Recently I was asked to give some marital advice at a wedding reception. Since I have been married for 54 years, I had to think about one thought I would want to share with newlyweds. I concluded it would be this: “Understand that love is a commitment and not just a feeling.”
The world defines love almost exclusively as a romantic feeling. Just watch a Hallmark movie—and if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all! A couple meets, the chemistry flows, they fall in love, their mutual attraction overcomes a minor problem, and they live happily ever after in marital bliss.
Teens sometimes ask their parents, “How will I know I’m in love enough to get married?” Shallow parents respond, “Don’t worry. You’ll know.” Most regard love as an intense, romantic feeling that you can’t control. You fall in love like you fall into a ditch, or you fall out of love like falling out of a tree.
Think of the popular songs over the past decades that have conveyed that idea.
Frank Sinatra sang, “Some enchanted evening … you may see a stranger across a crowded room,” and the electricity will flow, the attraction will be intense, and hooray, you’ve fallen in love!
Elvis Presley sang, “I can’t help falling in love with you.”
The rock group, The Doors, sang, “Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name?” That was one of the most in-depth songs of all time!
The Righteous Brothers had a big hit with, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.”
Several years ago, Beyoncé released a song titled “Drunk in Love.” The lyrics are explicit, but it’s the same idea—the physical attraction is so intense, the chemistry so right, the couple is uncontrollably in love. There’s little distinction between lust and love.
However, when the Bible describes love, it doesn’t say much about feeling; it says a lot about behavior.
The Greek word the Bible uses most often to describe love is “agape,” which conveys the thought of doing the right thing regardless of feeling. When the Apostle Paul defined love in 1 Corinthians 13, he said little about irrepressible passion but a lot about controlled action: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Emotions fail. Passions fluctuate. Some days you will feel really romantic toward your spouse, and other days you will wonder what you got yourself into. W.A. Criswell, a famous Baptist preacher, said he had been married for more than 50 years and sometimes he loved his wife so much he could just eat her up … then, the next day, he wished he had!
Paul Harvey described the three stages of love. First, there’s romance, when we’re infatuated with each other and the electricity flows. But romance always fades and gives way to tolerance, where we discover our partner has faults that irritate us, and we have to put up with each other.
Later comes mature love or love in the third degree when we have shared so much life and intimacy and sacrificed so much time and energy that we delight in the fact that there’s someone who knows almost everything about us, yet still cares about us. It’s when we are the most important person in the world to our spouse, and we’d give up our own lives for them if necessary.
Harvey pointed out that too often when people hit the tolerance stage, they conclude that they have fallen out of love. They terminate the relationship and go searching again, looking to rediscover romance. In their attempt to discover a soul mate who will meet their every need, they recycle the experience and delay the ultimate fulfillment.
Jesus is the best example of true love. He didn’t feel like going to the cross. In Gethsemane, He prayed there would be some other way. But He became obedient unto death on our behalf. “‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’” (John 15:13).
Marital happiness is possible when you understand love is a promise to be kept, not merely an emotion to be experienced. I think the best synonym for love is simply “unselfishness.”
When the romance fades, you put the interest of your mate above your own anyway. You sacrifice for them. You do the loving thing, the right thing, and eventually, romance will return.
William James, who is sometimes called the father of modern psychology, insisted, “If you act the way you wish you felt, you’ll eventually feel the way you act.”
In Ephesians 5:33, the Bible commands husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands. The traditional marriage vows say, “I take you for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live.” That’s a promise to be kept, not an emotion to be pursued. That commitment is what gives marriage stability and what produces mature love.
Years ago, I attended the 50th wedding celebration for Ken and Mary Frances Meyers. Mary Frances’ health had been deteriorating due to diabetes, and she couldn’t walk and had difficulty seeing. Kenny had become a very compassionate and tender caregiver.
I said, “Ken, 50 years is a long time!” He quickly responded, “Not nearly as long as it would have been without her.”
When I watched Kenny push Mary Frances through the church building in her wheelchair, I realized again that they knew a whole lot more about genuine love than that teenage couple sitting in the balcony who couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
Bob Russell is retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church and founder of Bob Russell Ministries.