My oldest daughter’s marriage was only days away.
I’ve devoted much of my adult life to researching, writing, and speaking on how to build strong marriages and families. But as I prepared to give my daughter away, the subject was really close to my heart. Was there something I could say or do that would help Ashley and Michael begin a marriage that would go the distance?
I began thinking of the biblical concept of covenants. Our God is a covenant maker and keeper. God chose the covenant as His way of relating to people. The covenant is the most sacred of all pledges and promises.
The first marriage covenant was achieved when God united Adam and Eve in the first wedding. Later Jesus expressed the importance of the marriage covenant when He said, “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?’” Then Jesus added, “Consequently they are no more two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:4–6).
The covenant Jesus described was a solemn oath made by the husband and wife to each other and also to God. In contemporary marriage ceremonies, words and symbols hint at covenant through the stating of vows and the exchanging of rings. The problem, however, is that many modern couples consider their vows more of a contract than a covenant.
A contract has an end date. A covenant is permanent.
A contract usually specifies a part of a person’s property or services. A covenant involves a person’s total being, which in marriage means a commitment that extends beyond performance, health issues, and financial prosperity to a promise of lifelong fidelity.
Many of you made such a covenant when you married. You pledged to love each other “in sickness and in health” … “in poverty and in wealth” … “till death do us part … so help me God.” You spoke the right words before your friends and family and before God, but you may not have really understood the importance of what you were saying.
Signing a covenant
With Ashley’s wedding coming up, I wondered how we could incorporate the concept of covenant in the ceremony. Then I had an inspiration. We took Ashley and Michael’s wedding vows to a calligrapher who inscribed them on a sheet of pure cotton paper.
During their wedding ceremony, after stating their vows verbally, the couple turned and signed their marriage covenant. There was space at the bottom of the covenant for others to sign, and the pastor asked if anyone in the audience wanted to witness the marriage covenant. By doing so people would pledge to pray for Michael and Ashley and promise to hold them accountable for keeping their covenant. A line formed quickly.
In the life of our family at least, that event marked the return of the marriage covenant, a tradition whose source goes to the beginning of the history of mankind. By making the marriage covenant a part of a wedding ceremony, we highlight the fact that God has brought this couple together, and they consider these vows to be permanent.
Living out the marriage covenant
Most of us were married in a ceremony that did not emphasize the marriage covenant. But it is still possible to make a covenantal commitment a reality in your marriage.
First, pray together every day as a couple. When Barbara and I were first married, I asked a man I highly respected for his best counsel on marriage. He told me that Barbara and I should pray together every day. My friend Carl said, “I’ve prayed every day with my Sara Jo for more than 25 years. Nothing has built our marriage more than our prayer time together.”
We took his advice. Barbara and I usually pray together before going to sleep, but there have been some nights over the years when neither one of us felt like praying. The Lord has gently reminded me, You need to pray with her. And even though on occasion I’ve not even wanted to talk to her, I have finally rolled over and said, “Let’s pray.” Our obedience to this spiritual discipline has reminded us of who really is the Source of strength in our marriage and has kept us connected and communicating.
Second, never use the word, “divorce.” No matter how hopeless the situation seems or how lousy you feel, I urge you not to say the “D-word”—divorce—in your home.
In Proverbs 18:21 we read, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Words have power. If you first think about divorce and then talk about it, before long what was once unthinkable becomes an option.
If you or your spouse in times of anger has threatened divorce, there is a wonderful restorative cure called grace. Forgive each other for talking about ending your marriage.
Third, create and sign a marriage covenant. Whether you are newlyweds or have been married awhile, why not consider having a ceremony in which you renew your vows and then sign a covenant? You could do this with other couples at your church or in your home with the witnesses being family members or close friends. It would make a memorable observance during a family gathering—at Christmas, or Valentine’s Day, or your wedding anniversary. And after the covenant signing, hang the document in a prominent spot.
Fourth, do what you promised. It won’t ultimately make any difference if you sign a piece of paper but later break your covenant. Don’t let temptations and heartaches keep you from loving each other unconditionally, from caring for each other “in sickness and in health,” or from finishing strong in your marriage and family. I love the definition of commitment evoked by Winston Churchill, who said, “The nose of a bulldog is slanted backwards, so that he can continue to breathe without letting go.” Don’t let go! Fulfill your vows.
Finally, urge others to keep their covenant. In the Christian community we need to band together to fight divorce. We serve a God who has gone on record on this topic: “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16). We need to combat divorce in the most positive way—by honoring our covenants and encouraging others to do the same. Together we can become known in our culture as the keepers and protectors of the marriage covenant.
Ashley and Michael’s covenant now hangs in their home, a constant reminder of their promise of fidelity to each other and of the promise of God to guard and sustain their marriage. It also reminds the rest of us to pray for them and hold them accountable to their vows.
Renewed devotion to the marriage covenant could become a significant factor in helping countless couples stick to their vows and achieve the satisfaction and joy of a lasting marriage. Will you be a part of this movement?
Adapted from Starting Your Marriage Right, copyright © 2000 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Thomas Nelson Publishers. Used with permission.
1. Purchase Starting Your Marriage Right, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.
2. Listen as Dennis Rainey reflects on four decades of marriage to his wife, Barbara. And read the article “40 Lessons From 40 Years of Marriage.”