I wrote this short letter as I prepared to officiate my first wedding earlier this summer. As I wrote, I realized that I was writing not just for them but for numerous couples I knew and cared about who were also about to enter into marriage together. This letter is for them and for many others who want their marriage to count for eternity.
Dear Engaged Couple,
As you prepare to embark on this life-long journey together, I thought I would share a brief word of wisdom. As you know, getting married is serious business. Jesus says that marriage is the joining of two individuals by God (Mark 10:8-9). When you get married, you are entering a covenant with each other, and with God, pledging your lives to one another regardless of the circumstances that you will inevitably encounter.
While many couples choose to write their own vows, I prefer the old marriage vows because they capture something of this covenant commitment that I think is very important. We are so conditioned in Western culture to think in terms of fairy tale endings and that often encompasses our hopes for marriage as well. The vows remind us that not only does God give wonderful blessings and gifts in marriage, but that he also allows us to walk through difficulty and heartache for our own good and his glory.
However, we often find ways to push thoughts of difficulty to the side and focus instead on the fairy tale marriage we envision for ourselves. It could go something like this. You’ll get married. Enjoy a loving relationship with your spouse for a few years. Then you will have kids—smart, athletic, good-looking kids at that. These kids will excel at sports, or ballet, or piano, or in whatever ways they are uniquely gifted. You and/or your spouse will enjoy careers that allow you to pursue your passions and interests, even achieving a certain degree of success along the way. You will live in a thriving community with good friends. You will grow closer together in the process, heading out on nice vacations to mark important milestones, and drinking deeply of the goodness of life. And of course, you will be able to earn enough money to send your kids to good schools and retire comfortably. When you are old and gray, you will die peacefully in your sleep with your family gathered around. This, or a version like it, is the fairy tale American life.
There’s even a Christian version of it, one that involves many of the same ends, except we often rationalize and justify it to ourselves as being “for the kingdom.”
There is a lot I could say here critiquing this vision—whether it’s seeking first Christ’s kingdom and not your own prosperity (Matt 6:33), or about being ready for God to call you to something radically different and more difficult than you could ever plan (which inevitably happens when we follow hard after Christ—see Luke 9:23), or I could warn you about not planning out your whole life and allowing God to direct your steps (Prov 16:9). But my main point is this. There is a reason why the traditional wedding vows also emphasize the negative.
When you say “I do,” you are signing up for the valleys as well as the mountain tops. You are saying that you will walk in a covenant relationship with this person, no matter the difficulty that you encounter. In this fallen world, Paul assures us there will be great difficulty (See Romans 8:18-25). It could be a terminal illness. Financial ruin. The death of a parent. A failed employment. A move that one of you didn’t want to make. Infertility or miscarriage. Relational conflict. Children who reject Christ. The list could go on.
A friend of mine, Ned Wikle, passed away from cancer earlier this year. He was a Navy dentist and had been part of my church while we were stationed together in Japan. He and his wife, Dana, were godly and a joy to be around. They were beautiful together, and they had three just as beautiful children. A couple years ago he was diagnosed with cancer. The news was shocking. All I could do was pray as I followed Ned and Dana’s journey through this trial on social media. And then this past spring, Ned went home to be with the Lord, leaving behind his wife and three kids.
I was particularly touched by Dana’s words in a Facebook post shortly after Ned died:
The pain we will feel to never hold him again seems unbearable at this moment but the unconditional love he gave me/us for these past 8 years will last a lifetime. My sweet Ned there will never be a day that I don’t long to see your smile, hug your neck, or hear you say “babe, your doing an awesome job.” You were a beautiful leader and encourager. You sacrificed your life to turn my face and the faces of your children more toward Jesus than ever before! What a leader, what a Godly man, what a beautiful legacy you have left your children. What an amazing husband you have been to me…I will love you until the day I die…and then I will see you again!
Dana’s post reminded me that it is in the difficult times when you truly see that God’s grace is sufficient (2 Cor 12:9). It is often in those times that your love for each other grows even stronger. It is in those times that the echoes of your marriage vows will ring loud in your souls. And you will remember that God, whom you are making this covenant with, will not forsake you, no matter what (Heb 13:5).
Dana’s post also reminded me of another important reality that the apostle Paul reveals in the New Testament. And that is that marriage was designed by God to picture the sacrificial love that Christ has for his bride, the church (Eph 5:25). Christ went through the worst suffering and heartache that a man could possibly endure for his glorious bride, laying his life down for her. And so we must remember that at the most fundamental level, marriage is not about the fairy tale, but the love of Christ for us.
So as a final word of advice and encouragement as you prepare to make this covenant together, also make a covenant together with God that you will seek to know him more no matter the cost. That your marriage would display the love of Christ for his bride regardless of the circumstances. That your love for each other and for the Lord would grow strong in all situations. When you do that, no matter if it’s better or worse, or richer or poorer, or sickness or health, it will be for your good and his glory.
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