By Dr. Larry E. McCall
My wife and I were not enjoying our marriage anymore. There had been no unfaithfulness, no threats of divorce, but after 20 years, our marriage wasn’t fun anymore. Our marriage wasn’t “sweet.” Daily life together was more of a duty than a delight.
In that dry season of our marriage, we became acquainted with an older man named Bob. Bob’s wife was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. Every day he would go to his wife’s room at the nursing home to spoon-feed her, sponge-bathe her, change her diaper—and sing love songs to her. Here was a man passionately showing love to a wife who was not doing anything for him. She was not cooking his meals or washing his clothes. She was not giving him anything—no words of encouragement or great sex—she didn’t even remember his name! As a younger, somewhat frustrated husband, the question that consumed me was, “How can he DO that? How can this man love a woman who is doing absolutely nothing for him?”
How the Gospel Began to Sweeten Our Marriage
In that season of disappointment and confusion—disappointment with our marriage and confusion about how our older friend Bob could love his Alzheimer’s-inflicted wife—the Holy Spirit grabbed our attention with a short, simple, straightforward, soaked-in-the-gospel verse from 1 John: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
As the Holy Spirit did His sometimes-painful, always-gracious work in our hearts, He began to show us that we had been seeking to make our marriage work with reactionary love. What I mean is I had essentially been saying to my wife, “Gladine, if you would just pour your love into me in ways that I desire and in quantities that I deserve, then I would have enough love to love you back. But, if I feel that you aren’t loving me sufficiently, don’t expect me to be loving you in return. Look, my love tank is running on ‘E’!”
You see, I was approaching my relationship with my wife in a “reactionary” way. “I will love you if I think you’re doing a sufficient job of loving me. But, if I judge your love as inadequate, don’t expect me to have much love to pour back into you!”
In that dry season of our marriage, the Holy Spirit graciously began to pour gospel-saturated hope into our marriage. He drew our attention afresh to that simple-yet-profound gospel truth, “We love because he first loved us,” simultaneously bringing a living illustration of what that looks like in marriage by introducing us to our friend Bob. The Spirit began to show us that rather than assuming, “I can’t love my spouse until she/he loves me,” we could be fueled with this gospel truth: “God’s love empowers me to love my spouse. I have been loved by God Himself because of Jesus Christ. I already have an ‘overflowing’ love, for it comes from that infinitely perfect Lover, God Himself.”
So, rather than going horizontal—depending on each other to fill our “love tanks” so that we would have sufficient love to pour back into each other—the Lord was calling on us to go vertical, to remember the gospel truth that He loves us with a never-ending, never-disappointing love. He had already demonstrated His love for us in the most profound way. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Therefore, the Bible continues, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another [including my spouse!]” (1 John 4:11).
I don’t need to use my schemes in pressuring, manipulating, and demanding love from my spouse. Instead, I can “go vertical” by daily preaching the gospel to myself, reminding my mind and heart of God’s infinite, unstoppable love for me, and then “go horizontal” by pouring His overflowing love into my spouse.
Living Out 1 John 4:19
As Gladine and I gradually began to learn to live out these gospel truths, our marriage began to sweeten. The pattern of “we love because He first loved us” can be applied to many other aspects of our daily life as husband and wife. Consider the following examples.
Freedom: Because of the gospel, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). I don’t need to live in fear of condemnation, defending myself if I detect any real or even imagined criticism from my spouse. I am safe from condemnation not because of my own perceived goodness but because of the sure, unshakeable work of Jesus Christ on my behalf. My converted spouse is also free from condemnation. If the perfectly holy God no longer condemns my spouse, why would I? The pattern of a gospel-centered marriage is one free from words, attitudes, and actions of condemnation painfully leveled at one another.
Humility: Because of the gospel, I recognize that the greatest problem in my marriage is me and my sinfulness. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). Owning this truth as “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance” leads me to see that my greatest problem in marriage is not my spouse failing to meet “my needs.” My greatest problem is my own sinfulness, and believing this shapes my approach to problems in our marriage, leading me to suspect my own heart first as a primary cause of the problem we are facing.
Forgiveness: Because of the gospel, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). The pattern of a gospel-centered marriage is one in which a forgiven husband and a forgiven wife are “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Forgiven sinners forgive sinners.
Acceptance: Because of the gospel, I have been accepted by Christ. In turn, I can accept my spouse as they are not demanding certain changes to earn my acceptance (Rom. 15:7).
Patience: Because of the gospel, I have experienced the “perfect patience” of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 1:16). In turn, I can live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another [my spouse] in love” (Eph. 4:2).
Serving: Because of the gospel, Jesus Christ “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In turn, I can serve my spouse using the gifts and resources that God has graciously given to me for that purpose (1 Pet. 4:10).
Love: And, as a summary of our gospel-sweetened marriage, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The gospel continues to sweeten my marriage to my high school sweetheart. When we allow ourselves to be soaked in our Savior’s love and learn of and follow His excellent way, His love will overflow to those around us.
Dr. Larry E. McCall is the director of Walking Like Jesus Ministries (wljministries.org). He is the author of Loving Your Wife as Christ Loves the Church, Grandparenting with Grace, Walking Like Jesus Did, and other Christ-centered publications. Larry is married to Gladine, his high school sweetheart, and together they enjoy three children and seven grandchildren.