Too often when couples speak their vows, their attitude communicates a promise to love one another for BETTER, or for worse, for RICHER or for poorer, in sickness and in HEALTH. They focus only on the good words, but marriage is also about the difficult words.
Sometimes couples agree to marry for better or worse, but not for good. They view marriage as a contract rather than as a covenant. What is the difference? A contract is what you sign for your cell phone or to lease office space. Contracts can be broken without devastating consequences. But a covenant is different than a contract. How?
A covenant is made in the presence of God. Most marriage ceremonies begin, "We are gathered together here in the sight of God." The thought is that God is present to approve and bless the marriage, which is why most weddings take place in a church, commonly referred to as "the house of God."
A covenant is a binding agreement made for life. You and your spouse spoke words of a verba solemnia, a solemn vow and entered into a covenant with God and your mate. In a covenant agreement, we don't have the option of loving and cherishing our mate only as long as he or she loves and cherishes us. There is no quid pro quo.94 Your vows did not include the words, "as long as we both feel like it" but words such as, "as long as we both shall live."
A covenant has witnesses. A marriage covenant has three levels of witnesses. God Himself, the wedding party who stands with the bride and groom because of their relationship to them, and the congregation of family and friends. These witnesses serve to testify, "These are the vows you made -- we heard you speak them," in the event that one of the parties involved encounters a temporary memory lapse.
A covenant involves the exchange of seals or signs. The bride and groom exchange signs or seals as part of their covenant in two separate ceremonies. First, in a public ceremony they give rings to one another as a sign of the vows they have made. Later, they seal their covenant vows through the joining of their bodies in a private ceremony. Sex is not only part of the covenant of marriage, sex is the divine seal.95 Each time a husband and wife celebrate their sexual oneness, they affirm their covenant with one another and with God.
What vows did you make on your wedding day? You probably didn't say: "I promise to be the perfect husband/wife." Nor did you vow: "I will always meet your every need." Or, "I will never change." The longer we are married, the more apparent it becomes that we are not perfect, that we will fail to meet the needs of our mate, and that we will change. Our wedding vows were never promises of contentment, but promises of commitment. The big idea is this: I may fall short of what I want to be for you. But I promise to love you always. No matter what we come up against in our lives, we'll face it together because I am in this until the end.
The psalmist asks, "How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?" (116:12) The answer is given, "I will fulfill my vows to the Lord" (verse 14). Marriage is a sacred covenant in which you made a vow to your mate and to God. Fulfill it. Reflect upon it. Revisit your words so that you do not forget what you promised. How can you remember your vows?
• If you have an audio or videotape of your wedding, set aside time to thoughtfully watch (or listen) to it together. Pay special attention to the vows you made.
• Spend an evening looking at your wedding pictures and sharing reflections about the vows you each made. How has your knowledge about the depth of your vow's meaning changed over the years?
•Celebrate significant anniversaries by renewing your vows to each other. You could do this privately as a couple or invite family and friends to witness your renewal of vows.
• Have a Wedding Reflection Party. Invite several couples for dinner. Ask each to bring their wedding pictures and to plan to share one vow they made at their wedding and how they are currently trying to honor that vow in their marriage. Seeing your friends in their wedding glory is fun! End the evening by praying for each other's marriages and committing to hold one another accountable to love the vows they made at their wedding.
As you reflect upon your wedding, it will likely cause you to relive strong emotions: the joy of friends and family as they surround you, the awe of a ceremony wrapped in beauty and pageantry, and the passion of the night when you made love for the first time as husband and wife.
Originally published September 7, 2004 in Crosswalk Marriage.