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The Real Thing

Through the years we've discovered what true God-love is and what it isn't—and what that means for our marriage.

Growing up I (Mike) had all kinds of confusion about the crazy little thing called love. In the fifth grade, I got my first crush on Kathy. She had that Laura Ingles Wilder thing going, with the braided pigtails. So cute! I chased her at recess. I threw rocks at her. All the ways you show affection in the fifth grade.

By high school my dating techniques changed—thankfully! I started to date Debbie. I remember sitting with her in a movie theater. My heart would pound because I wanted to hold her hand so badly! But I was shy. I'd go into this countdown mode. Ten, nine, eight … ten, nine …

It took me forever to grab her hand. But when I did,

I thought, This is love.

On our wedding day, Debbie walked down the aisle.

I thought, This is love.

Three years later I watched that girl go through 36 hours of labor to bring our first child into the world. And that's when I knew what love is.

A lot of people say love is blind. We think it's just the opposite. Love sees things no one else sees. It sees both the potential and the flaws in your spouse. But if you have God's love, you love in spite of them.

Fake it till you make it. The "faking-it" part is saying, I'm going to decide to do the right thing

Jesus said in essence, "You want to know what life is about? Let me boil it down to two simple things: Love God; love people." That's what marriage is about.

In fact, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14: "Let love be your highest goal." He writes again in Galatians 5:6, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." If that's the only thing that matters, then we want to spend our life learning to love God and each other.

Here are eight lessons we've discovered about what love means to our marriage.

1. Love is plugged into the right power source.

There are several kinds of love. There's the generic brand X, based on feelings, and then there's this extraordinary love, the kind God has for us that's fueled by his supernatural power. The reason so many of us struggle with love is that we're not plugged into the right power source.

Paul tells us how to get this love in Galatians 5:22: "When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love …" And Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:3, "As we know Jesus better, his divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life." Love is a byproduct of our intimacy with God. The same supernatural power that blew a rock off a tomb and gave life to a dead man is in us, guiding, stretching, and prompting us to do the right thing, convicting us when we do the wrong thing.

As we intentionally imitate Jesus throughout our day, there's this unexplainable surge of power and energy that enables us to love in ways we're incapable of on our own.

Love lesson: If you fall in love with God, really fall in love with God, you'll notice a difference in your love toward your spouse.

We each study and personalize the Bible and memorize specific verses to continually renew our minds to God's power and character. If we fail to do that, our culture and society will shape our minds in the opposite direction.

2. Love is an act of will.

Our culture equates love with the emotional, feeling part. One of the songs we grew up with suggests, "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling." As though we misplaced it, or as if it's an emotion that involuntarily comes and goes.

Love, according to God, is a decision. It's an act of the will more than it's an act of a hormone.

We decide to love our spouse, even when we don't feel like it.

When Mike does something to annoy or frustrate me (Debbie), I know that the Holy Spirit can hold my tongue and I can choose to say the right thing. But sometimes, it's easier to say, God, I'm mad right now. I don't want to hear from you. I know it may wreck my marriage. I know I can never take it back, but I'm going to say it anyway. Because I'll feel so much better. But you know, I don't feel better. That's because I chose not to love.

Love lesson: When you don't feel those loving feelings, behave as though you do. AA has a slogan, "Fake it till you make it." We're not saying to be inauthentic. The "faking-it" part is saying, I'm going to decide to do the right thing. When we determine to treat our spouse with love—even when we don't feel like it—those feelings eventually catch up with our right behavior.

3. Love is approachable.

Am I approachable? Am I intimidating or testy? Does my tone or body language suggest that I'm superior?

Sometimes we react in ways that shut down communication. One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Mike was putting in an underground dog fence. I (Debbie) was frustrated because it was a slow process, and he was frustrated that I was frustrated that it was a slow process. Every time we'd mention it, it became a hot topic. Finally, we got into a spat. Mike raised his voice, and I didn't speak to him the rest of the night. We weren't exactly approachable.

That Sunday we heard a sermon on gentleness. We came home, hugged, and apologized. We constantly pray to be more like Jesus—who was so approachable.

Love lesson: Approachability is when you have the right tone, the right body language, and the right timing.

In 1 John 4:18 the apostle John writes, "Perfect love casts out fear." It's approachable.

4. Love touches.

If we're struggling with love, sometimes it's because we're moving too fast. We've got places to go, things to do. But the faster we move, the less time we have even to notice our spouse let alone love him or her.

If love is the "highest goal," if it's "the only thing that counts," we have to slow down.

When our kids got to be school-age, we were constantly running them to their practices and lessons. Our relationship was disappearing. So we made a commitment to have breakfast together every Monday morning. That was our time to rekindle our love for each other—plus it's a cheap date! We've done that now for more than 10 years.

Too often we're moving so fast that we're exhausted and running on fumes.

One of the reasons Jesus loved so supremely is that he unplugged and had regular times of rest and replenishment. He'd find a solitary place for rest, so he could pursue the highest goal of love with all his energy.

Love lesson: Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is, like Jesus, rest and replenish our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual tank. Go to bed earlier. Get healthier. Put breaks in your schedule. Build in personal alone time and time with the church community to refill your empty spiritual tank. It takes energy to love deeply.

5. Love convicts us.

When our kids were little, we had one car. I (Mike) would take the bus to work. One day I went to use the car, and it was a mess! There were Happy Meal wrappers on the floor and graham crackers and gummi worms stuck everywhere. I lost it!

I walked in the house and said some things I shouldn't have. Then Debbie got mad. She said, "The way this arrangement works right now is that the house is my responsibility and the car is your responsibility." So I went out to the car, gathered all the trash and junk, took it in the house, and dumped it on the living room floor. I said, "Now it's your responsibility."

We just started laughing. How stupid that we would both be that selfish!

Love lesson: Love doesn't hold a grudge. When we've blown it with each other, a worldly kind of love would say, Move on. Don't admit you messed up. But God's love says, Go make it right.

6. Love isn't selfish.

When we've counseled couples, inevitably one spouse will complain, "But I'm always the one to make the first move." When we think that way, it makes the situation worse. But the Bible says, "As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18).

A newly married couple came to me (Mike) for counseling. They were ready to call it quits. As I listened to their story, I said, "Let me cut through all this, and put it bluntly. Right now, both of you are just being selfish. If you start honoring each other above yourself, like the Bible says, a lot of this stuff would go away." They looked at me like, Should we hit him now? But after a few moments, they said, "You're right."

I told them to list ways they were being selfish and share that with each other. Then they would conversely say, "We're going to start doing this a different way, even though we don't feel like it."

They've now been married almost 16 years. Every time we see them, they say, "We'll never forget that time in your office. You told us not to be selfish and to start faking it like we really liked each other. And we really like each other now."

Love lesson: You can give without loving, but you can't love without giving. "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself. You should not look to your own interest but also the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4). That's a golden rule for marriage.

7. Love isn't demeaning.

Love leads us to be honest, but gentle. We don't use inflammatory words that will automatically throw up a wall, such as You always and You never. Those are seldom true, and they damage a person's emotional health. Demeaning words can squash love quickly and painfully—especially when they're said in public.

We were talking with a couple at a party a few years ago when the wife started listing her husband's shortcomings. While she made it sound funny, we watched her embarrassed husband seemingly get smaller and smaller.

At the beginning of our marriage, we made a covenant never to say demeaning things to each other.

There was one time when Mike was telling about a vacation we'd taken in August. I thought, We took that vacation in September, not August. But I didn't say anything until we got in the car. I told him, "You were wrong on that one. It was September. But I didn't want to embarrass you."

Love lesson: Love watches out for the other person's self-esteem. What's more important, getting an insignificant fact straight? Or honoring my spouse by watching out for his self-esteem?

8. Love honors and treasures.

Several years into our marriage I (Mike) noticed Debbie doing little, seemingly insignificant things for me, which she never mentioned. If there's one piece of pie left, she'll leave it for me. Or if there's a fat, fluffy towel and a skinny towel, she takes the skinny, worn out one.

In Romans 12:10, Paul says to honor each other above yourself. To honor means to say, You're worth so much more to me than I am to me. Peter talks about honoring when he writes, "Husbands, treat [your wife] with respect as the weaker partner" (1 Peter 3:7). Not inferior. I think of it this way: I've got an old coffee mug. I couldn't care less if it rolls around the floor of my truck. But if I did the same thing with a china teacup, I'd be in trouble. Peter's saying treasure your wife as something that's valuable.

Love lesson: Treasure encompasses respect, honor, submission, and service. It's a two-way thing. We want to feel as though we're really worth something in our spouse's eyes.

Sometimes you do everything you can as far as it depends on you, but the other person won't walk at the same pace and things don't get rebuilt. Seek help. Seek God. Ask for his strength to love. Always.

In Ephesians 5 as Paul writes about marriage, he says, "I'm talking about a great mystery here. I'm talking about Christ and the church." When you have a healthy marriage it reflects to the world, This is the way God loves. This is the way the Trinity interacts, with selfless, honoring, sacrificial, approachable love. As a married couple we can reflect that to the world better than we could as individuals. Maybe that's why God put the two of us together.

Mike Breaux is a teaching pastor at Heartland Community Church in Rockford, Illinois. Debbie Breaux is a Bible study leader.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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