• Dave Earley

Fulfill The Promise

The second secret to a better marriage is to fulfill the promise!

On that beautiful spring day when Cathy wore the long white dress and the big smile and we stood before a church full of people, we said some sacred words. We held hands, looked each other in the eyes, smiled, and promised

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, 'Till death do us part.

Then, we each gave the other a simple golden ring and vowed, “With this ring I thee wed, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

Of course, all the “worldly goods” we had were a couple of boxes of books, some very inexpensive clothes, a 1979 white Ford Pinto hatch-back with a red racing stripe, and the $900 cash we were about to be given as wedding gifts. That was it. But it was all we had, and we gladly gave it to the other.

As I write this, I find it hard to believe that Cathy and I were married thirty years ago. Time has flown by. I remember watching her walk down the aisle as if it were yesterday. So much has happened in the last thirty years. Much has been “better,” a few things “worse.” For the longest time we were “poorer,” but lately we have been “richer.” (Although, we were always “richer” in the things that mattered most). There has been some very serious “sickness,” and some blessed “health.” Through it all, we have “loved and cherished” each other… most of the time.

Neither of us knew the other as well as we thought. To be very honest with you, marriage was much harder than either of us expected. After launching a new church and having three children in four years I got extremely sick with a life dominating chronic illness. That made the normal stress of a ministry marriage, plus three little children, and a very tight income that much more difficult. Both of us could tell you of times when it felt like it would have been much easier to call it quits and just walk away.

But we had made those vows. We had promised, “Until death do us part.” So we hung in there and now we are so very glad we did.

Biblical marriage is a sacred covenant between three people – husband, wife, and God. It is a very serious commitment. Families are built upon it, as are societies. Strong marriages are the result of a husband and a wife being determined to fulfill their vows.

Covenant Marriage v. Contract Marriage

On August 15, 1997, the State of Louisiana put in place the nation’s first modern covenant marriage law. The law created a two-tier system of marriage. Couples could choose a contract marriagewith minimal formalities of formation and ease in attaining no-fault divorce. Or they could choose a covenant marriage, with stringent formation and dissolution policies.

In Louisiana, and the other states that have now adopted it, those seeking a covenant marriage need to receive detailed premarital instruction from a qualified religious official or professional counselor. In premarital counseling, both people must be advised that a covenant marriage is a commitment for life. Premarital counseling also must include a discussion of the seriousness of covenant marriage, the requirement to seek marriage counseling if marital difficulties develop, and the limited legal reasons available for ending the marriage by legal separation or divorce. Divorce under a covenant marriage is only granted on grounds of serious fault (adultery, capital felony, malicious desertion, and /or physical or sexual abuse of spouse or one of the children). 1

What is a Covenant?

The term “covenant” appears 286 times in the Old Testament and 24 times in the New. In the ancient days of Israel, a covenant was very serious, solemn, and binding. When two people entered into a covenant with one another, a goat or lamb would be slain and its carcass would be cut in half. With the two halves separated and lying on the ground, the two people who had formed the covenant would solemnize their promise by walking between the two halves saying, "May God do so to me [cut me in half] if I ever break this covenant with you and God!"

Covenants expect both parties to uphold moral and legal faithfulness towards the covenant for a lifetime, thereby uniting the individuals as one. Hence, when marriage was instituted by God with the words, “they shall become one flesh,” we can assume that God was speaking of the covenant of marriage.

Malachi 2 and the Covenant of Marriage

In Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, we have the account of God explaining to Israel why He found their worship to be unacceptable. Malachi's contemporaries were distressed and weeping in frustration because God refused to accept their offerings, as evidenced by His withheld blessing. The reason God found their worship unacceptable was because they had not been faithful to their marriage covenant.

"This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.  "Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.  "But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.

 "For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with wrong," says the LORD of hosts. "So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." Malachi 2:13-16 NASB

Your wife by covenant. Malachi goes out of his way to identify marriage as a “covenant.” A covenant in the Old Testament entails four essential components: (1) a relationship (2) with a non-relative that (3) involves obligations and (4) is established through an oath.

The LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth. This statement reminds us that biblical marriage is not just a contract -a two-way relationship between husband and wife. It is acovenant- a three-way relationship in which the couple is accountable to God, for the Lordwas witnessto that covenant.

Because of the seriousness of the marriage covenant, spousal fidelity is inextricably linked to spiritual well-being. Elsewhere in Scripture we read that a marriage must be in good repair, or else the couple's prayers will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7; Matthew 5:23-34). Other Old Testament passages speak of marriage as a covenant. These include Proverbs 2:17, Ezekiel 16:8-14, and Genesis 2 where covenantal vocabulary (“leave” and “hold fast”) is employed to describe a husband's duty. Also in Genesis 2 we saw Adam committing himself to Eve before God by employing a formula which is attested to elsewhere in covenant-ratifying contexts: “this at last is bone of my bones” (Gen. 2:23; 2 Sam. 5:1).

You have dealt treacherously.This rebuke for dealing treacherously can be understood as saying, “you have broken your marriage covenant vows.”

Did not God make [you and your wife] one [flesh]? Malachi speaks of covenant marriage partners as being “one.” Malachi also stresses that God made marriage, not man. Therefore, man has no right to break it through divorce.

I hate divorce. Divorce not only breaks the contract you made with your mate, it breaks the covenant you made with God. Therefore, God hates it.

Him who covers his garment [his wife] with violence. God hates divorce because he sees it as the violent dismembering of the “one flesh” of marriage. So marriage partners must “keep a watch” upon themselves not to break the covenant they made with each other and the Lord.

The Covenant Marriage Ceremony

In covenant marriage, two lives become one. From the point of the wedding ceremony, the couple is thereafter identified with the other individual and there is a supernatural co-mingling of two lives. Finances and families are shared. Dreams are joined together.

There is a physical reminder of the promise. When God entered a covenant with Noah, He gave Noah the rainbow as a testimony that God would remain forever faithful to keep the covenant never again to flood the earth (Gen. 9:16). Today, during a covenant marriage ceremony the sign is usually a ringwhich is to serve as a constant reminder of the bounds of themarriage covenant.

There is a change of name. When God reaffirmed His covenant with Abram (“father”), God changed his name to Abraham (“father of many”) and his wife’s name from Saraito Sarah(Genesis 17:5,15). In covenant marriage, the wife takes her husband's name, symbolizing the identityand onenesswhich God intended for the partners who had entered the marriage covenant.

A meal is shared.Biblical covenants were often commemorated with a "covenant meal." The most famous "covenant meal" is usually called the Lord’s Table or Communion which Jesus hosted as He established the New Covenant on the night He was betrayed ( 1 Cor. 11:24-25). In covenant marriage, most couples celebrate their new covenant relationship by feeding each other wedding cake which is a picture that you are now sharing a common life and that two lives have become one.

A witness is present.In the Old Testament, the solemnity of making a covenant was often witnessed by setting up a memorial or sign. For example, when Jacob cut a covenant with his father-in-law, Laban, a heap of stones was set up to serve as a witness that neither party would break the covenant, and God was called as their Witness (Gen. 31). Similarly when a man and a woman enter into the solemn, binding covenant of marriage, witnesses are present, the highest of which is God Himself.

Covenant versus Contract

As a pastor, I spent hours each week meeting with people about their marriages. I found that many of their struggles stemmed from a sense of frustration that the mate had violated the contract. Many sought me out as a last resort to pressure their mate to fulfill the contract.

The tragedy is that today so many view marriage as merely a contract,not as a covenant. A contract is a business arrangement for the supply of goods or services at a fixed price. If the contract does not work out, the parties involved mutually agree to terminate the agreement and go their separate ways, and a divorce ensues. Breaking the marriage contract through divorce has become easier and easier in the United States in the last few years. In fact, Time Magazineran an article as far back as 1993 stating that it was easier in the United States to walk away from a marriage than from a commitment to purchase a used car!

Christian marriage is not merely a social contract between twopeople. Biblical marriage is a sacred covenant between three people – husband, wife, and God for a lifetime.

Covenant Marriages are Stronger Marriages

God is perfectly wise and totally good. Therefore, since He established marriage as a covenant instead of a contract, He must have had good reasons for doing so. He must view covenant marriage as being the wisest and best form of marriage.

One benefit of covenant marriage is unconditional commitment, a factor that is profoundly important in marital stability. God’s intention for marriage is that both partners enter into an unconditional commitment to the other person, the relationship as a whole, and the institution of marriage. Covenant marriage allows the individual partners to thrive in an environment where they say to each other, “I am unconditionally committed to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to serve and be served, and to know and be known.”

A second benefit is sacrifice. One partner must be willing to live a life of sacrifice for the good of the other. In any number of life circumstances, spouses will be called upon to give more than an equal share. In contractual marriage, when those tough times hit, the other partner often walks out rather than sacrifice. But in covenant marriage walking out is not an option. Sacrifice is a choice one mate willingly makes for the other.

A third core characteristic is faithful fidelity. No thought is given to breaking the marriage bond by adultery. When the temptation comes to be unfaithful, it is more easily rebuffed when the notion of adultery is out of the question.

A fourth characteristic is security. If you can be confident that your mate is highly committed to you and the relationship, have seen evidence of their willingness to go the extra mile for you, and can be deeply trusted, then you can feel very secure.

Fifth, covenant marriage is strongerthan contractual marriage. Instead of being an agreement between twopeople, it is a commitment between three. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says that “a three-fold cord is not easily broken.”

Plus, the third party is God. Imagine having someone who has a life-long knowledge of your mate helping you learn how to love them! Imagine having the wisest being in the universe willing to give you advice! Imagine having all of His resources and connections available for your help!

Sixth, by fulfilling your vows you ultimate create the opportunity to find deeper fulfillmentin marriage. In contractual marriage, couples often quit when it gets hard. By doing so, they only ever experience the most superficial aspects of intimacy. But in covenantal marriage, a couple can’t quit. They have to hang in there and work through the tough spots. If they do so wisely and well, they inevitably will break through to much deeper fulfillment than the relationship could have otherwise provided.

Covenant Marriages Challenge us to Greater Growth

Gary Thomas in his book, Sacred Marriageasks a significant question: What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than make us happy? 2He contends that within the covenant of marriage we can use the challenges, joys, struggles and celebrations of marriage to draw closer to God and grow in Christian character.3 He recounts coming to a place of awareness that I have also experienced.

I found that there was a tremendous amount of immaturity within me that my marriage directly confronted. The key was that I had to change my view of marriage. If the purpose of marriage was simply to enjoy an infatuation, and make me “happy,” then I would need to get a “new” marriage every two to three years. But if I really wanted to see God transform me from the inside out, I’d need to concentrate on changing myself rather than on changing my spouse, In fact, you might say the more difficult my marriage proved to be, the more opportunity I’d have to grow.3

In contractual marriage, when the going gets tough, you can simply opt out by getting a divorce. But in covenant marriage, that option does not exist. Therefore, you have to dig down deep and desperately pursue God. That is when real growth occurs and ultimately deeper fulfillment in your marriage.

A Promise Kept

Robertson and MurielMcQuilkin served as missionaries in Japan. Robertson later distinguished himself when he served as the president of Columbia International University. During this time, the vivacious Muriel became a sought after speaker and hosted a popular radio show.

But that all changed. Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Gradually, she began to succumb to its ravages and was forced to abandon her radio show and speaking engagements. Initially this was very hard on Robertson, but he had made a promise and taken vows to love and cherish her in sickness and in health. So he did.

As the disease took its toll on Muriel, Robertson devoted more and more time to watching over her. He left his work and other pursuits to care for her fulltime because without his presence, she became fearful and agitated. Only with him near was she happy and content. Eventually she became totally dependent upon him, unable to perform rudimentary tasks or even converse.

It broke his heart to watch his lovely, intelligent wife slide into helpless dementia. But he remained with her gratefully and with a loving attitude. He reasoned that she "took care" of him for decades, so he found it a privilege to return the favor. He was not an angry or resentful caretaker. He saw his caretaking as a holy task, one entrusted to him by God.

His determination to fulfill his promise has been a blessing to thousands of lives.1More than that, it certainly has brought great pleasure and glory to God.


1. John Witte and Eliza Ellison editors, Covenant Marriage in Comparative Perspective, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. 2005, p.1

2. Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2007), p. 13

3. Thomas, p. 12

4. Thomas p. 23

5. You can read their story in Robertson McQuilken, A Promise Kept, (Grand Rapids, Tyndale, 1998)

Photo by D'Attoma Studios

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