Class 5: Pure in Heart—Sacrificial Love as Spiritual Practice

 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a firm spirit within me.”—Psalm 51:10

Intention for this class

The intention for this class is to focus on honoring marriage through understanding and practicing sacrificial love--a love which is not adulterated by selfish desire. It is a pure emotion which seeks to love our spouse in ways that our spouse perceives as most meaningful to him or her.

Spiritual Foundation

The commandment that provides the foundation for this class is “You shall not commit adultery.” Simply stated, adultery refers to voluntary sexual intercourse outside of the marriage relationship. The word adultery comes from the Latin word, adulterare. It means to make impure or to pollute by adding extraneous or improper ingredients. It is important to keep this definition in mind as we move into the deeper levels of this commandment.

 At the literal level, this commandment is a warning about the misery and pain that ensues from acting on an attraction outside of the marriage relationship. It is also about cleaning up dirty minds and filthy thoughts that attack and wear down the marriage covenant. It warns us to avoid discussions or behaviors that disrespect marriage. And at a deeper level, it warns us to avoid the allurement of negative emotions that produce resentment, criticism and blame.

This commandment, then, asks us to be faithful and true to God and to our spouse, to stay in integrity, and to keep our covenant. It calls us to honor marriage and to love our spouse. It reminds us that in everything we do, we should strive to act from a heart that is no longer polluted by self-interest or the desire to simply get our own way. We can learn to understand, to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness. We can take to heart the words of the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a firm spirit within me.”

The holy bond of marriage is not intended to confine or limit us. Rather it is intended to set us free from the tyranny of selfish desire, to help us rise above the promptings of our lower self, and to awaken our nobler nature. The discipline, self-restraint and selfless love that are practiced within the marriage covenant are essential for our spiritual development. In keeping the commandment to not commit adultery, we find ourselves striving to do the opposite—to love and honor marriage and to love and honor our spouse.  

Psychological Foundations

Paradox of Sacrifice: Scott Stanley, a professor at the University of Denver, and one of the most well known researchers in the field of marriage education has published the results of his studies in The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love (2005).  After studying the relationship patterns of thousands of couples over twenty-five years, he concludes that when partners are committed, they feel happier and their marriages are more fulfilling. Stanley defines commitment as “making the choice to give up other choices.”

As soon as people commit, says Stanley, everything changes for the better. He explains that committed partners believe in a future together, and it is this sense of a future that transforms them as a couple. While they may experience set-backs along the way, it does not deter them or make them doubt their choice. Instead, they are encouraged by the fact that they will be together for life; they can grow, and change, and improve. They see themselves as not just involved in one “chapter” of their lives, but rather as being involved in an unfolding story that will be their book of life.

When couples are committed and have this long-view of marriage, they discover that they are willing to sacrifice. Stanley refers to sacrifice as the ability to give up one’s own benefit so that one’s spouse will benefit more. This sacrifice is not the same as codependence, enabling, or fostering negative patterns. When offered from love and when it is healthy for the relationship, it is called sacrificial love.

Sacrificial love in marriage gives without the thought of getting in return. It does not think of itself, does not seek its own way, and is not interested in a behavioral contract. In fact, Dr. Stanley insists that a behavioral contract is contrary to sacrifice.  Stanley draws a clear link between commitment and sacrifice. And he adds, “When people are committed they do sacrificial things.” Because it is a healthy form of loving, they gain much more than they give up. This is why it is called the paradox of sacrifice.  

Five Love Languages: Another popular marriage program, also based on the idea of sacrificial love, is Gary Chapman’s program, The Five Love Languages. Chapman concluded after thirty years of marriage counseling as a Baptist minister that there are basically five emotional love languages. By this he means that there are basically five ways that people speak and understand emotional love. Chapman’s insight about “love languages” has been enthusiastically received and practiced by millions of people around the world who have been eager to improve their marriages by communicating love in a way that it will be received.

According to Chapman, we tend to tend to communicate love in the same way that we would like to receive it. Our spouse may communicate and need to receive love in different ways. We, therefore, become confused when we express love in our unique love language only to discover that it is not understood or warmly received by our spouse. Generally, most couples do not speak the same emotional love language.  Once we discover the five love languages and understand our primary love language, as well as the primary love language of our spouse, we can begin to communicate love in ways that will be most meaningful.

Chapman identifies these five love languages as follows:  

If your love language is Words of Affirmation, you will have a strong desire to receive words of appreciation and encouragement from your spouse. Some examples are, “You look great today.”  “I noticed that you were really patient with the kids.” “You are a terrific cook. Tonight’s supper was the best ever!” “Thanks so much for remembering to pick up the medicine on your way home. I can always count on you.” You feel most loved when your spouse is saying affirming things to you, especially in regard to your character.  

If your love language is Quality Time, you will have a strong desire to have your spouse spend quality time with you. This might include cooking together, gardening together, taking walks together, vacationing together, going to athletic events and concerts together, etc. Notice that the key word is “together.” You feel most loved when your spouse is spending quality time with you, in an atmosphere that involves deliberate connection. This is what makes it quality time.   

If your love language is Receiving Gifts you will have a strong desire to receive gifts from your spouse as tokens of appreciation and love. These gifts need not be large or elaborate. They could be as simple as plucking a flower from the garden before coming into the house, or bringing home your spouse’s favorite candy bar. The gift says, “I was thinking about you.” You feel most loved when your spouse is giving things to you. It isn’t so much “getting things,” but the feeling that your spouse has been thinking about you. This is the classic idea that “It’s not so much the gift, but the thought behind it that counts.”  

If your love language is Acts of Service you will have a strong desire to feel loved through the things that your spouse does for you. Whether it is making a meal, washing the car, or bringing in the mail, you find that you feel most loved when your spouse is doing things for you. They become another way of saying, “I’ve been thinking about you,” or “I did this for you.” According to Chapman, “It’s doing things that you know your spouse would like you to do.”

If your love language is Physical Touch you will have a strong desire to be touched by your spouse. This is more than enjoying sexual intimacy. It also includes holding hands, giving hugs, walking arm in arm, giving back rubs and foot massages. All of these physical expressions of love are highly valued. You feel most loved when your spouse is affectionately touching you.

Chapman includes a personal inventory that couples can fill out in order to determine their primary love language. The survey, which takes about fifteen minutes, has been found to be extremely useful for couples who have been trying hard to love each other, but have felt dissatisfied. She wants to talk; he wants a hug. She wants to take a walk; he’d rather give her a gift. He is hoping that she will give him praise for the magnificent job he did cutting the lawn; she gives him a new sweater. They are trying hard to love each other, but speaking different languages!

As a teenager, Chapman had to vacuum the house every Saturday morning before he could go out to play with his friends. He learned to hate vacuum cleaning and swore that when he got married and lived in his own home, he would NEVER do any vacuum cleaning. He discovered, however, that his wife’s primary love language was acts of service. He went against the grain and from love offered to help with vacuuming. It was an act of service—a form of sacrificial love for his spouse.

One day his wife casually mentioned that the window blinds were getting a little dusty. A few days later Chapman had to leave for a trip, but before leaving he got up at 6:30 AM to vacuum the blinds. When his wife came into the room and saw him, she said with surprise, “What are you doing?” Without shutting off the vacuum, he looked over his shoulder, smiled warmly, and said, “I’m making love!” To which she replied (in his language of love—words of affirmation), “You are the most wonderful husband in the world!”

Loving our spouse in the way they most feel loved without thought of reward or gain is an essential element of true marriage love. It calls us to put aside our own ideas of what we believe would be most loving so that we may enter into the world of our spouse, seeing life through their eyes, and understanding the unique way they understand what it means to be loved. It is this kind of empathic love that defines marriage as an opportunity for our own personal growth.  We have the opportunity to rise above our own limited views and selfish inclinations so that we may truly love our spouse.

Physical Intimacy: In addition to the studies of Stanley and Chapman, we also consider the findings of Michael Metz and Barry McCarthy, two of the leading sexologists in the country. Their research includes studies on some of the most common problems that couples encounter in the realm of physical intimacy, including differences in desire, erectile dysfunction, and unsatisfactorily brief love making. Their goal is to help couples build healthier, more pleasurable sexual relationships.

At the top of their list of recommendations is this: sexual intimacy should be regarded as a delightful and pleasurable activity, which is not at all associated with performance. Rather, couples should learn to see sexuality as an opportunity to simply be present in the moment, enjoying the pleasures of touch without the need to achieve anything else. In actuality, this approach is similar to the Buddhist ideal which does not focus on outcomes, and is not attached to results; it is simply a matter of being open to the present moment, relaxing into sensuality, using touch to express love, and enjoying “what is.”

This is especially powerful advice for American males who tend to be performance-oriented; paradoxically, the emphasis on relaxing and not performing makes them better able to perform. Wives, too, enjoy this change of emphasis in their husbands. They feel that they are being more fully loved; and because of this they become more responsive to their husbands, and experience deeper levels of satisfaction. All of this, of course, deepens the experience of being in love with each other, and strengthens the bonds of connection to one another.

Putting it Together

We began this class by describing the commandment against adultery, seeing it as a call to honor marriage as God’s greatest gift to humanity. It is a call to return to the noble intentions and high ideals that we experienced as we first came together to begin the wondrous journey called marriage. It was a time when we felt God’s presence drawing us together; a time when love came easily and spontaneously; a time when hearts were tender and merciful; a time when it was easy to see the best in our partner, and to overlook faults. It was a time to love and be loved; a time to forgive and be forgiven.  

This commandment calls us back to the commitment we made at the time we exchanged our wedding vows, promising to love one another for our entire lives. It is through this commitment to an enduring relationship that we are able to honor marriage, take the long view, and practice sacrificial love.

Sacrificial love in marriage does not think of itself, does not seek its own way, and gives without the thought of getting in return. It is free from unhealthy codependence and unreasonable expectations. It focuses on how we can meet our spouse’s needs, uncorrupted by selfish desire, rather than how our spouse can meet our needs. While we may not be able to attain this kind of love suddenly, our ability to love in this way will continue to improve the more we practice it. Over a lifetime, as we grow in our understanding of our spouse, we become better able to love them in the way they most need to be loved. And when we do this, without seeking anything in return, sacrificial love becomes a spiritual practice.  


The Assignment

Pure in Heart --Sacrificial Love as Spiritual Practice 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a firm spirit within me.”—Psalm 51:10

Honor Marriage. Clean up your life by avoiding discussions or behaviors that disrespect marriage. Clean up your relationship through the power of forgiveness. Ask for forgiveness and be willing to forgive. Begin with a firm spirit and renewed integrity to honor your marriage.  

Practice Sacrificial Love. Each day, do something completely loving for your spouse—something that would make your spouse very happy, is good for the relationship, and is done without the thought of getting something in return.

Enjoy Intimacy.  Enjoy being physically intimate with each other without any desire to perform, or any attachment to outcomes. Simply enjoy the experience of intimacy as an expression of your love for each other.