We tend to think love is easy. We speak of “falling in love” as if all we need to do is find a hole in the ground and let gravity do the rest.
Leaving a partner, dissolving a marriage, or breaking up a family are often justified when that force moves in the opposite direction. “We fell out of love.”
Love is not an irresistible force or a ditch which people unwittingly fall into or out of. It's not a mere emotion that takes over our faculties and robs us of agency. Love is a choice that, if it’s going to last, has to be chosen over and over and over again.
Because the only person in the world I love automatically is myself.
One reason marriage is hard is that the devil hates it. Another is this: Marriage is hard because I love myself more than my spouse.
I Love Myself More Than My Spouse
I entered this world loving myself, often to the exclusion of others (Ps. 51:5). When faced with the choice to love myself or others, my default will be to love myself. I know how to love myself better than anything else in the world. I am a self-love expert.
And if you honestly reflect a moment, you’ll admit you are too.
I could get up and do the dishes right now. Or I could sit here and watch TV. I know doing the dishes would really help my wife out. But I worked hard all day and I’m really tired. I deserve to rest and veg out for a bit….
I know he’s been discouraged by all the politics at work. He could use some encouragement. But when was the last time he encouraged me? Said something kind? When was the last time we did anything fun? I think I’ll just keep to myself.…
It’s her birthday. Crap! Didn’t Valentine’s Day just happen? And our anniversary? And now I need to think of another gift? She never likes anything I get for her anyway. It’s exhausting to try and come up with an idea only to get shot down. I’ll just have the kids get her something….
How could he say that to me?
How could she treat me this way?
With all I do for him?
After all I’ve been through for her?
He doesn’t have the right…
She doesn’t have the right…
By no means am I always 100% to blame for the problems that arise in my marriage. It takes two to tango.
But when conflict arises, when loving my spouse becomes difficult, I am faced with a choice. I can love myself. Or I can love my spouse.
When I choose to love myself instead of my spouse, I am choosing to hurt my marriage. Loving myself kills my marriage.
Loving Myself Kills My Marriage
James 4 isn’t specifically about marriage, but it contains profound insight into what happens in our hearts when our self-love is crossed:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1-2)
I usually think the problems in my marriage arise either from my circumstances or my spouse. But the truth is I am always faced with a choice. A choice to love myself or my spouse. And when I choose to love myself, my “passions are at war within” me. When I believe the problem is outside me, I lash out (“murder” refers here not to violence, but to Jesus’s equation of hatred with murder in Matthew 5). When I don’t get what I want, I “fight and quarrel.” When I refuse to love my spouse more than myself, conflict inevitably arises.
"He Gives More Grace"
The objection rises up in our minds: “What if my spouse takes advantage of me? What if I give and give and give and s/he just takes and takes and takes?”
Let me ask you one: Who makes your marriage work? If loving yourself kills your marriage (and it does), but you’re afraid no one will be there to look out for you, what do you do? Who do you turn to protect you from your (potentially-selfish-because-definitely-sinful) spouse?
James gives the answer. It’s Jesus:
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.…” Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:6, 10)
Grace is love I don’t deserve. If my spouse isn’t giving me the love I need, James reminds me where I can go: to Jesus! “He gives more grace!” If I humble myself before Him, ask for His help, tell Him my need, “he will exalt” me. He will lift me up.
Trying to do marriage by loving myself is like trying to lift myself up by my own hair. It doesn’t work. I can’t lift myself up. But Jesus can. Not only can He; He promises to. Go to Him in humility with your need and see if He doesn’t keep that promise.