Why do we love? Our motives for loving can be divided into two categories: (1) “I love you because of…” and (2) “I love you in spite of…” The first we could call merited love and the second merciful love. Merited love is earned and deserved. Merciful love is not. It stems from grace.
Every loving relationship finds its motive in one or the other, or a mix of the two, including marriage relationships. However, before I reveal the 14 words that can fix or upgrade your marriage, let’s first make sure we sufficiently understand merited and merciful love.
I suspect some readers might object to the idea of merited love due to the overabundance of teaching about “God’s unconditional love.” I can imagine them protesting, “The phrase ‘merited love’ is an oxymoron! Love is not something that is earned. At least not in God’s kingdom!”
So we must start by addressing that misconception.
Merited love is biblical. Very biblical.
For example, Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again” (John 10:17). The Father loves Jesus for a reason, and that reason—at least in part—is because Jesus was willing to lay down His life. That is merited love. Jesus earned it, and He deserved it.
And of course, how could it be said that the Father has any “merciful love” for Jesus? Would the Father ever say of Jesus, “I love Jesus in spite of…”? Of course not. The Father was and is “well pleased” with Jesus (Matt. 3:17).
Similarly, the love that all of us have for Jesus is merited love. We don’t love Him “in spite of,” we love Him “because of.” There are perhaps an infinite number of reasons to love Him!
Here’s another proof that merited love is biblical: Speaking to His disciples, Jesus once said, “For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father” (John 16:27).
The Father loves people because they love Jesus. He is, of course, pleased when people love His Son (which is demonstrated by their obedience to Him; see John 14:15).
So, although God showered merciful love upon us prior to our repentance (and many times since then when we’ve sinned), He not only loves us in spite of what He may see in us that displeases Him (merciful love) but also because of what He sees that pleases Him (merited love). I’m concerned that the idea of merited love from God is completely off the spiritual radar of many Christians—again, due to an overemphasis of “God’s unconditional love.”
May I point out that there is a difference between what is often referred to as “God’s unconditional love” and what I am referring to as merciful love. The truth is, God doesn’t love anyone unconditionally. If He did, such an “unconditionally loved” person would not need to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved and escape damnation. Yes, God extends merciful love towards unrepentant sinners, but even that is temporary, lasting only until death.
To explain this further, if someone said to you, “I love you unconditionally, but if you don’t change, I will no longer love you,” you would rightly reply, “Then you don’t really love me unconditionally.” Obviously, God does not love people unconditionally, because He doesn’t love those whom He has cast into hell, as they didn’t meet His conditions.
But back to the concept of merited love. If you are a parent, isn’t your love for your own children a mix of both merited and merciful love? Chances are, you love your children because of things about them that please you. But they aren’t perfect, and they don’t always please you. Yet you still love them, mercifully, “in spite of.”
Here’s yet another passage of Scripture that teaches us that merited love is not foreign to Jesus’ relationship with believers:
Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love (John 15:9-10, emphasis added).
Clearly, and in spite of all the contrary teaching that is so prevalent within Christendom, there is something we must do to “abide” in Jesus’ love, and that is to keep His commandments. Although it sounds like heresy to the unbalanced “hyper-grace” crowd, the fact is, there are things we can do to please God. The foremost ambition of those who are truly born again is to please God through their obedience:
Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him (2 Cor. 5:9; see also Eph. 5:10; Col. 1:10; 1 Thes. 2:4, 4:1; Heb. 13:16, 21; 1 John 3:22).
Having a relationship with God necessitates some merited love. Again, I realize that sounds like heresy to the hyper-grace crowd, but it is irrefutable biblical truth.
Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding, I am not saying that God does not also love His children with a merciful love. Of course He loves us “in spite of” our imperfections. But which kind of love would you prefer that God had for you? Would you prefer to be tolerated, or esteemed, by Him? Would you rather Him say of you: “Your life grieves me, and there is nothing about you that is admirable or praiseworthy, but I love you anyways” or, “I am well-pleased with you, and I have a list of reasons why I love you”?
The Key to a Strong Marriage
All of this being so, we see that merited love is not an inferior love in the least. While merciful love might be the most praiseworthy love to give, merited love is the most praiseworthy love to gain. All of us would prefer that others love us “because of” rather than “in spite of.” And hopefully, this brief consideration of the biblical (and experiential) validity of merited love will now allow me to tie the concept to the 14 words that can fix or upgrade any marriage.
Early on, marriages typically are based on a large percentage of merited love. Engaged couples are often heard to passionately say, “Oh, I love him/her because…!” After a few years, however, married couples are more likely to say, with a sigh, “I love him/her even though…” And that is a very telling revelation.
Of course, when you marry someone, you really don’t know that person as well as you will. Most of us tend to put our best foot forward during the dating/courting/engagement period. Plus, “love is blind.” But sooner or later everyone’s dark side surfaces, and marriage opens blind eyes. If the marriage is to survive, merciful love must make its entrance.
The simple truth is that all marriages, from day one, are a mixture of merited and merciful love. I’ve noticed, however, that marriages that depend heavily on merciful love are marriages that are in trouble. They range from “bland marriages” to “combat marriages” to “truce marriages.” Life anywhere within that spectrum is no fun, and what a tragedy such marriages are in light of God’s magnificent intention for life’s most intimate human relationship.
Good marriages are enjoyed by couples who aren’t depending on large volumes of merciful love to keep them together. Rather, they understand that merited love keeps marriages strong, healthy, and fun. In fact, as the years go by, and as marriage partners work to give their spouses more reasons to say “I love you because of…”, their marriages become increasingly more rich and rewarding.
However, when a husband or wife effectively says to his or her spouse, “You be the Christian and show me merciful love while I focus on other priorities besides pleasing you,” that can signal the beginning of the end, at least emotionally, for that relationship.
Pity the poor Christian couple in which one or both think their marriage will make it on “unconditional love.” Pity them even more when one or both actually think that is how God designed marriage, as one yells at the other, “God loves me unconditionally, and if you love me, so would you! So stop telling me what I need to change!”
The marriage partner who does not care about pleasing his or her spouse, and who expects merciful love without any effort to gain merited love sends a clear message: “I expect you to love me, but don’t expect me to love you!” And that is pure hypocrisy. Such a relationship is far from the mutually-beneficial bond God intended for husbands and wives. Rather, it reveals a relationship that is analogous to a parasite and its host.
The 14 Words
So in light of all this, what are the 14 words that can fix or upgrade your marriage? They are 14 words that comprise a question to ask your spouse every morning:
What can I do today to let you know that I really love you?
When you hear the answer, simply do what your spouse says. And earn some merited love!
Don’t wait for your spouse to ask you that question! Just start asking your spouse that question every morning, and even if you are married to Frankenstein or the Wicked Witch of the West, you can be assured that, before long, your spouse will catch on and start asking the same question of you. Then tell him or her how to gain some merited love!
If you don’t think you are quite ready for a daily question, here’s another 14-word question that can be used with less frequency and that can also begin to fix or upgrade your marriage:
If there was one thing you could change about me, what would it be?
Once you know what it is (and as long as it doesn’t require you to disobey God), get to work on it. Show your spouse how much you love him or her by changing. Your spouse will appreciate it, naturally, and you will begin to reap what you’ve sown.
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It is! And those two questions can not only fix or upgrade your marriage, they can fix or upgrade your relationship with anyone, including God!