Friendship, Love, Marriage, and Vows

It is wedding season. I know, because I went back home to see my cousin get married in my parent’s back yard. It was gorgeous. The weather was perfect, or at least as perfect as June in Louisiana can be. The ceremony was just family, keeping the American Wedding Industrial Complex at bay. But then again, “just family” for us is still about 100 people, so the pomp wasn’t completely absent, giving just enough beauty and luxury.

Mary Michael Wedding

No, I did not get that photo off of Pintrest; yes, this is the venue just before the ceremony; no, there is no filter.

Like I said: it was gorgeous.

The Ceremony

As the brother and sister in Christ were joined, the minister spoke of Love. And where better in scripture to expound on this than the most elegant passage on love in all of scripture.

“Love is patient and kind.” He asked them to sacrifice for each other.
“Love does not envy, or boast,” He asked them to be content and loving to one another.
“It is not arrogant or rude.” He asked them to keep the other’s feelings in mind.
“It does not insist on its own way.” He told them to submit and serve one another.
“It is not irritable or resentful.” He reminded them that troubles and disagreements will come, and asked them to work through them.
“It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” He reminded them of the holy nature of their matrimony.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” He reminded them that, despite whatever trends they saw around them, this union — their union — was a permanent one.

“Love never ends.”

 

Love and Friendship

In the middle of this Christian marriage, I was reminded of something I read a while back in my life. In Book VIII of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (the online translation there stinks, but it’s free. Better versions with helpful footnotes are available to the curious), Aristotle makes some insightful observations about friends, true friends, and what we really like when we love people.

If you are drawn to someone “because you love them,” then you have not exactly explained why you are drawn to them. “I love you just the way you are” is not an expression of pure love. At best, it is just a bad description of what you are doing, and being drawn to someone “because you love them,” is merely two different ways to say the same thing: “I love you because I love you.”

God bless the hapless fools who genuinely love another person “just the way they are.” By the grace of God, they will persevere to a happy life with a superficial understanding of what it means to love. It’s possible, you know. You do not have to know how something works in order for it to work. For example, you need no knowledge of nutrition to eat healthy if you are surrounded by good food and healthy habits. But some nutritional knowledge might help if eating salads and getting exercise are not your modus operandi. I imagine it’s the same with love. You can get by without the knowledge, but knowing the finer points can help if trouble is ahead.

With those slight caveats, I’d like to explain why loving someone “just they way they are” is a dangerous method of love.

Friends of Utility

If you love someone because of their beauty, then you love beauty. If you love someone because of the way they make you feel, then you love how you feel. If you love someone because they make you laugh, then you love to laugh. If you love someone because they build you up, then you love good compliments. By all means, these are all wonderful things. And by all means, do not hold back from complimenting a bride or a husband for these attributes. Unfortunately, these are not the marks of true friendship or real love.

The Pattern of Utility

If you love someone because they are beautiful, funny, uplifting, and cheerful, then your love is secure as long as their beauty, humor, inspiration, and good cheer stay positive. We may genuinely declare our love to someone by associating them directly with beauty, humor, inspiration, and cheer in our minds. We may even believe that the wonderful person in front of us is God’s manifestation of such qualities in flesh. Good for you if you have found such a person whose positive qualities stay exactly as positive as they are for the rest of your lives.

Unfortunately, loving only the things that emanate from someone is a treacherous game. What a false hope this is for most people. Beauty fades. Humor goes sour. Inspiration is crushed by real life. Good cheer does not last. Beauty of another can make one bitter if one’s own sense of self is destroyed. Humor can be punishing if we can not internally separate ourselves from the thing at which others laugh. Inspiration is the same as empty cliché depending on the recipient. Good cheer is annoying if one is not willing to receive it.

How lucky one must be to receive continual imports of benefit to feed one’s own contentment. How much luckier one must be to simultaneously and continuously export benefits right back. Danger is inherent in this relationship, says Aristotle (at 3): “Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.” This type of love is a “Friendship of Utility.”

Clinging to Utility

The Philosopher continues:

But the friendship of utility is full of complaints; for as they use each other for their own interests they always want to get the better of the bargain, and think they have got less than they should, and blame their partners because they do not get all they ‘want and deserve’; and those who do well by others cannot help them as much as those whom they benefit want.

Yes, a Friendship of Utility is full of complaints. As we give and take from one another, we find that we are happy to get more than we have given, but we take offense when we give more than we have gotten. Those who do well by getting much from their partner cannot return the favor, because by “returning the favor,” the favor itself fades into “even.” A transaction is a transaction. Demand can be infinite. Supply of emotional output is limited. That’s wonderful for business. That’s terrible for lasting marriage.

You don’t have to look far to find how a marital Friendship of Utility can go bad. Ask the internet why people get divorced, and you can easily find such reasons like:

  • “Money”
  • “The intimacy disappears”
  • “Unmet expectations”
  • “Finances”
  • “Different priorities and interests”
  • “Weight Gain”
  • “Lack of Equality”

Of course these reasons are not the entire story of why a couple breaks apart. Life is too complicated for that. But it is true that these are significant factors in why some people break apart. Notice how inherently transactional their subject is.

Friendship of Virtue

There is, according to Aristotle, a better kind of love and a different kind of friendship. There will always be a third thing that binds friends together. If you like a friend who makes you laugh, the thing that brings these friends together is laughter. Their love for each other is secured by their common love for a very transient thing. But if two people are brought together because of their common love of country, then their love and brotherhood is a love of patriotism. Their affinity will be of a different sort, but it will also be more secure. The virtues of a nation are more secure than the ability to produce genuine laughter and cheer.

The third thing always exists, but they do not have to be transactional. If two friends love virtue, love righteousness, chase mercy, and value justice, then their bond will be in something that does not wither. It is not a thing exchanged by actions between changing individuals. Their third thing is a pursuit after something that does not shift or fade. They chase after something elusive, but never changing. Even nations pass away, but righteousness endures forever.

To love someone because of a common love for what is good, and a common love of what is true, this is a lasting friendship. There is no transaction here. There is no exchange. There is only a common pursuit of a common love. This is Friendship of Virtue. As the Philosopher says (at 3):

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends. . . therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing. . . .

And such a friendship is as might be expected permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have. . . . and to a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves. . . Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

How difficult it is to find a true friend. How hard it is for two to be matched to someone who is found lovable and trusted by each. A couple exchanging their vows has not yet made that journey. Two cannot achieve this deep bond until they have “eaten salt together.” There is danger ahead. And we know it.

These Verses Are Not For You Now

As a beautiful bride and an excited young man listened to the minister read a passage about love, I couldn’t silence a voice in the back of my head that kept telling me, “This passage isn’t for them now.” It is a running peeve in my head that the most common passage for marriage ceremonies is also the least applicable passage for any marriage ceremony. I mean, these people already like each other.

What we miss when we skip ahead to chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is that the previous twelve chapters are not very happy. They are not joyful. They are not gorgeous. They are painful, chastising, confrontational, and full of righteous indignation. This is a letter written to a church ridden with infidelity, anger, legal disputes between members, and pride.

Through those first twelve chapters, Paul exposes divisions between members who follow one teacher, holding him above the teacher of another. Paul laments that he cannot address this church as mature believers, but instead must help them through their disputes and jealousy because they are worldly. He has to even expel a member from their congregation due to his incestuous sin. He addresses lawsuits that spring up between members, and shames them due to the fraud among their body, and their pursuit of justice among themselves from outside the church. He chastises their unwillingness to be defrauded for the sake of a brother, to act justly, or to forgive. He tells them not to act as such worldly creatures. He has to give practical advice to spiritual babies. He has to give advice to those whose actions trouble other Christians.  He must reassert his own authority as an apostle, so that people will even listen to him, and explain the entire purpose of true scriptural knowledge. He must explain the entire purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Even to those who desire the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit, he must explain that no one person’s gift makes him superior to another, but that all the gifts must come together to serve a body which is composed of each person. Only after this does Paul talk about love.  Do not despise one another! Do not sue one another! Do not feast and become drunk in the meeting place of the church while other brothers go hungry!

The command to love does not come to those who already love one another. The command to love comes to those who hate each other — and for good reason. 

  • Love is patient. Be patient. Be patient with one another. Patience is not needed when you love someone. Patience is needed because you don’t. Patience is not needed when one is acting as one should. So be patient. Love one another.
  • Love is kind. Be kind. Be kind to one another. Kindness is not needed when someone is being kind in return. That is not loving kindness, that is normal. A command to kindness is needed when you can truly justify not being kind. So be kind. Love one another.
  • Love does not envy. Do not be envious. Envy is a poison between friends, even when we desire good things. We envy attention from our friends. We envy their success. We envy their happiness, when their work is rewarded but ours is not. Envy kills love and friendship. So do not envy. Love one another.
  • Love does not boast. Do not boast. Do not be puffed up. Boast in nothing of your own. Boast only in Christ. Boast only in what you receive, which is thanksgiving. Pride is the seed of envy, even when we are proud of things that are praiseworthy. So do not be boastful or proud. Love one another.
  • Love is not arrogant. Do not be arrogant. Do not be arrogant in tone or action. Do not be arrogant when you think you are superior, and do not boast when you truly are superior. Arrogance breeds contempt and pain. So do not be arrogant. Love one another.
  • Love is not rude. Do not be rude. Do not dishonor others. Do not be rude even when the arrogance you have received excuses your rudeness. Love is not rude. So do not be rude. Love one another.
  • Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. Do not insist on your own way. Do not insist on your own way even when you only ask for what is fair. Do not be angered when you do not get what is fair. Love is not needed when all things are fair. Transactions are fair. Those who live together need more than people taking turns getting their own way. We cannot keep such records of grievance. Love does none of these things. So do not insist on your way; do not be irritable; do not be resentful. Love one another.
  • Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Do not rejoice at wrongdoing. Do not rejoice at at what tears a body apart. Do not rejoice in the small satisfaction that comes with “I told you so.” Being correct due to the wrongdoing of another is no cure to the disease of hatred. Such quick satisfaction is a lie of happiness. So do not rejoice at wrongdoing. Rejoice with the truth. Love one another.
  • Love always protects, even when damage comes from the one who is loved.
  • Love always trusts, even when any reason to trust is gone.
  • Love always hopes, even when no reason to hope is left.
  • Love always perseveres, even when we cannot persevere on our own.
  • Love Never Ends, even when we cannot go on.

So on the surface of it all, I thought, what a silly passage this was for two beautiful people who are so truly in love. There is no need for a command to love to those who already love. There is no need for perseverance in a beautiful field of green grass sprinkled with wildflowers, lit by a dazzling sun, next to a bountiful garden. There is no hatred in a gathering of family coming to celebrate two becoming one. But then again

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

This moment will not be their last.

The Two Shall Become One Flesh

With all of the talk about love, I was also reminded of something I heard from my pastor this past year. Also making an appearance at the wedding was the passage from Ephesians,

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Ooof. How controversial. Wives submit to your husbands, like we’re supposed to submit to Christ himself? Treat a husband like God? And husbands are supposed to just love their wives? “That’s not equal.” “That’s not fair.” Such is the way most people take in that verse, and what a terrible understanding, as my pastor brought to my attention. It is controversial for two main reasons — the word “submit” and the word “head.”

When you hear the word “head,” we think of it with definitions like ” the position or place of leadership, greatest authority, or honor” or “a person to whom others are subordinate, as the director of an institution or the manager of a department; leader or chief.” We create analogies like CEOs leading a corporation as “the head.” When you hear the word submit, it also brings up images of employees taking orders. We think, at best, of voluntarily taking the short end of a deal and, at worst, being forced into a bad deal. But these explanations miss two important things.

The first thing missed about the word “submit” is that this verse rests in a passage with the heading “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Everybody submits to everybody. Just because the word “submit” wasn’t used in the specific sentence about the husband, that doesn’t mean he does not submit to his wife. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Christ’s incarnation, service, death, and resurrection knows that “as Christ loved the church” is one big act of submission. Or as my late Granddaddy used to say, “I always get the last word in my house. …and it’s ‘Yes Ma’am.'”

The second thing we miss is that inserting analogies like “CEOs to employees” covers over the actual analogy being used by Paul.  You, husband, are not “the position or place of leadership, greatest authority, or honor.” You are “the upper part of the body in humans, joined to the trunk by the neck, containing the brain, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.” The two become one flesh. That’s not an euphemism for sex. That’s an analogy of what the bride and groom become, and an analogy of the church being “the body” of Christ.

How does a head interact with the body? If a body is hungry, he takes in food. If a body is hurting, he speaks up for its needs. If a body is hurt, he uses his intelligence to bring relief. If his body is in danger, he uses his senses to guide the body to safety. There is no bargain. There is no exchange. There is no transaction. The two are ONE FLESH.

How does a body interact with the head? If the head is weary, the she cradles it to bring it sleep and rest. If the head is in danger, she moves with swiftness, strength, and grace to protect it. If the head is set to take a blow, she will raise a hand to soften its pain. There is no bargain. There is no exchange. There is no transaction. The two are ONE FLESH.

How can two become one flesh? How can we forget our own interests and desires? How can we have the patience to act as one? It is not natural, and it certainly is not easy.

 

The Meaning of the Vow

In the midst of a beautiful field of grass I heard the vows.

I, [groom/bride] take you [bride/groom] to be my [husband/wife]
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better or worse, for richer or poorer,
in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
until we are parted by death.
This is my solemn vow.

I took in the view. I heard the talk of love. And I thought of an inevitable and sad truth.

All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.

We will all go home. The beautiful pasture will wither, brown, and fade. The flowers will fall. These two beautiful smiling people will go on a honeymoon, come back to their homes, and start to live a normal life. They will smile, they will love, they will fight. They will have to make difficult financial decisions. They will have to “eat salt together.” Their expectations will not be met. They will get job offers in different states. They will disagree about small things. They will compromise. They will disagree about big things. They will hurt each other. They will love each other.  Their love for one another will give them a power to hurt each other as no one ever could.

In this pasture, they cannot stop smiling. But all people are like grass. “Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.”

…but then again, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever,” and “Perfect friendship is the friendship of men (and women) who are good, and alike in virtue.” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind with all your strength.” Love the Lord your God as a couple. Make him the “third thing” outside of yourselves. Hold him as the virtue that is prized.  “And such a friendship is, as might be expected, permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have.”

Vows are made to be remembered. They are not stated as an emotional culmination to a long romance. Brace yourself for when your open heart will be hurt by a careless word, by envy, by strife, by pride. Be ready to be hurt like you have never been hurt, because you are about to love like you have never loved. And in that time, when justified bitterness and anger are aroused, remember your vow. When you are crying alone in the bathroom, remember your vow. When you are angry that a chore was unfinished yet again, after we agreed that it would be done, remember your vow. When a selfish indulgence made you late again, remember your vow. When you are falsely accused or blamed, remember your vow. When a voice becomes raised, because someone will not let you speak, remember your vow. When someone asks for forgiveness, and though they have no right to it, remember your vow.

“I promise to love….” And remember:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

 *************************************

 

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 

 

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