MANY PEOPLE DEFINE LOVE IN THEIR OWN TERMS. It is a feeling. It is a sexual attraction. It is primarily an affection. But biblical love is more complex. We dare not make up our own ideas about it. Instead, we look at Christ. “God is love” (1 John 3:16), and Jesus is the embodiment of that love.
Only after looking at him are we to imitate him. “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Most profoundly. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Because the love between a husband and wife is the glue that holds church and culture together, marriage is the most important place to apply God’s love. But there is a problem: we will love our spouse only to the degree that we understand God’s love for us. With this in mind, I want to share three truths about how God has loved us. They will transform your marriage.
God’s Love Is Free
First, God’s love is free! This means that, because no one is good enough to earn his love, God owes it to no one. His love is never compelled by anything outside himself.
I remember the day I departed for my first year of college. “I love you,” my mother said as she embraced me in a bear hug. “I am going to miss you.” She began to cry.
I felt her affection, and I was grateful. I hugged her back. “I love you, mom.” But deep in my heart, I thought, of course you love me I am your oldest son. You’re my mom. Moms love their kids. It’s their job.
Sometimes we mistakenly project this attitude onto God. When many of us read “God is love” (1Jn. 4:16) we think, Of course. Isn’t it God’s job to be loving? But, the Bible answers no!
God’s first job is to be just. God does not owe us love. He only owes us justice! If we were good enough to earn God’s love, then justice would obligate him to love us. But we are not. In fact, Jesus is the only person who has ever earned the Father’s love. Therefore, he is the only person to whom God owes love.
All God owes sinners is justice!
Therefore, when God does love sinners, it is always free. It is never something he is obligated to do. God would be no less loving if he only gave us the justice we deserve.
But God does love us, and considering his freedom to not be loving, we should be utterly astounded! Why? Because it would cost God nothing to be strictly just. But it cost him his only begotten son to satisfy his justice so that he could love the undeserving.
How does this apply to marriage? There are many times in marriage when your spouse doesn’t measure up to your expectations. You feel like they don’t deserve your love, and they probably don’t. But how can we, who are so unworthy, receive God’s love when we don’t deserve it, and not at least try to extend that same love to our spouse? Those who don’t at least try can’t walk with integrity. This is a tall order, but it is what the gospel demands. “We love because he first loved us!” And this is the amazing way he has loved us. He loves freely, without compulsion.
God Loves His Enemies
Second, not only does God not owe us love, but the people he loves are his enemies! We love those we like—those who love us back. Even members of the mafia show kindness to their friends. But God loves his enemies (Romans 5:10)—those who don’t love him back. Here is the astounding truth. God gives himself in extravagant love for those who have deeply offended him—men and women with whom he is profoundly angry.
Tim, one of the men who used to be in our church, spent five years in a California prison for armed robbery. While in prison he joined a Bible study led by a man named Tex Watson. Tex was a member of the infamous Manson Family that savagely murdered the pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, in August of 1969. The next night they broke into the home of supermarket mogul, Leno La Bianca and his wife Rosemary. Watson and company heartlessly stabbed them multiple times, then watched as they slowly bled to death in great pain. Then with their blood, they wrote, “death to the pigs” and other obscene slogans on the walls.
Several years later, while serving a life sentence in prison, Watson was approached incognito by Susan LaBerge, Rosemary La Bianca’s daughter. After she had built a relationship with him, she told Watson who she was, that she was a Christian, and that she had forgiven him for the cold-blooded murder of her mother and step-father.
Susan’s example eventually led to Watson’s conversion. Watson shared his testimony with my friend, Tim, and it led to Tim’s conversion as well. What motivated La Berge to extend such lavish forgiveness to the man who brutally murdered her family? God forgave her when she was his enemy, and God’s lavish forgiveness motivated her to extend the same grace to her enemy, Tex Watson.
I was a Christian for several years before I understood this. Like so many, I assumed that God sent his Son to die for me because he liked me. Therefore, I was only motivated to do the same—love and forgive my spouse when I liked her not when she was enemy. I assumed God’s love in the same way that I assumed my mother’s love. Therefore, I had little appreciation for it. But when I saw that God sent his Son to die for me when I was a reviled enemy, everything changed.
That is why Jesus instructed his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-44, 48).
As we have already noted, even unbelievers love their friends. If all we do is love those who please us how are we different from the world? The acid test of true Christianity, the behavior that points to new birth, is the willingness to forgive and love an enemy—someone who has been mean to you, ignored you, taken you for granted, been inconsiderate, or even betrayed you.
Nowhere is the willingness to do this more important than in marriage. We all experience times when our spouse has become our number one enemy, and that is when our walk with Christ is tested. Is it real or is it phony? Are we willing to forgive our spouse? Are we willing to go out to our spouse in love despite his or her many imperfections, despite the numerous hurts? Only Christians impacted by God’s love will try to do this. “We love because he first loved us.” And Jesus loved his enemies.
God Loves Without Need
Third, I have saved the most astounding for last. God loves creatures that he doesn’t need. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush he looked “and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). In this passage a fire that needs no fuel represents God. His flame burns from its own internal energy. It has no external need.
When Moses asked the Being represented by the flame for his name, God responded, “I AM WHO I AM…Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). God’s name communicated one powerful message to Moses. The God speaking to you just is. He always has been and always will be. He needs nothing outside of himself. He is completely satisfied with himself and self-sufficient within himself.
This means that God doesn’t need our love. In fact, we have nothing that God needs. The big word for this is aseity— “self-existent,” or existing “without need.” A being with aseity is complete in himself. He lacks nothing. He lacks no happiness. He lacks no fellowship. He is never lonely because he is, and always has been, in constant communion with the other members of the Trinity. In fact, God possesses infinite eternal happiness within himself. “Infinite” means that it would be impossible for him to be happier. “Infinite” also means nothing can disturb his happiness. “God is self-sustaining,” observes Norman Geisler, “and does not need anything, but everything needs him.”[i] In the words of Paul, “Who has given a gift to God that he might be repaid?” (Romans 11:35). “God is supremely independent of the world,” adds theologian, Bruce Ware, “and hence he simply does not need the world he has made. His transcendence is revealed most clearly by his independent and infinite self-sufficiency.”[ii]
So, if we are God’s enemies, and he does not owe us love, but only justice, and he has absolutely no need for us, what rational motive can we possibly ascribe to God for sending his Son to endure the pain and humiliation of the cross? We have no rational answer except this simple biblical proposition.
“God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16).
Human love doesn’t make extravagant sacrifices for those to whom it only owes justice. Human love doesn’t love those who return its love with hate (John 15:18, 25). Human love doesn’t love despite the complete absence of need. Need is foundational to everything we do. In fact, we are so needy that we can’t even imagine trying to love without need (Try it and see if you don’t agree). We love God because we need him. We need his help. We need his approval. We need salvation. We need forgiveness. We need happiness, and he is the source. We love people because we need them, or at least we need God’s approval for loving them. Our love is never disinterested.
What does this have to do with marriage? Everything. If God has loved me this way, I am trapped. It means I am obligated to love my spouse when he or she is unlovable. I am duty bound to forgive and love when he or she is my enemy. I am also obligated to try and love beyond my need to be loved in return. If I am going to be like God I must continue to love when there is absolutely nothing in it for me.
If you have tried to do this, you know that it is impossible. You cannot love like God with human strength alone. You need supernatural strength, encouragement, and motivation. Even when you have this, your attempts will be woefully inadequate. However, because God uses all things for good—this includes your failures—God will use them to teach you more about God’s love and your infinite need for him. And this reward will make the effort worthwhile.
When a husband and wife attempt to love each other as God has loved them their marriage can’t help but become a Genesis two paradise in experience. Attempting to love as God has loved us is the way back to the original marriage that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden.
For more on how to have this kind of marriage check out my new book Marriage in Paradise. How to Have a Genesis Two Marriage in a Genesis Two World.
[i] Geisler, N. L., Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,1999) pg. 369
[ii] Bruce Ware; God’s Greater Glory, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), pg. 49 (Emphasis mine).