“But the Greatest of These”
The most important element in a happy Christian home is love, but what many people think is love is really not the highest form of love at all. It is either eros, a feeling inspired by something attractive in its object, or philia, a sense of comradeship and friendship. These sentiments can sustain a relationship for awhile and may even bring a degree of happiness, but if a couple aspires to an abundant and abiding joy in marriage they will need agape, God’s kind of love. Agape does not grasp after what it can get, but pursues only what it can give, and it keeps giving even when it gets nothing in return.
When the Holy Spirit controls our lives and expresses agape through us, certain elements of eros and philia will still be present in our marital relationships. We will still appreciate the attractiveness of our loved ones and the physical expressions of love with them. We will derive great satisfaction from a sense of togetherness, an intimacy of mind, emotions, and will. But our love will no longer depend on the attractiveness of our mates, nor will the continuous expression of our love depend on the pleasure we experience. The source of our ever-growing love will be God Himself. He sanctifies the eros and philia and makes them meaningful and precious. Life becomes balanced and beautiful, and God’s happiness reigns supreme in our homes.
What is a home like when the husband and wife are both filled with the Spirit, and agape is being expressed? The answer is found in First Corinthians 13, the great love chapter. Every occurrence of the word “charity” or “love” in this chapter translates the Greek word agape. The chapter actually contains a description of love rather than a definition; it shows us how agape acts. Though true agape applies to every object of love, such as God Himself, other believers, our children or a lost world, we are going to confine our application in this chapter to the husband-wife relationship.
(1) “Love suffers long.” It is long-tempered, slow to anger, slow to take offense, slow to become resentful. True love causes us to bear patiently with our loved ones when they wrong us, offend us, nag us, or criticize us. It is slow to assert itself or to retaliate in self-defense. The one who loves is willing to be a doormat if necessary, to let his loved one walk all over him without retaliation, self-pity, or sarcastic retorts.
Some will reply, “That’s not love; that’s a one-way street to Ulcerville. I’d have a nervous breakdown if I did that.” On the contrary, that is the way we show our loved ones that we really do love them; when they are convinced of this fact they will begin to respond in like manner, for love produces love. To insist on our rights and to strike back when we are wronged will only prolong the conflict, and it is this prolonged irritation that produces ulcers and breakdowns. We cannot afford not to be doormats if that is what our situation demands. Some will protest, “But you don’t know my husband/wife; he/she will keep on taking advantage of me; walking all over me and enjoying it.” But wait a moment. Are you questioning the inspired Word of the eternal God? “Give and it shall be given unto you.” “Whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” “We love him because he first loved us.” Trust God to do what He says He will do. Keep on expressing His patient love, whatever the consequences, for He promises that ultimately it will bring you genuine love in return.
(2) “Love is kind.” This is the positive side of the first principle. Patience refrains from reacting to provocation, while kindness finds constructive ways of doing good for the ones we love no matter how they have acted. Kindness is showing appreciation for little things we like and saying so with sincere commendation. Some husbands or wives cannot recall the last compliment they received from their spouses.
Kindness is a helping hand, and that goes for husbands as well as wives. Kindness is a tone of voice, an approving look or smile. Some husbands and wives seldom speak kindly to each other. They know how to speak in pleasant tones to other people, but they growl at each other. Try the kindness check at your house for awhile. Whenever you say something to your mate that elicits a negative response, ask yourself, “Was that kind?” If it wasn’t, confess it to God, apologize to your mate, and trust God for the grace to be kind. It may work wonders in your marriage.
(3) “Love envies not.” Love is not jealous; it is not in competition with its loved one, nor is it hurt when it comes out second best. Unfortunately, husbands and wives are sometimes jealous of each other. The husband may be jealous of his wife’s talents, her leadership abilities, her capacity for getting along with other people, or her understanding of God’s Word. The wife may be jealous of the time her husband spends with the children, or the attention the children give him when he comes home from work—after she has given of herself all day to care for them. She may be jealous of the time and effort the husband gives to his job, to the church, or to something else he enjoys. Either of them may feel surges of jealousy when some member of the opposite sex seems especially friendly to their spouse. Agape love is not possessively jealous, and does not insist on having all the attention all the time.
(4) “Love vaunts not itself, is not puffed up.” These two ideas are similar to each other. To vaunt means to brag or boast. To be puffed up is to be arrogant and conceited. Love is not inflated; it does not carry an exaggerated estimate of its own importance. It does not consider itself superior to its object. Pride is extremely subtle, whether it be pride over superior ability, better education, higher refinement, greater spirituality, or any one of a number of things. It creeps in unnoticed, but it is almost always reflected in our attitude toward our mates, eating away at our relationship until there is little left.
Sometimes we feel that we have been unusually sweet or have done something particularly wonderful. We long to be complimented, but the compliment never comes. Our feelings become hurt, and we start to rehearse what we’ve done in order to get the praise we crave. This is not love, for love does not boast. It may have been a lack of love that withheld the compliment in the first place, but each of us will answer to God for ourself—not for our mate.
(5) “Love does not behave itself unseemly.” Love is never unmannerly, but always acts courteously and politely. When we truly love, we make the effort to do little things that show how much we care. Whoever it was that said, “Chivalry is dead” spoke a mouthful. Most wives find that their husbands seldom open car doors for them anymore or practice other simple acts of propriety that show loving consideration. The husbands are not the only guilty ones, however. Some wives react indignantly when their husbands make reasonable requests in pleasant tones. Others demonstrate a gross lack of courtesy by interrupting their husbands when they are speaking. Love is never rude.
(6) “Love seeks not her own.” Here is the very essence of love unselfishness, the absence of all self-seeking. Love does not insist on its own way or on its own rights. The matter of violated rights is probably one of the most common trouble spots in shaky marriages. All of us believe that we have certain inalienable rights: the right to be appreciated, the right to have certain things our way, the right to enjoy certain personal comforts, the right to have our needs met. When our spouses violate these rights, we react with anger and indignation. But true biblical meekness is the willingness to give up our rights for the people we love. Actually, when we yield ourselves fully to God, we happily surrender all of our rights to Him. If we have honestly given all of them to Him, we have none left to be violated! We will gratefully enjoy only those rights which the Lord sees fit to restore to us in His own good pleasure. Think back to some conflict with the one you profess to love, and you will probably uncover some right of yours that you felt was violated. When you are tempted to demand your right, ask God for the grace and power to leave it with Him. Then watch the tensions begin to ease in your marriage relationship.
(7) “Love is not easily provoked.” It is neither touchy nor irritable. Since it has surrendered all its rights for the one it loves, it has nothing to get upset about. Love is not easily aroused to anger, doesn’t wear its feelings on its sleeve, is not temperamental. Touchy people make poor marriage partners; they need to let the Spirit of God give them victory in this area of their lives if they hope to find happiness in marriage.
(8) “Love thinks no evil.” Love does not dwell on the wrongs it has suffered from the object of its love. Neither does it magnify human faults. Love forgives and forgets; it doesn’t hold grudges or tabulate grievances! Have you ever thought back over your married life and enumerated the many times you have been wronged? We are particularly inclined to do this when we are building a case for a good argument. But that is not love. Have you ever let your mind dwell on all the faults and shortcomings of your mate until you felt shortchanged? We are especially prone to do this after a heated or prolonged argument. But this is not love either. “Thinking no evil” likewise eliminates the continual criticism and disapproval to which some husbands and wives subject their mates. It will take Spirit-empowered discipline to stop this dreadful habit if you have already fallen into it, but you will discontinue it if you really love. A good place to begin might be to write out a list of your mate’s good points. Read it every time you are tempted to find fault. The Lord may use it to change your attitude dramatically.
(9) “Love rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.” This statement alludes to that sinister satisfaction which we sometimes feel when someone who has injured us is caught doing something wrong. “He only got what he deserved” is our heartless reaction. The verse may also refer to those occasions when we gloat over the shortcomings of our mates in a selfish attempt to vindicate ourselves. For example, we may still be smarting over some critical word spoken by our mate when suddenly he does something obviously wrong. We capitalize on the situation with some comment like, “See; you’re not so perfect either!” Love does not rejoice when wrong is done, but when truth and right prevail.
(10) “Love bears all things.” The word translated “bear” means literally “to cover, to pass over in silence, to keep confidential.” Love does not broadcast the faults of its object, It does not belittle the one it professes to love by exposing his shortcomings and failures in the presence of other people. While this is the favorite indoor sport of some married couples, it is not love. Love keeps these things confidential.
(11) ‘“Love believes all things.” This does not mean that love is gullible, but that it is beyond suspicion, doubt, and mistrust. True love eliminates the third degree: “Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? Why couldn’t you get home sooner?” Some women protest when they hear that love believes all things. “But he’s lied to me so many times; I just can’t believe him anymore.” Maybe you can’t believe him, but you can believe that God will use your love for him and your trust in him to change his life. Love keeps on believing.
(12) “Love hopes all things.” Love does not magnify problems in order to justify quitting. Love never gives up hope, never despairs. It just keeps on going.
(13) “Love endures all things.” The concept is that of sustaining an assault. Love weathers every storm of suffering or persecution. It takes every blow and still keeps coming back for more—cheerfully!
(14) “Love never fails.” It never falls to pieces, never collapses, never terminates. As long as the Spirit of God is in control of our lives He just keeps on producing love and we just keep on displaying it! If we ever stop, we will know that the Spirit of God is no longer in control, for His love never ends.
I wish you could hear Karen describe how the Word of God worked in her life. Her husband, Bruce, had grown up in the church and had professed Christ as his Savior at an early age, but he had never evidenced much spiritual reality in his behavior. After Karen and Bruce were married things went from bad to worse. Bruce began drinking heavily, staying out most of the night, squandering their money, and mistreating Karen and the children.
As the days dragged into years the situation continued to deteriorate. Karen’s friends begged her to leave Bruce for the sake of the children and for her own physical and mental well-being. However, she refused, for she was confident that God would change her husband. She had surrendered her right to enjoy a loving and considerate husband, and had asked God to fill her with greater love and kindness in spite of the cruelty she was enduring. She kept on believing and hoping.
It was several years later that I sat in their living room and listened to their story. Bruce was now a dependable husband and father and a spiritual leader at home and in church. “To what do you attribute the change?” I asked. “There were several factors,” he replied. “The Lord used a visiting evangelist to clinch the decision. But the greatest single influence was Karen—her willingness to stick with me and put up with all the misery I caused her. I knew she really loved me. It was that love that brought me to my senses.”
The Apostle Paul concluded his magnificent discourse on love by listing three great Christian virtues—faith, hope, and love. It should come as no surprise to us that his very last statement is, “But the greatest of these is love.”64 This agape—this love of God—is the greatest thing in the world. It can revolutionize our homes and make them into everything we ever dreamed they could be. But it all depends on us—on our willingness to allow God’s Spirit to produce this phenomenon of love in our hearts and lives.