After a quarter century of marriage, I think I’m finally learning what it means to love. For the first half of my marriage, I was better at loving theoretically than practically. It was not uncommon for me to be everything that 1 Corinthians 13 says love is not—selfish, rude, and irritable—sometimes on the same afternoon. My understanding of love was focused on my desires, my needs, my wants. It was seeped in warm fuzzies and sentimentality.

Given that confession, how is it that my husband and I not only celebrated our 26th anniversary this year but actually enjoy our marriage? Jesus. Only Jesus.

He is the word made flesh and love incarnate. Jesus experienced the same needs, longings, and temptations that we face yet refused to settle for a lesser love. Jesus is our prototype and all of us who claim to be Christians, are meant to become like Him in how we love. To paraphrase the apostle John, we demonstrate the greatest, purest love when we willingly sacrifice our lives for one another. Few of us will be asked to die for our spouse, but we will have countless opportunities to die to ourselves by giving up our agendas, our preferences, and sometimes even our dreams.

As mentioned above, such love has not come naturally to me. It has been easier for me to focus on my husband’s failures and shortcomings rather than do the hard work of repenting and loving. He deserves better. He is and always has been faithful in body and mind. He pushes himself to the brink of exhaustion in order to provide for me and our three sons. He is a man of integrity.

On the very weekend that we went away to celebrate our tenth anniversary, I was that clanging cymbal referenced by Paul in his love letter to the Corinthians. We reserved two days in a quaint, seaside bed and breakfast and drove off filled with good intentions. Unfortunately, I packed my unrealistic expectations alongside of my beach paraphernalia. To say we missed each other would be a gross understatement. I wanted things from him (gifts, words of affirmation, etc.) that he was not prepared to give. I was disappointed and said as much. He was angry and said as much. We alternated between icy silence and false cordiality for the remainder of the weekend.

Thus began a dark season. We fought more that year than we had fought in the previous nine years. Only 12 inches separated us when we went to bed at night but I often felt as if we were on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.

After months of crying, praying, and venting, God communicated to me in no uncertain terms that I needed to change. To repent. To let go of the anger and the disappointment and learn what it meant to love incarnationally.

Incarnational love is not theoretical. It’s tangible, practical, and sacrificial. It invites us to look outside of ourselves to the needs and longings of our spouse. It beckons us to push past our resistance and love. Incarnational love bids us to die so that we can truly live.

As I write in Making Marriage Beautiful,

Jesus Christ is the ultimate reference point for what it means to love sacrificially. His obedience cost Him everything: His reputation, His well-being, His comfort, His life, and—when He gave us His spirit—even His connection to God the Father. Sacrificial love is never cheap, nor does it happen coincidentally. It’s a countercultural choice that we have to willingly and repeatedly make.

Incarnational love inspires you to clean up dinner, again, so your husband can work on his grad school paper and empowers you to praise God as you wipe the plates. Incarnational love compels you to get up in the night with a sick toddler so your wife can get more than two consecutive hours of sleep. It motivates you to offer grace as your husband tries to break free from an addiction or empowers you to stay near to your wife as she struggles with depression.

The only way I’m able to love like this is by staying intimately connected to the source of all love. Jesus spoke these words to His disciples toward the end of his life:

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

Indeed, if I do not remain in Christ—via prayer, worship, and reading Scripture—I cannot love my husband the way I want to.

By God’s grace and with the help of our friends, we made it through the tenth year of our marriage. It turned into a healing crisis that opened our eyes to the many ways that both of us had resisted God’s invitation to change. Thankfully, change is possible. We are both less selfish now. My husband is quicker to listen and slower to anger. I’m increasingly able to truly love him for who he is rather than trying to change him. We laugh more and fight less.

Though it’s humbling to realize I will never succeed in truly loving my husband apart from Jesus, this tension keeps me exactly where I need to be: deeply rooted in the One who never fails.

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