It’s a scene out of the old West—Wagon Train, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie — the preacher in his black jacket and turnaround collar and clutching his little black book, stands by a man and woman and intones (seems like preachers always intone. Why can’t they just talk normal) the words: “for better or for worse . . . for richer or for poorer . . . in sickness and in health . . . forsaking all others . . .as long as you both shall live. . . until death us do part.”
Those were the good old days. Times sure do change. Nowadays we say things like, “as long as we both shall LOVE.” The Lord only knows how long that will be—sometimes a matter of months, even weeks. Vows and covenants just don’t mean what they used to.
And they used to mean a lot. At least in the Bible they did.
Jesus had to tackle the marriage/divorce issue in His day. He was giving some religious leaders flack about their practice of legally divorcing their wives and marrying somebody else whenever it suited them. They were a little upset with Him. The attitude was, “Lighten up a little, Jesus. After all, Moses said it was OK.”
That didn’t matter to the teacher from Nazareth. He answered, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Whooah! Don’t hold back, Jesus. Tell them what you really think . . .
Even Jesus’ followers were a little taken aback. One of them said, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus didn’t disagree. He went on to talk about people living celibate rather than risk failing to respect God’s attitude toward the marriage covenant. After all, this was the same God that was quoted by an Old Testament prophet called Malachi (pronounce that MAL-uh-kye. If you pronounce the ‘ch’ as in ‘choo-choo train’ he sounds Italian). God told the people, ” . . the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant . . . For I hate divorce, says the Lord . . . So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” (NAS)
That’s straight up and honest. It should make us think.
To God, a covenant is a big deal, particularly when it involves our understanding of Him, and our treatment of other human beings. Marriage involves both.
Most of God’s description of Himself and His relationship with his creation (that’s us) is done in gender terms. The marriage becomes a miniature example of God and His people. God plays the role of the husband; people play the role of the blushing bride. Marriage is like a portrait of God and His creation and, as such, it is to be treated with highest honor. It is a sacred standard of commitment. God keeps His commitments to His creation. He expects us to keep our commitments to each other.
A covenant, to God’s way of thinking, is bigger than we are. Once we make one—once we give our word— the covenant, not the way we feel at the moment, becomes the thing that governs our behavior.
A friend once asked me, “How’s it goin’?” To which I answered, “Pretty good, I guess . . . under the circumstances.” His response: “What are you doing under there?”
His point, I think, was that circumstances shouldn’t be burying me and that they shouldn’t be the things that make my decisions for me.
These days our circumstances often govern our choices. If things don’t feel good we attempt to change our circumstances. If my marriage isn’t delivering what I expected, then my disappointment starts to harden my expectations into concrete. They become demands. If my demands aren’t met then I’m outta here! And if that means breaking a covenant, well . . .
Or look at it another way. We want our partner to change, and if they don’t then we just go out and change partners. Old marriage bad. New marriage good. Unfortunately we often carry baggage from one marriage right on to the next one. Old marriage bad. New marriage bad—maybe worse.
That’s one of the reasons for honoring a covenant. By committing ourselves to the covenant, as well as to our spouse, the responsibility to change our behavior to line up with the covenant we made before God becomes ours. We can’t shift that responsibility. It is ours alone. We have to change, not our partner.
There is no question that sometimes marriages, and the people in them, need a change. The problem is that in our culture, we reject the idea that people should have to change. We just assume that we need to try for better chemistry. We live in a ‘contract society’. A contract is negotiated to gain the best terms for each party. A covenant, on the other hand, is less mutual and more benevolent toward the other party. Marriage is a covenant, not a contract. It’s God’s way of adjusting and refining us.
Marriage is a bit like a rock polisher. Dull old dingy rocks are thrown into a rotating drum with some fine sand and some water and they just bump up against each other until they become polished and shiny. It’s a process that must be uncomfortable if you’re a rock. And it takes time. As another friend of mine once said: “I’ve been married for ten years. It’s been the best eight years of my life.”
There are a couple of practical things suggested here. First, commit to change within marriage. Many unhappily married people assume that if they could just make that husband or wife they married tow the line everything would be cool. Actually, the place to start is with ourselves. What changes do I need to make in order to be worth being married to? Discovering ourselves in the midst of a struggling marriage can be challenging. There are times when outside counsel* may even be called for. Still, change is a prerequisite for staying married. It’s a package deal.
Secondly, let’s take marriage seriously. It is covenant, not contract. There are no back doors. God made His position clear in the Old Testament. Jesus did the same in the New Testament. We could save a lot of headache later if we return to an understanding of marriage as covenant. To enter into marriage means that we are bound—iron clad— to our covenant. No back door. For better or for worse. Until death us do part. Jesus followers understood Him to be saying just that. That’s why they concluded, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”
That’s right. Take it slow. Marriage is for keeps. If we view it that way, we should be a lot pickier about with whom we start the journey. I believe it was Plato who said, “He who marries well is doubly blessed. He who does not, shall become a philosopher.”
* One such counseling resource is called Family to Family. (503) 231-5672.