Here’s a man who comes to his pastor and says, “My wife says she’s going to leave me for good. She says she doesn’t love me anymore. I don’t want her to leave, but if she doesn’t want me, then maybe the loving thing to do is just to let her go. If I really love her, maybe I shouldn’t try to stop her from divorcing me. What should I do?”
As in most cases of pastoral counseling, this man’s basic problem is theological. He needs to see the doctrine of God’s love more clearly. There are very different theologies of God’s love today. The most popular American view says that the highest expression of God’s love is conditioned on human responses. It says that God loves people up to a point, but if they refuse Him, then God will restrain His love for them. If people don’t accept God’s love, and if they don’t love Him back, then God will respect their free choices, and He will allow them to go their own way, even if their own way ends up destroying them forever. On this view, God’s love is ultimately conditional. It’s easy to understand why this is so popular, since it lines up nicely with the American notion that the greatest authority is the human heart and that people know what’s best for themselves.
But thanks be to God, the Bible teaches that God has a very different kind of love for His people. The fullest expression of God’s love is never conditioned on a human response. The Bible teaches that God’s love is unconditional at the most fundamental level. Certainly, God’s love produces responses in people, but His love is never based on those responses. Paul said, “But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). That’s unconditional love. In our natural unconverted state, we sinfully and stubbornly refused God’s love (Rom 1:18-23). We didn’t “seek” His love (Rom 3:11), and we “turned aside” from His love (Rom 3:12). But in spite of ourselves, God lovingly sent His Son anyway.
Later in Romans 8:31-33a, Paul explains just how freely and fully God loves His chosen bride: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?”
Notice that Paul reasons from the greater to the lesser. If God gave His “own Son” (the greater), then He will certainly give us “all things” in Him (the lesser)! What are “all things” according to this passage? Romans 8:29-30 says that “all things” include every part of salvation: calling, justification, and glorification. If God gave His Son for you (the greater), then He will certainly do everything else needed to save you to the uttermost (the lesser). This is free and unconditional love. It’s a powerful, absolute, effective, and saving love that holds nothing back at all.
This means that God doesn’t love us because we are lovely. He doesn’t love His church because she accepts His love. He refuses to yield to our stubborn and self-destructive wills. He will not let us go our own way. He will not let us choose to destroy ourselves. Instead, He loves us unconditionally. He sent His Son to die for us and gives us “all things” in Him. He promises to pour out all of His loving affections and actions upon us relentlessly. Paul explains the extent of God’s unconditional and effective love, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39).
So how does all of this apply to marriage? The man in the example above needs to learn God’s love in two ways.
1. He needs to believe God’s unconditional love for him. 1 John 4:16 says, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” He feels unloved by his wife. Over the years, his wife has made him feel like he has to meet certain conditions to have her love. But the gospel says that God’s love for His people in Christ isn’t like that. He can let himself believe and feel God’s love for him, no matter what His wife does. He can learn that his identity is in Christ, not in the way his wife treats him. And the more he grasps God’s great love for him, the more he will be free to love his wife out of love for Christ, no matter how his wife treats him.
2. He needs to learn to love his wife unconditionally. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Knowing God’s love for him, this man can pursue his wife with faithful and relentless love, even when she says she doesn’t love him, and even when she says she doesn’t want to be married anymore. He can love his wife, even if she doesn’t accept his love. He can love her as Christ has loved him, laying down his life for her, serving her, looking for ways to honor her and express love for her, speaking to her with kindness and gentleness the way God in Christ speaks to him. He can put away his pride, humble himself before her, admit his own sin fully, and commit to walk in faithful repentance, even when she refuses to love him in return. He can serve her faithfully and sacrificially, even when she rejects his love. He can lovingly and gently call her to repentance and love to God for her own good and God’s glory. Because God in Christ has loved him so well, this man can and must love his wife with that same kind of unconditional love. If a broken marriage is to be healed, this is the only faithful way toward healing.
God never promises to fix every marriage, but He does promise to love, save, and comfort all who belong to Him. He promises to fellowship with those who trust His Son and walk in His way, even in the midst of pain and sorrow. May the Lord help us to understand, believe, and apply His sovereign unconditional love.