Just think about the meaning of the words in our wedding vows—“for better or for worse . . . in plenty and in want . . . in joy and in sorrow . . .in sickness and in health . . . as long as we both shall live.” What a commitment we make in that moment of time, with “God and these witnesses” listening! Are these just empty words of tradition, or do they represent a genuine promise of commitment? The longevity and quality of your marriage depends upon it!
Commitment is a mindset . . . an attitude . . . a way of thinking that will enable you and your spouse to navigate through the still waters and the storms of a marriage relationship. Charles Swindoll (Strike the Original Match) compares working on marriage to remodeling a house:
It takes longer than you planned
It costs more than you figured
It is messier than you anticipated
It requires greater determination than you expected
Sometimes the only thing that keeps us going is hope!
Commitment is especially important when we face the inevitable conflicts that come in any marriage (or for that matter any relationship). While many today write into their divorce documents, “Irreconcilable differences,” God calls us to a higher kind of LOVE to resolve these differences. Our English word “love,” in fact, is incapable of capturing the most important aspects of this love of commitment. Think about it. In a casual conversation I could say . . . I love playing golf . . . I love my grandkids . . . I love my dog . . . I love reading history . . . I love my wife (not in any order of priority!). And, as diverse as these are, you still know what I mean by all of them. The Greeks (original language of the New Testament) had four primary words for love, each of them emphasizing different aspects of this complex idea. Storge, though not a word found in the New Testament, was a general love of natural affection. Eros represented a love of physical attraction, of passion, a self-centered love seeking pleasure and satisfaction. Phileo was the love of friendship and companionship. All of these words were used in Greek & Roman literature to depict various aspects of love, and they had one thing in common—if circumstances changed love might change and fade away.
Agape represented the love of choice and commitment. It is a word rarely used outside of Scripture, but in the Bible over 320 times! This love is not dependent on the qualities of the one loved, or even on circumstances. It seems to be a love that has its origins in God—“We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) This is the love our hearts crave. Even though we did not deserve it, God loved and will always love us in this way (Romans 5:5-8). This is the love that is commanded in our relationships--“A new command I give you: Love one another; as I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34; 14:17). This is the love that is described in 1 Cor 13:4-7: “Love (agape) is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” When I officiate in a wedding ceremony, I always encourage the couple to include these words as a reminder of the fact that love is not just something we feel, but also something we do! Agape in marriage is the commitment a man and woman make to one another. This becomes especially important when the storms of life come . . . and they will!
What are some of the barriers in relationships that work against building this kind of commitment? Here are just a few factors that may be present in any marriage that undermine unconditional commitment:
- Self-centeredness and stubbornness. Put simply, we are sinners, and central to our sinfulness is the choice of self-gratification. Several years ago a young man shared his personal story with an adult Sunday School group I was teaching. He had asked my permission to “bare his soul” before his friends. He shared that he had been having an affair for two years, and had now repented before the Lord and was seeking the forgiveness of his wife. You could have heard a pin drop in the room as we were all asked to become an “accountability group” for this young man. Their marriage was restored, and his story revealed that his own selfishness, self-gratification, and stubbornness had been at the root of the problem. Only commitment to his wife brought them back to a healthy marriage.
- Spiritual and Emotional “baggage” from the past. Past experiences, especially unresolved sins or habit patterns, will haunt any marriage relationship and prevent intimacy and commitment. Bitterness toward God or others . . . inability to fully know forgiveness for a past sin . . . all of these emotional/spiritual handicaps will seriously limit the depth of commitment we can make. We must deal with these before God, and sometimes the help of a skilled Christian counselor can be just the thing we need.
- Lack of clarity about the true meaning of marriage. This is another kind of “baggage.” If you have never seen an example of a healthy marriage, either in family or friendship circles, you will have a difficult time finding that for yourself.
- Busy-ness. Most couples do not allow enough meaningful time spent together to nurture their commitment.
- Poor communication skills. I want to elaborate more on this point in my next blog, but commitment includes expression to your spouse. How I do that (or fail to do so) is crucial in a healthy marriage.
Though I am not a professional counselor, as a pastor and professor I have sometimes met with couples who are struggling in their marriage relationship. When counseling with them, there is one factor that becomes evident very quickly, and this factor will almost always determine the destiny of their marriage. If a couple is committed to one another—that somehow we can make this work—there is a good chance the marriage will survive because agape never fails! If, however, one or both accept divorce as a possible choice to be made, the outcome is often exactly that. God is a redemptive God, and capable of bringing healing to any crisis. But his agape works most effectively in the hearts of those who trust him and are willing to commit themselves to one another.