Thoughts about love pt. 1: Marriage is practice for how to love God

I got to thinking the other night about the word “practice” and what it means day-to-day. The word gets used often in the contexts of athletics (e.g. baseball practice) and religion (e.g. “practicing Jew/Muslim/Catholic”). I’m not sure if the word “practice” has much place in our everyday lives, as opposed to applying to the things that we think define us, yet we practice stuff all the time. You can think of everything you do, essentially, as instances of practice.

We don’t just practice for something, and neither do we only practice on occasion. We practice all kinds of things daily. We often mean “practice” as “rehearse,” and I think that’s a good way to understand the word, but it’s also a bit more inclusive than “rehearse”. Really, “practice” and “discipline” go hand-in-hand, and “a practice” as an instance of a discipline. We rehearse many things daily: our morning routines, our jobs, whatever. We tend to think of these things as already having been learned, and thus we no longer “practice” them, we “perform” them. We think that we practice before we execute, but once it comes time to execute, the time for practice is over, rehearsal is done. That’s true when it comes to events, like a race or something, but so often our daily lives tend to consist more of routines, activities over time that grow and change, and less of singular, particular events. Our daily lives go smoothly when we practice a discipline.

I wasn’t thinking about “practice” just because I like to fumble around with semantics. I got dumped recently, so I’ve been kicking around ideas about love, commitment, passion, sex, all that stuff. I don’t want to go into the details about the dumpage as much to save you from banality as to save myself the hassle of explanation, so let it suffice to say that I think love is a practice, an instance of a discipline. Christianity teaches that love is a commitment, a covenant, a series of actions that both reveals what is within the heart and forms the inside of that very same heart–when we act in love, it shows what’s already inside of us, but we also get better each time at acting in love. Situations for enacting love can be a series of events, like any routine, as in how we interact with our families from day to day, or it can be one great big situation, like deciding in a crucial moment what to do for a stranger or a friend in order to show love. Love is both practice and event, rehearsal and performance; we study it while God and the world test us on it. We’re always rehearsing it so that it gets easier, more natural, as our hearts and minds habitually remember how to execute it, like how athletes practice a motion–a swing, a shot, a stride, a stroke–until it’s so second-nature to them that it requires no thought to be activated accurately and effectively when the pressure is on.

That got me to thinking about a popular distillation of the greatest command: “Love God, love others.” Jesus says that the law boils down to those two basic things. The Bible can be read as examples of how we actually enact those two basic things by enhancing our virtues, destroying our vices, and relying on God to purify our intentions and perfect how we love. How to love others seems like an easy question: we do good works, we donate time and money to charities, we pray, we read the text, we meet with other believers, we take Communion, we behave towards strangers with respect and courtesy, we honor our families even if they’re sometimes garbage human-beings, we avoid temptation as much as we can, we practice spiritual disciplines, &c all the way down the line. But how do we love God? I think that’s a harder question. I don’t know about you, and I’m not one to tell God what he can and cannot do, but I’ve never met Jesus in person. I’ve had conversations with God wherein I felt his presence, but I’ve never played Xbox with him. I’ve taken Communion since I was a boy, but I’ve never met Jesus out for lunch. It’s difficult to love that which we cannot see and only so often feel! Jesus is simultaneously more and less real than our families and friends, at once God and human, present in the church but absent until he returns for us one last time.

I think it’s tough to love God, anyway, even if you don’t find it difficult. Maybe I’m a lazy or disobedient Christian, and I say that with all honesty. However, I think that nobody loves God as they should, or as much as they could. I say that categorically by way of our limitations as human beings. There’s always more to give, more to know, another layer of revelation, another depth to our practice of faith.

So how do we love God? I think we practice it, we rehearse it, we perform and execute the love of God as we practice and execute love for others, definitely. We do what we do for others as if they were acts of love for God. Christian love cannot exist without loving both God and people at the same time. Still, as I said, I think there’s always more to give, more to know. To volunteer, to give, to read and to pray, to attend–all of that will prove sufficient for us in our walks, as Paul and the saints demonstrate, but another practice can show us a different side of it, and now I get to my real point: I think that marriage is another, different, depth of practicing and executing love. In marriage, we rehearse and practice submission, humility, devotion, compassion, passion (oh yeah), desire, holiness (in the sense of “set apart for a purpose”, i.e. monogamy with a spouse), and sacrifice. These things should happen all the time in a marriage, and they are not always glamorous, easy, or even emotionally satisfying (if they are even emotive at all).

As we practice these things, as we grow accustomed to how they feel in our hearts, as we gain an automatic memory of loving response that happens instinctively at our fingertips and in our chests, we practice how to love God. Marriage provides practice, rehearsal, execution, and opportunity to understand how to love God better. We may even understand another dimension to how he loves us, the passionate and protective, jealous (be careful with how you read that word) desire that he has for us, a love like men and women have for the bodies and minds of their spouses. We love God like we love others; we love others like we love God; we love our spouses as we love our own bodies. It’s all the same love, but because we experience these spheres (compassion towards strangers, passion/desire for a lover, religious covenant for God) separately, our practice within each sphere unlocks a secret and rewards us with a more thorough understanding of love as a totality, love as an aggregate of all of our virtues reaching towards God.

Surely parenting also represents another sphere of love and provides yet another avenue for understanding a critical metaphor for how God loves us, yet I know even less about parenting than I know about marriage, so I will refrain from commenting much on parenting. Still, by my line of reasoning, parenting probably helps us to understand a different aspect of God’s love for us, and it helps us to love him better as we get more and more accustomed to its execution.

That’s my two cents on why marriage can be important and beneficial towards guiding a Christian in how he or she can walk humbly with his or her God. In this way, I propose an additive to the distillation (not adding to the verse, mind you): “Love God, love others, love our lovers.”

I think that there’s one more, and more crucial, additive, however, and I have come by it through hard, bitter experience: “Love ourselves.” Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, but the Bible doesn’t seem to teach us much about how to love ourselves. You’d think that the verse itself would teach us how to love ourselves by its converse: “However you love your neighbor, that’s how you love yourself. Treat yourself with the honor and respect with which you’d treat a stranger or a friend.” But has anyone ever told you to do that, or how to do it? Has a preacher, a teacher, a trusted mentor, or your favorite titan of faith–has anyone ever really taught you how to love yourself? Nobody taught me, so I faced consequences. In my next post, I’ll write more about what I know more about, which is loving yourself. What I’ve argued in this post about marriage I have extrapolated from other knowledge and experience, but I have not argued from my firsthand knowledge of marriage practice because I don’t have any firsthand experience in marriage. What I know about loving oneself, though, I know firsthand.

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