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Are Sinful Humans Even Capable of Unconditional Love and Respect?

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In John 13, Jesus told His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (vv. 34). Later, in Ephesian 5:25, the apostle Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” The word used in both of these instances for “love” is agape. Agape love is not a “Hey, I love you, man” kind of brotherly love, but a love characterized by self-sacrifice. It is unconditional love. It is a “God-kind of love.” In essence, God has commanded us to love one another in the same way that He loves us! While that certainly should raise our eyebrows as we ponder the challenge of such a task, one husband wrote me wondering if it was even possible: 

I believe each of us has expectations in our marriage. The desire to have one’s spouse change gives hope to those expectations. After all, God expects us to change from the time we receive Christ until our death, so since He expects us to change, we can expect our spouse to change. That means then, whether we are conscious of this or not, that expectations and change are conditions. We as people place expectations on one another to change, which is another way of saying we place conditions on the other to meet our needs. That then calls into question the notion of unconditional love and respect. Sadly, what happens in many marriages is that without change, we lose hope, and without hope, we have no reason to continue in our marriage. Therefore, I do not believe we, as sinful humans, are capable of unconditional love and respect. Your help in understanding this would be greatly appreciated.

First, this husband is correct when he speaks about God looking for us to change post-salvation, and continuing to change until we reach eternity in heaven. The Bible refers to this change as our “sanctification.”

For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)

But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Romans 6:22)

For I am confident in this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

In this Philippians passage referring to God’s sanctifying work in His children, it must be pointed out that God’s finished work in us will not be perfected “until the day of Christ Jesus.” So the first thing I would want to tell this husband concerning the change expected inside all of us after coming to know Christ personally, is that not even God is looking for that change to be complete in us this side of eternity. So who are we to put even loftier, not to mention impossible, expectations on our spouse? None of us will ever be perfect in anything we do, including in our marriages.

Having said that, should we not hope for and expect our spouse to change and mature for the better into the image of Christ, and into a more loving and respectful person? Of course we should. Just as we would hope to see maturity in our children, or improvement from our employees, or a strengthening of skills from our athletes. But the biblical fact that our spouse will not ever be fully completed as a disciple of Christ until eternity, and will continue to disappoint and sin, has nothing to do with me trusting and obeying God’s call on me to be a loving and respectful person and changing and maturing in the image of Christ

Just ask any mom of a newborn child if her love for her baby is dependent on if that baby eats and sleeps well and never cries. Can a baby respond in love to the mother who is getting two hours of sleep at night and hasn’t had a moment of peace in five weeks? Of course not. Babies take, take, and take some more. But does that mom agape love her precious child, even though he refuses to nurse or sleep well? Without a doubt.

Unconditional love and respect means there is no condition, situation, circumstance, expectation, or non-change that can get me to be an unloving and disrespectful person. I will be loving and respectful no matter what. In fact, I will lovingly and respectfully appeal to my spouse to change.

Not surprisingly, the Bible provides some wonderful examples of the impact that unconditional love and respect from a spouse can have in appealing a spouse to change. In the book of Hosea, God instructed Hosea to marry Gomer. She proved unfaithful, as God foretold (Hosea 1:2). But then Hosea tells us later, "Then the LORD said to me, 'Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes'” (Hosea 3:1).

Clearly Hosea demonstrates his love toward Gomer independent of her behavior. Hosea does not accept her adultery but loves her in spite of her adultery. He does not enable her to stay in sin but seeks to draw her away from such sin by his agape love for her. He seeks to restore the marriage with a love that Gomer’s condition cannot stop.

The apostle Peter zeroes in on unconditional respect from a wife. In 1 Peter 3:1-2 some wives were asking Peter, “My husband is disobedient to the Word. What do I do? How do I win him back?”

Peter replies that when a husband is “disobedient to the word” he may be “won” by the wife’s “respectful behavior.” How can this be? A disobedient husband does not deserve respect; he has not earned respect. But a wife’s respectful demeanor, not her contemptuous manner, brings him under conviction.

Never does she compromise her love and reverence for Christ by going along with her husband’s sin. This does not mean that there are no boundaries in a relationship! But because of her respectful attitude toward his inner person and her choice to believe in her husband more than he believes in himself, she draws him to herself. Many wives attest that she was not a doormat to him but a welcoming mat, and he repented and returned home to do life with her.

Obviously, one does not love and respect unconditionally to get the other to perform this way, otherwise it is not unconditional. We don’t do the unconditional to get a response. But we get a response when we do the unconditional—most of the time. The truth is, a goodwilled spouse usually responds.

And to the husband’s question on whether it is even possible for a sinful human to show unconditional love and respect to a spouse not meeting our expectations of change, I would point him to Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:26: “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” No, we cannot love and respect our spouse like this on our own power. And that’s why we all need God central to our marriage. Because with Him, “all things are possible”!

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. The only timetable Scripture gives us concerning our sanctification is that it will not be complete until we reach eternity. Other than that, there is nothing else guaranteed. What is most frustrating to you about not seeing the change in others, specifically your spouse, that you hope for?
  2. What does God’s patience and unconditional love for you tell you about your patience and unconditional love and respect for your spouse?
  3. Emerson said that our spouse’s actions have “nothing to do with me trusting and obeying God’s call on me to be a loving and respectful person.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
  4. Why are Peter’s words to wives of husbands “disobedient to the word” not very popular in culture today? Do you believe that unconditional love and respect toward the spirit of your spouse can effect the change you have been praying for in him or her?