This article explores the mandate that God gives to husband and wife to love one another in their marriage. It shows that love must be learned, and that it is modeled on the love of God in Christ. It also reveals that mutual love is not the foundation of marriage.

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The Mandate of Mutual Love in Marriage

The mandate to husband and wife to show mutual love and faithfulness goes back already to the time of Paradise. In Genesis 2 the marriage union is described as “becoming one flesh.” And who, says Paul, has ever hated his own flesh? You feed and nourish your own flesh. From the outset it has been God’s intention that husband and wife would love each other and be faithful to one another (Eph. 5:28ff.).

The Mandate of Mutual Love in MarriageWhen Paul formulates it this way it might leave the impression that in a Christian marriage, love is an obvious element. But nothing could be further from the truth. Love must be learned. A marriage requires work. When it does not happen, everyone becomes stuck in a rut, and accidents will happen. In a marriage there needs to be an active conversation. Otherwise, before they even begin to notice it, husband and wife will end up becoming mutually estranged from one another. How will you continue to love your wife when you do not pray together with her? When you don’t even know her? When you do not know how she will react to certain things? When you do not know how you can please her, or the things that irritate her? Fortunately we receive more and more literature that can be helpful in these matters. Material, for example, that points to the different ways in which husbands and wives deal with conflict, or how they experience their sexuality. What a lot of frustrations and tensions can be caused through such differences! There are men who gloss over their quarrels and do not deal with the real problems. Or women who because of unresolved quarrels are not in the mood to have intercourse. Much could be written about such matters, but we will refer them to books of people who are more knowledgeable in this area. What concerns us now is to show a few scriptural guidelines.

Real love is directed to people of flesh and blood. You love the other the way he or she is. You don’t love the “prince of your dreams” but the man you married. Love does not change the other according to one’s own tastes, but aligns itself to the other with all their faults and shortcomings. “It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful … Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5, 7).

This love in the Christian marriage finds its deepest ground in the love of God in Christ. The Lord has given us a place in his covenant of grace. If it should have depended on us nothing would have been left of that covenant. But the LORD is and remains faithful.

The Lord’s faithfulness is the foundation of marital faithfulness. The confession that both are living by God’s grace must colour the relationship between husband and wife. They need to be conscious of their huge debt, the guilt that God has cancelled (see Matt. 18:21-35). Then they will be better prepared to also forgive each other (Eph. 4:32). Then they will dare to admit their own faults. Because that is often more difficult than forgiving the other: to confess your own guilt. When you forgive someone else you can continue to keep standing straight and tall: you have done nothing wrong, and you are prepared to forgive the other party graciously. But someone who admits to his own mistakes makes himself small; he will go down on his knees, and that is not something that is natural for us. We are only enabled to do so when we know how God in his grace has accepted us. It is precisely thanks to God’s faithfulness to the covenant, which he has shown in Christ, that we can be faithful in our marriage covenant. We love each other as husband and wife, because God has loved us in Christ (1 John 4:7-21).

But we need to say more about marital love. When Isaac and Rebekah marry each other, it says, “Isaac took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her” (Gen. 24:67). That is for us the reverse world. First marriage and then love? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? First love and then marriage! Isn’t love the foundation of marriage?!

That is often how we reason. Yet it is incorrect. Love is not the foundation of a marriage. The basis of marriage is God’s disposition whereby he unites husband and wife to each other by means of his servant, the government (while in the case of a Christian marriage, we also make these promises in the church!). The mutual love between a husband and wife is not the foundation of marriage, but it is the mandate of the marriage. That sounds strange to our ears! To us, love is often a feeling that you have or don’t have for someone, and something you don’t have much control over. But in Scripture, love is commanded. It is a command that we love one another (Matt. 22:39; 1 John 2:7-11; 3:11-17; 4:11, 21; Eph. 5:25, etc.). That holds true also in times of tension. In those times it cannot be said, “We no longer love each other, and therefore our marriage no longer has a foundation.” But then it needs to be said, “Because God has joined us together, we have the mandate to love one another.” Marriage is not dependent on the love of husband and wife for each other. It’s the other way around: on the ground of the marriage union ordained before God’s face (Prov. 2:17; Mal. 2:14), husband and wife are duty-bound to love each other!

The Mandate of Mutual Love in MarriageWe should not have any romantic notions of this love. Love is something other than an infatuation or a crush. Being in love is a feeling that takes possession of you, and that is difficult to control. You are or you are not in love. It is something in which our vulnerability, our lack of control, will show up strongly. But love is something different. It is not something that takes hold of you, but something that is given to you. Exactly because it is the mandate from God it is also his gift to you. For God has promised to give his children what he commands of them. In this way, true marital love is a gift of the Holy Spirit. He makes you ready to give up much for the other, to practice much patience, and to put the other’s interests first in your life. Especially during times of tension you may open up yourself for the strength of the God who shows in his covenant his immutable faithfulness. When bride and bridegroom on their wedding day promised each other on oath that they would be faithful to each other until death would separate them, they did not know what they promised. They did not know what was all in store for them in terms of difficulties and challenges. But the Lord, before whose face they expressed their oaths, he knew. And he declared on their wedding day: you may appeal to me to live up to your promise of today. While the Lord knew beforehand what kinds of headwinds the bridal couple would face, he promised them that his grace would be sufficient, however much Satan would harass them in their recently solemnized marriage, and however much impotence would become evident in them (see 2 Cor. 2:7-9). Married couples may and must trust in this promise. Not only in good days, but also in bad ones. Not only in prosperity, but also in poverty. Not only in health, but also in sickness, both physically and psychologically. Our sighing does not escape him. He will notice it. He knows the temptations of every day. He knows of our worries and sadness in jet-black and sleepless nights. He knows how much we’re looking up against a new day. And he holds us in his hands (Ps. 139). He is there every day (see Matt. 28:20). He is there with his strength (see Isa. 40:27-31). Because he has promised it. And his promises are trustworthy, however little we may see them fulfilled, because they are anchored in Christ (see 2 Cor. 1:20)! Even if a marriage may appear hopeless before our eyes it is a marriage with a promise. And in the strength of that promise, faith is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds (Matt. 13:32), capable of moving mountains (Matt. 17:20)! Even though we often have such a weak faith, yet we have a strong and reliable God. He may appear to be far away, but according to his promise he is always near us.

This article was translated by Wim Kanis.

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