You’re probably familiar with a program called “Antiques Roadshow” if you’ve spent any time watching public television. It started in England, and many of the shows are still filmed there. But they also have an American version.
The premise of “Antiques Roadshow” is simple: a team of antiques experts sets up shop in a convention center. They invite people to search their attics, safe-deposit boxes and basement corners for their most treasured family heirloom, then bring it in to be appraised.
The program is composed of brief, one- and two-minute segments. One of the experts looks over a person’s treasure, searching for a maker’s mark or telltale design feature that identifies it as genuine. Then, we get to watch the expression on the person’s face as the expert declares the item’s value – or if it’s just a worthless fake.
Many of these items have sentimental value, which means their owners would treasure and keep them regardless of the financial value. But it’s still a special joy for the owner to learn that great-grandpa’s battered old dresser is a genuine Chippendale.
“Let love be genuine,” says the apostle, Paul. As good as it feels to learn that your childhood electric-train locomotive is a classic, it’s far more gratifying to know that the person you love is truly sincere in loving you back.
But how can you tell for certain? How do you go about appraising the quality of love at the heart of a marriage, a friendship or the bond between parent and child?
This brief passage from Romans reveals what to look for: the maker’s mark, by which we know that we have the real thing.
“Let love be genuine,” Paul says (Romans 12:9). But then he goes on to say, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” He’s assuming, here, that true love is ethical to its very core. It seeks out and holds up all that is good. It singles out and spurns all that is evil.
You may never have thought of your love relationships as greenhouses in which ethical behavior is nurtured, but that’s exactly how the Bible sees them. When a bride walks down the church aisle to meet her beloved, not many people think of the two of them establishing a basic unit of Christian mission. But that’s exactly what’s going on (or what’s meant to). When a family gathers around a dinner table to talk with each other and share news of the day, few would identify that gathering as a school of virtue. But, again, that’s how God views it. Those love relationships in which we find ourselves all have a higher purpose in the Christian understanding. God has given those special people to us so that – together – we may “hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.”
The Greek word Paul uses here for “hate” is a very strong one. It means something like “utterly despise and shun.” In a similar way, the word for “holding fast” to the good comes from a root that means “to glue together.” God has given us marriages, families, friendships and the larger fellowship of Christians for a purpose: that, collectively, we may send evil packing out the back door, even as we greet good coming in the front. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”
Stephen Covey, the management expert who wrote the best-selling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, had a radical idea. He believed every community of people – not just businesses and institutions, but even marriages and families – ought to have a mission statement. Whether or not the statement is ever written down on a piece of paper – and he advised it should be – the important thing is that every member of that group knows why they’re together and what they’ve been collectively placed on this Earth to do.
Your marriage, your family, your significant relationship is not incidental to God. It has been created for a purpose. And if you never discover what that purpose is, if you never find any task that’s common to both (or all) of you and important to the world, then from the biblical standpoint, you may as well not be together. There’s a war going on out there, according to Paul, a war between good and evil. If your relationship is to be a Christian one, then you have to do your part for the war effort. Plant a little victory garden, right there in your living room.
Paul also advises, “love one another with mutual affection” (12:10). Let’s spend a moment looking at the verbs he uses, because they’re important.
You’ve probably heard that the Greek language has seven words for “love,” but there are three principally used. Agape is the highest form of love. It’s the utterly self-giving, sacrificial, altruistic sort of love, such as Christ showed on the cross. There’s also eros, the magnetic attraction of one person to another, which accounts for both the high-school crush and the 50th-anniversary couple. Then there’s phileo, the love of brother or sister for each other. Phileo is sometimes rendered as philadelphia. Adelphos means “brother,” so philadelphia — phileo plus adelphos — is a compound word meaning “brother love” or “sister love.” It’s how the city of Philadelphia got its name – not the one in Pennsylvania, but an ancient Greek city in present-day Turkey, whose founders must have had a dream that everyone there would get along. Our American Philadelphia was named for that one.
Paul begins this passage speaking of agape love, but when he says, “let love be genuine,” he shifts to brother or sister love. In using these terms interchangeably, he’s trying to say they’re all cut from the same cloth. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re bold to aspire, in our finest moments, to transform all our significant relationships into communities of self-giving and self-sacrifice.
“Have brother or sister love for one another, with mutual affection.” That’s a command. It’s not some translucent, gossamer hope that we may someday fall in love with someone — or if we’ve already fallen in love, that this love will last. It’s an order: just do it. “Love one another with mutual affection.”
I should say a word here about love in marriage. Paul’s command, to love in a brotherly or sisterly way, is just as applicable to that committed relationship of marriage. Sure, there’s eros in marriage, that magnetic attraction that sets the human reproductive system humming. It’s truly something to celebrate, as we do at the wedding ceremony. But eros is not the only form of love that should shine forth from a strong marriage.
The advice Paul’s giving about love to the Christian community at large is just as true within that special community of two. “Love one another with brotherly and sisterly affection.” Be as bonded to one another as a brother or sister.
We may choose a husband or wife, but we don’t choose brothers or sisters. A marriage may end in divorce, but it’s impossible to divorce siblings — though some of us may wish at times we could!
We’re bound to certain other people throughout our lives. These include our blood brothers or sisters, if we have any, but also adoptive siblings, stepbrothers or stepsisters. Paul seems to be adding another category of people to that list: all fellow Christians, whom he considers brothers and sisters in Christ. Whenever the church gathers around the table of the Lord, it’s as though it were a huge family dinner table — the circle of brotherly and sisterly love is drawn ever wider.
Included within that collection of people, presumably, is a Christian’s spouse. That insight has powerful implications for divorce in our culture, which — we’ll surely all agree — happens far more often in American society than it needs to. Even secular psychological research bears this out. Around 55-60% of divorces, according to Penn State sociologist Paul Amato, are what he calls “low-conflict divorces.” These take place when one partner in a marriage simply wakes up one day and realizes they want out. There’s no abuse or infidelity worth mentioning, no glaring personal betrayal — just a soul-chilling weariness with day-to-day cares and conflicts, coupled with a lack of desire to do anything about it. The marriage has become bogged down in the sheer dailyness of life. As an Irish proverb puts it: “Marriages are all happy. It’s having breakfast together that causes all the trouble.”
Many of these distressed marriages, an increasing number of psychologists are saying, can be saved if only the partners will agree to work together in therapy, learning practical skills for communication and emotional support. Yes, marital therapy is a hard road, and it may lead to conflict at times, but that should come as no surprise to anyone. The prime indicator of divorce, experts have been telling us for some time, is not conflict, but habitual avoidance of conflict, leading to an overwhelming despair and apathy that slowly saps the will to do the essential work of being married.
Practicing “brotherly or sisterly love toward one another with mutual affection” is a decision, not an emotional state. The simple, seemingly paradoxical truth is that the way to find the love we want in a committed relationship is to begin by practicing loving behaviors.
We may not choose our feelings, but we do choose our behaviors. Marriage trouble comes when one or both partners feel the quality of their relationship starting to slide and begin practicing destructive behaviors. They withhold affection. They yell and intimidate. They pout. They leave the house. They play the “blame game.”
If even one partner is able, intentionally, to put such frustrations aside for a time and demonstrate loving behaviors, the relationship can be transformed. Instead of criticizing, listen. Instead of pouting, share your feelings. Instead of blaming, accept responsibility. Instead of taking your spouse for granted, practice gratitude. There’s no guarantee, but it does happen more often than not: if you practice love, you will find it.
If you doubt the truth of this — if you join so many others in believing that love simply happens, at random, and that it’s something we “fall” into (or out of) — then consider another statistic.
Fully 60% of marriages throughout the world are arranged by persons other than the spouses (usually their parents). People who hardly know each other are thrown together, usually for practical reasons, and the divorce rate for those marriages is no higher than it is in our society; in some places, it’s lower. Researchers have found that the same numbers apply to immigrant communities here in the United States, where presumably divorce is readily available.
A very large percentage of spouses in arranged marriages somehow learn to love each other over time. A man from India tried to explain to a foreign visitor how this works. Love, he said, is like a bowl of soup: “You Westerners put a hot bowl on a cold plate and slowly it grows cool. We Indians put a cold bowl on a hot plate and slowly it warms up.”
East or West, success in marriage doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it.
The final part of verse 10 suggests the form this work should take. It’s a simple rule of behavior, God’s rule for making love last: “Outdo one another in showing honor.”
Outdo one another. Paul thinks love is a competition … who would have thought it? Yet unlike other forms of competition that can be so destructive, this competition adds strength, rather than sapping it.
The poet and essayist Kathleen Norris wrote about this phenomenon. “Young people grow up understanding that love means possessing and being possessed. It is a consumer model of love, an “If I can’t have her, nobody will” psychology that all too often turns deadly. Nearly half the murders in North Dakota, for example, are “domestic” in origin. It seems that many men, and some women, cannot give up the illusion of possessing another person. The idea of that person — and “idea” is related etymologically to the word “idol” — becomes more important, more potent, than the actual living creature. It is much safer to love an idol than a real person who is capable of surprising you, loving you and demanding love in return, and maybe one day leaving you. People who have murdered their spouses often talk about how much they love them, and they mean it. In order to keep the idol intact, in order to keep on loving it, they had to do away with him or her.”
The antidote to this kind of twisted thinking is to follow the simple, but profound advice of Romans 12:10: “outdo one another in showing honor.” It’s often said that marriage is not a 50-50 proposition; it’s a 100-100 proposition. In potent and significant family relationships like marriage, the goal is not to meet each other halfway. Rather, it’s for each one to go as far as possible in praising and honoring the other, even if it means passing one another on the way to doing the other a kindness.
That means placing our partners high on our priority lists. It means asking their opinion, and really wanting to hear it. It means spending time together, and doing the little things that bring joy. It means publicly praising our partners. (When was the last time you bragged about your spouse or family member to someone else, so the person being praised could hear you?)
Some therapists recommend to couples that each of them practice the “Triple-A” technique: apologize for something in the past, appreciate something in the present and anticipate with joy something in the future. Apologize, appreciate, anticipate. If each partner strives diligently to practice these three things, their relationship is certain to grow stronger.
The late NPR commentator Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve wrote a wonderful, semi-autobiographical book about marriage in the modern world. It’s called From This Day Forward. In the book, they share a word of advice from a Roman Catholic priest at the time of their wedding. “Marriage,” he told them, “is unlimited commitment to an unknowable partner.” Although, as a priest, he had no personal experience on which to base his advice, Cokie comments that, according to her experience, he got it right.
“Outdo one another in showing honor.” It’s the race you can’t lose because, if you do it right, both are winners!