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Promises, Promises

Success in marriage depends on more than mere words

Just a few weeks after Kathy and I were married, we had one of the worst arguments of our lives. I can't remember now what all the fighting was about. But I do remember hours of discussion, the mounds of tear-drying tissues on the bed and finally Kathy's question: "If we have these kinds of differences between us, is our marriage over?"

Then I did a stupid thing. I laughed—not just a little laugh, but a deep, long, side-splitting roar. Probably it was just a pendulum-swing response away from all the tension of our disagreement. But to me, Kathy's question was hilarious because the thought had never entered my mind. I loved my wife more than I could express. I wanted to spend a lifetime with her. And I had promised God that I would love her no matter what. The idea that one argument could undo us just struck me as bizarre.

Laughing in her face when your wife is dead serious isn't usually a good idea. But my laughter gave Kathy a sense of how secure she really was in our relationship. She realized she'd be free, in the future, to bring up problems we needed to discuss. Maybe these kinds of discussions aren't the most pleasant, but dealing with problem spots has made our marriage stronger and sweeter. And our commitment to one another is what gave us that freedom.

Committed Beyond Words

Couples all start out saying the right things: "I love you. This is forever. I'll never forsake you." And when they say those things, they aren't lying. No one plans to run into trouble or to have a miserable life.

But speaking those words doesn't do the work of knitting two lives together. Words alone can't be depended on—they are just too slippery. For some spouses, "forever" actually means "for a real long time." For others, "till death parts us" means "until our affections die." For some the promise to stay united "in sickness and in health" means "as long as you don't make me too miserable for too long and the problems we face are not your fault."

It's a challenge to define the nature of the type of love that lasts. Words can't adequately express this eternal love, much less secure it. The apostle John says it's not enough to love with lip service; we've got to love "with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18). And he points to an example of a person whose actions always modeled love: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us" (v. 16).

The love that secures a marriage must be sacrificial—and that's the heart of commitment to another person. The satisfaction of our own needs and desires can't be the primary reason we get married or stay married. Instead, each spouse's actions need to have an "other" focus. There's no room for manipulation, intimidation or deceit for personal benefit. The amazing mystery of human happiness is that the greatest love grows where self is served the least.

Commitment in marriage is shown by our actions. We patiently endure one another's fears and foolishness. We refuse to use our own strengths to prey on our mate's weaknesses. We enable each other to fulfill responsibilities. We cheer one another's dreams and comfort each other's sorrows. We work to understand each other's needs and freely offer forgiveness.

The Third Party

When we marry before God, we're not just striking an agreement between two people. We are vowing to love and honor each other before and to the Lord. Christ, in renewing and deepening the love we share, is an active third party in our relationship. So when harsh words and damaged feelings fail to keep the marriage that God desires, we can't consider the marriage finished. Ultimately, our promises were made to God.

If we've devoted our lives to the purpose of reflecting God's character and commitments, then part of our vows made before God was to live for our spouses. God doesn't make his love conditional for us on the way we feel about him, on how we treat him or on whether we have failed him. So we can't use excuses such as the cooling of affections or the heat of stress to escape our marriage commitments. We live for each other because God requires it. We love each other because we promised the God we love that we would.

So marriage becomes a haven for the constant renewal of love. A husband and wife don't have to be constantly wondering if either will say or do something that will destroy their relationship. The covenant of marriage lets them live with freedom and boldness knowing that their mutual commitment to God has secured their home more surely than their affections ever could.

That security in having made promises before God gives a couple's affections the greatest potential to deepen. Committing to love another person beyond his or her weaknesses, to work on a relationship despite difficulties and differences and to live for the other because that's what God requires gives love the richest soil possible in which to flourish.

The amazing mystery of human happiness is that the greatest love grows where self is served the least.

Kathy and I no longer fear that our differences, no matter how pointed, will damage our marriage. God has used our commitment to him to make our marriage so secure that we can work on our weaknesses. When we commit our lives to honoring God, we invite his care into our marriage to help deepen our love for him and each other.

Kathy and I marvel that in each phase of our marriage we grow more thankful for the blessing of our relationship. It seems a mystery to us how this has happened at each step of the way. So think about this: no matter how happy your marriage is now, this may only be the beginning. God can use your love for him (even if you're the only Christian partner) to increase your love for each other.

Your sacrificial love isn't secured by the words you spoke on your wedding day. It isn't secured by the loving things you do in the warm glow of a fleeting romantic impulse. Your deepest marital security stems from hearts united with God. Only your heart's commitment to Christ can turn your words and actions into the marriage you long for.

Bryan Chapell, Ph.D., is president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He and Kathy have four children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Commitment; Differences; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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