Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.” —Henri Nouwen
Sam sat in my (Rich’s) office wringing his hands.
“How can I help, Sam?” I offered him a cup of coffee.
“Pastor, I think I’m in love and I don’t have a clue about loving someone. My whole life has been spent in and out of jail. . . love is not high on the list in prison. What do I do?”
Sam’s humility helped him recognize his lack of relational intelligence, but his faith also encouraged him to believe he could learn to love. There’s no better place for any lover, young or old, to live. Knowing love can be learned, knowing it involves parts and processes, knowing it never earns a diploma – these are the admission fees to the university of love.
Sam is one of God’s trophies. He spent his life in and out of prison running with gangs. A year ago he was released from San Quinton where he served most of 10 years for aggravated assault. Two years before his release, his closest friend, Jake, accepted Jesus as his Savior. Jake invited Sam to a prison Bible study and within a couple of months, he had made the same commitment.
On the second Sunday at our church, Sam met Nancy. A strong friendship began – a friendship that fueled Sam’s desire to learn how to love.
The apostle Peter welcomed the wisdom in Sam’s question:
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1:22 NIV)
Peter points out how “obeying the truth” rather than following our feelings or other counsel, help us love each other “deeply, from the heart.” Sam longed for that part. The work of the Spirit had already prompted him to know the difference between love that leaves and love that lasts.
In his following letter, Peter continues by instructing readers to “add” love to their lives, implying that it is the product of effort.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7 NIV)
Peter doesn’t say, “wait for God to bring love,” he writes “make every effort to add . . . love.” This difference in perspective makes a major difference in the amount of delight we experience in married love.
Love Can Be Arranged
At a conference in New Delhi, Dr. Sukhwant Bhatia explained the work involved in learning to love. “In America, we marry the girl we fall in love with,” he said, but “in New Deli [where he pastored] many marriages are arranged.” The husband and wife begin as strangers. “When they read in Ephesians 5 ‘husbands love your wives,’ they begin a lifetime of learning how. However, the American couple easily confuses their feelings with actually loving each other.” Because they already “feel love,” they don’t understand the need to “work at love.”
Loving another person often involves our emotions, but love is, fundamentally, a volitional act. This explains why we can be expected to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) as well as our marriage partner. Love can be learned.
We often think God alone produces love within us. After all, he poured his love into us (Romans 5:5) and fills us with the Holy Spirit who displays his love through us. When we think this way, we end up waiting at the back of the class for God to do the work. It is true that God produces spiritual growth, but it is also true that He wants us to join Him in the effort. This is what Peter clarified when he wrote “make every effort to add . . . love.”
Marks on the Wall
Some children grow up with parents who regularly mark their height on a wall or another surface, and some used this time to celebrate with their kids. “You’re four feet tall now. You’re growing up!”
God does something similar with us. His marks on the wall of our hearts become proof we’re growing in our ability to love another person, proof we’re eating the right kinds of spiritual food and doing the right kinds of work.
Paul outlines some of God’s marks in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.
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 hope, always perseveres.”
How do we advise people like Sam?
First, Marty and I encourage every couple to study the word “love” in scripture using a Bible app or concordance, so they can begin talking about and defining love together. This could take a few days or could go on for months depending on how detailed the couple wants to be. Over the years, we’ve heard from many couples that the time spent studying together deepened their love.
Second, we use 1 Corinthians 13 to help them establish a method for joining the work of the Holy Spirit. Here’s how couples can begin to “add” the first quality of love Paul mentions, “Love is patient:”
- Identify an individual who or a situation that tests your patience and follow this with praying for the individual or the situation every day for a week.
- Memorize I Corinthians 13:4, focusing on the first part, “Love is patient. . . .”
- Find out, through conversation, a little more about the offending individual’s backstory and write an encouragement card to the offending individual.
These three activities can help us join the work of the Holy Spirit and “add” a new quality of patience to our love for people and each other.
As Sam began to succeed, he added other qualities listed in I Corinthians 13. He also committed to regular time in the Word and prayer because he learned that communicating with love’s Creator was integral to becoming the lover God wanted him to be.
If we spend our lives learning and re-learning the qualities of love, our love will, as Nouwen confessed: “bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”