Years ago I attended a wedding in which the couple wrote their own vows. They said something like this: “I love you, and I want to be with you.” The moment I heard it, I realized what all historic Christian marriage vows had in common, regardless of their theological and denominational differences.
The people I was listening to were expressing their current love for each other, and that was fine and moving. But that is not what marriage vows are. That is not how a covenant works. Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love. A wedding should not be primarily a celebration of how loving you feel now—that can safely be assumed. Rather, in a wedding you stand up before God, your family and all the main institutions of society, and you promise to be loving, faithful and true to the other person in the future, regardless of undulating internal feelings or external circumstances.
How can romantic love be reconciled with marriage as unconditional commitment? Isn’t romantic love something that must be completely free and uncoerced? And isn’t it inevitable that intense desire for someone else simply can’t be sustained, and therefore it is inevitable that we will need to seek another person who can reawaken the joy of love in us? Isn’t it true that fully monogamous, lifelong marriage is the enemy of romantic affection?
No, that is not true. In fact, unconditional covenantal commitment helps romantic love fulfill itself.
When, over the years, someone has seen you at your worst and knows you with all your strengths and flaws, yet commits him- or herself to you wholly, it is a consummate experience. To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
Discovering a deeper passion
The kind of love life I am talking about is not devoid of passion, but it’s not the same kind of passion that is there during the days of naiveté. When Kathy first held my hand, it was an almost electric thrill. Thirty-seven years later, you don’t get the same buzz out of holding your wife’s hand that you did the first time. But as I look back on that initial sensation, I realize that it came not so much from the magnitude of my love for her but from the flattery of her choice of me. In the beginning it goes to your head, and there is some love in that, but there are a lot of other things, too.
There is no comparison between that and what it means to hold Kathy’s hand now, after all we’ve been through. We know each other thoroughly now; we have shared innumerable burdens; we have repented, forgiven and been reconciled to each other over and over. There is certainly passion. But the passion we share now differs from the thrill we had then like a noisy but shallow brook differs from a quieter but much deeper river. Passion may lead you to make a wedding promise, but then that promise over the years makes the passion richer and deeper.
Longitudinal studies reveal that two-thirds of unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if people stay married and do not get divorced. Two-thirds! What can keep marriages together during the rough patches? The vows. A public oath, made to the world, keeps you “tied to the mast” until your mind clears and you begin to understand things better. It keeps you in the relationship when your feelings flag, and flag they will.
In any relationship, there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love seem to dry up. And when that happens, you must remember that the essence of marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do acts of love, despite your lack of feeling. You may not feel tender, sympathetic and eager to please, but in your actions you must be tender, understanding, forgiving and helpful. And, if you do that, as time goes on you will not only get through the dry spells, but they will become less frequent and deep, and you will become more constant in your feelings. This is what can happen if you decide to love.
Finding the freedom to love
The only way for you to be truly free is to link your feeling to an obligation. Only if you commit yourself to loving in action, day in and day out, even when feelings and circumstances are in flux, can you truly be a free individual and not a pawn of outside forces. Also, only if you maintain your love for someone when it is not thrilling can you be said to actually love a person. The “aesthete” [Kierkegaard defines the aesthete as one who doesn’t really ask whether something is good or bad but only whether it is interesting. Everything is judged as to whether it is fascinating, thrilling, exciting and entertaining.] does not really love the person; he or she loves the feelings, thrills, ego rush and experiences that the other person brings. The proof of that is that when those things are gone, the aesthete has no abiding care or concern for the other.
It is the covenantal commitment that enables married people to become people who love each other. Only with time do we really learn who the other person is and come to love the person for him- or herself and not just for the feelings and experiences they give us. Only with time do we learn the particular needs of our spouse and how to meet them. Eventually all this leads to wells of memory and depths of feeling and enjoyment of the other person that frames and enhances the still crucial episodes of romantic, sexual passion in your married life.
If you don’t see your mate’s deep flaws and weaknesses and dependencies, you're not even in the game. But if you don't get excited about the person your spouse has already grown into and will become, you aren't tapping into the power of marriage as spiritual friendship. The goal is to see something absolutely ravishing that God is making of the beloved. You see even now flashes of glory. You want to help your spouse become the person God wants him or her to be.
When two Christians who fully understand this stand before the minister all decked out in their wedding finery, they realize they're not just playing dress-up. What they’re saying is that someday they are going to be standing not before the minister but before the Lord. And they will turn to see each other without spot and blemish. And they hope to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Over the years you have lifted one another up to me. You sacrificed for one another. You held one another up with prayer and with thanksgiving. You confronted each other. You rebuked each other. You hugged and you loved each other and continually pushed each other toward Me. And now look at you. You’re radiant.”
Romance, sex, laughter and plain fun are the byproducts of this process of sanctification, refinement, glorification. Those things are important, but they can’t keep the marriage going through the years and years of ordinary life. What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness. You’re committed to his or her beauty. You’re committed to his greatness and perfection. You’re committed to her honesty and passion for the things of God. That’s your job as a spouse. Any lesser goal than that, any smaller purpose, and you’re just playing at being married.Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and the author of several best-selling books including, The Reason for God and The Meaning of Marriage.