They say that “love makes the world go ’round.” Ah, yes, but what is love anyway?
I think most of us in North American culture get things backwards when we think about the meaning of love. We are an individualistic, consumer society and in good Western fashion we tend to prioritize ‘I’ before ‘you’ (and certainly before ‘we’). We tend to think in ‘atomistic’ ways. We believe that humans are essentially self-contained, isolated units, who then choose to relate to others, usually by way of a social contract of some sort (whether at an individual level in a marriage contract or at a society level via the law). Our relating to others is not regarded as essential to our being, but is something secondary or peripheral. Others may affect our outer ‘shell’, but they do not affect the ‘core’ or ‘kernel’ of who we are. The inevitable implication of this is that the ‘I’ always comes first. Many present-day self-help books and popular magazines that attempt to address ‘love’ and relationships proceed from this starting point. “It’s time to take care of me … I deserve it.” “I must love myself before I can love others.” “My spouse is not meeting my needs.” “We don’t have anything in common anymore” (translation: “my spouse doesn’t see the world through my eyes”). “We just aren’t compatible” (translation: “I can’t make room for the otherness of my spouse in my self-oriented world.”)
This is certainly not a biblical view of love, nor ultimately is it a human view. Scripture tells us that we are created for relationship and that being-in-relationship affects the core of our being, of who we are. Genesis 1:27 says:
“God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
So, God created humanity in His image … male and female He created them. What does this mean? Well, we are created in the image of the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means, in part, that we were created to be in relationship. St. Augustine once used the imagery of Lover, Beloved, and Love Itself to illustrate the inner life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Trinity, God is not an isolated individual, distant and impassible. He is a passionate and loving being-in-relationship. Love is at the core of who God is. But this is no fuzzy, sentimental sort of love. It is a love that initiates and flows out of itself in outreach, commitment, sacrifice, and humility. It is not domineering, nor is it merely an impersonal sort of idea or ethic. The New Testament shows us this love in concrete, tangible ways in the life of Jesus. Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Apostle John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Similarly, the apostle Paul writes, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
This is instructive for our understanding of human relationships in general and marriage in particular. How God loves is how we ought to love. At a fundamental level, then, ‘we’ comes before ‘I’; and ultimately ‘you’ and ‘I’ go together in sacrificial love and harmony. We are not self-contained individuals; we are essentially relational beings. As John Macmurray has said, “I need you to be myself.”* So, for me, being a husband means so much more than signing a marriage contract with my wife. It means being in covenant relationship with her (unconditional, sacrificial, etc.). Furthermore, while being a husband affects what I do, it goes far beyond that…being a husband affects who I am at a fundamental level. It goes beyond my functional role or tasks and affects the core of who I am as a person. This means, my wife and I are one. She is a part of me (and I of her) and she affects who I am at a fundamental level. God has put us together and, through one another, He makes us more like Himself. I am a much better person because of her and loving her brings me freedom and joy to be who I truly am in God’s image. This is a radically other-centred love. It is a love that, by the grace and initiative of God, transcends the self and prioritizes the other. It is a love that prioritizes the objective ‘we’ over the subjective ‘I’…but never in a way that our personal identity is lost. On the contrary, it is in loving the other that our identity is formed and fulfilled. This is why Jesus said that the most important thing in life is first to love God with everything we’ve got and secondly to love our neighbour as ourselves.
* This John Macmurray quote is from his book Persons in Relation and was quoted from Ray S. Anderson, On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Seminary Press, 1982): p. 170.