Marriage and Love of Neighbor

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord – Leviticus 19:18 I remember when I discovered the Song of Songs uses the same word we translate as “neighbor” in Leviticus to describe the beloved’s relationship with her lover. Suddenly, alarm bells started going off in my brain. What if our obligation to love our neighbors—the obligation Jesus says is the lynchpin for the whole Old Testament (cf. Matthew 22:39-40)—begins with the person who shares our bed? If we accept the challenge to love our spouse, our closest “neighbor,” as ourselves, then a whole world of possibilities opens up to us about how we might reorder our lives. Indeed, the gauntlet the Bible has thrown down in front of us can feel overwhelming. Just making sense of what it means to love in this way can seem as though it is beyond our reach. So, maybe we ought to begin small. Leviticus 19 may seem like a collection of miscellaneous laws; that is certainly how the editors of the New International Version treat it. But I am convinced verses 9-17, and especially the first half of verse 18, give us some ideas about what it might mean to love our “neighbor” as ourselves. And, in so doing, these verses also help us understand what it might look like to love our spouse. Here are some ideas for you to consider.

  • Swear Off Revenge – Verse 18 is explicit. Holding grudges and getting revenge is the opposite of love. It is surprising how many married couples do not seem to have learned this lesson. They seem to live for the opportunity to push one another’s buttons, and when carnage ensues, they seem to relish the opportunity to hold it over one another’s heads. This is not what love looks like. Love doesn’t pick fights, and it doesn’t use a person’s scars against them. Rather, love forgives people’s weaknesses and protects their vulnerabilities (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). 
  • Do No Harm – From the perspective of the Bible, the Hippocratic Oath is not just for physicians. It is for all of us. Of course, that starts with an absolute repudiation of hatred and violence. Such have no place in any of our relationships, much less our marriages. But it also includes having the foresight to anticipate what things might be a danger to our “neighbor” and taking steps to mitigate that danger.
  • Embrace Honesty – As a rule, deception is not good in any relationship, much less in one as intimate as a marriage. People don’t like being deceived, even if it is (supposedly) for their own good. But being honest is hard. It certainly means we value truthfulness more than our own self-interest, and it may require us to be vulnerable—either emotionally or in some other way. That is why we have to constantly remind ourselves to be honest, both with ourselves and with those we love.
  • Be Impartial – We have already talked about this at length in a previous blog, but it bears repeating here. Part of being a loving person is having the courage to see the world as it really is and not as we want it to be. Love compels us not to be unduly harsh on our spouse, but it also compels us not to ignore their indiscretions (especially when those indiscretions hurt other people).
  • Cultivate Generosity – Finances can be one of the most destructive stressors in a couple’s relationship. Sometimes, the stress comes from the fact that the two parties have different ideas about what it means to be responsible with material possessions. But sometimes, the stress is due to the fact that one of the spouses uses money as a means to control the other. Love, by contrast, values the personhood of the individual far more than what he or she can contribute to “the bottom line.”

What is particularly striking about these ideas is they point us, again and again, back to that curious phrase, “as yourself.” Unless we are seriously mentally ill—and sometimes even when we are—we care for our own needs. We may do it in dysfunctional ways, but we do it. What if we cared for our spouse in the same way? What if we took the so-called Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) seriously, caring for our spouse in the same way we wish he or she cared for us? What if we reined in the selfish, evil tendencies which can so easily dominate our interactions with others, paying careful attention to even the unintended consequences of our actions and watching over our spouse for their good rather than for ours? I am convinced this course of action would carry us a long way towards the healthier, happier marriages we all want. More importantly, I am convinced we would be more faithful children of the God we call “Father.” Notice how often God reminds the Israelites of who He is in Leviticus 19. The reason is made explicit at the beginning of the chapter. The Israelites were to imitate God’s character and reflect God’s holiness. That is our task, too.

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