Displaying Christlike Love to Your Spouse
Before my husband and I got married, a lot of people offered us practical advice. Some of it was excellent, and some was … not so excellent. The advice continued well into our first year of marriage. One middle-aged woman, after finding out that our first anniversary was approaching said, “Enjoy it now, because there will be some anniversaries that you wish you weren’t celebrating.” Although her statement filled me with what I like to think of as righteous indignation, I couldn’t say anything in response to someone who had far more marriage experience than myself.
Not all of the advice was quite this shocking and most fell under the “method” category; in order to have a smooth, happy, peaceful marriage, make sure you do such-and-such, and make sure you know who is doing what job or who takes on what role. Nothing they said was wrong or sinful, and in fact, many things were helpful and wise. When Judah and I have been asked for marriage advice, we’ve often offered up some of those same answers we received: the importance of good communication, unconditional forgiveness, and so on. But as we have talked and thought about it, we’ve come to the realization that in our marriage we always come back to one thing that is most important: treating one another as Christians.
Before Christian couples ever get married, they are part of the same spiritual family. “Treating one another as Christians” simply means following the commands in Scripture for how we are supposed to treat our fellow believers. It means looking into the Word of God and allowing our actions, attitudes, and words toward our “significant other” to be shaped by this overarching Truth. All we have to do is open up the New Testament and we come across seemingly countless verses about how we are to act toward our brothers and sisters in Christ:
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another. Romans 12:10
For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13
Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord and of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Philippians 2:2-3
Do all things without complaining or disputing. Philippians 2:14
Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. 1 Peter 3:8-9
And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’ 1 Peter 4:8
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 1 John 3:16
It is amazing the propensity we have to justify treating our spouse or significant other differently than we would anyone else. It is so much easier to give in to frustration, selfishness, snappy responses, or disrespectful behavior with someone we know so well.
When I was a little girl, I remember hearing a story that has stuck with me and deeply impacted how I treat my husband, both in public and private. Early on in marriage, my parents were friends with a couple who constantly teased each other. At first it started mildly, but the comments would soon turn to sharp jabs and disrespectful words. My parents watched as this couple’s marriage deteriorated right before their eyes, and eventually ended in divorce after just a few years. This seemingly harmless banter turned into something that eventually broke them apart, most likely because they felt too comfortable treating each other in ways they would never treat someone else. It has been a sober warning for just how destructive it can be to treat my husband in any way other than as a fellow child of God.
It is with those we are closest to that we have the greatest opportunity to display true, selfless, patient, unconditional, Christ-like love. Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” In a world where the norm is to speak unkindly, become impatient quickly, and base our “love” on how loving the other person is to us, those who are filled with the Spirit of God will stand out in overwhelming contrast to the sinful patterns of the world. And people will most definitely notice.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a time and place for practical advice or methods as a help in cultivating a peaceful, godly marriage or relationship. However, if we rely solely on these methods for helping us in marriage, it can create a shaky foundation and put us on dangerous ground.
Let me share a couple of examples.
Some people find it very helpful to have some of the household tasks specifically assigned to one or the other spouse. It can help with flow and alleviate some of the pressure off of one person. But if, say, one day my husband doesn’t have time to take out the trash and I am simply relying on a particular way of doing things to keep a peaceful, orderly household, then there is a lot of bait to become irritated that he didn’t fulfill his trash-disposing duties. What often comes from that is a grumpy, frustrated attitude, leading to hint-dropping when he returns home about the fact that I had to be “burdened” with something he left undone. This creates more strain on our relationship, rather than alleviating it.
On the flip side, if our practical actions come from the overflow of a heart desiring to “outdo one other in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10, ESV), they can be wonderful tools in establishing a Christ-centered marriage. If I come at the situation with an attitude of service and considering my husband more important than myself (see Philippians 2:4), I will joyfully take out the trash in his place, thankful that I can do one more thing to love and serve him.
Additionally, communication is very important and needful in any healthy relationship. I have been blessed with a husband who is an excellent communicator, and because of this, and also by the grace of God, we have great communication between us. But we have walked through situations where, although we were communicating well, I was convicted about my underlying motives: selfishness and pride. I have been guilty of using “good communication techniques” to manipulate the situation to turn out how I wanted it, instead of being humble, teachable, and willing to put my husband first. If communication is used for this purpose, then it is ultimately going to do more harm than good. The desire for unity of mind and heart with our spouse must come from a godly love for them, not a desire for our own way. “[Love] does not insist on its own way…” (1 Cor. 13:5, ESV).
If we go into marriage with a desire to love, serve, and bless the other, then so many of the “issues” many marriages come up against never become issues at all. We have seen this time and time again as we have chosen to overlook wrongs, offer forgiveness at all times, give rather than take, and love the other person as we desire to be loved.
We have such an amazing opportunity to love this one person — our spouse — in a way that radically impacts those around us for the sake of the Gospel as we allow the Lord to use us to display His pure, beautiful, holy love.