Love is Duty-Driven Delight

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been re-reading various notes and letters Elizabeth and I wrote each other in our years of marriage. It is a surreal thing, to still be relatively young and have the whole arc of a marriage to look back upon. We stumbled into something very good, not as a credit to either of us but as a gift of the Lord, and part of what I’ve been trying to name for myself is what exactly that was. I have come to suspect that part of the answer has to do with how we approached the idea of love.

It is hardly innovative for a Christian to suggest that our culture has many wrong ideas about love. In its romantic perfectionism, in its pragmatism, and in its obsession with self-actualization, many people are left with deficient understandings of what it means to love others, whether in marriage or some other sphere of life. 

In response, many biblically serious Christians have pushed back by emphasizing that love is an action, not a feeling. It is a duty we perform, a command, a verb. Certainly, this approach is more correct that the world’s. Biblical love is committed love: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim?” (Hosea 11:8) Love requires us to act in a certain way regardless of the fickleness of feelings.

Yet mere duty is insufficient for a full definition of love. It leaves many Christians insisting (bizarrely) that loving someone has nothing to do with liking them. They seem to believe you can despise someone in your heart and yet faithfully love them with your hands. None of which fits with the heart-focused obedience Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout His ministry.

Love is a duty, but we have misconstrued the object of our duty. It isn’t merely toleration. It isn’t acts of service with gritted teeth. Our calling in love is to discover and delight in the God-given goodness of others, no matter how hard a task that may be.

God’s love is rooted in delight (Psalm 18:19, 41:11, 147:11, 149:4, Isaiah 62:4-5, Zephaniah 3:17, etc.) He doesn’t merely tolerate those He loves; He exults in them with joy. Importantly, delight doesn’t mean God is in denial about our sin. He openly acknowledges our failings, and yet He saves us not begrudgingly but as His treasured possession, with a warm heart and a smiling face.

How can He do this? As much as it is marred by sin, there is a deep beauty in every human heart. God put it there. When He delights in us, it is because He is ultimately delighting in the glorious beings He has made. God’s love cuts through our rebellion and wickedness to our core of image-bearing glory and then works to strip away all that keeps it from shining. The task of human love is to reflect this divine delight by viewing His creatures in the same way.

Some years ago, I realized this was an essential component of marriage. It always seemed strange to me that, in all the Christian discussions I had read on the topic, they almost never spent time in the Song of Solomon, the eight-chapter erotic love poem at the center of Scripture. That entire book is about marriage, and it is about delight. The pleasure of the lover and the beloved in each other, in their presence and physicality and relationship, is the backbone of the book. Alongside them, the community rejoices at the beauty of their love. They mirror God’s loving delight in the love of wedlock: the joy of God in His people; the joy of Christ in His Church.

The same is true in other areas. One can hardly read the New Testament epistles without feeling the apostle’s deep pleasure in the churches he leads. “I thank my God fin all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy.” (Philippians 1:3-4; pastors who are prone to complaining and contempt for their sheep would do well to meditate on this theme.) Nor can we miss the celebratory love of the early church in places like Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35. 

Love is always aimed at delighting in the other person. We have not fulfilled its calling until we can look at another and say, “There is great beauty God has placed in you. I am glad that you exist. There is something in you that is very good.”

However, love is a duty-driven delight because this is not always an easy thing to achieve. Sin has marred those we are called to love. At times, their beauty is buried deep in soil full of rocks. Indeed, we may find ourselves celebrating the potential more than what currently exists; in an untended heart, the seeds of majesty can seem almost lost among the thorns. 

More than that, sin has marred us. Even when someone’s beauty is visible, we can miss it because of our own evil. Our pride and fear and lust and envy can all poison our ability to celebrate others, causing us to view their God-given glory as a threat rather than a blessing.

So then love is a call to undertake the duty of delight, to work diligently to find and celebrate the God-given goodness in others, whether in marriage or any other sphere of our lives. How can we grow, practically, in that calling?

First, we need to turn from our self-focus and really take the time to see other people in themselves. A big part of why we don’t see God’s good creation in others is simply a failure to look because we are too busy thinking about the world purely in terms of how it serves us. We cannot view people like tools and delight in them; at most, that will lead us to delight in ourselves. Instead, we need to consider people the way we would a sunset over the ocean. We all recognize such an event isn’t ours and doesn’t do anything for us, but we stop and smile all the same because we recognize that in itself it is good.

Second, we need to turn from our arrogance and appreciate the diversity of God’s creation. Another roadblock to delight is the demand that others be just like us, with the same gifts and personality and thoughts. This tendency is usually a symptom of covetousness; we are not secure enough in ourselves that we can appreciate others as equally valuable while not the same. Yet that is what love will demand, because the kingdom is not made up of doppelgangers but displays the breadth of God’s design. We must be able to appreciate that God made flowers to be flowers and trees to be trees if we are to celebrate the natural world; we must have the same posture towards human beings.

Lastly, love as duty-driven delight demands that we turn from our legalism and accept the messiness of those we are called to love. The only way God can treat His people with affection is through the blood-bought grace of Jesus Christ. He sees the wreckage in our hearts even better than we do and says, “Nonetheless, I rejoice over you with singing.” We must have this same gospel-shaped lens if we are to undertake the calling of love. There is ample reason to hate every human being on earth. It is the model of Jesus Christ, who came to seek and save those who despised and crucified Him, that turns our hearts from justified contempt to delight in spite of sin.

In all of this, we must also realize that this sort of love is a continual process, not a destination at which we arrive. Daily delight is the rhythm of Christian marriage. To awaken each morning and say, “Today, no matter what happened yesterday, no matter what tomorrow brings, I am going to seek to rejoice in you as you are and as God is working to help you become.” It is just as much the rhythm of the broader Christian calling to love our neighbors. To be renewed in love for others each day as God renews His love for us.

The thing we must not miss in all this talk of duty-driven delight is the simple fact that as we undertake this calling, we come to realize that it is sweet and good. Seeking to delight in others is delightful to the soul. Our failure to do so poisons and diminishes us. Even better, diligence in this calling towards others often causes them to become more delightful themselves. It provides an environment in which humans can flourish and the image of God in them can begin to be revealed.


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