My sister-in-law is getting remarried soon. Her new fiancé seems like a good man, and we have high hopes that their marriage will be a good one. Her first marriage was deeply unhappy and she was grievously sinned against in it. My wife is shopping for a wedding gift, of course. I notice that the famous love passage from 1 Corinthians 13 is a prominent theme on many of these gifts. You know the one. It begins “love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy or boast…” It ends with the words, “love never fails.”
Now, these are true words, and I believe them with my whole heart. The problem is that they are being subtly applied in a wrong way most of the time, and it has lead to an epidemic of heartbreak. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves shows us that the Greeks had four words for love. Storge, or "affection" is exemplified by the love between a parent and child, though it is much richer than that. Philia, or "friendship" which has its own special meaning. Eros is "romantic" love. And there is Agape, or "spiritual" love. Agape is the love that God gives to His children and then commands them to give to everyone else. Agape is what St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.
Lewis points out that each of the three human loves is corruptible. They can be damaged or destroyed by our actions towards each other. Our experience and our common sense tell us this. According to St. Paul, agape love is indestructible. It’s the only one that is.
We are all seeking to be truly and fully known by another, and then loved unconditionally no matter what sin, brokenness, or weakness is found within us. We search our whole lives for this, and most of us never find it. We know intuitively that to find this kind of love would heal our deepest infirmities. It is the subtext of many parent-child relationships and some of our friendships. But it manifests itself most fully and powerfully in our eros relationships, our romantic relationships. When we fall in love with another person, our deepest selves are saying, “Will you accept me no matter what you find when you get to know me? Will you not reject me, ever? I need that complete acceptance in order to be whole.” Of course, the other person comes to us with just the same question. Most of the time the answer which is assumed but never stated is, “I will love you if you love me.” Thus our loves begin as a kind of fee-for-service. If you give me what I need, I will give you what you need. Any deficit of acceptance, whether real or imagined, is keenly felt and resented as a breach of contract.
And of course, the other person cannot love us perfectly. He or she will fail sooner or later. We then withhold a small measure of love in retaliation. This is deeply felt by the other person, who may not even realize they’ve failed us. So they withhold a small measure of love from us. And so the cycle goes, growing ever more vicious and reinforcing itself at every turn. Our romantic loves begin destroying themselves almost as soon as they are formed. We lay a weight on them that they were never meant to bear. When they break under that weight we may even grow bitter against love itself. “It said on the little wedding gift that love never fails. What a horrible lie! What a swindle! I won’t be taken in by that again!”
It is no surprise to me that 50% of marriages end in divorce. I am surprised that the number is that low. And how many of the 50% that survive are simply monuments to fatigue, inertia, and despair?
Only agape love can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts and heal our inward sickness, and it can only be found in God. St. Augustine wrote, “O Lord, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” God may first bring this love to us using another person, but that person will not let our attention fix on them for too long. They will soon point us back to God. When we truly know ourselves to be loved this way, we find a place to stand and a power with which we can begin to truly love others for the first time in our lives. This love is freely available. It is your highest duty as a creature to seek it out. If you find it, it will transform you and everyone around you.
Brian Carpenter is the pastor of Foothills Community Church (PCA) in Sturgis, South Dakota. He and his wife Laura have two lovely daughters, Evelyn and Jordan, ages 2 and 3. His interests include automotive and motorcycle repair and rebuilding, welding and metal fabrication, economics and monetary theory, philosophy, classical education, church history, and really expensive Scotch whisky. Brian blogs at TheHappyTR and AFiresideChat. His sermons are available online at SermonAudio.com.