After I posted last week’s analysis of Paul’s famous agape love verses in 1 Corinthians 13, I realized that my own understanding of that passage had changed dramatically over the 60 years I have been familiar with it. I recognized that that change mirrored beautifully my own personal growth as a Christian, as God continues to bring me “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Initially, as a young, earnest believer, reading the Bible through the lens of the law (the knowledge of good and evil—the lens through which we all view the world when we are born) I saw 1 Corinthians 13 as the way I was commanded to try to love others. As Jesus tells us in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” The 1 Corinthians 13 passage describes what constitutes that love.
That was how I began my spiritual journey as a sincere, eager Christian: discover what God wanted me to do and then set out, as much as possible, to do it. I must admit, even though that was my modus operandi, I didn’t spend a lot of time comparing my conduct to how love is described in the Bible. I operated on the premise, “Nobody keeps God’s law perfectly. We must get as close as we can to following it. That is all God expects.”
However, as is often the case, I faced a failure in my life that caused that paradigm—living by trying my best to love the way God commands—to prove to be entirely inadequate. My inability to love Jill with genuine agape love for the four years before we married exposed me as not being able to love Jill in that way. “Agape does not insist on its own rights, for it is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5 – Amplified). Is not insisting my wife love me back not self-seeking and demanding my own rights?
At 29, Jill had never been in love. She could not trust any of her suitors enough to tear down her walls of protection and give herself to any of them because she knew in her heart that none of them loved her unconditionally. She knew unconsciously that I was no different. I too, like all the rest, expected love in return. I did not love her as I am commanded to do—just as Christ loved the church, loving her before she ever loved Him back and whether or not she ever did. I, unlike Jesus was looking for something for myself, and I was helpless to be any other way..
We are married today, having just celebrated our 51st anniversary! How did that ever happen?
What happened represents the transition in my experience from seeing 1 Corinthians 13 as a command as to how I should attempt to love others, to a statement of how God already loves me!
The unconditional, initial, sacrificial, agape love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 was all completely non-experiential theory to the zealous, young campus evangelist who saw a beautiful, dark-haired new recruit standing in a registration line at the Institute of Biblical Studies in San Bernardino, California (a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ). I was 26, had been on the Crusade staff for three years, thoroughly enjoying working 16-hour days speaking in fraternities, sororities and dormitories, holding late-night Bible studies, and having evangelistic appointments each hour during the day. If you think I was too busy to think about girls, you are right, but summers were a more leisurely time of training at the organization’s headquarters, and it was there that I met Jill, who had come to California to join the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ.
When I first noticed her waiting in the registration line, I dusted off one of my best lines, walked up to her, introduced myself, and asked her if she believed in love-at-first-sight! Jill laughed, and as we talked and got acquainted, I made a date with her to go to Disneyland that next weekend with several other couples. The beginning of a fairy-tale, Hollywood love story, right? Wrong! We had no idea that four long years of lessons in the Lord’s schoolroom lay ahead of us.
After a couple of weeks of constant companionship that first summer, including long hours of deep discussion, I was convinced that I truly did love Jill, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. There was one small problem. She was not convinced.
As we talked, I learned that Jill had grown up in an unfinished, tar paper house with no running water in rural Georgia with an irresponsible father, who, because of his drinking, continually embarrassed and hurt her emotionally as a child. Conflicts between her parents over his problems left her feeling very vulnerable, and when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver when she was eleven, she saw it as the ultimate abandonment, and she unconsciously shut down her emotions to keep from ever being hurt by a man again.
As a result, she found it impossible to respond to me. Add to that the fact that, at 6’4″ and 165 lb., I was not the image of the handsome, dashing prince charming the movies had conditioned her to expect. She told me that she really liked me, that we had wonderful times together, and we had much in common, but she did not “love” me. She did not have the feelings that she would surely have if she were “in love.”
I, of course, was crushed, but as the summer wore on and we continued to be together, my love for her did not fade, but only grew. She enjoyed being with me, loved to talk to me for hours at a time, even appreciated the way I made her feel special, but was convinced she could not marry me, because she had no romantic feelings for me. Thus began a stormy, four-year relationship, during which time I learned that, indeed, she had never had feelings for any boy, as she continued to protect herself from experiencing again the pain her father had caused her.
I didn’t understand this clearly at the time. I only knew that she said she didn’t love me, even though she often acted like she did. I still wanted to marry her, and even almost talked her into it once, only to have her call and tell me she just couldn’t do it, because she just didn’t have any feelings for me.
“That’s it,” I told her. “It’s over.” After three years of disappointment I had finally had it.
My thinking, clouded by the emotion of the rejection I felt, went something like this: “She won’t have this faithful hound to kick around any more. She has given me just enough of a bone to keep me interested, but no longer! I deserve better. The most eligible bachelor on the Campus Crusade staff, and she treats me like this!”
We didn’t communicate for almost a year, and during that time I began to learn about God’s agape love for His Bride, the church. As I saw the “width and length and depth and height” of that love (Ephesians 3:18), I began to see my love for Jill in that same light.
The issue had been whether or not she loved me, but now I saw that the only issue was, “Robert, do you love (agape) her?” and the answer, even after a year apart, I knew was an unqualified “yes!” I saw, for the first time, that her inability to respond to me was a tragedy for her and not for me. I knew, also for the first time, that the opportunity to love her far outweighed anything I might miss if she never did have feelings for me. True joy and fulfillment comes from loving, and not from being loved. Furthermore, I began to see that her only chance to experience the joy of loving would be in response to a love that absolutely would not quit, would not be discouraged, would not make any demands upon her to respond whatsoever!
The following are verbatim excerpts from the letter I wrote her in March of 1968:
“Probably the hardest thing I’ve done in a while is not phone you today. My pocketbook just won’t allow it. Besides, I can write what I want to say much better than I can say it on the phone.”
“I have remembered something in the last two days that I have forgotten for almost 2 years; something I have known intellectually but have never really applied, and it is this: The issue in our relationship is not even remotely whether or not you love me. The issue, my dear one, is that I so love you. I always have and I always will. I remember saying that to you some two years ago and really meaning it, but somehow over the last two years I began to believe that I deserved more; that somehow you ought to love me too. That is no more the issue than is our love for God. It’s not that we have to love Him, but that He loves us!”
“Dearest one, I want you to know that whether or not you ever love me just doesn’t matter. I couldn’t say that two days ago, but I want you to know that I really mean it. J.J., love for you has been in my heart for four years. After not seeing you for five months, it’s there; after being apart and broken-up, it’s there. It’s just there. I love you. No matter what you do or say, or don’t do or don’t say, I love you. Could God speak any clearer? … As long as God is sovereign I never need to look back and worry over some supposed miss-step, but simply let out the love God has put in my heart for you.”
“So, my darling one, I don’t care if you ever tell me you love me; don’t care if God ever changes your heart. I want to love you for the rest of your life, take care of you, forsaking all others, with no strings attached, with no demands that you love me back.”
“I’m expecting you to get cold feet before the wedding, maybe even cry and try to talk me out of it, show me all kinds of lists that show you don’t have any feelings for me, but Jill, I don’t care! Spring is the time, and May 18 is the date, if that day is O.K. with you.”
Her response to my letter was pretty much what I expected; she wasn’t affected. I had made bold and blustery noises before, but always folded when she didn’t respond. My attempts at loving her with God’s love had not brought her running before because she knew in her heart that they were not genuine, and she wasn’t about to suddenly fall into my arms now. She had heard me cry “wolf!” too many times.
But this time, somehow it really didn’t matter. I wrote her again, and again, and after each negative answer from Jill claiming “it won’t work”, I found myself responding with a positive, strong, affirmation of my love. I couldn’t believe that it really didn’t matter if she ever loved me or not, for I was intoxicated with the love of God flowing through me to Jill.
I understand now that Jill was unconsciously testing me, attempting to run me off if she could; trying me to see if indeed she could trust me with her life, trust me to still love her when she was not lovely. Would I leave her as her father had done? The following is an excerpt from her letter of March 21:
“I’m finding it so unbelievable what’s happening; I’m afraid to trust that it’s real. But I might as well tell you because if it flops it’ll kill both of us anyway! Ever since your second letter, and progressively as the others have come, I’ve seen an unbelievable change in my attitude. I am really looking forward to talking about getting married. I can’t wait to see you and hear everything that you will say to me. I’m excited about what is happening in your heart. I really am responding like crazy and it’s so new I’m afraid it will go away. But that sick feeling, the lump in my stomach, is completely gone.”
“I’ve told everybody about your love letters and how they are affecting me, and they are all so thrilled! Can you believe I’m telling everybody?”
“You’ve convinced me (almost completely) that this thing is all settled. I love the way you’re talking. It’s not arrogantly telling me what’s what…it’s the confident boldness that you know where you’re going and that it’s God’s will. That’s exactly what I’ve wanted. It’s so different than before. There is so much more depth, certainty and authority. It seems too good to be true. I want so much to trust and believe that it’s real this time. I’m not looking for verses or praying desperately or anything. I’m just waiting impatiently for all this time to pass so I can be with you and see what happens.”
When we were married two months later, Jill had still never told me that she loved me, for indeed at that time she could not. I have kidded her over the years that I was afraid that when the minister said, “Will you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?” that she would say, “No!” But it no longer mattered. The joy, the fulfillment, the satisfaction for me was in loving her.
I was not a perfect lover by any means, and the lesson I had learned would need relearning, painfully, several times again, and indeed is being more fully learned even as I write, after 51 years of marriage. The temptation to eat again of the old fruit of the knowledge of good and evil remains. But the foundation was laid and the truth of agape love had been experienced in my heart.
Seeing 1 Corinthians 13 with spiritual eyes as a description of God’s limitless grace in loving me was stage 2 in the paradigm shift from living by the law, stage #1. Next week we will discuss stage #3—seeing 1 Corinthians 13 as a promise of how we will love all those around us.