What is the first thing you think of when you hear the expression: “be faithful to your marriage vows”? Whenever I ask people that question, they usually say something about long-term commitment or sexual fidelity or both. The emphasis falls on the “till death do us part” aspect of the marriage pledge.
I find this revealing because, while loyalty-over-a-lifetime is certainly an important part of the commitment we make on our wedding day, it is only one part of it. Couples also pledge “to love and to cherish” one another. We promise our spouse a journey of emotional depth, not just a journey of duration. So why doesn’t this other part of the marriage vow spring instantly to mind when we think about faithfulness in marriage? Is this telling us something?
This common response could be telling us that couples are not as focused on their commitment to love one another as they ought to be. But I think there is more going on here. I believe couples do not know exactly how to focus on this part of the marriage vow. After all, there is no ambiguity about what “till death do us part” means in marriage, but “to love and to cherish” is less easily defined and measured. When it comes to loving your spouse, how do you know exactly what you’re aiming for, and how do you know if you’ve hit the target?
Several years into my own married life, I heard someone explain what “to love and to cherish” means in practical terms. It clarified for me the meaning of my marriage vow, and enabled me to pursue my love for my wife with greater focus and energy. This simple concept transformed my marriage. Perhaps it will help you as well.
Your marriage in the bullseye
Visualize a target like the ones archers shoot arrows at. This target represents God’s will for your life. Each of your relationships and activities are located in one of the concentric circles based on their level of importance to you. The higher an item’s priority, the closer it is to the centre of the target. The lower an item’s priority, the further from the centre it will be.
If you are married, the Bible says, your marriage relationship is in the target’s bullseye, because it is your highest priority – it is God’s number one assignment for you. If you have children, they are your next highest priority, so they are in the concentric circle just outside the bullseye. At varying degrees of distance are located your church activities, your work commitments, your school work, your friends, your volunteer involvements, your hobbies and all the other things that make up your life. The important thing to remember, though, is that no matter how important any of these other things may be, they don’t belong in the bullseye. Only your marriage belongs there.
So the vow you made on your wedding day, in its most simple and practical terms, means this: You told your spouse that you would keep him or her in the bullseye of your life, and that you would allow nothing to usurp their place in the center of your heart. Do not think that putting your relationship in the target’s centre is somehow selfish – that it implies denying your children your wholehearted love or neglecting other priorities in your life. It is quite the opposite. If you are a married couple, the best way you can serve your children and others is by loving one another.
Pastor John Drescher was once asked what he would do differently if his children were small again. He answered, “If I were starting my family again, I would love the mother of my children more,” and he added, “I would be more free to let my children see that I love her.” A large part of our children’s sense of well-being comes from the safety they find in their parents’ love. So by making your love for your spouse a priority, you are giving your children the greatest gift you could possibly give them.
Journey of transformation
Early in my married life I thought I understood what it meant to love my wife. I often told my wife that she was God’s highest priority in my life. But my actions were telling a different story. They showed that I really didn’t understand God’s plan for marriage. I was consumed with my work as a pastor, and Janet constantly had to live with the leftovers of my time and energy.
In my mind, putting God first meant that I was to work hard for the Kingdom. Then, after I had finished working for God, I could invest energy in my marriage. I did not understand that the best way I could live out my love for God was by loving my wife. My marriage was suffering, but I thought it was because of Janet’s lack of devotion, not my failure to keep my wedding vow. I was blind to the role I played in creating problems in our marriage.
At a crisis moment, I complained to God that he was not giving me the resources I needed to live the life in ministry to which he had called me. In the midst of my distress God graciously reached out and touched me. As I was praying, two questions impressed themselves on my mind: “Can you trust me for your married life? And can you trust me for this week’s sermon?” These questions, which identified precisely the two points of ongoing tension in my life, came as a gentle whisper within, yet I knew that Jesus himself was asking me to respond. So I said out loud, “Yes, Lord.”
Not long after this experience Janet and I learned that a Marriage Encounter weekend was being offered in Peterborough, four hours from where we lived in Ontario. We signed up, and the weekend turned out to be a wonderful experience of renewal for us as a couple. I will never forget looking into my wife’s eyes and feeling that I was looking through deep pools of water into her very soul. She looked back at me with a quality of affection and vulnerability I had not seen in years. On that weekend I felt as if God had kissed us from heaven.
We returned home. Things went well at first but, in time, my pattern of workaholism began to reassert itself and we started to experience some of the old friction again. I knew I faced a decision. I had to either believe that God desired the best for couples and was able to give us an intimate marriage, or I had to believe that I had bought into an impossible dream. I chose the path of faith, and, with God’s help, began to dismantle the attitudes that were undermining my marriage.
That moment of decision began a journey of real, if imperfect, progress. By God’s grace Janet and I have come to experience a deep contentment in marriage that we still enjoy today.
What about you? Are you protecting the priority of your married love? A seminary professor of mine once said, “Any marriage that fails, fails because there is a third party involved.” His statement startled us and caught our attention. Then he went on to explain: “By ‘third party,’ I do not mean that there is always another person involved. The ‘third party’ could be anything that a spouse latches onto that undermines his or her marriage.”
Understood in that way, the professor’s statement is completely true. For me that third party was my work. (Janet actually confided to me once that she came to think of my ministry as the “other woman” in my life.) The “third party” in someone else’s life could be any of a number of things. It could be pornography or an emotional attachment to someone other than one’s spouse. It could be one’s friends. It could be something as important as one’s children or as trivial as a hobby.
The vow you made “to love and to cherish” your spouse means that you committed to guard the priority of your marriage relationship – that you would let no wedge come between you and your spouse by allowing other priorities into the bullseye of your life.
Are you keeping your marriage vow? Is your marriage on target?
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