Back in 1993 the band Haddaway released a dance track called “What is Love?” You might remember it from this old SNL skit. The song’s lyrics aren’t exactly profound, but the question it asks is. What is love, actually?
If you grew up in a church culture similar to mine, you’ve heard about the different ancient Greek words for “love.” Whereas the English word covers a lot of territory – it can be used to describe my feeling about coffee, my favorite TV show, my parents, or my spouse – the Greek words for love have more nuance. There’s a love of passion (romantic, emotional, etc.) called eros, a fond, friendly, relational love called phileo, and several others that cover lifelong partnership, playful love, and even selfish, narcissistic love.
When the apostle Paul writes about God’s love for us, he has several options to choose from; however, he dodges all these common words to use a very rare word barely ever used by his contemporaries: agapé. It’s not a stretch to say agapé is one of the cornerstone concepts of the New Testament, showing up over 300 times, so why would Paul use such an obscure word for such an important idea? This seems like teaching a 3-year-old not to run in the street using SAT-level vocabulary. It seems like bad writing, or like Paul was too smart for his own good. But I don’t think that’s the case. I believe Paul and the NT writers were using an obscure word for love to signify that this love originates in God, is defined by him, and is not at all like the loves we know.
Maybe this is why Paul spends all of 1 Corinthians 13 defining exactly what this love is like: it’s patient, kind, not self-seeking, not jealous or rude, it’s not boastful or proud but gentle and forgiving. We love (get it?) to read this chapter at weddings, usually in a way that feels romantic and mushy, and that’s okay. But there’s a side to this chapter that isn’t fuzzy at all, because when we read it, it brings us face-to-face with a painfully uncomfortable truth: we are incapable of loving like this.
Every time I read 1 Cor. 13 all I can think of is how bad I fail at loving my wife this way. If I were to describe the love I exhibit in my marriage it would be more like “my love is impatient and demanding, self-seeking and rude, quick to anger, and focused on getting it’s own way.” I read 1 Cor. 13 and think “yeah, that’s what true love should be” but then fall flat on my face trying to live it out.
For so many of us – maybe for you today – you look at your marriage and a 1 Cor. 13 love feels impossibly far away. Maybe you’ve given up believing your marriage could ever be like this because you or your spouse are just too broken, too hurt, too far apart, too covered in a thousand past wounds. The idea of summoning up an agapé-level love, and that God is expecting us to love like this, is crushing.
Good thing that’s not the point of this passage.
The whole essence of agapé is that it’s not fundamentally human, and humans are incapable of loving this way. The source of agapé is God, and we will only love like God if some sort of miracle occurs and his agapé changes us. The good news is this is exactly what God has promised to do. As a matter of fact, Paul over and over again prays that people would know the agapé of the Father, and that this knowing of agapé would form faith, hope and love in us.
And here’s what this means for you today. If your marriage feels broken or too far gone, if you feel like you’ve been floating in a partnership for years but lost your connection, if your marriage is a cycle of bickering and sarcasm, if your marriage is self-seeking and demanding recognition, it doesn’t have to be that way. Not only that, God has promised us that the more we know him the more we will naturally agapé our spouse.
So here’s the challenge. Print out 1 Cor. 13 and keep it somewhere visible: your bathroom mirror, in your car during your commute, in your kitchen, or wherever you’ll see it regularly. Each time you look at the passage pray this simple prayer: “God, would you fill my life with your agapé, so that I can agapé my spouse.”
I seriously challenge you to do this for a month, and see how your marriage changes.