What were you really saying when you vowed to love "until death do us part?" Dennis Rainey talks with author and pastor Alistair Begg about the solemnity of the marriage vows.
What were you really saying when you vowed to love "until death do us part?" Dennis Rainey talks with author and pastor Alistair Begg about the solemnity of the marriage vows.
Bob: So what happens in a marriage if the needle on your love meter is not moving very much? That's the time you need to walk over to the commitment meter and make sure it is at 100 percent. Here's Pastor Alistair Begg.
Alistair: If people go into marriage in that way, with all these expectations that have to do with flowers and roses and Hallmark® clichés, then as soon as the thing runs up against something difficult—without vows, without commitments, with a love that is now simply the victim of their emotions, rather than a servant of their wills—then they've got nowhere to turn.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 22nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We have a little twist on the old saying today. When the going gets tough in marriage, the tough stay put.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Dennis?
Dennis: Bob, recently, I read “Dear Abby”. Now, I have to tell you, I don't have my quiet time—
Bob: You don't get up every morning and see what Abby’s advice is?
Dennis: I don't, but I happened to read “Dear Abby” the other day. It was a letter from a pastor in Eustis, Florida. Now I don’t have any idea where Eustis, Florida, is.
Bob: No, I don’t either.
Dennis: E-U-S-T-I-S. But I just want to read what this pastor said in terms of a woman who was in a loveless marriage and what she ought to do.
"Dear Abby, Sick at Heart"—that's who had written Abby before, evidently—wrote that, “She is trapped in a loveless marriage because, after being divorced, she made a religious commitment that she would never leave her second husband. She said that the love is long gone and that her doctor has not been able to successfully medicate her severe depression. You"—Abby, I guess—“advised her to talk with her spiritual advisor.”
“Well," he writes, "I am a spiritual advisor, and I would like to direct my comments to that woman." What follows are this spiritual advisor's, this pastor's advice, to that woman. "I strongly feel, that in a marriage made by God, two people become one. From your description of your marriage, it is clear that it was never sanctioned by God. Therefore, you are released from any pledge that you have made."
Bob: He doesn't explain why it was not sanctioned by God?
Dennis: He doesn't, but he goes on to say this, "The Bible tells us that God is present everywhere. This includes you. His spirit is within you. God is love and wants love to fill our lives. God does not want anyone to live in a situation such as you have described. There is no spiritual law that demands you stay in your loveless marriage."
He goes on to conclude his statements, “Learn to forgive yourself for the mistake, as Jesus forgave the woman at the well who had five husbands and the one she was living with was not her husband. Listen to the Holy Spirit within you, and you will be free to go your way."
Bob: And now, with an opposing opinion, here is Dennis Rainey.
Dennis: Well, actually, we have a pastor who I happen to believe thinks differently from the pastor from Eustis, Florida, as well. His name is Alistair Begg, and I welcome him to the broadcast. Alistair?
Alistair: Thanks, Dennis. It's a privilege to be here.
Dennis: You're a pastor of a church, a large church, near Cleveland, Ohio. What do you think of Reverend—well, how can I use the word "reverend”? Anyway, he is a pastor. What do you think of his advice to this woman?
Alistair: Well, I think it's tragic. What makes it most tragic, I think, is the fact that it's fairly representative of a mentality that takes the Bible and turns it on its head. The wonderfully liberating thing about biblical principles is that they establish the curbs for us in which to ride and run.
Then, when we come to those difficult points on the journey, then we apply principle and we stay within the framework that God has given us. The idea that, “Every time you don't like it or every time it doesn't work, you simply redirect the road, or you reconstruct the curbs, or whatever else it is”—eventually, people just fall in upon themselves.
Bob: But you've talked, as a pastor, to women or men in a prolonged marriage that they would describe as a loveless marriage. Do you tell them, “Just keep a stiff upper lip and endure it, and God will bless you”?
Alistair: Well, no, I don’t. I hope I don't just tell them that because that sounds like a chronicle of despair, really—you know, “Go away and have a nice”—“Go and be warm and be fed.” I think that what I would want to say is, “I'd love to talk with you and with your husband because, clearly, there is a breakdown in communication. There are things here that shouldn't be taking place; but, also, I believe in a God who makes all things new—a God who restores the years that the locusts have eaten.”
What I like to say to couples is, “I'm not asking you to return to the mess that you're describing. I'm asking you to turn away from the mess that you're describing and to discover, in God, and in His Word, and by His Spirit, the opportunity to make a brand-new start,”—the kind of starts that we've been enjoying in some of our travels around the country together.
Bob: We have to give Abby some credit for at least acknowledging that the answer to this issue is ultimately a spiritual answer.
Bob: She pointed the reader in the right direction, saying, “You ought to talk to a spiritual advisor.”
Dennis: Well, that's after the headlines read, "Woman's Loveless Marriage Isn't a Part of God's Plan." Well, that's half-true. A loveless marriage isn't what God wants for any married couple; but He, like Alistair has said, wants couples to learn how to reconcile, how to replace what was false love or feelings with real love, real commitment, that goes the distance. That really is the theme of your book that you've written, Lasting Love.
Now, you grew up in Scotland. You hold to a pretty conservative view of the vows today.
Alistair: Sure I do.
Dennis: In fact, you believe that the vows that have endured centuries of bad marriages, bad preaching, and bad marriage ceremonies—you believe that those vows really—and the words of those vows—really have important meaning for us today.
Alistair: Well, yes. I mean, part of it is probably cultural prejudice on my part, that I should confess and move away from in terms of always wanting to believe that material from the Oxford English Dictionary is better than Webster's. (Laughter)
The fact is that the phraseology of it has lasted so well for so long that—to supplant it, to replace it, unless it's going to be improved—is probably not a wise thing to do because the vows—you know, the vows say what need to be said in comparison to—I mean, I've heard some unbelievable vows.
Dennis: Yes, you spoke at one of our I Still Do® events, and you were talking about a couple who came into your office. They wanted to kind of mix it up and freshen it up a bit.
Alistair: Oh, yes. It was funny; it was embarrassing; and it was, ultimately, sad. The lady got very offended at me when I suggested that these weren't actually vows that she had contrived, but they were sort of sentimental notions. They were little feelings—
Dennis: What were they wanting to promise each other?
Alistair: Well, they weren't so much promising anything—that was the point. They wanted to have a sort of love fest at the front of the church where they would say—you know, like, “Jonathan, the first ever I saw your face”—you know—
Dennis: —like Hallmark cards?
Alistair: Yes. Basically, they had taken a succession of Hallmark cards, and strung them all together, and said, "These will do instead of vows,"—which, in actual fact, you see, almost plays into the piece with which you began, Dennis. Inasmuch as if people go into marriage in that way, with all these expectations that have to do with flowers, and roses, and Hallmark clichés, then as soon as the thing runs up against something difficult—without vows, without commitments—with a love that is now simply the victim of their emotions rather than a servant of their wills—then they've got nowhere to turn.
Bob: The traditional vows aren't from the pages of Holy Writ.
Alistair: No, they're not.
Bob: Did they come—do you know their origin? Did they come out of the Book of Common Prayer?
Alistair: Yes, well, the ones that I use are just sort of a jazzed-up version of the 17th century Book of Common Prayer from the Anglican Church.
Bob: So, pastors sat down and said, "We understand a little bit about God's intention for marriage. We're going to solemnize a covenant ceremony with this exchange of vows."
Alistair: That's right. That's why the vows, then, always need to be said against the unfolding pattern of marriage, as it's given to us in the Bible. To the extent that they concur with that, then they can stay. If they deviate from that, then they probably should be dispensed with.
Dennis: You deal with every phrase that is found in the vows that we state to one another, when we get married, in your book, Lasting Love. Let's take the first one. It's a question, "Will you have this person to be your lawful, wedded wife (or husband)?” Now, you believe that question is a very important question.
Alistair: I think it is, especially in the climate of today. If you listen to rap language and find how they use the verb "to have,"—having someone. “I want to have you.” You know, it's not framed within the context of propriety. I don't want to hear somebody singing that to either of my two girls—let's put it that way. The fact is that that is all wrapped up in that question, “Will you have this woman?” because we're not talking about will you—
Dennis: —possess her. It's more of a call to responsibility.
Alistair: Yes. “Do you take her to yourself? Does she take herself to you?” It's a wonderful question because it allows you to unfold from it all of the elements—physical, emotional, mental, psychological, spiritual—that are wrapped up in that question.
Because somebody would say, “What do you mean have this woman? What does it mean to have this woman?” Well, it doesn't just mean a physical thing. It involves the totality of our humanity—“the bone of my bone, the flesh of my flesh”—this intermingling at a deep psychosomatic level; you know?
Bob: You're talking about oneness in marriage—
Bob: You're talking about becoming one with another person. That's what having is implying; isn't it?
Alistair: That's exactly right. That's what makes it such a good question, I think.
Bob: Well—and it's interesting, too—because the next phrase says, "Will you live together after God's ordinances in the holy estate of marriage?" It's really pointing you in the direction for how to make the marriage work; isn't it?
Alistair: Of course, it is. It is saying, “You're not out there, swinging in the breeze, hoping for the best, trying to clutch something out of the air; but God has a blueprint here. Since He's the Creator, since He invented the whole process, it seems to make perfect sense, actually, to pay attention to what He has.”
You know, you get any kind of mechanism—somebody just gave me a new cellular phone the other day. I spent a long, long time, in this tiny little book, trying to make sense of it—and a very poor attempt at it, as well—but I was, at least, in the right place. I just needed somebody to help me apply the material.
I think, in that sense—this is one of the wonderful things that we are able to do by means of radio, within the context of local churches in the building of friendships, and so on—is to be able to help people who go to the instructions—don't really know how to find their way around them—and we're able to come alongside them and say, "Let me show you here. Let me help you unfold this."
Dennis: The problem in many marriages, as we've said many times here on FamilyLife Today, is you have two people reading two different instruction books. They're not in the same instruction book.
Bob: And neither one of them is the Bible.
Bob: One of them is reading Dr. Joyce, and the other one is reading Dr. Laura. They're disagreeing with each other.
Dennis: And neither one points them back to the God who was the One who created marriage, who is the One who holds us accountable to keep our covenant, our vows, and who is a God to be feared. As I look at these words you just said, God's ordinance in the holy estate. It's not just in the estate of marriage—it is in the set-apart state of marriage—that has been created by a God to whom we are accountable and to whom we will stand responsible for how we fulfill those vows.
Alistair: I think that’s so helpful. You just mentioned the fear of God. I spoke with somebody the other day, a man who is now on his fourth marriage. His three previous marriages had all taken place before ever he heard about Christ or the Gospel in the world of rock and roll and that whole industry.
I said to him, "Well, how in the wide world could you create any sense of confidence in proposing to the lady who is now your wife, given the backdrop from which you've come?"
It was of interest to me because he said, "I never, ever entered a marriage before with any notion of the fear of the Lord." He wasn't talking about a servile fear, as the Reformers would think of it, but of a filial fear—that sense of not wanting to cause offense to a loving Father. He said that that, now, has been the key to making all the difference to the way in which he's living with this lady—and has done, now, for a good number of years.
Bob: I've got two questions for both of you. The first is, there are plenty of people, who I know, who are pagans. They don't have any fear of the Lord, but it looks like they've got a pretty happy marriage, and it's gone the distance.
Some people scratch their heads and say, "I hear all you Christians with all this uptight language, but it sure doesn't seem like the Christians are doing any better job than the pagans are. In fact, I know some pagans do a better job than the Christians are." Where does that come from? How is it that two pagans, with no fear of the Lord, can have a satisfactory marriage?
Alistair: Well, we could spend a long time discussing that; but part of the answer is surely in the fact that marriage is a creation ordinance. It was given to man, as man, within the framework of the very origin of society. It predates, if you like, if we can say so, Christianity. God's ideal and God's principles work, if applied, even from an external perspective.
The issue of honesty, the issue of sensitivity, the concerns of communication, of saying, “Please,” of saying, “Thank you,” of coming home when you say you come home, of building into one another's lives—these are not the unique precinct of Christianity. These are gifts of the common grace of God.
Somebody, who is professing to follow Jesus, who is discourteous to his wife, who is unfaithful to his promises, is obviously going to make a royal hash of his marriage, irrespective of what he has to say. Whereas, somebody else, who as yet has never understood the immensity of what is there in the Gospel, may actually be a fine, upstanding citizen and a good husband.
Dennis: They can experience the benefits because they are obeying some very fundamental laws. I think another reason why a pair of non-Christians may look like they have a better marriage than those who are Christians, or attend church, is because they may be more honest and more authentic with one another.
I find some Christians are terribly dishonest in their own marriage relationship. They don't share what's really going on in their lives with one another. Again, a pair of non-Christians, who are attempting oneness, even though they may not be spiritually one, may experience more the benefits of marriage than a pair of Christians who never get around to truly dealing with their issues and getting things on the table.
Bob: The pagans may be drawing closer emotionally, soul-to-soul, than two Christians who find themselves isolated both spiritually and emotionally; right?
Dennis: I think some move to the physical area of their relationship to solve their problems. They have a great sex life, and that's where they channel their energies and their focus. Meanwhile, they've completely ignored a segment of life, the very core of life that God created, for us to be spiritually alive and to walk with Him.
Bob: Well, here's my second question, “What about those people—and you've talked to them—who say, "You know, we established this marriage before either of us was a Christian. We didn't understand the covenant. We were verbalizing. Maybe we didn't even make a covenant. It was a justice of the peace. We said a few words; I don't even remember what they were. So am I under any obligation to try to fulfill this or wouldn't I be better off trying to find a godly person and marry them?"
Alistair: You are under an obligation to fulfill these things. Whether you understand it's a 30-mile-an-hour limit or not, you are under an obligation to drive at 30 miles an hour. As a creature of the Creator God, you are beholden to God and to His commands and to His laws. His laws are made very clear, and they are meant to be obeyed by His creatures. As a creature, you have a responsibility to this.
The wonderful thing, of course, about the Gospel is that, unlike ethics, which is a call to become what you're not. The story of the Gospel is, “Become what you are. Become what you are, now in Christ.” The power of Christ, within a heart, is to conform that individual to the Lord Jesus and to produce, within that individual, the fruit of the Spirit—love, and joy, and peace, and kindness, and so on.
When a man begins to grow in Christ, then there ought to be an overspill into what that means for him as a father, as an employer, as an employee, as a husband. That's where the overspill comes.
Dennis: Alistair, what would you say to a man, right now, a woman, right now, who is listening, who is saying, “You know, you're describing me. I've gone to church. I've attended the church services;" (maybe on a daily basis), "and yet, I don't think I know God the way you men are talking about knowing God, in a personal way. How can I come into a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ?"
Alistair: Well, I love those questions. They happen every so often. It's a privilege to even think about it. One of the things that I would say is the very reason that you even have that sense, within your heart, is because God is a seeking God. By your very nature, you don't have an inclination to God. You have an inclination to run away from God.
I want to tell you, today, that, as a result of all kinds of things—friendships, reading, promptings—whatever they may be—you, perhaps, couldn't even put them all together in a collage. You have this wonderful picture of, you know, in the old Gospel hymn, you know, "Jesus is tenderly calling you home. He's calling today"—this wonderful, endearing picture of the love of God, reaching into a life. I want to assure them of that—that God's kindness leads to an about-turn, as Paul puts it.
Dennis: He does call us out of our sin, then, doesn't He?
Alistair: He does. The wonderful thing is that these are the people that He calls. In fact, He said that the religious squad—that is stalking in their own self-righteousness—He doesn't call. He calls the person who recognizes, "I need help." I would say, “Just simply turn to Him, in your heart, or as you drive in the car. There's no special formulate prayer. God is not interested in our syntax, but He hears our cries.
Many a person has simply cried out, "O God, I believe that when You came, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and died upon that cross, You were dying there for me. I want to thank You for that. I don't understand the immensity of that. I'm not sure I understand all of the implications of it, but I do want for You to come and take control of my life, and transform me, and make me the kind of person that You want me to be because I've tried 50 times myself; and I can't make a go of it."
Bob: You talk about someone understanding all of the implications of the Gospel. There is a book that we make available to folks, here, if that’s where they are. If they’re in a point in their life—where they’ve begun to realize that they need help, they need their sins forgiven, they need their life to be transformed, and they can’t do it themselves—the book we send them is called Pursuing God.
It’s by Jim Elliff. If that fits you today, we’d like to invite you to call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY to request a copy of that book. Again, it’s called Pursuing God by Jim Elliff. All you have to do is call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request a copy, or go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We would love to get a copy of that book in your hands, and we’ll send it to you free and with no obligation.
Again our website: FamilyLifeToday.com. Our toll-free number is 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY” Ask about the book, Pursuing God, when you get in touch with us.
And ask about Alistair’s book, Lasting Love. We have that in our FamilyLifeToday Resource Center, as well. It’s about, not just how you gut it out in marriage, but about how your marriage can be lived according to God’s design and how commitment can actually bring passion and life into a marriage relationship. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about Alistair’s book, Lasting Love; or call us toll-free at 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. We’ll let you know how we can get a copy of the book sent to you.
I know that many of our listeners also listen to Truth for Life®, which is Alistair’s radio program. I have the privilege of being able to be a part of that program, as well. I am grateful for that opportunity to be able to partner together with you and with the Truth for Life team. I know your ministry has folks that you refer to as Truth Partners, monthly donors to your ministry.
Here, at FamilyLife, we have Legacy Partners—same kind of idea—folks who help support this ministry on a monthly basis. Those monthly donors, for both of our ministries, are essential. They help provide the financial stability that makes ministries like this possible. I just want to say a word to those of you who are Legacy Partners with FamilyLife Today. We appreciate your commitment.
This month, we’re hoping that some of our regular listeners will step up and become new Legacy Partners. In fact, we’re hoping 1,500 new families will join with us this month. We’d like to ask you to prayerfully consider being one of our new Legacy Partners. When you do that, we’re going to make resources available to you, throughout the year, to help strengthen your marriage and your family.
Of course, you’ll be helping with the cost of producing, and syndicating this radio program, and distributing it all around the world. We appreciate that partnership and would love to hear from you. You can become a Legacy Partner, online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free at 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. “Thanks,” in advance, for your participation with us as a Legacy Partner.
Now, tomorrow we’re going to talk about wedding vows. We’re going to talk about why wedding vows make a difference—why it’s important for us to pay attention to the promises we make when we get married. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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