This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. Love is much bigger than romantic love.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world. (1 John 4:8, 9)
We often say “love” when we mean sexual intimacy, or romantic love. But real love is far bigger than that. Real love is the giving of self to others in sacrificial service. It comes from God and it overflows supremely in the love that Christian believers show for one another and for a needy world. It is marked by a desire for the very best for someone else, rather than the yearning to have our own needs met.
2. Romantic love ought to be about real love (but often isn’t).
Husbands, love your wives. (Ephesians 5:2)
. . . train the young women to love their husbands. (Titus 2:4)
The wonderful chemistry of sexual desire and delight, with all its mysterious power and—at best—its glorious sense of release and contentment, is a powerful and yet dangerous thing. We all know something of its power. But what about the danger?
The danger is that something intended to fuel our self-giving becomes an engine to drive our self-serving. The words “I love you” can mean “Actually, I love myself and I want you.” And so the very word “love” comes to have two contradictory meanings: selfish desire and genuine, caring love. When romantic love is, in reality, a mask for self-serving, it becomes—like all idols—disappointing; it can never perform for us what it promises.
3. Romantic love needs the protection of marriage.
You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
We are foolish and naïve if we suppose that we can form stable romantic partnerships as isolated individuals. The sad statistics tell a different story. From casual one-night stands right through to the shared ownership of a property in unmarried cohabitation (now pretty much the norm in many western countries), such sexual relationships are far less stable than marriage.
Sure, marriage is no copper-bottomed guarantee of a lasting relationship. But, precisely because it begins with a public promise of lifelong faithfulness, and is supported by family, friends, and wider society, it stands a much better chance of lasting the course. This needs to be said more often. Unmarried cohabitation is a far more widespread challenge to God’s standards than the hot button issues like same-sex marriage (important as that is).
4. Romantic love was created for the service of God.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it . . . Then the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. (Genesis 2:15, 18)
What was “not good” about the man being “alone”? We tend to think the poor man was lonely. But the problem is not his state of mind; after all, some more men could have been created to keep him company and be his friends! No, the problem was that he had a big job to do, looking after God’s great parkland paradise garden in Eden.
That is why God says he will make him not a companion but a “helper.” The woman comes alongside the man to help. Romantic love in marriage is intended to help us serve God together in his world. It is not a soft-focus, inward-looking thing of each gazing into the other’s eyes and expecting the other to be “all I need.” No, that will always disappoint. Marriage is, at its best, a delightful love and intimacy that enables husband and wife to serve God joyfully together.
5. Unmarried love is also for the service of God.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
You don’t need to be married to serve God. Each of us is called to love God and then, for God’s sake, to love the particular people whom God sets before us (our “neighbor”). We don’t love God any better for being married, or any worse; nor do we love God any better for being single, or any worse. But we will serve God in different ways. Well, some of the ways are the same—living godly lives, praying, giving, and caring. But some are particular to marriage, like building a home with a husband and wife and, God willing, with children.
6. God sometimes gives us the gift of being unmarried and sometimes the gift of being married.
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Corinthians 7:7)
Paul was unmarried, at least when he wrote 1 Corinthians. He may have been a widower. He speaks of his unmarried state as a “gift from God.” He doesn’t mean a subjective feeling of being happy to be unmarried, of not wanting to be married. That is a common, and dangerous, misunderstanding. Plenty who are unmarried would love to be married, just as some who are married sometimes wish they weren’t. Our desires vary in all sorts of ways.
No, I know I have the gift of being married because I am married. Paul knew he had the gift of being unmarried because he was not (then) married. Before I was married, God gave me the gift of being unmarried. If my wife dies before me, God will again give me that gift. My challenge—and yours—is to accept my condition as God’s loving gift to me, to receive it from his hands. Not an easy challenge, but a good one.
7. Romantic love is about the desire for children.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply . . . (Genesis 1:28)
Children are a blessing from God. That means we should want them, pray for them, be glad when he gives them, and be sad when he does not. We must never treat the birth and nurture of children as a curse, something to be shunned or deliberately avoided. It may be an expensive and inconvenient blessing, but it is a blessing. The desire for children is an integral part of romantic love in marriage, when it is properly lined up with God's value system.
We weep with couples who weep when God does not give them children; they are right to grieve. We rejoice with couples who rejoice when God gives them children, and perhaps especially when they do the wonderful work of adopting otherwise parentless children. For then most intensely they image what God does for us in Christ.
8. Men and women are different.
In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:22, 25)
Men and women, husbands and wives, are equally created in the image of God, with all the wonderful dignity and potential that carries with it. But we are different. In teaching that is consistent but deeply counter-cultural today, the Bible sets before us a pattern that challenges selfish, male chauvinism while also challenging aggressive, secular feminism.
The husband is to lead in such a way that he loves sacrificially; the only crown he wears is—as C.S.Lewis put it—a crown of thorns. If the husband is to show Christ-like leadership and love, the wife is to exhibit the noble dignity of Christlike submission. This too is a costly but honourable way to walk. The pattern is all too easily distorted, but when it is lived out humbly and carefully, it has a beauty that cannot be found in male chauvinist tyrannies or in secular feminist so-called equalities.
9. There is forgiveness in Jesus for failures in romantic love.
Do not be deceived: the sexually immoral . . . will [not] inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
We are all failures. Whether in physical acts of sexual immorality (and sexual intimacy outside of the marriage of one man and one woman), or in our eyes (what we have chosen to see or how we have chosen to look lustfully), or in our fantasies and thoughts. Not one of us is pure in the eyes of God.
The sense of dirt that can cling to us, perhaps in our broken society more than ever, can be crippling for the joy of discipleship. We need to say to one another again and again what Paul says to the broken Corinthians: this is what you were, but you were washed . . . No sexual sin, and no other sin, is too bad for Jesus to wash clean!
10. There is hope in Jesus for all who are disappointed in romantic love.
I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2)
. . . For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready . . . (Revelation 19:7)
There is a wedding day ahead for every man and woman who belongs to the church of Jesus Christ. Whether you are unmarried, happily married, unhappily married, divorced, or widowed—whatever your circumstances—if you belong to Jesus, you have a wedding day to look forward to that will put every human wedding day in the shade!
On that day, the sexual delight and intimacy, the satisfaction, the release, the contentment, the romance, the companionship, and the joy of even the greatest human marriage will be gloriously transcended. Keep your eyes on that day!