How do I know when my desire for love has changed into a need for love? An excellent question! Let’s start with anger. Anger is the quickest and easiest way to discern if your craving for love has jumped from a desire to need.
Remember, it is not necessarily wrong to desire something, but when a desire goes bad, you’re in trouble. One of the ways you will know if your desire has gone wrong is when you get sinfully angry if you don’t get what you desire.
This concept applies to any desire you may have. Let me illustrate how a desire goes bad by using this formulaic teaching from Paul Tripp:
- Desire – “Will you do ____________ for me?”
- Need – “You will do ___________ for me.”
- Expectation – “I expect you to do ___________ for me.”
- Disappointment – “You didn’t do ___________ for me.”
- Punishment – “You didn’t do _________ for me. Therefore, I am going to make you pay in some way.”
Case Study: Desire Gone Bad
Mable married Biff 21 years ago. She desires that he love her in a particular way. This desire is a good, typical, and expected desire. The problem is that Biff is self-absorbed.
When they were dating, Biff did all the right things as far as demonstrating his love to her. She was convinced of his love and knew she had found the right guy.
Unfortunately, Mable had a selfish, empty love cup agenda. When Biff brought her flowers, wrote her letters, and took her to fabulous dinners, during their dating relationship, it all seemed right and exactly what she wanted.
Mable was self-deceived in that her undisclosed craving was that she believed she needed and deserved a person who would give her a future according to her expectations.
Mable lived in an idealistic and romanticized world of her making. She also had a weak understanding of the doctrines of sin (hamartiology) and man (anthropology).
She was not spiritually prepared for real life, in a real marriage, with a real sinner. She was selfish and an idolator, though she masked the idolatry behind a good desire for love.
None of this was discernible because rarely does anyone look beyond the surface of their lives to ask the right questions about what is going on in the heart.
Biff was selfishly conquering his girlfriend, and Mable was allowing him to capture her. And it all went well until Biff finished catching his prey and slowly turned to other things. After he “bagged” his wife, he was off to vocational pursuits and hobbies.
Mable was left quietly desiring while stewing over her losses. The truth is, Mable had redefined love to a need and that is when things went very wrong in her heart. Note regression:
- Desire – Mable had a legitimate desire for love.
- Need – Somewhere along the way, her desire for love morphed into a demanded need.
- Expectation – Because she had redefined love from desire to need there was an expectation placed on Biff’s behavior.
- Disappointment – Though she did not know it, she set herself up for disappointment. There is no human, no matter how hard they try, able to perform adequately for another person. We’re all sinners on our best day. Sadly, Biff was a jerk and never sought to love like Christ. And Mable was more concerned about what she was not getting and responded to Biff’s sin with her sin.
- Punishment – Her self-inflicted disappointment turned into retaliation. She punished Biff by her anger as well as other sinful means.
Both Biff and Mable were idolators in their unique ways. Biff didn’t care for Mable and Mable was hurt because she was not getting what she believed she deserved. The big “need” in their lives was mutual repentance, but they were not about to live out that kind of humility when we met at our first counseling session.
They said they loved each other, but after spending a few minutes with them in counseling, it was apparent they did not. Biff loved Biff and Mable loved her desire for love.
They were bitter and angry at each other. The good news was that after 21 years of marriage they decided it was time to get some help. In the midst of a lot of bad decisions, going to counseling was one of the bright spots in their marriage.
Mable complained that Biff had not been meeting her expectations, though she did not say it exactly that way. What she said was that Biff was lazy, passive, non-romantic, selfish, harsh, critical, and angry.
She also said that she was tired of being nice to him. Then she shared over a dozen instances of Biff’s selfishness to puncuate her points.
When she finished, Biff was completely sunk down into his seat with a “white towel surrender” look on his face. He seemed defeated, disinterested, and disheartened. I wondered to myself how much anger was simmering just below the surface of Biff’s facade. And how, ironically, he was punishing his wife.
Later in the counseling, I found out that he had been angry and disappointed in his wife for many years. Though he had been passive, lazy, and most of the other things she had mentioned, he added that her attitude also contributed to the problems in the marriage.
He was right.
Though he was not saying that Mable was to blame for his sin, he was saying that she did not help matters by her hostile attitude. Isn’t that the way it is with two people stuck in dysfunction? I’ve never met a couple, including me and Lucia, where one person was completely innocent, while the other was completely guilty. Just admitting this truth can have a huge impact on any marriage.
Who Fired First
With over two decades of marriage under their belts, no one knew how the dysfunction began. Truthfully, for counseling, it did not matter who fired the first shot.
For Biff and Mable, it seemed as though blaming each other was the only thing that mattered. They seemed more interested in validating their positions and winning their arguments rather than seeing things from God’s perspective.
They spent most of their time blaming each other while affirming their rightness. That kind of “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” sparring had nearly pushed God out of their marriage.
Rather than spending time blaming each other, it would have been better if they self-assessed their culpability that contributed to the dysfunction of the marriage and then repent to God.
Mable seemed to believe, by her words and actions, that if she repeatedly reminded Biff of all of his errors, he would change. Rarely is anyone motivated to change by nagging, complaining, or accusing. It certainly is not how the Savior approached us in our sin:
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? – Romans 2:4
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. – Ephesians 2:8
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8
Any of us could look into our past and find reasons to support why we are disappointed with others. Genuine Christian maturity is less interested in who did what wrong, instead choosing to be more interested in how to respond humbly to God and others.
Biff and Mable were more interested in being right than being humble, and in the process, they grew more angry, bitter, and unforgiving.
A Sighting of Calvary
In time, Mable began to understand what she was doing to herself and her husband. She came to realize that while her desire for a great marriage is a godly desire, her method for acquiring a godly marriage stunk. Quite simply, she forgot the gospel. She forgot how God brought her to Himself.
God did not bring Mable to Himself by being critical, harsh, angry, blaming, and unforgiving. The way the Father won the heart of Mable to Himself was through love, grace, mercy, kindness, patience and, above all else, forgiveness.
When Mable was reminded of the gospel during our counseling together, God mercifully turned on the light for her. She got it. She understood the gospel–or you could say that she re-understood the gospel.
Rather than applying the gospel to her salvation, she began to apply the gospel to her sanctification. Though the gospel affected her the day God saved her from her sins, she was starting to understand how to apply the gospel to her everyday life, especially her marriage.
Mable realized that it was possible for her husband to change and that she could be part of his change process, but she needed to change first.
She began to think about how God’s kindness led to her repentance. She further realized that she was not modeling before her husband what the Savior had modeled for her (Romans 2:4).
Mable began to address her sin issues. When she did, Mable was initially discouraged because she was unaware at how much she had been sinning against her husband.
The more she went to God regarding her sin against her husband, the more she began to experience freedom from those sins that were previously controlling her.
Mable also came to understand that what she wanted in her marriage was not an evil desire and that she should not give up on her desire. But she knew that she could not sin when she did not get what she wanted.
Reflectively, she saw that her marriage problems compounded when she began to sin in response to her husband’s sin. As she later said, “My desire was not wrong, but my attitude did stink.”
Identifying the Ruling Motives
Mable blamed Biff for what she could not have. She accused him of withholding the thing she needed. The implication was that if Biff had acquiesced, by giving her what she expected to get, she would have been happy again.
What she did not understand at the time was that her desires for the relationship were not robbing her of her happiness. The loss she was experiencing was her idolatry. She was mad because Biff took her idol away from her. I asked her to repeat after me:
I would be happy if _________.
My question to Mable was, “What would make you happy? She quickly answered by saying that if Biff loved her the way she wanted to be loved, she would be happy.
That is idolatry.
The only right answer to the question, “What would make you happy?” is “God.” That was not the case for Mable, which is why she had an idol lodged in her heart. Whatever you believe will make you happy is your “god.”
If God’s grace cannot trump your lost expectations, your expectations are greater than God’s grace, and something has displaced God from the center of your life.
Mable repented to God and restored her relationship with Him. He became the centerpiece of her heart and mind, which played out in real, practical, and measurable ways. It was more than intellectual assent.
The more Mable humbled herself before God, through repentance, and began to pursue Biff, the way Christ sought her lovingly, the more Biff began to change. In time, their marriage turned to a godly relationship, and God granted her the desire of her heart.
Danger, Danger: Some spouses will read this and say, “I tried that” or “I’ve been doing that for years, and it has not worked.” The primary goal is not to try something to get what you want. The main aim is to change for the glory of God regardless of any desired outcomes.
I am profoundly sorry if your marriage is not what you want it to be. I have seen a thousand of these marriages. It is heartbreaking. Marriage dysfunction is part of the reason why I do what I do. I wish I could change your marriage, but I cannot any more than I can change mine.
What I can do is change myself. My prayer for you and me is similar to the three boys just before the king tossed them into the fire.
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. – Daniel 3:16-18
Call to Action
- What does your disappointment reveal about your heart?
- Are you encouraged that the Lord would pinpoint an issue for you to change? If not, why not?
- A Counterintuitive Thought – What if the Lord was using your marriage to sanctify you? How is it working? What do you need to do to find so much satisfaction in God that it drowns the sorrows of your marriage?
Also published on Medium.