In many ways love is subjective. It’s a mixture of feelings, thoughts, desires, actions, and responses to another human being. When expressing love in marriage you experience many of its subjective characteristics. You might feel elated when your spouse walks through the door. Your heart drops when he or she catches you off guard with an honest kiss. You think of each other often, plan surprise date nights, and show affection in ways that are unique to your relationship. Those expressions of love are good and beautiful! There’s a reason that the best songs and poems are often about love—in many ways, love is art.

What keeps us from following every whim and feeling that makes our heart drop or our knees weak? The answer is simple: life wouldn’t go well if we did. Though wonderful, feelings aren’t predictable, and building a lasting marriage requires something solid. We need something tangible and absolute—something objective.

How we feel doesn’t always align with what we know about love.

When our feelings don’t align with what we know, we must choose to love despite how we feel—we must act on what we know love is. Love gets objective really fast within the marriage covenant. It’s where our love’s true grittiness shines through.

Marriage is unique; there is no other human relationship that will more exhaustively test our understanding of what it means to love another person. If you’re like us, you’ve fought to love each other in your marriage but have often fallen short. Where is the disconnect? If we know what love is and we naturally desire it, why do we miss the mark? Why do we still express frustration in ways that are hurtful? Why do we neglect to give one another what we know we both need? Why do our actions of love fall short of our understanding of it? If “love never fails,” why does it . . . fail?

The deepest disagreements you will experience as a married couple always have to do with your objective view of love and the expectations that come along with it. That view determines how you will act when wronged, how you will ask for forgiveness when you sin against each other, how you serve one another selflessly (or don’t), and how generous you are with each other.

That’s precisely why we need to carefully define love, and to do that we must look outside of ourselves.

We need an external standard. We must ask Someone who holds all authority in defining love itself. God’s ultimate love was proven to us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Christ is the literal personification of God’s love, and it is only through trusting him that we experience and are able to give true, lasting, 1 Corinthians 13 love to our spouse.

Jesus’s love is gritty and pure. He met the needs of the people around him through healing, miraculously providing food, and ultimately giving his life so that we might be saved. He humbly left a perfect heaven to come down to redeem and save a broken world. He wasn’t forced to carry the cross; he did so willingly.

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Jesus is our only reliable definition and source of real love.

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We must cling to him first, carefully discarding worldly definitions that don’t align with who he is or how he loves. Christ alone is perfect love personified: God sent his only Son, whom he loved beyond comprehension, not just to die but to die a painful death and suffer separation. The weight of God’s love multiplies as we remember that Jesus is God in the flesh.

So how do Ryan and I experience covenant love in our marriage?

How does it function in our day to day? One way that’s helped me recognize it is simply by seeing my husband through the 1 Corinthians 13 lens. In other words, where has he been patient and kind with me when, in reality, he had all the right to be frustrated and angry? Where has he been selfless, courteous, and hopeful toward me? When I look at why he chooses to love me when I prove over and over to be difficult to love, my heart is grateful. I know Ryan’s love is not based on me; it’s anchored in Christ’s love and the covenant we made to each other on our wedding day.

Over the years of our marriage, it’s been the moments between the big romantic landmarks that really count. Like the one where I popped a car tire by hitting a curb (Ryan says I always drive too close to them) and everything inside me didn’t want to tell him. But I did, and instead of starting a big blowup fight, he surprised me with patience and kindness. Those are the moments I point to and say, “There! There is where I experienced Ryan’s love!” Or when he makes us all breakfast even though I know he has a ton of work to get done—another in-between, mundane moment of loving me, loving our family. I experience Ryan’s love through his patience with me in my angry moments.

Let’s trust God to define love. By sending his Son Jesus to die in our place, he gave what we could not because he loves us. He continues to provide all that we need: acceptance, love, security, and hope. When we believe, really believe, this to be true about God’s nature, we can’t help but serve and appreciate our spouse every day, no matter the circumstance. Let’s continue on this journey of understanding God’s love and allow it to fill our souls so that out of his love for us we can better love our spouse.

Read more from Selena and Ryan at Fierce Marriage

Adapted from Fierce Marriage. Copyright © 2018 Ryan and Selena Frederick, published by Baker Publishing,  used with permission, all rights reserved.

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