One of the most difficult and most counter-cultural things Jesus calls us to do is to love our enemies—to do unto others as we could have them do to us (Luke 6:31). We are to treat others in the way we would wish to be treated, for the mark of true love is that it is selfless—it acts not first for the good of self but for the good of the other. To make sure we understand what this true love looks like, Jesus contrasts it with a kind of fraudulent love. He provides three little illustrations of actions that may have the appearance of love, but that are all essentially a kind of transaction where we do good to others only so they will do good to us. And it strikes me that Jesus’s instructions for relating to our enemies are words we need to hear as we relate to our spouses. Sometimes “love your enemy” really means “love your spouse.”
The first example: if you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? There’s nothing extraordinary about loving people who love you back. And really, that’s the basis of what passes for love in so many relationships. It’s the attitude of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” And what that really means is, “I’ll scratch your back as long as you scratch mine.” As long as that person does what’s good for you, you’ll do what’s good for them, but as soon as they stop doing what’s good for you, you will stop doing what’s good for them. But it’s obvious that there’s nothing special about that! You don’t need to follow Jesus to relate to someone in this way.
The second example: if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? It’s no benefit at all! Why? Because the benefit is bound up in the transactional nature of this relationship. If they do what’s good for you, you’ll do what’s good for them. But again, if they stop doing what’s good for you, you stop doing what’s good for them! Is this true love? No, this is actually self-love because it is premised on this relationship: you will give them what they want so you can get what you want. It’s just finding a way to serve yourself—even in marriage.
The third example: If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? You might act like you’ve done some great act of generosity, but it’s not generous at all if you’re thinking more of what you can get from the transaction than you’re thinking of the good you can do to the other person. That’s not love but greed, because it’s essentially keeping a record of transactions to ensure you come out ahead.
These are all fraudulent forms of love because they are all setting up a kind of exchange where you help others in order to help yourself. And that means that you aren’t really acting in love toward the other person, but are only doing what is necessary to have them meet your desires and your “needs.” You will fulfill that other person’s desires only to the degree that they fulfill yours. That’s not love at all because it’s oriented inward instead of outward, it’s obsessed with what you can get instead of what you can give. It’s all just self love.
And this is where we come to marriage. I have long observed that the major cause of conflict between spouses is a failure of “as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” It’s a failure to love selflessly. We can very quickly let our marriages slide into a kind of transactional relationship where instead of thinking first about what we can give, we think first about what we can get. We give so we can get back, and give only to the degree we receive. We keep a tally of all our spouse has done for us, we compare it to our tally of what we’ve done for them, and feel hard done by if we determine the equation favors them. Again, it’s all just self love.
But if Jesus says, “love your enemy,” then surely he also says, “love your spouse.” If he calls you to love your enemy in sacrificial ways, he surely calls you to love your spouse in even more sacrificial ways. If he warns of the temptation of fraudulent forms of love when you respond to your enemies, you need to also heed his warnings when you respond to your most cherished companion. If you need to give endlessly, selflessly, and sacrificially to your enemies, how much more to your husband or your wife?