Over the last two weeks in my blog I have exegeted 1 Cor 13.4-7 and unpacked the way in which Paul wrote about eight ways in which love does not act, and five ways in which love does act. However, in the context of a wedding where the congregation is made up of many who do not normally darken the door of a church, a different approach is called for. So in this week’s blog I reproduce a sermon which I entitled ‘A survival guide to marriage’.
Congratulations on your marriage. How splendidly turned out both of you are today! We trust that you will know much happiness in your marriage. But how realistic is such a sentiment? In today’s Britain, where almost one in two marriages break down, that can seem to be wishful thinking. At the moment you are both starry-eyed. The bride thinks her new husband is the most wonderful man in the world, while her new husband cannot imagine a more adorable woman! Alas, the time will come the dream will be over.
“Love”, said American writer Ambrose Pierce, “is a temporary insanity, curable by marriage” The American satirist Henry Louis Mencken described love as “the triumph of imagination over intellect”. While American actor John Barrymore commented, “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock”. Yes, at some stage the bubble will burst, and you will discover that neither of you is the ultimate in perfection. Then what?
The secret of marriage survival is the four-letter ‘love’ – and in particular the love of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious, boastful or arrogant. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes, all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor 13.4-8a). Although Paul wrote these words to a church where relationships were far from right, they are also applicable to marriage. For love is the key to all successful relationships.
Hollywood equates love with sex; Mills and Boon equate love with romantic slush. The confectionary industry equates love with giving him your last chocolate Rolo. The love of which Paul speaks, however, is agape love, self-giving love.
Let me be frank. The key to a good marriage is not having great sex. True, sex is part of the deal, but heaven help a marriage if sexual performance is the basis of that relationship. No marriage could survive if sex were the foundation.
Neither is being good friends the key. True, no marriage will survive without the couple being good friends, but friendship alone is not enough. For there will be times when you will let one another down. There are times when even the best of friendships is tested.
No, the key to a good marriage is self-giving love, the love that we see in Jesus, the love that gives not because the other deserves love, but simply because they are there to be loved. Marriage comes about as a result of a couple falling in love. However, a marriage will not normally survive if it is dependent upon the couple remaining in love. For marriage is not about feeling love, but rather about being committed to loving, whatever.
1. Love is about actions and not about emotions. Love is not what we feel, but rather about what we do. Unfortunately, this is not immediately clear in most English translations, which tend to talk about what love is, whereas in the original Greek love is about how love acts. In your new life together you need to show your love to one another in the things you do for one another. What’s more, you need to show your love, even when your beloved has let you down and burnt the toast. If your marriage is to survive, it will be because of what you do, and not because of what you feel!
2. Love is putting the other person first. Love is not about me and my needs; love is about you and your needs. Love is not about wanting the best for me, but about wanting the best for you. Love is about putting the other first.
As the Hungarian-American actress Zsa Zsa Gabor said: “Husbands are like fires. They go out when unattended”. Leonard Bernstein, the great American composer and conductor, when asked what was the hardest instrument to play, replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violins, but to find one who plays second fiddle with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
3. Love is forgiving the other. I am told that in Polynesia it is customary for people to keep some reminders of their hatred. Articles are suspended from the roofs of their huts to keep alive the memory of their wrongs – real or imaginary. Sadly it is not only in Polynesia that people nurse their wrath to keep it warm. I have known some husbands and wives to keep a mental black book of the other’s misdemeanours.
One of the marriages of American film-director Woody Allen might have lasted a little longer had he learnt to forgive. As it was he said of his wife: “She was so immature. She kept sinking the boats in my bath.” All so trivial, and yet time and again it is the trivial which sinks the marriage. Saying sorry and forgiving each other is something we all need to learn if we want our marriage to survive.
4. Love is unending. Today you have promised to love one another ‘until death do us part’. Marriage is a life-sentence. You have committed yourself to one another, not for the duration, but for as long as you both shall love. Just as there is no ending to the circle of gold on your finger, so there should be no ending to your loving.
In other words, we are called to love like Jesus. It has often been said that 1 Corinthians 13 is a description of the person of Jesus. Jesus never gave up on anybody, not even on Judas. Jesus loved us to the end, and so dying for us on a cross. In a way which is true of nobody else, Jesus gave of himself to us; and in giving of himself, he forgave even the worst of hurts against him. But if you are to learn to love one another with the love of Jesus, then you need to put Jesus at the centre of your marriage. With his help you can then put each other first, forgive each other, and keep on loving.
If we could take your advice to heart, marriages would stand a much better chance of survival. Most important, I think, is recognising that it’s not what you feel that matters , but what you do, and that requires taking Christ as our example , as you say.