Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of officiating a few weddings for young couples tying the knot. It’s always a joy to walk through the engagement season with two people who are preparing for their life together. It’s a time of growing anticipation and excitement.
I remember when Holly and I were going through that same season. It felt that our life together was nothing but potential. It felt like we would have the perfect marriage and nothing could possibly go wrong. But once the engagement was over and the wedding was in the rearview mirror, all that was left was the two of us. While we were still young and idealistic, the hard work of loving each other “for better and worse” was finally underway.
It’s easy to prepare for a wedding, but living in covenant marriage is an entirely different thing.
Once you begin sharing a toilet together, there’s often a moment just weeks after the wedding when you think to yourself, “Who is this person?!” Once you’re confronted with each other’s weird or gross habits, every missed chore and every unmet expectation is seen as a massive character flaw that must be addressed.
As the years go on and kids come into the picture, life only gets more complicated. The apartment rent is replaced with a mortgage. You eventually face a tragedy and you walk through a season of suffering together. And as the wedding becomes more distant in that rearview mirror, it’s easy to lose sight of the vow you made to each other. It becomes natural to let the relationship switch into autopilot. Before you know it, the person on the other side of the bed isn’t a spouse, he or she is just a roommate.
A Dangerous Lie
If you’re a follower of Christ, you’ve likely learned that your marriage is a picture of God’s love for the world. Your marriage is a living, breathing representation of the gospel to everyone watching you. It’s a potent and heavy calling. It’s a beautiful gift. But it’s often accompanied by a dangerous and subversive lie – that marriage is chiefly about our happiness.
So, if marriage is supposed to drive people to Christ and we believe the chief goal is for us to be happy, then when we feel unhappy, we believe we must be failing or sinning. Suddenly, we feel defeated and dejected within our relationships. Eventually, if those feelings last long enough, and if the foundations of the marriage aren’t strong enough, then we can be tempted to end it altogether.
It’s not that God doesn’t desire joy and fulfillment for us in marriage. But as Gary Thomas brilliantly explains in his book, Sacred Marriage, God has chiefly designed marriage to produce holiness in us, not simply happiness.
In other words, as we faithfully love one another and patiently persevere through both the joyful and painful moments together, God is producing holiness within us. In fact, those difficult moments that we often view as marital failure can do more to produce that holiness than the joyful ones.
When I guide couples through the wedding ceremony, I have them recite the following vow:
“I, _______, take you, _______, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; I pledge myself to you.”
I don’t ask couples to take this vow because marriage is always going to be fun and happy. I ask them to do it precisely because it won’t. No one has to commit to sticking it out during the good times. That’s the easy part. The vows are there precisely for the moments, trespasses, hurts, and betrayals that would doom any other relationship.
“Better” in marriage is always better than you ever thought it could be. But “worse” is always worse than you thought it could be too.
That’s why couples commit before God, family, friends, and the Church body that they will never give up on each other. We take these vows because the day will come when they’ll be tested. There will be moments when, by God’s strength, they might be the only thing keeping you together.
When God’s Love Shines Best
If you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, it may be tempting to think that your relationship is failing to accomplish what God designed for it to do. It’s easy to believe that, in your imperfect love toward one another, God is not pleased with your marriage.
But it’s in the moments of pain and heartbreak when God’s love shines through the most. In a world of conditional love and transactional relationships, there’s nothing more counter-cultural than a God-ordained marriage that never gives up in the face disagreement, conflict, pain, heartbreak, or even betrayal. In those moments when you courageously choose to keep going in the face of difficulties, you’re doing exactly what God designed your marriage to do. You’re demonstrating God’s unfailing, never-giving-up love to the watching world.
Hope For the Hard Times
The commitment to stick it out and not give up is what sets a marriage apart from any other relationship. So, if you and your spouse find yourselves at an impasse – if it feels like there’s no way forward – if you’re dealing with one frustration or betrayal after another – don’t believe the lie that your marriage is failing. Don’t let guilt, shame, or dejection take hold.
As you keep moving forward and sacrificially love one another through the difficulty, you’re fulfilling God’s design in marriage. Jesus is shining through your imperfect love more than you could possibly imagine.