I ended the last post asking “What does love have to be if it’s something I can promise?” How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In this post I’ll lay out three differences between poetic and covenantal love, largely drawn from Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.
1. More Action than Emotion – If poetic love is primarily an affair of the emotions that just sweeps you up in a passion, covenantal love is primarily an action. Paul assumes this when commands husbands to love their wives. (Eph 5:25) You can’t command feelings, but you can command activities. Saying “I love you” or “I do” with a covenantal love in view, is committing yourself to “BE” and “DO” certain things for a person. It is a decision to sacrificially commit yourself fully and wholly in loyalty to another person, putting their welfare, joy, and life above your own. When I promised to love my wife, I didn’t promise “I will always feel warm fuzzies towards you.” I promised, “I will be a husband to you–I will care, pray, show affection, be there when you need me, support you, cling to you, and will your good.”
Now, of course it does involve emotion, but often-times what I find is that these emotions can actually flow from the actions. For example, it might be a date night with my wife bit I’m tired and just want to stay home and watch TV to decompress after a long week. Making the decision to go through the trouble of getting ready, getting dressed, shaving (my neck–because neck beards are unnacceptable), and getting in the car when I don’t really feel like it, surprisingly can lead towards actually feeling like it. The loving action stirs up my loving emotion so by the time we’re on the road, I’m actually excited for the night out with my wife. That’s a microcosm of what can happen in marriage as a whole, when the decision to act in loving ways is made independent of a current emotional basis, the emotion often follows.
2. Other-centered not Self-centered – The next difference is what love is centered on. Aside from the fact that it’s unstable, our culture’s understanding of love is essentially self-centered. It’s consumeristic in that it basically says, “As long as you fulfill me, please me, tickle my fancy, then I’m here. As soon as the buzz fades, I leave.” If love is primarily about an emotion felt, then you only ‘love’ the person when they are producing feelings in you. Actually, that’s why you’re loving them. The point is, in this view, love is a potent emotion that the other person inspires in you because of what they do for you, who they are–it’s primarily a selfish experience about you, your wants, your desires.
By contrast, in the Bible love is not primarily about what I get out of the person or what I feel about the person, but about what I am willing to give to the person. Am I willing to give them time, faithfulness, exclusivity? I know how much I love someone by how much I am willing to put their needs ahead of my own, not necessarily how much I “feel” about them. In consumer love, the self is placed before the relationship: the point is you’re in it to get something out of it. In covenant love, the relationship is placed before the self. In fact, the point is, covenant love is a union where I so identify myself with you, that your needs become my needs, your wants are my wants even when they’re not what I personally want. I am so bound to you that I desire to serve you just like I serve me. Covenant love doesn’t tally. It doesn’t keep records because when I give to you, in love I have identified your needs as my own. Now, how beautiful is this? Two people who have so placed the needstrying to sacrifice, two people trying to out-serve each other, two people out for each other’s joy instead of two people out for their own joy.
3. Vertical v. Horizontal– This brings us to the final difference. If love is primarily an emotional thing, if the reason I go to the other, serve, the other, etc. give emotion to the other is because of the way we make each other feel, then this is essentially a consumer transaction. We are paying each other in warm fuzzies. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to think about marriage as basically something that’s just happening between you and your spouse and to be honest, I don’t know if that’s going to work out for very long. Unfortunately, in most marriages there comes a time when I just can’t say, “I love you” because I don’t feel it. In the hardness of my heart, I’m going to be tempted to say, “You’re not worth it” or “I just don’t have the strength.”
This is where Kierkegaard’s “love transformed by the eternal” comes into play–what if love was not just between two people, but between two people and God? See, when we promise, when we say “I do”, we’re promising God not our spouse. So, when I’m serving my wife, I’m serving my God. When I’m loving my wife, I’m loving God. I can’t separate the two. Of course, the inverse means that to break faith with spouse is to break faith with God at the same time. This is at the core of why God has something to say about divorce and marriage–as a covenant partner it is His business.
At first this sounds threatening, but in reality, it should be encouraging. If it’s not just me and the sinner I married, then I have a shot. When that day comes when you look at your spouse and you, in the hardness of your heart, might say, “You’re not worth this”–putting my relationship in the context of my relationship with God gives me the strength to love when it’s hard, stick it out when it’s painful, and be faithful anyways. When it’s not just me and another sinner trying to tell each other we’re worth it, it’s a lot easier: Why? Because God is always worth it. Even more than that, it’s not just me and another sinner trying to pull this off on our own strength. If you understand that love has a vertical dimension to it, it means that you can call on God to sustain your love. He has a vested interest in this because ultimately, at the core of who God is and what God has done is the reality covenantal love.
Good News, There is Love
This is something we cannot let our hearts forget: the Gospel is a story about covenantal love. Since we live our lives, and even our marriages, out of the stories we tell ourselves, we need to remind ourselves daily that there is story above all stories–a true story about one, Jesus Christ, who saw his bride and said, “It’s not about me.” He was not drawn to her because she was so awesome that she created all kinds of warm feelings in him out of her own worthiness. Instead, He decided to love her despite her unworthiness. He decided to bind himself and make a covenant with her; to put her needs ahead of His own; to serve her and not himself; to give rather than receive; to be trustworthy and faithful when she was untrustworthy and faithless; to unite himself with her so much that her needs became his needs, and her sins became his sins, and in order to keep the covenant, her death became his death, so that His life could be her life. It is this story that needs to set the framework within which we understand love and marriage. Once again, as in all things, the Gospel of a God who proves his own covenantal love for us in the death of Christ for sinners changes everything. (Rom 5:8)
Soli Deo Gloria