During a week of reeling from multiple (terrorist – there, I said it!) attacks and relentless Trump/Clinton skirmishes, the newly-announced divorce of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie doesn’t seem newsworthy. But it’s instructive.
Publicized reasons for the couple’s split include differences over parenting styles and tensions over structured versus laid back personal styles as well. Granted, we don’t know what else plays into all this and we never will. But plenty of us who’ve been married 20 plus years look at the now-crumbling two year marriage of these superstars, scratch our heads, and wonder:
“Different parenting styles? Different personal styles? For this you’re splitting up?”
I’m sure there’s more, and a divorce is excruciating no matter who the parties involved are, so our prayers should be with both of them. But the point driven home to me this afternoon is that our reasons for entering and exiting marriages seem poorly defined, flimsy even, and far from a concept we should
Webster defines it as “an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.” Biblically, the Hebrew word for “covenant” (bĕriyth) indicates the seriousness of a covenant with its meaning “to cut.” In ancient times when sacred vows were taken, an animal would be slaughtered, divided in to, and one or both of the parties in covenant would pass between the animal halves. It was a deal made in blood and, in fact, “cutting a deal” could refer to this very thing. Regardless, there was, and should still be, a sacred seriousness about covenants. Once they’re made, they’d best be kept.
Once You’re In, You’re In
Which brings us to marriage vows. Biblically, the husband/wife covenant can’t, according to Jesus, be broken unless adultery has occurred (Matthew 19:9) or, according to Paul, an unbelieving partner has decided to terminate the marriage. (I Corinthians 17:5) Apart from that, until the death of one or both parties, there’s no exit door. When you marry, you freely enter into a covenant which, once made, is bound not by the satisfaction of one or both partners, but by the covenant itself.
In plainer language, marriage is not contingent on the happiness of the man or wife, nor by the degree to which either feels her or his needs are being met. Lack of attraction, deadened affection, discovery of ugly qualities in a spouse, boredom, or terminal incompatibility are all unfortunate, but none of them justify terminating a marriage. That’s where the “For Worse” part comes in, a phrase wisely included in vows, because face it – nobody, no matter how much in love, really knows what they’re in for when they get married.
It may get better. It may get worse. Either way, you’re in for life.
Without Possibility of Parole?
To some that sounds cruel, a rigid sentence consigning a wife to stay wife a jerk of a man who ignores or belittles her, or a husband to stay with a woman who tears him down with her mouth then blames him for being emasculated as a result. Some marriages are miserable, for sure, but misery is meant to be cured, and not at the expense of the marriage.
Marriage was meant to satisfy deep partnering, emotional, and sexual needs common to humans. (Genesis 2:18) So in that sense, yes, marriage is for us, and is a primary way our lives are enriched and given measureless meaning.
But it’s also about Him, typifying His relationship (covenant) with His people. (Hosea 2:19; Ephesians 5:32) We should land hard on this point, keeping it before us when the marital going gets rough.
Because God does not threaten me with divorce if I bore Him, annoy Him, let Him down, ignore Him, totally mess up my intimacy with Him, break my promises to Him, or put me before Him in the decisions I make. All of those behaviors make me a jackass; none of them destroy the covenant He established, a permanent relationship with me not held together by my performance, but sealed in blood with eternal purposes. (John10:28; Hebrews 13:5) If He was going to leave me because I displeased Him or didn’t meet His needs, our relationship would have terminated much more quickly than the Pitts did.
But since His bond with me is based on His oath to never leave nor forsake me, I, in turn, have to adopt the same posture towards my marriage. Since John said that “He who says he abides in Him ought so to walk, even as He walked” (I John 2:6) then the way God handles my relationship with Him is the way I must handle my relationship with my wife.
Happiness Matters; Covenant Matters More
None of which minimizes the seriousness of an unhappy marriage. Just because it’s “For better or worse”, I’m hardly given permission to be casual about it. In fact, Paul said that an act of literal self-love is found in my willingness to love her, since “he who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:28) There’s the mystery, and the answer. The covenant of marriage, permanent and unchanged by shortcomings of either party, makes our most important human relationship our safest one as well.
I can be myself with my wife, and she with me. Since there’s no fear in love, because love has torment according to John (I John4:18) we can actually love each other all the more, unhindered by fears of abandonment.
I’m free to express myself honestly in my home, be vulnerable, shed pretense, and still feel secure in my marriage. Not because I’m so wonderful my wife can’t help but love me no matter what, nor is it because she’s so saintly she could never get sick of me. Rather, my emotional safety is founded in the covenant, ratified when we exchanged sacred vows 29 years ago to love, regardless.
That means when our bodies change, our personalities clash, or our mutual knowledge of each other includes all sorts of uglies, we can rest assured that our safety’s intact. If love kept the marriage together, I’m not sure how safe I’d feel. But if the marriage keeps the love together, and the foundation of the marriage is an inviolable covenant, then I can relax and rest in the safety of the commitment we made to form a union dependent on the God who designed it knowing, better than we, how deep the human need for security is.
Funny. Just as a fuller knowledge of the grace of God inspires more zeal on my part to love and obey Him, so a fuller knowledge of my security with my lovely wife makes me all the more zealous to be a husband she can enjoy, draw strength from, feel validated by, and love freely.
Our promise to endure the “worse” has, all these decades later, made the better so much better.