. The word love that we have for one another in Christ is a verb, not a noun. Our love is an action, not a feeling. It takes discipline. It takes conscious effort. It is a choice to be willing to act. It means taking the time to know a love that grows out of reason and choice and to “begin the hard work of learning to love each other without the euphoria.”
It means keeping the magic alive after the honeymoon is over. It is a commitment to do those “outlandish and unnatural” things for our brothers and sisters and to keep doing them because that is the “real love” we can show for our Father in Heaven. It is the loyalty and the honor and the intimacy to love our spouses well, even long after the initial pleasures have worn off. It is the effort it takes to move from "in love" to "true love" and to stay there... for better or worse.
Why do we do these things? “Because we love Jesus Christ.” Is there any love truer than that?