Love is a sloppy concept, and love is a complex reality. I love ice cream. I love my children. I love my wife. I love books. I love God. I love my students. Each of these “loves” has a different content. It could be a problem if I love books in the same way that I love my children, or if I love God in the way I love my wife. Love is not the same in every relationship that we live in. This is a brief analysis of love as we experience and live it in various relationships.
I am keeping some awareness of the variety of loving described in the Bible, such as the distinction between God’s love for the world and God’s love for his people. Israel receives God’s care in ways that others do not, and people who belong to God today through Jesus Christ receive God’s care in ways that others do not (but they could receive this special care, if they would cease their resistance to him).
I find students to be surprised every semester when I comment that God loves in different ways, and so must we. Husbands are called by God to love their wives in special, self-sacrificial ways not extended to all women. Wives are called by God to respect their husbands in ways that they are not to do towards all men. Fathers have a special obligation to provide for their families that is not required of them towards all people. Christians are obligated to care for each other as their new family, and beyond that, to care for all people, even enemies, to share the Gospel with them. There seem to be limitations and specificity in the love expressed by God and people, depending on the sort of relationship. D. A. Carson’s book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, is a helpful analysis.
I see four sorts of relationship in which we express and receive love with others. Across all the relationships, love is consistent as self-giving, but this looks very different depending on who you are in the relationship. For example, love in a friendship has some similarities and differences as compared to love in a marriage. I want to focus on the differences of these four relationships.
Friends love by giving themselves to each other in limited ways. Friends show reciprocal care and interest for each other. They enjoy sharing experiences, whether work or play, and they usually respect each other. Friendships are mutual, if they are good friendships, so there is often balance between each other, and cooperation, such as sharing books or giving time and attention to listen. Friendships sometimes have commitment added, but often they do not. Sometimes a friend gives to another in immense ways, as when a soldier gives his life so that his friends may survive. Normally, friends give to each other in reciprocity.
Parents to Children
Fathers, mothers, and God give themselves to their children in distinct ways that are never reciprocated by the children (or at least not usually). Parents and God love children by the self-giving dimensions of provision, protection, nurture, compassion, guidance, support, challenge, discipline, affection, delighted enjoyment, and instruction. Perhaps we can sort some of these aspects as generally typical of fathers or mothers. For example, mothers probably do much more nurture than fathers do, but not exclusively. Oftentimes men and women do things that might be typical of the other gender. God, of course, manifests all the dimensions in this list. The Bible draws us to consider ourselves as children to a good Father to understand his love for us in these special ways not shared with all people. (For example, God is not delighted with Adolf Hitler. God has general love for all His creatures, Hitler included, but this is different from God’s specific love for His children. Israel’s special place in God’s plans shows in the Old Testament, with promises for a future role in the Kingdom of God.) The point is that in these relationships of parents to children and God to his people, there is an order of self-giving from above to below. God’s love is to save us; our love to God is something different, more like what is desired by parents from their children.
Children to Parents
Children and disciples of Jesus give themselves in love to fathers, mothers, and God primarily by their obedience. By obedience, I do not mean compliance, as in a forced obligatory sort of meaning, but a free response of trust and engagement with good leadership and care. This is not the mode of love that children have in mind, but I think it is the main way fathers and mothers feel loved—when children obey them it communicates trust and respect. Respect shown in obedience shows love in an ordered relationship where the participants are not relating reciprocally.
Jesus says the same of His disciples, that if we love Him, then we will obey His commands. This is in parallel to Jesus’ love for His Father, that by His obedience, the world may know that He loves the Father. Other dimensions of self-giving love expressed by children and disciples are related to obedience: trust, dependence, surrender, and honor (with God, honor can be expressed as praise).
Of course it is a delight to me when my children tell me they love me, and when they write me cards and give me hugs. But if they obey me when I tell them to pick up their books and toys, if they listen to me when I warn them about some danger, and if they treat me with respect (not interrupting me when I’m talking), then I feel their love for me much more intensely. I’m looking for these things from them, and in the absence, I feel disregarded, despised, and unloved. The absence of cards, hugs, and “I love you” does not discourage me the way disobedience does. My wife reports the same feeling as a mother.
Extending this to our life as disciples, Daniel Block observed in a Talbot chapel last semester that the Bible does not exhort us to say, “I love you” to God, but we are exhorted to obey His commands. We are to show our love in this ordered relationship by doing what he says. By comparison, I doubt that we should think of God as our friend in a mutual sort of relationship (since you don’t obey your friend), and try to love him reciprocally, or with affection and romance. God wants our dependence, honor, surrender, trust, and obedience. That shows we have given ourselves to Him. That shows our love in the appropriate way for how we are related to God.
Men and Women in Marriage
Finally, husbands and wives give themselves to each other in love that is different from other relationships, and there are some similarities. Like friendship, there is mutual care for the other’s well-being, mutual respect, shared experiences, and enjoyment of the other. Marriage allows people to give great deeds of service beyond friendship because of the commitment and formal vows of obligation to love. That love takes unique forms different from other relationships. There are provision, protection, trust, honor, physical and emotional affection, and empathy that put this relationship in a special seclusion. Typically, men are more interested in physical affection and trust from their wives, and women are interested in empathy and provision from their husbands.
Both men and women want the other to love them by “taking care of me” defined in different ways because men and women are different in some ways. Obviously, most people have many similar desires so that gender distinctions sometimes don’t fit every relationship. My point here is to distinguish the marriage love as different from the family love or friendship love. This can be helpful to understand that marriage cannot be satisfying to most people as a friendship alone, since there is more that a husband and wife can do to give themselves to each other that friends cannot.
Obviously, there are physical affection and family-building that are special to marriage, but I think there is much more beyond that. Men and women have their differences to contribute to each other in un-mutual ways. For example, my wife can give herself to me in ways I cannot give to her, such as depths of empathy, nurture, and challenge. We have different needs and contributions. The giving is not reciprocal because we are so very different. It is our differences that make self-giving so rich.
So what? How are we to think of ourselves as in a “marriage betrothal” relationship to Jesus? Marriage relationships have mutuality dimensions, being friends. Marriage can also have an order of a husband’s headship for responsibility that corresponds to a wife’s trust and dependence (Eph 5:22-33). How much of this comes into our relationship with Jesus?
Further on, what is Jesus looking for in our response to Him?
What does God expect from us to give ourselves to Him?
Is loving God as simple as being like children and obeying His commands, accepting His provision, and trusting His protections?
We seem to have two paradigms for relationship to God: as children to our Father, and as a wife to our husband. Both are close relationships with special commitments from God to us. Both are relationships that obligate us to trust, dependence, and obedience.