I've learned something significant about marriage through watching you and Shirley," Todd* said.
My three-times-divorced friend had lived with Martha* for eight years. Periodically she pressured him to marry her, he refused, arguments ensued, and days passed before they made peace. Todd (who called himself "an unspiritual believer") admitted he was afraid of marriage. "After three bad trips to the altar, I don't want a fourth failure."
Recently, he said, "I envy the relationship you and Shirley have. You two are committed to the covenant of marriage."
I asked what he meant.
"You love each other. But it's more than love, or even commitment. You're devoted to the covenant—the principle—of marriage. I've always given myself to the person. I loved the three women I married, but eventually arguments became serious and one of us walked out. But I've seen that no matter how difficult things get in your marriage, neither of you leave." He mentioned several problems Shirley and I had faced over the years, especially her serious health concerns. "I've watched you survive things that would have broken any of my marriages. You've put your relationship above your personal feelings."
The more I pondered Todd's words about commitment to the covenant of marriage, the better I understood. It all comes down to the difference between a promise and a vow. When I promise, I'll do the best I can to fulfill whatever I said I would do. If I promise to pay my mortgage every month, I'll pay it. Yet if serious or prolonged illness comes, or I'm downsized, I might not be able to keep that promise.
A vow, however, is sacred. It's a word we need to use cautiously. In the Roman Catholic church, priests or nuns make vows that go beyond their feelings. I'm sure some days Mother Teresa functioned better than others. But she didn't give up; she had vowed.
For me, a vow is like staking our lives on something so powerful only death can put an end to it. My faith in Jesus Christ is like that. Some days I don't feel spiritual, and at other times doubts plague me. But I don't turn away from God. Despite how I feel today, tomorrow my emotions may be different.
Good marriages are built on the same principle. The partners are devoted to each other, but they also have a commitment to something higher than themselves.
When I was a pastor, I saw many couples try to sustain a fantasy relationship. They pursued an ideal of unceasing love, expecting always to satisfy each other's needs for the rest of their lives. But feelings don't remain constant. People are passionate today and cool tomorrow. Eventually, reality sets in.
For example, a man called me six months into his marriage. "My wife snores," he complained. "I can't stand it." Obviously, the issue was more than her snoring. He'd awakened from a long-held fantasy; he finally understood she was human. I warned him that unless they'd built their relationship on more than mutual attraction, their marriage was doomed. (They later divorced.)
Todd also bought into the fantasy marriage—three times. "Every time I said, 'I do,' I held ideas of how marriage should function," he admitted. "I loved my wife—then." After several years, both became disillusioned. She wasn't living up to what a wife "should be" and he no longer felt the way he had when they first married.
"I understand one part in the wedding ceremony—finally," Todd said. "When you and Shirley promised to stay together 'for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,' you could do that because you have something else—something beyond your love for each other that keeps you together."
"For an unspiritual believer," I said, "that's amazingly insightful."
The commitment to God's principle of a relationship severed only by death transcends earthly things. It's powerful because it surpasses feelings and situations. It's a relationship that says, "Even though, and no matter what … we're still together." When two people are both bound by the same, unwavering vow, the marriage lasts.
Cecil Murphey is author or co-author of more than 100 books, including the New York Times bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven (Revell).
*Name has been changed.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.