But You Promised!

We used to live in a culture that believed that the marriage vow was a promise that a couple kept until death separated them in this life. On May 24, 1969, Rosemary and I made that promise and covenant to each other before God. Legally, two witnesses were required to sign the marriage license confirming our commitment. We each made a vow, saying, “I take you Rosemary/Harry to be my lawful wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.” Our troth was a pledge of faithfulness for a lifetime. After fifty-three years, we still intend to keep our promise until the end of our lives.

The traditional wedding vow is not a conditional promise. In fact, correctly understood, a conditional promise is not a promise. We didn’t say to each other, “If circumstances become extremely difficult for me, this promise is nonbinding.” If either of us had put it that way, it wouldn’t have been much of a promise because we had no idea the difficulties that where ahead of us. Neither of us would have agreed to such a non-binding agreement. The expectation was clear: this is for life, regardless of the unknown circumstances that would unfold. Making a promise is a commitment that you will keep your word. Such a commitment in marriage reinforces trust.

Even a young child understands that a promise is a promise that should be kept. “Mommy, you said we could have ice cream tonight! You promised!” By age three children can construct coherent sentences and understands the meaning of a promise. They begin to understand that promises are to be kept, always, no matter what. As adults, we too, expect others to keep their word. In marriage, maturity should include growing in the strength and grace of keeping our promise. Marriage should bring about a growing trust, loyalty, and expectation that will prevail in any and all difficult circumstances.

However, today our thinking on commitment has changed. Why? I believe in part because our culture encourages self-absorption. Yet that assumption is challenged by the command from God’s Word: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Selfish ambition or selfishness is the root of every other sin. “The prohibition goes far beyond mere action; selfishness is also to be totally excluded from the innermost thoughts of the heart” (John MacArthur).

Generally, divorce has been universally seen as something negative across many cultures. Now we live in a divorce culture. How did we get here? Historians tell us that beginning in the late 1950s, we began to change our idea about our personal obligations to family and society. We changed from believing in an obligation to others toward an obligation to self. I believe we are all born with a self-preserving instinct and it only grew more predominant in the 1950s. As we became more committed to attending to our own needs and interests, we considered it a moral obligation to look after oneself. I have seen this shift in couples in my thirty years of marriage counseling where spouses now judge the strength and “health” of their marriage on its capacity to promote personal fulfillment and growth. I believe marriage has lost its identity as a place of duty and sacrifice in all circumstances.

Divorce is now an event directly linked to the personal pursuit of satisfaction, growth and well-being. This is truer when a spouse is unfaithful. The betrayed spouse is saying, “You promised to be faithful. Given that you broke your promise to me, I have the grounds to divorce you and to look after my personal well-being and happiness.” That seems logical to many.

I know from decades of counseling that those who suffer betrayal, the pain is unique. For many, nothing else suffered even comes close. Not the pain of a wayward child, not failing health, not job loss, and not even the death of a parent. Nearly nothing rivals to the horrific pain caused by unfaithfulness. Only the death of a child or spouse is more excruciating.

Here is the challenge: How do we start to think about divorce biblically? We start with God the Father who clearly states His position on divorce. “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel . . .” (Malachi 2:16, NASB). I’ve gone to church all my life, but I don’t recall hearing a sermon on that passage. Perhaps because “Hate” is a strong word, and we prefer to see God as a loving Heavenly Father. Or a sermon against divorce would be very unpopular today. Yet the verse begs the question, why would God hate divorce?

God hates divorce, because God the Father’s whole purpose in Christ was to pursue the straying bride. For that reason, Jesus endured cold and heat, pain and suffering, abuse and ridicule, even to the point of death. In it all, He would not abandon His bride. His unfaithful bride wanted Him dead to be free from His inconvenient demands. Understand, God has sufficient grounds to divorce us each and every day because of our faithlessness to Him.

Meditate on the awesome reality that our Lord faithfully loves us and has joined Himself and His honor to us, forever, regardless of our sinful actions! The Son of God has promised that He will never, ever divorces us. His commitment, His promise is deeply costly. In order for us to be married to the Lord forever, pardon for all evil deserving of eternal death, the Father had to close His eyes to the suffering of His only begotten Son. The Father’s faithfulness to us wasn’t cheap grace when He brought us back from our spiritual adultery.

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful⎯for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). Always remember His promise, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If God the Father is faithful to us when we are faithless, then I believe we are obligated to show similar mercy, forgiveness, and grace towards others. Yes, even an unfaithful spouse! To do so we must let our hearts be overwhelmed with the amazing fact that we have received unnatural, supernatural, selfless love from a caring heavenly Father. This is speaking the truth about God’s design for marriage, extending open arms to the unfaithful as He has extended His arms to us. Like Christ, in pain and suffering, we must reach out to the unfaithful. Like our Lord and Savior, our faithfulness should never come to an end.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion, says my soul,
therefore I will hope in Him.
Lamentations 3:22-24