As Chuck and I travel around the country, we have been inundated lately with personal questions about marriage problems. I can't believe the number of Christian marriages that are having problems in these "last days." It's shocking and so very tragic. I have felt compelled, therefore, to do a short series on God's Love and how it only can be "the answer" to a failing marriage and "the answer" to falling back in love.
I began the series last month by recapping our own marital failure and how God saved our marriage by His incredible, unconditional, freeing and other-centered Agape Love.
Twenty years ago, Chuck and I had what most people thought was a "perfect" Christian marriage and a fairy tale life. We had four beautiful children; Chuck was the CEO of a major computer firm; we lived in a sprawling ranch house with a pool and stables; and, we drove fancy cars. On the outside it looked like we had everything anyone could ever want, but on the inside we were just like all the people you see today whose marriages are falling apart. We were "just existing," with no love, meaning or purpose to our lives, and we were miserably unhappy. Now, what makes our story a little different from so many others that you hear about is that we were Christians at the time. Not backsliding Christians or lukewarm Christians, but ones who really loved Jesus, who were teaching Bible studies and going to church faithfully.
Last month I briefly explained what some of the problems were that lead to the crisis in our marriage (i.e., our own relationship problems, financial problems, medical problems and problems with our children, etc.,). Similar to what so many other couples are going through today.
Matthew 24:12 is an incredible and profound Scripture and it explains our predicament perfectly. It says that in the end times, "...because iniquity [anything that quenches God's Spirit] shall abound, the Love of many shall grow cold." Last night I just "happened" to be reading a book about faith and the author mentions this verse. He says the Greek word here for "iniquity" is anomia, which means "a disregard of God's law of Agape" (Romans 13:10).
The reason his definition of "iniquity" is so interesting is that the Greek word for love here in this Scripture is Agape - which means God's supernatural Love. So, this passage has to be talking about Christians, because Christians are the only ones who have God's Love in their hearts (because Jesus is in their hearts). This passage is saying that in the end times, something is going to happen to that Love in Christians' hearts ("a disregard for it"), that will cause it to be quenched, blocked and grow cold.
I remember when I first read this passage twenty years ago, it shocked me that this could possibly refer to God's Love in Christians. But, in the years I've known this verse, this is exactly what I see happening in our Christian world today. And it's one of the reasons why so many Christian marriages, Christian relationships, and Christian church bodies are having so much trouble. Something has happened to God's Love in our hearts that has made it grow cold in our lives.
I was one of those Matthew 24:12 statistics. I had God's Love in my heart (I had been a believer for about 20 years at that time), but it had certainly grown cold in my life because I had chosen to hold on to (and not give over to God) bitterness, resentment, anger and unforgiveness towards my husband. Thus, without realizing it, I quenched God's Spirit (His Love) in me. I had "disregarded His Law of Love" and it was sin (iniquity).
Ironically, all through those troubled years, I thought I was operating on God's Love. Since I had been a Christian for 20 years, I thought I automatically had Agape Love flowing from me! The truth was, I didn't even know the meaning of the word Agape - because I was loving Chuck hoping to get in return the love that I so desperately needed. That's not God's Love at all, but my own natural, self-centered, human love!
I think many Christians today are confusing natural, human love with God's Love - just like I did. And this is where they are getting confused, off track, and ready to give up because it's just not working. That's exactly what happened to me!
What I didn't understand at that time is that Agape is not a human emotion or feeling, but God Himself loving through us. God is the One doing the loving, not us. And all God desired from me was the willingness to set my self aside (to relinquish myself, to surrender myself), so that He could love Chuck through me.
When I say "self," I mean all of our own thoughts, emotions, and desires that are not of faith (things that are not of God; things that are contrary to God). All God wanted from me was the "willingness" to yield my "self" to Him, so that He then could freely love His Love through me. In other words, God's Love doesn't just automatically flow through us, just because we are Christians. All of our hurts, anger, fears, resentments, pride and unbelief that we choose to hold on to and not give over to God, block His Love in our hearts and cause it to grow cold in our lives.
The Real Problem
This was exactly the problem in my own marriage. Since I didn't know "how" to (or even that I was "supposed to") give my hurts, bitterness and unforgiveness over to God, His Love became quenched (blocked, covered over) in my heart.
I can even remember one particular occasion where I was so overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal and abandonment that I locked myself in a darkened room of that huge house that we lived in, laid on the floor and cried uncontrollably until I thought I would just "die" from the emotional pain.
But, because I didn't know of any other solution, after three hours of uncontrollable crying I just pushed all those emotions down deep in my heart, locked them up tightly, forced a smile on my face, and came out to begin all over again.
I thought that by "burying my real feelings and emotions" and putting a smile on, I'd get rid of them and no one would ever know the difference. The truth is, of course, when we bury our real feelings, we don't get rid of them, we just program them in deeper, and then they become the motivation for much of our behavior.
Now, the world functions this way because the world has no other choice - it has no other option. Without Jesus in our lives to literally take away our hurts, our frustration, our unforgiveness we're all "walking time bombs," ready to explode! Read the newspapers today, watch T.V., notice the people on the street. Everyone seems ready to explode - you see it everywhere.
"Naturally" we all respond to hurt and pain in one of two ways: We either vent our anger and our frustration or we push them down and bury them.
If we have Jesus in our lives, however, there is a third option: if we can just recognize and acknowledge our true thoughts and feelings and learn how to literally give these things to God (rather than venting them or burying them), then God promises to remove them "as far as the east is from the west" and fill us with His Love (Psalm 103:12). So, our only responsibility is to recognize and acknowledge the negative things in our lives that are not of faith and to give them over to Him. God, then, will do the rest.
A Hopeless Situation
But, of course, I didn't know all these things back then, and so without God intervening and doing something pretty radical in our marriage, it was a hopeless situation.
I felt like I had tried every way I knew to save our marriage - books, marriage counselors, seminars, the way of "submission" (which, by the way, I absolutely hated), crying fits and other classes. Yet, nothing had ever worked - nothing had ever changed us on the inside. These were simply temporary outside fixes, because they never touched or exposed the real junk "inside" that quenched God's Love.
So, through a series of circumstances where I actually got to the point of leaving Chuck, God began to show me that He had a "more excellent way" for me to love and that I was totally missing it. He showed me that yes, some of the things Chuck was doing were wrong; and that yes, his priorities were way off; and yes, God would address these in His timing and way. But, He also showed me that the way I was responding to these things was also wrong (and also quenching His Love) and that's what He wanted to address in me right now.
And, He showed me that if I would just trust Him enough to give Him my frustrations, loneliness, resentments, unforgiveness etc. (all the things in me that were not of faith), He would then show me how to initiate His Love to Chuck.
Why Should I be the First to Change?
Now, of course, my first response was, "Are you kidding?" "Why should I be the first one to change? Chuck is the one doing all these things. If he will change, then I'd be glad to follow suit."
God's answer is one that I'll never forget. He simply said, the reason you need to be the first to change is because your life depends upon it. See, the goal and purpose of all our lives as Christians is to be conformed into the image of Christ (i.e., to let Christ's Life and His Love shine forth through us). Therefore, it doesn't matter who is the first to begin that transformation, because God desires us all to be transformed.
I finally said to the Lord, "I don't really understand what You want from me. I've tried all the ways I know of to save my marriage. There are no other ways! But, next to You, my marriage is the most important thing in my life and I'll do anything to save it. So do what You need to in me." In other words, "Change me first."
And that's all God wanted and needed from me - the willingness to be the first to change. God has everything we need: He has all the Love we need; He has all the Wisdom we need; and, He has all the Power we need to perform the above things in our lives. All He needs from us is the willingness to set ourselves aside, so He can do these things through us.
See, all Christians have God's Love in their hearts (because Jesus, who is Love, is in their hearts), but not all Christians are willing to set themselves aside to let it flow! That's the bottom line.
So, this was the turning point in my marriage and in my life - I simply became willing for God to show me all He needed to do in me to make me an open vessel. My goodness, I could not believe all the things He found to show me: self-pity, spiritual pride, self-righteousness, unforgiveness, resentment, bitterness and anger, just to mention a few. These were things that I had buried and stored for years and never realized blocked His Love in my heart and made it grow cold in my life. Now, by worldly standards, some of these might have been "justified." But, by God's standards, because I had held on to them, mulled them over and entertained them, rather than giving them to Him, they quenched His Love. Thus, rather than operate on God's Love as I so desperately wanted, it forced me to operate totally on my own natural love.
The Difference Between God's Love and Natural Love
Speaking of natural love, let me just briefly share what the difference is between God's Love and natural love, because it's so very important. God's Love and natural love are totally opposite.
God's Love is the only unconditional, nonreciprocal, freeing, other-centered Love there is. In other words, it's a supernatural Love!
It's unconditional because it's based only upon God, who always has Love for that other person no matter how we feel or what we think, what our circumstances are and no matter how that other person responds to us. God's Love just "keeps on coming" no matter what.
God's Love is a one-sided Love because it doesn't have to be returned to be kept alive. In other words, it's not, "I'll love you, if you will love me"; it's, "I'll love you no matter what!"
God's Love is a freeing Love because it not only frees the one loving from expectations and presumptions, but it also frees the one being loved to respond from his heart and not his defenses.
And finally, God's Love is an other-centered Love because it always puts the other person's interests above its own.
Natural love, on the other hand, is completely opposite. Natural love is, first of all, a conditional love because it's based upon what we think and feel, what our circumstances are, and how that other person responds to us.
Natural love is also a two-sided love, because it has to be returned in order to be kept alive. It says, "I'll love you, if you love me. But if you stop loving me, I'll stop loving you."
Natural love is also a bondage love because it causes the one loving to have expectations and presumptions, and it causes the one being loved to respond from his defenses and not his heart.
And finally, natural love is a self-centered love because it always puts its own interests above others.
C.S. Lewis gives us a some great definitions: God's Love is a "gift of Love." Whereas, natural love is a "need love." To me, that says it all.
Do a laboratory experiment on yourself and see if you can tell which kind of love you are functioning on. Because, even as Christians, we go back and forth depending upon whether our heart is cleansed or not.
When we yield ourselves to God by making faith choices to give all our hurts, fears and insecurities over to Him, then we allow God's Love from our hearts to freely flow through us. When we choose not to surrender ourselves to God and instead, make emotional choices to follow what we think and feel, we quench God's Love in our hearts and cause it to grow cold in our lives.
So, the real problem in our marriage then, was with me and not Chuck. Matthew 7:3-5 explains it so appropriately: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote in thy brother's eye."
Truly, all Christians have God's Love in their hearts, but not all Christians are willing to set themselves aside to let it flow.
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To be continued next month: the climax of our story and what it means to really love God. This article has been excerpted from Chuck and Nancy's books, The Way of Agapeand Why Should I be the First to Change?