The Gospel Coalition


A woman once told me that she planned to leave her husband because she "just didn't love him anymore." I asked her to change the way she worded what she planned to do so that her decision could be understood accurately. I asked her to say it this way: "I am choosing to no longer value my husband and to break my commitment to remain faithful to him."

She declined to word her decision this way but insisted on using terms that made her appear to be a victim of feelings she could not change. She also thought her decision was actually virtuous in its honesty and in her refusal to be a hypocrite.

Being and Behaving in Love


When performing weddings, I raise this question: "What is it that draws people together to be married?" Most answer with one word: love. Yes, love draws us together. But what is love? Is it something we can fall into and fall out of? Is it chemistry? Infatuation? Is it an emotional response or a choice?

Over the years, people have told me they want to be married because they love each other. I've also had people (like this woman) tell me that they want out of their marriage because they no longer feel love for their mate.

This has led me to ask some serious questions about the nature of love. In my evaluation, I've concluded that we need to distinguish two dimensions of love.
1. Being in love

This dimension is the emotional attraction of love. It's what people mean when they speak of "falling in love." It's usually based on more superficial reactions to appearance and first impressions. Clearly, it's a natural part of human attraction. Though not necessarily wrong, it's not enough to sustain a meaningful and lasting relationship. It's far too superficial. Deeply satisfying relationships are built on the second dimension of love.

2. Behaving in love

This dimension does not depend on feelings and chemistry. It's the love of volition. It's the choice to respond to my mate in a loving manner, regardless of feelings. This dimension of love is a choice to value my mate and seek his or her best. While I can't always make myself feel a certain way, I can always choose to act in a loving way.

In the context of marriage, the distinction between these two dimensions is very important to understand. Most relationships start with a high dose of the being dimension of love and, in most relationships, this feeling diminishes with time. When this happens, the key to keeping the flame of love burning is not pursuing a feeling but deciding to value the other person and be devoted to his or her best---no matter what one feels.

It's a choice to act in love even when we don't feel love. I realize that to many people this sounds almost like a great sin. It sounds as if I am advocating some form of dishonesty but, surprisingly, when we choose to love, the feelings often follow the actions!

Cultural Barrier


We must confront a cultural barrier that threatens this understanding of love. Our culture sends a strong message telling us that above all else, we must be true to our feelings. To do anything else, we're told, would simply be dishonest and hypocritical. So it has become a mark of good character to be true to your feelings.

This cultural ethic is often used to give people a false sense of virtue when breaking deep commitments. By "avoiding hypocrisy" and "being honest enough to admit the loss of feelings," they feel justified---perhaps even virtuous---in breaking their wedding vows.

There is a deep and self-destructive deception in this line of reasoning. It implies that we are somehow victims of our feelings, incapable of mastering them. Feelings come and go with changes in the weather.

But do you go to work only when you feel like going? Do athletes or great musicians only practice when they feel like it? We simply cannot live a healthy and productive life if we let our feelings master us. This is especially true regarding relationships.

If we hope to experience deep and lasting relationships as intended by God, love must be understood as an action more than a feeling.

Remember that God demonstrated his love for us not because we are a warm, lovable group of people whom he could not resist. Instead, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). This is the kind of love husbands are commanded to show toward their wives (Ephesians 5:25).

Reflect often on this distinction between being in love and behaving in love. Use this for conversation as couples, in small groups, and with those preparing for marriage.

Reflect also on the best definition of love available to humanity.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:1-8a).



Comments:

[…] all of my mobile devices.  This has helped me remember items in an efficient manner. Marriage “When I Don’t Feel Love for My Spouse” by Steve […]

Denise White

March 9, 2012 at 11:28 AM

This is great. May I get permission to post it on my blog?
lovinggodwithexcellence.wordpress.com

[...] Steve Cornell: [...]

Steve Martin

March 9, 2012 at 05:15 PM

Great post!

My pastor once said that. "love is not a feeling...but rather a role that we pick up and play."




.

Anonymous

March 19, 2012 at 08:03 AM

Whenever I read a post like this one and work through the comments, it always amazes me how much the onus is placed on the individual, with no expectations from the Christian community. No wonder so many couples fail! They are left by their churches and the supposed community of faith to make a successful marriage happen on all on their own.

Very little is ever said about those couples who do not fit the Focus on the Family mold. Couples that must deal with severely mentally challenged children, especially those couples that choose not to put their loved ones in an institution. The spouse who endures relentless verbal or physical abuse. The man or woman who suffers from mental illness, especially when it develops later, and the spouse who endures the resulting daily rollercoaster ride. The couple who must deal with one or more elderly parents now suffering from dementia or failing health. The couple in which one of the spouses walks away from the Lord and will not come back. And on and on.

I have seen many couples like the ones above fall through the cracks of their churches, only to see their marriages end in heartbreak and divorce. They are far more prevalent than we care to admit. Where is the Church for them?

We can talk and talk about "choosing to love" and using fine-sounding biblical language, but the fact is that many of those couples are abandoned to their fates by church folk who simply do not know what to do to help, do not want to get involved, or who make the problem worse by their gossip. And that's a shame. Because the Christian life is never supposed to be an island, yet many spouses stuck in difficult marriages feel that is where the Church has left them. They tried to get help, but no one came to their aid, or worse, their problem shared in secret with supposedly trustworthy Christian leaders ended up known by everyone in the Church.

We can't always attach all the blame to the couple or to one spouse. Fact is, too many of us are not doing our Christian duty to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering through a difficult marriage. We're not available to offer free babysitting for the unruly, mentally challenged child so the couple can have a date night. We don't offer a listening ear to the woman whose mentally ill husband gets up at night a couple times a week and is found outside wandering the streets by the police. We offer Bible platitudes to the wife who suffers abuse. We turn a blind eye to the church leader whose wife now claims she no longer believes. Yet these people are part of our body, and they make up a large number of Christians who end up divorced.

People in such situations are tired. They're exhausted by their situations. They are physically spent, mentally drained, and on the verge of collapse. They don't need to have more things added to their checklist for a perfect marriage by well-meaning people who think that handing them a book or sharing some one-size-fits-all verses are the cure for what ails them. What they need is for the community of believers to step in and be Jesus to them, dispensing grace without measure.

MANY Christian couples with disintegrating marriages are in those kinds of situations. God forgive us for how we have treated them!

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[...] When I Don’t Feel Love for My Spouse – This is a serious issue, and this post from The Gospel Coalition is an important lesson for married people. [...]

Umashankar

March 14, 2012 at 07:55 AM

Nice thought..really love is life.

Sharon Tognetti

March 14, 2012 at 05:13 PM

Great article! My husband and I have been married almost 38 years. Early in our marriage, I "felt" I did not love my husband, but hated him. I had just given my life to Christ and knew that these feelings were not right, so I asked the Lord to love my husband through me. What an answer to prayer. Every time I looked at him after that prayer, I had overwhelming love for him. It still brings tears to my eyes after all these years! We have had our ups and downs, as all marriages do, but the fact is that the Lord is continually loving my husband through me....as well as everyone else I come in contact with.....What a blessing that has been.

Steve Cornell

March 13, 2012 at 10:13 PM

One more shot at this. In addition to being married almost 29 years, I have worked with many couples in 27 years of pastoral ministry. I am just not overly interested in elevating feelings or trying too much to nuance the action-feeling transaction in obedience. As one who believes the gospel, whether you feel like doing what God tells you to do or not, you must obey.

If we want to attach emotion than we should work out our salvation "with fear and trembling," "for it is God who works in you to will and to do his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). If we don't feel like doing what God tells us to do, we should confess the sin of our slothful and indolent spirit (Romans 12:11) and turn to the Lord in the faith and obedience of true love. Get busy doing what He tells you to do. All of this is from God and to be done to God's glory.

I am not going to venture into the question "Can an unbeliever do things that conform to God's will?" This is a huge subject that requires mature theological perspective. I am not saying you're doing this but I have observed far too much theological immaturity on this subject. It mostly surfaces among those who try to resolve the tensions with arbitrary uses of a few Scriptures or through an effort to force conformity to a preconceived theological system.

On a pragmatic level, I have observed unbelievers treating their spouses better than some who claim faith in Christ. I can certainly be grateful for any husband who treats his wife with kindness and respect. Even is he is an unbeliever, I can acknowledge his actions as right and praiseworthy - just as authorities were given "to punish evil and to commend those who do right" (I Peter 2:14). But, as I said, this is a much larger discussion.

More importantly, I do not believe you're accurately understanding what Paul intended by the "have not love" portion of I Corinthians 13. Beyond the evident hyperbole, I interpret it based on the definition for love that follows. So for one to be without love is to be without patience, kindness, etc... I do not see this as acts of great self-sacrifice without true godly feelings. But acts of hypocritical, self-serving devotion without the anti-rivalry qualities of love (I Corinthians 13:4-8a).

Your entire argument depends upon a definition of "the gift of love" as a gift of feelings from the Holy Spirit. Or, to use higher language, sanctified affections. I have no argument against sanctified affections but I am not ready to reduce a gift of love to them. Going back to the opening of my post, I would tell the wife who is leaving her husband because she no longer loves him that she is making a choice to no longer value her husband and to break her public commitment to remain faithful to him.

Again, the ideal is to want to do what we ought to do. When the two are together it is sweet. But when I don't want to do what I ought to do, I sometimes have to say, "Not my will but yours be done."

scott price

March 13, 2012 at 08:25 AM

Steve, thanks for your thoughtful response. As I understand Scripture, God commands us to love which necessarily commands our affections. The command also speaks to our mind and our will for sure but includes our emotions and affections. What we debate in this blog is whether obedience with the mind and the will is sufficient in God's eyes to constitute true obedience to His overarching command to love. I don not think so and I've tried to establish a Biblical basis for that position.

When the Spirit is leading us, He necessarily produces in us the fruit of faithfulness to God's commandments which is a fruit you address in your responses to me. I agree with you. However, the fruits of the Spirit are not produced in a singular way, eg., we get love but not patience, or we get joy and not gentleness.

What you are presenting I think is the possibility to have the gift of faith but not the gift of God's love. I am arguing that faith and love go together. The reason they go together is that God commands love and gives faith to access and be filled with that love in the Spririt. God does not give faith to motivate the will only... He gives faith also to stir the heart in love. Love shouldn't and actually can't be separated from faith because faith is given to know the love of Christ and be filled with the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians teaches that.

Finally, this is an critically important issue in the believers relationships with others. If we don't have love, we can sell all our possessions and give them to the poor ( behavior that may appear obedient ) but it will profit nothing. Having love is the critical issue to the believer before doing acts of love. This is not to say, however, that God doesn't use any particular act to accomplish good for others. It means, importantly though, that doing good without love in your heart is not a profitable thing for the believer.

I ask you to consider whether your counsel in the article is just as easily performed by an unbeliever as a believer. If so, it may be good counsel but consider whether it is true supernatural, scriptural loving obedience. Thanks a lot Steve for the dialogue. I may be wrong on all that I've tried to communicate and would love to not frustrate you with my position but would rather you bring me to a better understanding with Scripture. All His best.

Steve Cornell

March 12, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Scott,

Good question. Would we say that since "behavioral obedience without the heart died at the cross," no matter the feelings, you are commanded to act in love (Ephesians 5:25)? If so, are we then saying essentially what I am encouraging?

If not, would we then be saying that after the cross, we have two commands in one: "Act and feel love for your spouse at all times." Or, do we want to just say that feelings don't matter -- just do what is right.

All of this might depend on what is meant by "without the heart"? Do we mean by this "hypocritical acting?" "legalistic acting?" Are we saying that one should always obey with feelings fully engaged and devoted to each act? Along these lines, you might find helpful Matthew Elliot's book, "Faithful Feelings." It really is an exceptional study of how Scripture speaks concerning human emotions.

On another level, I am sure most of us would admit that the ideal would be to always want to do what we ought to do. But in the fragile nature of Christian sanctification, things are not so easily nuanced. But, then again, God did put His "treasure in jars of clay so that the greatness of the power would be from God and not from us" (II Corinthains 4:7).

scott price

March 12, 2012 at 09:52 AM

Where in the Bible is this a sanctioned way of thinking? What is the Biblical support when Scripture mandates we love our wives the way Christ loved the Church? I don't mean to demean the whole concept of outward obedience but the place among God's people for behavioral obedience without the heart died at the cross.

[...] When I Don’t Feel Love for My Spouse – Steve Cornell writes about two important dimensions of love – being in love and behaving in love. [...]

Steve Cornell

March 12, 2012 at 06:10 PM

Scott,

I think I see what you're assuming. When I wrote: "the key to keeping the flame of love burning is not pursuing a feeling but deciding to value the other person and be devoted to his or her best---no matter what one feels" -- you appear to be assuming that I am encouraging a fleshly response of obedience instead of a Spirit-based response of obedience.

You wrote: "doing something in the flesh in external obedience is sin." But this statement depends on an assumed dichotomy between "choosing to obey God" and "depending upon the Holy Spirit." I think forcing this dichotomy too much could be both arbitrary and a potentially subjective measurement that could lead to wrongly reading into the actions of others. It could lead to a form of spiritualized legalism.

I am not interested in separating the choice to obey God from feelings but encouraging married people not to depend on feelings when it comes to doing what God commands. By this, I am assuming that doing what God commands does entail faith and dependence on God being right no matter how I feel about it. In other words, I am viewing the choice itself as a faith-based act of worship wherein one submits to God rather than a flesh-based response of doing what I want to do, feel like doing. The response itself says "I am wrong and God is right." In this sense, it is repentance.

You appear to be saying that I should turn to the Holy Spirit in some way so that I will want to do what I am commanded to do so that I can do what is right with emotions fully involved and that unless I do this, I risk "going through the motions" or "trying to do God's will in my strength." On this accounting, I am suppose to repent of not having the right feelings of love and then I can feel right about doing right so that I can do right in the only way acceptable to God."

And then some well-intentioned brother observes my actions and says, "Well, it didn't look like you felt it from the heart to me. You seemed like you were just going through the motions!"

Ok, I am getting a little dizzy by all this nuancing.

When the good samaritan "felt compassion" I assume the authenticity of his feeling was that he "helped the man in need." I think you're assuming that I am saying, "Help the man in need whether you feel like it or not" or "Do the right thing regardless of how you feel."

But is it possible that in one's decision to obey, one is acknowledging God's supremacy and trusting in His wisdom. Could this act itself be a faith-based expression of humble dependence on God? YES!

Yet I realize that one's decision to obey could also be a legalistic effort to do God's will in my own strength so that others will perceive me to be spiritual. But how do we read these differences? And should we try to read them in others? And do we risk allowing feelings to be more important than they should be? R.C. Sproul once wrote: "We've become a culture preoccupied with analyzing our moods and our feelings."

When I've encouraged people to embrace by faith the promise of I John 1:9, some have responded, "I tried that but I don't feel forgiven." I tell them, "God never asked how you felt about it." The Scripture says, "He is faithful and just and will forgive..." Now, you can either acknowledge God's character (faithful and just) or question it by elevating the status of your feelings above it.

The call remains the same:

"Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;" (Proverbs 3:5-7).
fear the LORD and shun evil.

scott price

March 12, 2012 at 03:30 PM

Thanks for the response T. Newbell I, of course, sometimes don't feel like loving God or others as commanded. That would be sin however, and not something acceptable. Scripture teaches this. God severely curses and condemns the Israelites in Duet. 28 not for failing to serve Him as you might expect, but for failing to serve Him with a joyful and glad heart. Jesus died, among other wonderful blessings, that the Holy Spirit whose fruit includes joy and love, would dwell in us and supply this fruit to us. The problem isn't a lack of love, it is fundamentally the absence of the Spirit's manifestation in our lives. My response to that is repentance and faith in God's promise to fill me with this fruit. I believe Scripture teaches that doing something in the flesh in external obedience is sin and not, as some might suggest, the best we can and should do when the Spirit isn't producing His fruit in us. Repentance is the right response when we don't feel like it; not just do it anyway. Love is a noun that displays itself as a verb. The verb or act of loving when severed from the noun or heart of love is impossible. Obedience is love expressed. To say we can obey without love in our heart and compassion in our feelings is unscriptural. There is absolutely no Scriptural support ( and I would love to be proven wrong on this ) for the notion that external acts that appear loving are sufficient for God or in some way meet the definition of true obedience. In my humble opinion, this is a huge dysfunction in the Church when the commands that God gives are dumbed down to make them possible to obey without the love of the Holy Spirit being involved. Repent and seek the Spirit is the solution, not some other form of substitute obedience. Love your wife like Christ loved the Church is the command. As Augustine prayed, give us what You command oh Lord!.

Greg Fieger

March 12, 2012 at 03:28 PM

Steve,

With all due respect for your pastor's notion of love, I would try that line of thinking with your wife or children or anyone else you love- "I don't 'feel' any love for you, I'm just playing a role I picked up". It doesn't work with God either, or your fellow man.

T.Newbell

March 12, 2012 at 03:05 PM

Hi Scott! Do you mind if I ask a question? Isn't much of our walk about faith? I guess my question is, don't you-at times- lack the feeling of love towards God but we still act in faith and read the Bible, pray, etc? Sometimes we don't feel like doing much of anything but we still need to act. I guess I could apply that to my kids as well. I sometimes don't "feel" like caring for them but by God's grace I act. I wonder if Luke 6:35 applies. Loving through action without expectation? Have a blessed day!

scott price

March 12, 2012 at 02:10 PM

In answer to your question, I would use Scripture. Love each other fervently from the heart. Forgive each other from the heart. Weep with those who weep. Rejoice, I say rejoice. The good samaritan "felt compassion" and helped the man in need. The only thing that matters is "faith working through love". The suggestion of the article is that when you can't do that, then "faith working" is sufficient. I would heartily disagree.

JD

March 11, 2012 at 11:17 AM

Steve, thanks for this reminder. The Lord is faithful and has spoken through you. I needed this today.

[...] EM INGLÊS Artigo:  When I don’t feel love for my spouse Autor: Steve Cornell Fonte: The Gospel Coalition [Quando eu não sinto amor por meu cônjuge] [...]

John Sullivan

March 10, 2012 at 12:11 PM

i LOVE this article - we should NOT pursue the ROMANTIC feelings of lovey dovey eros as end goal.

but when you love your brother or sister in christ, you should still FEEL love towards them. AGAPE DOES involve feelings. and sometimes we react against the romantic feelings and forget the agape feelings in the process.

one key: be emotionally SATISFIED in God. and love your spouse emotionally out of that Godward-satisfaction.

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