This post is about understanding love. As I type this I am so grateful as even though this blog is all about relationships I have never pretended to understand love so I do not now have to go back and edit lots of posts!
Again this blog is all about relationships. I have now been writing this blog for almost 10 years. And yet in all that time I feel that I have not truly tackled the concept of “love”. This is because I simply have not understand how this concept fits into marriage.
Things I do understand: character, and attraction!
I’ve been “going on” about these concepts because these are the ones I “get”.
Do most other people just understand this implicitly? Or are most other people just as confused as I am? Various rom-coms that I have watched have seemed to interpret attraction as “love” which leads to the temptation for me in real life to “parse” real attraction as “true love”. And yet my spirit has always rejected this, ultimately, because I know it is just not true. “You’re physically gorgeous, you have a dazzling personality, ergo I will love you forever!” – Nup. I know that I don’t understand it, but I also know that that is definitely not it! Attraction by itself will never equate to love – never ever ever ever. The huge numbers of failed marriages between physically gorgeous celebrities attest to this.
Here’s the reason why I have struggled to understand love in terms of marriage. The one thing I do understand…kinda… about love is that it is supposed to be selfless or at least oriented towards serving the other person. And yet attraction is such a big and necessary part of marriage, and I cannot understand how people can even pretend that attraction is selfless. By its nature it is inherently self-serving. When I am physically attracted to someone, it is like I am saying: “I think that the combination of your personality and your body could serve me very well!!” So how do you “turn around” this thing which is inherently self-serving, and make it selfless in love? I have never understood this, and no-one has ever been able to explain it to me.
This is what I think it is: Part of love is just accepting that love – that is marriage – means selfless service. This is an essential criterion for a future spouse, especially a future husband, to have grasped.
Here’s what occurred to me as I was thinking this over:
Sometimes or rather often, romantic movies, books and songs suggest that there is something so special about you as an individual that compels me to commit to serving you for the rest of my life!
What occurred to me is this: that there is likely to be no-one on the face of the earth who is that amazing that in and of themselves they compel you to want to serve them, automatically, and/or on an ongoing basis
1. As the human being offering the selfless service we are just too selfish
2. The human being to whom you would offer the selfless service is likely to just be too flawed, especially once you’ve had a chance to live with them and see their faults close up.
So then, if you are going to commit to offering this person selfless service for a lifetime, then it is not because they somehow “compel” you to be selfless. Because no-one ever will. It is because you know and understand that this is what love means, regardless of how your feelings towards them might ebb and flow. If you sit around and wait until you “feel” like it, or their behaviour sufficiently compels you to want to be selfless – then you will be waiting forever, because that will likely never happen. Ideally as a future spouse you will have been cultivating this understanding for a long time, so that it completely saturates your thinking and your understanding about your future marriage.
What I’m saying is that nothing about someone, or anyone, could ever naturally make you want to serve them selflessly, for a lifetime. So if you commit to someone in selfless service, then that will only ever be because you have accepted or understood that this is what marriage is. Full stop. This is why I need to insist for myself on a husband who just gets this, rather than someone who might be waiting for my character to compel him to want to be selfless. But then of course it balances out because I will simultaneously be offering him my own selfless service, which his own character would equally never be sufficient to “compel” me to do.
However, consideration of their character is still important, because their character is what makes you decide that this is someone that you would like to commit to in this way.
So then, this is how I believe attraction “comes into it”. Attraction could be considered a kind of spur to get to know this person, check out their character. And then once you have fully checked out their character, and you are happy with what you have seen, then you can decide to go ahead with the marriage. Perhaps one party could say: “I am deeply attracted to you…I am looking forward to serving you and I am looking forward to your serving me too OR I want to invest my all into serving you, and I hope you will be excited about serving me too” and then the more attracted you are to one another, and the more faith you have in each other’s character, then the more excited you will be about the mutual exchange of loving service.
This is why these proclamations of selflessness should ideally come from the husband (first): because in a marriage, the natural dynamics are that it is the woman who serves the man. For instance, and most obviously, it is the woman’s body that gives birth to the children. In many cases by default it ends up being the woman doing the cooking, the cleaning, the emotional labour etc. So for these reasons, it makes sense that a man should offer his own selfless service first, to pre-emptively offset and balance out all the selflessness that the woman is likely to automatically give in the marriage, just by virtue of being the woman.
If you fixate too much on your desired physical gratification at any point, even within marriage, then that has the potential to turn from selflessness into self-serving, also known as lust. I guess I’m saying that being attracted to someone gives you a couple of options: 1. to check out their character, decide it is something you could commit to, then henceforth focus on serving their needs, and hopefully receiving their own efforts to serve your own needs in return or 2. fixating on your own physical gratification without any thought of serving them or their own needs.
Here’s another thing: it is possible to initially think yourself excited about the person…and then to later rethink your excitement. As so many Christian books of the nineties proclaimed, love is a decision – an ongoing decision at that. You have to make up your mind every day to love your spouse. And yet some characteristics on their part might make this easier or harder.
Because selfless love is a sacrifice, character traits that undermine your ability to respect them will also undermine your ability to continue on in that sacrifice. In my personal experience, trying to make an ongoing sacrifice without being able to respect the other party just does not work. Let me give you an example from one of my church experiences (what else?!)
I give a lot of effort to churches. This is just my life, and it always has been. My parents were pastors etc etc; even as children my siblings and I learned a kind of commitment to church service – imagine my shock to realise that this was not actually shared by all “pastors’ kids”! And then this has been accentuated by my life choices to the point where – please just take it as read – I am extremely committed and on entering a church I will usually just offer that high level of commitment, automatically. It is a sacrifice, but it is as if the church is just a vehicle, or vessel, through which you offer sacrifice to God. Ultimately the service is offered to God, via the Church.
So there I was in this particular church, offering my usual huge effort. I don’t want to go into details, but some people there treated me in a way that did not respect the commitment and the effort that I offered towards them, but rather took it for granted. Long story short, I just left that church. I cannot be offering you this high level of service and sacrifice just so that you’ll be treating me badly in response – yeah, I’ll find another vehicle/vessel through which I can offer service to God! And then guess what – they tried to get me back into their church – of course they did. When someone is offering that level of service and commitment “for free” that I was offering, then trust me you would try to get them back. But I had already seen what character I was to expect from them, and also what level of (in)sincerity so I was not to be persuaded (shudder!)
And yet for me this has been the story of church life. This exact story is replicated across a number of different churches and church experiences that I have been through.
You know, I recently sat down and worked out that all the church fun and games I complain about occurred only within a period of 12 years – plus 3 years for Christian Union at University, taking that to 15 years in total. Seriously, that is not that long! The way I complain about it, you’d think it was more like thirty years!!!
And yet the point I am making is that because it is a sacrifice it is hard to begin with. Even when the receiving party is operating at a consistently excellent level of character, you have to keep pushing yourself forward in sacrifice, making the daily choice to keep loving, keep sacrificing. But if they are not operating at that high level of character, or if you do not feel that they are reciprocating your effort, then it becomes just too easy to look at them and think: “You’re just not worthy of my time and effort.”
And if you’re like me, you might never go on and on about your sacrifices. That is, I do go on (and on and on!) on my blogs – but in practice, in the actual day to day thing of making the sacrifices, I just don’t spell out what exactly I do as it feels a little tacky to be constantly reminding people of all the sacrifices that you are making towards them; it’s as if this almost negates the sacrifice, like when Jesus said (when you give to those in need) “do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their full reward.” Matthew 6v2. But all the same, even if I do not spell it out for the benefit of other people, still I am obviously completely aware of the sacrifices I am making. Some people apparently do not get this. They perhaps think that because you are not shouting endlessly about sacrifices (as they would do?) then either you are not making sacrifices, or you are not aware that you are making sacrifices. Seriously?! For instance, in one church I was commuting up to two hours there and back each Sunday, coming to a potential grand total of 4 hours travelling time, every Sunday. And then I would often be going to that part of London for various Saturday events etc, spending yet more packets of “up to two hours” going back and forth. Seriously, how do you imagine that I could be unaware that I am spending up to 4 hours travelling back and forth to your church each Sunday, and sometimes multiple times during the week? Even if I do not go on about it, how do you think that I might be unaware of this sacrifice? Do you honestly think I might not be tempted to think of what else I could constructively use this time for, if I was not endlessly commuting back and forth?* Doyou honestly think I might not be tempted to look around for a church that might be closer to home – even at the best of times – that is, before you start treating me strangely?
And the travelling was just one of the many, many sacrifices that I was making towards that church. So when I did leave, and then they started making their lame efforts to get me back, my unspoken attitude was: “Please. Just. Leave. Me. Alone!” Really, I just wanted to forget all about their wonderful church and all the time and effort I had invested towards it – and just move on, ideally never again having to ever interact with their “excellence”. (The churches I have attended seem to universally think of themselves as being “excellent”. Yeah, as you might expect, I have plenty to say about that!) Once again, that is the story of my church life. That said, in that church all the drama was caused by literally one or two people – but highly significant within the church. The rest of that church included lots of people who were sincerely lovely, and I have stayed in touch with as many of them as I can.
Actually, as I write this, I am thinking that this might perversely/counterintuitively be precisely part of the reason why these very few people messed up – because they were so aware of the sacrifice, and deep down they may have wondered what it was about their church (out of all the others that might be closer to home) that warranted that kind of effort. This may have made them nervous about matching up to my expectations, and in their nervousness they may have metaphorically slipped up, and dropped the ball? Also sometimes when you are nervous you get into an uncomfortable state of erm, nervousness. Sometimes it is just easier to simply end the discomfort by getting rid of what makes you nervous. Perhaps. But then that is why you are a “grown-up” church, you need to be bigger than this kind of nervousness.
OR perhaps they thought that my sacrifice was undergirded by some kind of weird and crazy agenda within me, which they needed to sniff out. I’ve also come across that type of thinking directed at me a lot in church circles, starting from Christian Union. It’s like they simply cannot believe that someone like me could sincerely be all that committed to God and His work, so they have to invent for themselves some crazy selfish reason why I’m really doing all this. But no, it sincerely is just a deep commitment to God, plain and simple – sorry to disappoint you!
With all that said, I guess that the difference between “making a big effort regarding church life” and “marital love” is the fact that your spouse will hopefully be making a reciprocal effort towards you, which will hopefully balance out the effects of your own effort; mutually giving one another what we don’t deserve.
Love is like a mutual knot? Or lock or something where a locking effect is produced by the tension of two parts pulling equally against one another – a reef knot? I’m sure I know an appropriate term for this, but I cannot think of it just now! So I am “locked” into it this way: on one hand I am offering you my selfless service. On the other hand, that is balanced out by my attraction to you which represents the selfless service that I am happy to have already received from you and I hope you will continue to give me. It is the balance between these two things which creates a “lock”. My faith in your character is what keeps me trusting that you will continue to serve me as I need, and keeps me excited about being “locked” to you in this way. And then in a mutual relationship, you are equally locked to me in the same way. But it is all voluntary. It could all fall apart at any moment; at any moment you or I or both of us could decide to stop investing our selfless effort towards one another, or we could decide that we are no longer attracted to one another, or we have lost faith in each other’s character. This is why it needs to be carefully nurtured, and this is what makes it all the more precious when it does succeed.
So then if I want my love to last for a lifetime, then I have to do my best to make sure that each of these 6 aspects is utterly robust, and will ideally keep growing: his selfless effort towards me, his attraction towards me, his faith in my character, and conversely my own effort towards him, my attraction towards him, my faith in his character. I have to think more about attraction – doing our mutual best to be appealing to one another, but I believe that “selfless effort” and “faith in one another’s character” can both be sustained by pursuit of Christ. Furthermore, if we both understand that this is what keeps our marriage “locked” together, then hopefully we would know what to work on when difficulties arise.
If I was to apply this analogy to that church, or rather those churches, to see where things may have fallen apart, it might look like this: I was investing my selfless effort, with this initially being balanced or “locked in” by my attraction to their claims of faith, and the belief that they genuinely cared about me and the hope of seeing the different ways that might play out over coming months and years. But it became clear that they did not really care about me, so when that belief evaporated within me there was no longer anything to balance out my effort. Furthermore I lost all faith in their character, meaning that I could no longer expect from them anything springing from deep-seated sincerity on an ongoing basis. So whatever had been binding me tightly there to each church literally just collapsed, sometimes overnight, and I walked away.
See, I always knew that the love thing would be really easy, and that I would be kicking myself at the simplicity once I finally got it! (Off the top of my head I think I’ve said that before though, once again specifically about love, when discussing the difference between love and infatuation!!!)
** I really do not want to discourage anyone from going to church because of financial reasons but…after leaving that church I got a couple of jobs one after the other which involved working over the weekends…and in the following calendar year I was able to make thousands of pounds by working those hours which I had previously spent commuting back and forth – to the tune of raising up to an extra £8.5K over the course of one year (13 months) – after tax – after giving 10% of my pre-tax income to charity – and this despite 3 months during that year when I was not working at all. So this time sacrifice of “church commuting” came at a loss of real financial potential. As a committed Christian you are never going to refuse to go to church just so that you can instead work and earn money. However, for a church to truly be worth your while they truly have to be pursuing God with their whole hearts. Otherwise, to be perfectly candid, this is London, we’re all trying to save a deposit to get onto the housing ladder/invest money into moonshot business ideas/clear our lingering debts from previous moonshot business ideas which emphatically did not work/stash money away for sheer survival – you get me?!