Ignorance of the Meaning
Several years ago, someone told me the story of a young couple in another city. The wife, in her early 30’s, was informed that she had breast cancer. The evening before her mastectomy her husband came by her hospital room. He did not touch her. He simply said, “I cannot live with a breastless woman. I will be filing for a divorce.” When I was told this tragic story, I questioned it. My informant assured me that it was a true story.
What a contrast to my friends Jim and Jane (not their real names) who are walking through a very difficult time with Jane suffering from a malignant brain tumor. Recently Jim sent this message via email: Driving between home and the Cancer Center a few days ago, Jane once more echoed her “thanks” for my taking care of her. Each time she says it so little-girl-like, sweetly and earnestly. I decided to respond differently from my usual come-back, “Honey, it’s a privilege!” (and that IS how I feel). This time I turned and glanced at my wife, almost huddled, rather than sitting, in our Honda’s passenger seat. “Babe, I meant it when I took those vows . . . ‘in sickness and in health.’” Then I grinned and added, ‘And I’m glad you made your vow ‘for richer or poorer!’ And we both laughed…..
On another occasion Jim shared, I was dumbfounded at first by a comment the other evening, hours after a long day at the Cancer Center. Jane said, “The nurse today said I’ve got a good one.” Good what? I wondered.
She explained without my asking for an explanation. “The nurses like you because you are so good to me. One of the workers told me that it’s not unusual for the spouse of a cancer patient to bail on the marriage. ‘I didn’t sign-up for this!’ they say.” Wow! I was amazed!
Jim and Jane had weathered storms before. They lost a child to drowning. They suffered the pangs of rejection, gossip, harsh criticism and the other wounds that come with being Christians in ministry. I am sure they would say what others in ministry have often said, “It is hard, but we are blessed.” Jim and Jane have walked this pathway for 43 years.
Like other happily married couples, they will testify that a great marriage is not wedded bliss, but the confluence of the lives of two sinners within God’s greatest tool for sanctification, yet filled with both joy and happiness.
Teaching Begins at the Beginning
God created marriage as a covenant relationship before Adam and Eve sinned. In His omniscience He built into the design vows that obligate us to Him in making vows to each other. When I perform a marriage ceremony, the vows of intention are stated in this manner:
“Jim, will you covenant with God to take Jane to be your wife to live together in the holy covenant of marriage? Will you strive to honor God by loving and leading her? Will you comfort her and be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”
“Jane, will you covenant with God to take Jim to be your husband to live together in the holy covenant of marriage? Will you strive to submit to his leadership and respect him? Will you comfort him and be faithful to him, so long as you both shall live?”
The significance of these covenant vows is explained in premarital counseling and stated in the ceremony for the sake of the witnesses.
What Is the Big Deal?
Why all the fuss over the wording? After all, the ceremony is about getting the couple officially hitched. The stories above demonstrate the importance of walking the couple and the witnesses through this wording. The sacredness of the marriage is being attacked everyday in the press, in the courts, and all too often within the church.
As the gospel must be preached and taught with clarity, so must be the sacredness of marriage. Jesus said, “Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay” (Matt. 5:37). Understanding the marriage vows as a covenant relationship means, “Yes, God, I do accept your parameters of marriage and no, God, I will not defame these vows!”
These vows are then followed by those vows that define the parameters for a lifetime–for better for worse; for richer for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part.
Grace Comes through Remembering
When your turn comes to have your vows challenged by cancer or some other impairing malady and you are tempted to cut and run, remembering that your vows were made to God and before God will sustain you.
Questions for Reflection
How do you ensure that your premarital counselees have a proper understanding of the weight and meaning of the marriage vows they will take? How can you incorporate this teaching into the ceremony for the sake of the witnesses?