1 Corinthians 13:5

Today I would like to think with you about love’s secret ingredient. Claim the words from 1 Corinthians 1 with me. “Love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love never insists on its way.” These are from one of the most famous chapters in the Bible. To Winston Churchill they were the greatest words ever written, and for so many people they are so important as we claim God’s promise that, properly handled, love never ends.

But I want you to listen to those words once again and notice something. “Love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its way.” Did you notice that love is defined not only by what it does, but also by what it does not do? In other words, love is never an excuse for our own personal agendas and ego needs. It does not allow our feelings, ungoverned by Christ, simply to flow out and roll rough-shod over someone else. Instead, love is governed by boundaries set by the God who gave us love in the first place. He gives us boundaries within which love is to be expressed, and according to the Bible, those boundaries are an integral part of the love.

That’s important to hear, because we live in a world telling us that love is strong feelings and the key to happiness is simply to let those strong feelings be freely expressed.

I grew up in the sixty’s singing All You Need is Love with the Beatles. That is the message our culture gives in a variety of different ways: simply go with whatever you feel most strongly about, and just let it freely flow all over, and you will have happiness and joy. For Christians, that can be a tempting image because we know that we are called to love everyone. God loved us before we loved Him and saved us when we were not worth the saving. That same God wants to love others through us. So, all of us who call Jesus “Lord” are called to love the unlovable with the love of God.

We have to be careful, though, how we interpret this call. Instead of love being a strong, free-flowing feeling that washes like the tide indiscriminately all over the place, let me give you a different image. It is from Revelation 22:15. This passage tells of the coming Kingdom of God, the heavenly city which shall descend upon and some day dwell on earth, a place filled with justice and peace, life and joy. In the heavenly city St. John saw, flowing from the throne of God, a river — deep, pure, powerful and filled with the intensity of life. Everything it touched sprang to life and bore the fruit of life.

In other words, the biblical image of flowing love is a river that flows from the heart of God into your heart, and then from your heart into the hearts of others. In this way, everyone who meets you experiences that deep, clean-flowing, pure, beautiful love that brings life and joy into relationships. God’s plan was for this to have a domino effect which creates a never-ending flow of love among humanity.

Yet, think with me for just a moment about what would happen to that river if the banks disappeared. When you think of a river you may not think of its banks, but the banks not only define the river, they also confine it and direct it. Without the banks as boundaries, the water would flow all over. What was deep and pure and clean suddenly becomes ill-defined and often destructive. It eventually begins to stagnate, to be polluted, and before you know it, you do not have a clean, fresh-flowing river, but a swamp. If you enjoy unpleasant things like snakes and mosquitoes, there you are. What God wants is clean and fresh-flowing love bringing life and joy, but what we get without boundaries is something that stinks.

What is my point? It is that according to the Bible there are no boundaries as to who we love. But there are very definite, God ordained boundaries as to how we love. If we lose those boundaries, love begins to disintegrate and relationships begin to go to pieces.

We have had some high profile situations in which the boundaries ordained by God have been assaulted recently. You can think of instances, I’m sure. At the 2004 Super Bowl we saw a boundary crossed during the half-time show. The up side was that it was encouraging to see that our nation could still get outraged about something. We are usually so passive and permissive. I don’t know about you, but I was delighted that we could still get upset and experience righteous indignation when a boundary was crossed at the end of that show.

But, what struck me was that God’s boundaries were being crossed throughout that half-time show. For instance, why do we allow public disrespect for the flag of our nation? We would be hopping mad if some other country cut holes in it or stomped it into the ground, yet that is what happened. An even more disturbing issue that is all too common in our culture is the way we treat each other as men and women. What are God’s boundaries for the way men and women are to treat each other? There are many references in the Bible, but one is articulated in Romans 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.”

If you saw that Super Bowl half-time show and if you kept up with the storyline being developed, you experienced what Time Magazine called “choreographed sexual assault.” It modeled a relationship between men and women where men brutalized women and women enjoyed it. That is definitely not in God’s plan. But you can see this same thing daily if somebody in your house watches MTV or a variety of other shows. It is the primary storyline for an alarming number of popular music videos and for events like the wrestling shows that are packing stadiums around the country today. We have to acknowledge that in our nation and by our passiveness, we allow a boundary set down by God to be crossed on a regular basis.

God wants us to show honor to each other. Yet, this boundary is being crossed so often that our nation is reaping fatal consequences. For all of our efforts and expense over the last 30 years to give sensitivity training to our children, to get everybody behaving better, to instill good values in our schools and communities, we have allowed our young people to feed on popular storylines in the media that regularly cross God’s boundaries – thus nullifying so many of our other efforts. And one of the consequences that we are experiencing now is the increasing number of young women being brutalized and young men becoming brutes. If you don’t think it is happening, you need to read the statistics.

There are boundaries that allow love to flourish. When those boundaries are broken, relationships turn into a swamp.

Another current hot issue deals with the boundary of marriage which is being threatened. There are many seeking to make same-sex marriage legal in our nation. What is God’s plan? We know that every person is precious to Christ, so any jokes or hard-hearted criticism we make about anyone dealing with difficult personal issues is an offense to Christ. You will never meet a person that God does not believe is worth the death of His Son.

Having said that, the United Methodist Church is opposed to same-sex marriage. We know and we care that people deal with difficult relationship situations. In all of those relationships you are precious to God, but this is an area where God has a boundary. Marriage is to be between a man and a woman. Jesus was asked directly about marriage in Mark 10:6-8. He quoted from Genesis. It is a very simple statement: “From the beginning, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother to cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

What happens if that boundary is broken? In the first place, it institutionalizes and legalizes a behavior that God says hurts the human soul. That is what sin is. Sin is anything that separates us from God and hurts us, even if we cannot see how it is hurting us at the time. In addition, if the biblical standard is jettisoned, it opens the door to every other kind of marriage humans can invent — and you know that we can be pretty inventive: bigamy, polygamy, group marriage, and so on. If the biblical standard is gone, then there is no standard. When you get right down to it, what happens to society if the biblical standard is jettisoned?

Holy marriage is not just a commitment between a man, a woman, and God; it is also an ordering of community, a social contract between the child and the parents, impacting the future. God’s design is for every child to grow up being influenced by and loved through the unique gifts of both genders of the human family. God wanted children to grow up seeing loving men and women in gracious complementarity, with each child influenced by and learning to appreciate the God given attributes of both halves of the human race.

Granted, things happen that can break up the home, such as death or divorce, and those are terrible. But the people of God rally around and, with the love of the church, friends, and a caring community, miracles can happen and grace can flow. However, we don’t call that the ideal. We call it healing. The ideal is for children to learn to appreciate both a mother and a father, in a home that is faithful to God and letting God’s love shine through them so the child understands this love. In a same-sex marriage, by definition, you can’t have both halves represented and, over time, it explodes community.

Now, please understand and remember as I talk like this, I love you and God loves you. You may find MTV interesting. But I just want you to think about what you are watching and whether boundaries are being crossed. If you or someone close to you is in a same-sex relationship, remember that God’s church is open to help you. You need to know that the love of the church is powerful, if we will just let ourselves be vulnerable to it. People who have been involved in same-sex relationships have come forward and expressed how, through the grace of God, Christian counseling, and the support of members of a congregation, they became free to follow a biblical lifestyle and have a happy Christian marriage where desired.

My point is that because God loves us, He gives boundaries to behavior so that the way we love will not be merely an insistence on our own way. The way we love will be God’s way, so that our love will abide and will never end, because our relationships are built within His boundaries.

Now, every one of us deals with issues of boundaries. The examples I have been giving are very public. We’ve seen them in the headlines. Let’s make this a little more personal, because everyone of us knows that some of the most important boundary issues are quiet and private, but have great capacity to be so destructive.

I was talking with a woman in our congregation. Sitting in my office, she was telling me that she loved her husband so much, but that she was smothered and intimidated by his strong personality. When they first got married, she was submissive, figuring that was the way to get along. Over the years, though, his personality just seemed to get stronger and stronger. Although he was not physically abusive, he discounted everything she said, overrode every decision she made, and demeaned her in front of other people. He was making her feel more and more worthless. The decision to come in and see me resulted from her realization that although he still said he loved her, he was killing her love for him. In addition, she realized that she was beginning to treat their children the same way he treated her.

That is definitely crossing God’s boundary, isn’t it? Do you know what Ephesians 5:21 says? It says “Submit yourselves, one to another.” That is a pretty clear boundary. The New Testament has lots of advice on roles in marriage and the relationship between husband and wife and children, but they all start with this one assumption: marriage is to be mutual, and no one person is supposed to be dominating or grinding down anybody else. Instead, you are to find your highest joy in blessing the other.

What was happening in that home? A boundary was being crossed. What had started out beautiful and pure with love was beginning to smell like a swamp. What do you do about it? The good news is that the God who gives us the boundaries in the first place will restore them if we will let Him — but we have to be willing to let Him.

As pastor, I have seen so many miracles happen. I’ve seen so many relationships restored. They all, though, have one thing in common: the persons in these relationships stop insisting on their own way and get back to asking each other how they can love God’s way. Until individuals do that, they make no progress. It is a major problem for many people to understand that we should not insist on our own way. Often, when a relationship isn’t going well and we want to change it, we pray for God to change the feelings involved. Yet, what we should pray instead is for God to help us understand the boundaries that have been crossed.

For example, what do you do if you are in the middle of a swamp, and you wish it were a river? Do you complain about the water? No, you rebuild the banks and, as you rebuild the banks and provide a fresh, directed flow of water, the quality of the water takes care of itself. If you get into a relationship that you know is not going the way it should, don’t ask God to change the feelings. Instead, say, “God, would you show me where we have broken your boundaries, and be with us as we seek to restore them?” God has this miraculous way of restoring the love as you restore His boundaries.

Now, I know that restoration doesn’t always happen. Sometimes there has been too much damage or sometimes the other person won’t cooperate. You can’t have a relationship with just one person. I understand. Yet, I want to tell you as pastor, I’ve seen miracles happen when people stop complaining, stop basing everything on feelings, and start asking God to show them where the boundaries have been crossed. Then, in asking Him for guidance to rebuild those boundaries, they restore the love.

That is what happened with that woman. We talked, prayed together, and ultimately, she made several commitments. She committed to pray every day and in that time let God love her. The Bible says you love only because God first loved you. If you are trying to restore love, you start by letting Jesus love you. She made a second commitment, which was to read the Bible’s teachings on relationships and to see a Christian counselor. She also joined a parent’s support group. Last, she committed to restore the boundaries: changing the ways she was treating her children and changing the way she was allowing her husband to treat her.

As you can imagine, it was not much trouble with the kids. She just did it and the kids were quick to respond. Changing the relationship with her husband, though, was tough.

For several months, she read the Bible and went to the counselor, then she invited her husband out on Valentine’s Day. He was not used to this, for she usually did not take the initiative. They sat down at lunch and, over the salad, she told him they were going to talk about something serious. Over the main course, she told him that things were going to be different. She would no longer subsidize his selfishness. As you can imagine, there was no dessert! He was stunned! He could not believe what she was saying, especially that she was losing her love for him because of the way he treated her. But, she stuck to her guns.

Things were pretty unsettled at home, but he began to read some things that she gave him and started going to the counselor also. They had six very rough months. But, after six months of him trying to understand, he agreed to go on a Walk to Emmaus. What is that? The Emmaus Walk is a spiritual renewal retreat. For three days he was with Christian men focusing on God and God’s plan for their lives and homes. He began to see things that he had not seen or understood before. When he came home that Sunday afternoon, he hugged his wife, hugged his kids, and when the kids had gone to bed, he asked his wife to sit with him in the kitchen.

As they sat down at the kitchen table, he reached over and took her hand and said, “I did not understand. But I want to thank you for acting to save our home. Looking back, I do not like who we were becoming and I absolutely do not like who I was becoming.”

Then, asking her to stay in her chair, he went over to the sink and filled a bowl with warm water. He came back and knelt down in front of her, slipped off her loafers and began to wash her feet, saying, “I am so sorry. I love you and I want to love you with the love of Jesus. Let’s start over.” Today, that is one of the strongest, most Spirit-filled families you could ever find. It is a home filled with joy.

Now, it doesn’t always happen this way, but God can do miracles. You may have a desperate situation to confront. Yet as pastor, I see so many dramatic things going on in the lives of people, as we will simply ask God to restore the boundaries and make a commitment to love God’s way.

My friends, trust in God, trust His boundaries, trust His direction, and trust His restorative power. Wherever you are in your life, He can turn your relationships into fresh, pure, powerful forces that bring life and joy.

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Michael Milton is Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN, and is a Contributing Editor to Preaching

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