Damaged Goods, Law/Gospel Confusion, and the Elusive Meaning of Love…

We All Wanna Know What Love Is—and Especially What Is to Be Loved

Jason Thompson / 2.11.20

Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you
But I know it’s only lust
The sins of the flesh
Are simply sins of lust…

– Gang of Four, “Damaged Goods”

The popular 80s song declares, “I wanna know what love is.” We all want to know what love is. More specifically, we want to know what is to be loved in a visceral flesh-and-blood manner. We want the joy, freedom, and intimacy love is supposed to provide. But what does it mean to love? Is it merely an emotional experience, or does it not involve sacrifice and commitment? We talk of “being in love,” “falling in love,” but I think, most of the time, all this is little more than a preoccupation with how another person makes us feel.

The other aspect of this, though, is that from the standpoint of what we call sanctification, we want to know “how to” love another person practically. When I for example read the prescriptive passages in Colossians 3 or Romans 12, I genuinely want to know how to enact these principles in my daily life. I want to know how these beautifully portrayed ideals can become a reality where I functionally live. I mean, “bear with one another, forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven you…live at peace with everyone (if you can), do not take revenge…” All this sounds like the kind of freedom that I wish could characterize my most intimate relationships. Instead, I agonize and fret over how to deal with these pesky imperatives that seem elusive at best when I try to live them out on the ground, where it matters, in the trench of experience.

This is why I think a lot of the counsel on marriage that often comes from the church (not all churches) perpetuates the problem. The law is the strength of sin (1 Corinthians 15:56), so when you point people to the law, it only makes their relationships worse, not better. Commanding a man to love his wife will only produce the opposite because the law often produces what it prohibits; it can never create what it commands. I attended a church years ago where we often heard from the pulpit the exhortation to apply Proverbs 19:11 in the midst of marital disagreements and “just pass over” your spouse’s indiscretions…and seek God’s glory instead of your own vindication. I’m sorry, but when I’m engrossed in a heated argument with my wife, I care more about being right than Christ being glorified. Real talk.

I even remember hearing a pastor claim that if couples would just read the instructive sections of Ephesians 4 and 5, they would have fewer fights…riiiiiight. Unfortunately, this kind of counsel has no power to enable anyone to love their spouse. In fact…if we respected God’s Law as we should, we would preach it in its full strength. We would say something like, “When your wife is being difficult and/or seems undeserving of your love, you must love her as Christ loved the church — no exceptions, no excuses, no matter the circumstance.” If I’m honest, I would probably say I love my wife when I feel she’s being lovable. I should be better than that, but I’m not. And yet Jesus loves me there…not in some imagined place of spiritual maturity. That’s grace.

Marriage is tough hopeless…but because Christ died for us while we were still sinners, he will be with us EVERY time we want to leave, give up, or do something that might expand our prison ministry.

Do we sinners even know what love is? I don’t think so. I honestly think it’s a word we throw around to describe a feeling we get at times when things are going our way, or when our significant other is doing what we want them to do or being who we want them to be. I don’t think anyone is capable of knowing what real love is….or really showing it to another undeserving sinner, which is what love requires. As my good friend, Julian Brooks is apt to say, even with the Holy Spirit’s power, we cannot keep the law which is summarized “love one another” (cf. John 15:12-13). Love is willing to be disrespected, humiliated, spat on, etc. I’m not! No, the Spirit does not empower us to keep the law…the Spirit empowers us to remember Jesus kept it for us.

As sinners, we can’t know the difference between love and lust…but I don’t think we care either. We just want whatever will give us that euphoric feeling of rapture and ecstasy in a relationship. No one knows what real love is (cf. Romans 3:10-11). Thankfully God does, because God is Love. And by this we know love: “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That’s the only hope we have.