I still remember my sadness on hearing that an old friend, someone I believed was a sincere Christian, was leaving his wife. I was shocked and disappointed. How could this man, committed to both his spouse and his Lord, fall in love with another woman?
An essay by the late Sheldon Vanauken helps answer the question and reminds us that such temptations are all too common.
Vanauken, best known as the author of the powerful love story entitled A Severe Mercy, also published a collection of essays called Under the Mercy, which explores these feelings.
In one essay called "The Loves," Vanauken describes how a Christian friend named John shocked him by announcing that he was leaving his wife to marry another woman. John explained his sudden change of heart by saying, "It seemed so good, so right. That's when we knew we had to get the divorces. We belonged together."
As Vanauken explains, John was "invoking a higher law: the feeling of goodness and rightness. A feeling so powerful that it swept away . . . whatever guilt [he] would otherwise have felt" for what he was doing to his family.
Sadly, many people love their spouse not as a person, but as someone who evokes certain feelings. Their wedding vow was not so much to the person as to that feeling. So when such people fall in love with someone else, they just transfer that vow to the other person. And why not? says Vanauken, "If vows are nothing but feelings?"
Vanauken dubs these thrilling emotions "The Sanction of Eros." When John spoke of the goodness of his new love, "the sacred approval [he said he] felt could not possibly have come from [God,] whose disapproval of divorce is explicit in Scripture. It is Eros, the pagan god of lovers, who confers this sanction upon the worshippers at his altar."
Vanauken continues, "The pronouncement of Eros that this love is so good and so right that all betrayals are justified is simply a lie." But worst of all, those caught in its thrall of Eros are convinced their love is different, even sacred. They do not dream, Vanauken says, "that every other lover has the same assurance."
Now, can the Eros type of love -- this emotional and physical attachment -- be a healthy part of a marriage? Of course! But Eros is not the type of love that glues husbands and wives together “‘til death do us part.” That love would be Agape love -- the love modeled by Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross for His Bride, the Church. Agape is the love Paul talks about in Ephesians 5:25, when he commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.
Agape seeks to bless the other person; it is totally self-giving. Eros, especially outside of marriage, seeks only to use the other. Its goal is self-gratification. And that's why pastors have to work hard to teach engaged couples about the necessity of understanding Agape lvoe. At some point, Eros will almost certainly beckon with an exciting new love -- and the feelings of rightness, and even sacredness, may be overwhelming.
Couples need to know that only when Christ and Agape love are at the heart of their marriage can they withstand these temptations.
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