The Promise of Covenant Love: Pt. 2

Meaning of Marriage

Seriously, I cannot recommend this book enough whether you’re single, dating, married, newly-married, divorced, or an infant. Read it.

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

Kierkegaard, Keller, La Dispute, and the Promise of Covenant Love – Part 1

Regine Olsen

Sadly, everybody remembers her as Kierkegaard’s fiance and not the wife of her husband…that guy.

February is here and love is in the air–or maybe that’s packaged chocolates and commercial opportunity. In either case, the subject of love and romance will be coming up again, which is why I must once more bring up my favorite philosopher: Soren Kierkegaard.

For those of you who know a little of his biography, he seems an odd choice to turn to on the subject of love–he was one of my philosophers who failed at it. Tragically he broke off his engagement with the lovely Regine Olsen because he felt his depressive melancholy made him unsuitable as a husband. What could we possibly learn from him about love?

Well, for one thing, he’s experienced at failure, so that gives you some insight. Still, Kierkegaard, for all of his Danish weirdness, has this going for him: he’s easily one of the most biblical, prophetic thinkers of the modern period. Under both his own name, and through pseudonyms, he made it his aim to present Christianity anew, true Christianity, with force to a culture that thought it already understood it.

Works of Love and La Dispute
In his Works of Love he turns his meditations to the biblical concept of love. The first half is an extended exploration of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The piece that captured my attention was the focus he gives to the “you shall” in Jesus’ command–the fact that Jesus commands love at all. Kierkegaard emphasizes, “You shall love–this, then, is the word of the royal law.” Again, “the mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is a duty.” (pg. 40) Later he writes, “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (pg. 44)

Against the popular, romantic “poetic” conception of love that dominated the intellectual scene of his day, Kierkegaard pressed the idea that the highest form of love was not the “spontaneous”, sudden, seizing form of love that sweeps over a couple of lovers, but rather love as duty–love as something secured by the eternal, the command of God. The love of the lovers is beautiful, yes, but it is fleeting–it can change. Even if it lasts, it’s not to be trusted entirely. It can leave. La Dispute gives us one of the best, contemporary expressions of this kind of love on their album, “Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair“, exploring the dynamics of a failed marriage, rent asunder by the wife’s affair.

Speaking in the aftermath, the wife sings, “I know I tore two worlds apart but I can’t change the way I felt./Love swept in like a storm and ripped the hinges from the doors./Love poured in like a flood, I couldn’t stop it anymore. I will not be drowned” (Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies), or, even more poignantly:

Oh husband, I could not control it
Husband, I could not abstain
One cannot stop the wind from blowing
Nor refuse the falling rain
Love stirred up a storm inside me
Wrapped its arms around my waist
I failed you dear, I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry
There was nothing I could do
No, there was nothing I could
Sure as the rain will fall
Some love just fails without reason

(Last Blues for Bloody Knuckles)

Poetic love is that inherently unstable, emotional chaos that sweeps over us with great passion, and apparently can leave us as quickly. Matt Chandler calls this the “naked angel in a diaper” theory where basically, at any point, cupid can show up and strike you. It has no rhyme or reason, like the blowing of the wind or the falling rain.

Kierkegaard points out that the poets instinctively know this; note how often their lovers swear, make promises, and bind themselves to each other in their love. Still, if they only swear by themselves, it is an insecure promise because humans are changeable, unstable. Only when you swear by something higher, something eternal, duty, God himself, can love be something secure. “The love which simply exists, however fortunate, however blissful, however satisfying, however poetic it is, still must survive the test of the years. But the love which has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty has won continuity.” (pg. 47)

Kierkegaard, Keller, and Covenant Love
Kierkegaard was pointing his culture to a love “transformed by the eternal”: covenantal love. When we hear the word “covenant” today, we mostly don’t know what we’re dealing with. Contracts are closest thing we can imagine, but that’s far too impersonal for the biblical notion of covenant. The concept and language of covenant in the Bible is that of a legal bond, a union based on promises before God and humans of fidelity, friendship, love, exclusivity, and trust.

Now to us this “legalizing” of the relationship seems to drain all of the emotion, the passion–the love!–out of things. For moderns, it’s either love or law, not both. Tim Keller has recently pointed out that, in fact, the law, the promise, especially the marriage promise, doesn’t kill emotion and intimacy, but actually is a testimony to it and increases it. (The Meaning of Marriage, pp 84-85) Marriage–the public, binding promise–is the ultimate expression of romantic love because its the giving of the whole self. Someone who doesn’t want to eventually get married to the person they’re dating is basically saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.” How intimate. Ultimately, only when romantic love is set within the framework of a binding obligation do the lovers truly have space to reveal their true selves, without fear of abandonment or rejection. Until then, you’re still on the performance platform, constantly under pressure to put your best foot forward to make sure the other person doesn’t bolt. Ironically, only when you give up your “freedom”, your romantic autonomy, are you able to be truly free to be with the other.

Love, it turns out, hangs on a promise.

So 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 my next post, I’ll lay out more clearly the difference between this covenant love and the poetic love.

Soli Deo Gloria