What did you really mean when you said “I do”?

Wedding season is upon us, and though I’m starting to get past the age where all my friends are getting married, there are still a few weddings on the calendar that I will be attending this year. It doesn’t fail that each year there is at least one wedding where one of the scripture readings is from the well-known “Love Passage” from 1 Corinthians 13. Hearing this at weddings kind of annoys me a little bit, for two reasons.

First, that passage isn’t really talking about marriage or marital love specifically. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I feel it is an inappropriate passage to hear at a wedding, in fact it was an integral part of my brother’s wedding vow, and it was one of the most beautiful wedding vows I’ve ever heard. Everything it says certainly applies to marriage. It’s just that it should also be applied to just about every other aspect of our lives as well. It’s a general definition of what love is that ought to be applied to all of our relationships. If you actually read the whole chapter, the Apostle Paul’s entire point is that love ought to be the driving force behind everything we do. Everything! If it isn’t, then you’ve accomplished nothing. This passage therefore has enormous meaning both in and out of marriage. I guess what gets to me is that you almost never hear this passage referenced outside of the context of a wedding. So it’s not so much that I disapprove of it being in a wedding, but it just highlights its absence in just about every other aspect of our existence.

Second, and more importantly, it kind of annoys me when the passage is read at weddings because I don’t believe most couples on their wedding day realize the seriousness of those words, and what it actually means about the vows they are making. They read the passage because it sounds nice and poetic. I mean, what sounds nicer at a wedding than a treatise about love. Love, Love, Love, isn’t love wonderful? But if only people would really listen to what the Apostle is saying about love. If only brides and grooms would stop and think about what it means for them to love the person before them, specially, above all other people, for the rest of their natural life. It would radically alter their perspective of what it is they are actually vowing before their friends, their family, their new spouse, and most importantly, before God.

What do most people promise when they get married? Traditional marriage vows go something like, “I take thee to be my wedded wife/husband, to love, honor and cherish, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”That vow has a lot of stuff packed into, and pages could be written on each item. But let’s focus on the first item, Love. If you can get that part right, the rest will naturally follow. Unfortunately, I feel that is the one that people don’t really understand.

Love! What does it mean when people vow to love each other for the rest of their lives? Does it mean that they promise to always have a deep feeling of affection and attraction for that person? That pit of your stomach longing to be with the person you desire? The butterflies in your stomach when you see her in that beautiful red dress and you can’t get over how drop dead gorgeous she is? That kind of Love? I think that’s how lot of people understand the term. They think it is about how they feel towards their spouse. When they promise to “Love” their spouse, they think they are promising to forever be “In Love” with their spouse. The problem with that, is that being, “In Love” is simply an emotion, and emotions are fickle things.

Let’s be honest, do you actually want to always feel the same about your spouse as you did when you proposed (or were proposed to)? That nervous/excited/scared/exhilarated feeling might have been pretty awesome, but it would be absolutely exhausting if you had to persist with that feeling for 30, 40, or 50 years, or even longer. There’s no way you could possibly sustain that, and of course, nobody does.

And that’s when people get disillusioned about their marriage. A few years into it they start to realize, “Gasp! I don’t love him like I did when we were dating!” or “Why doesn’t she get me as excited as she did when we first got married?” And they start to think that something is wrong with them and their marriage. The vowed they would always be “in love” and they just don’t feel like that anymore. Their marriage vow to “Love each other until death” didn’t magically make them go the distance.

If only they paid closer attention when the words from the Apostle Paul were being read, because he was actually defining what real love is (from verses 4-7, NIV):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Funny, it doesn’t saying anything about butterflies, nothing about a deep longing to be with and hold and never be parted from. There’s really nothing about emotion at all. That’s because Love, true Love that is, is not a feeling. Love is not how you feel about someone. Love is how you treat someone. Love is what you do for someone. When you get married and you promise to love them for the rest of your life you are promising to show them love. You are promising to be patient with them, to be kind to them. You are promising to not boast, or be prideful. When you realize that, all of the sudden this whole marriage thing seems a lot different than you thought. It’s not about feeling a certain feeling. It’s about showing them love no matter how you feel about them.

In reality, most marriage vows have been broken long before the adultery, long before the separation, long before signing the divorce papers. Most marriage vows are broken when the first conflict yields its ugly head. As the harsh words start to fly, there is little patience, little kindness. Every word seeps with prideful indignation and with every spat anger creeps in easier and easier, and the records of past failures are often brought to bear. Just about everything in a lot of marital disputes goes against every aspect of what the Apostle Paul tells us what love is. There may not be any infidelity, there may not be any threats of divorce, but the marriage vow has been broken. Both partners have failed to love.

Maybe you think I’m being a bit dramatic, just because you have an argument doesn’t mean that you’ve broken your marriage vows, right? People say all kinds of things they don’t really mean in the heat of the moment. But what is the marriage vow for? When everybody is happy and everything is just peachy? There’s no need for a solemn vow before God if everything was so great all the time. The whole point of the marriage vow is for the times when you are in conflict, the whole point is to make sure that you still show each other love, even in the moments when your feelings are anything but loving.

Now, I’m not saying that the feeling of love isn’t important in a marriage. I’m just saying that the feeling is not part of the vow. But here’s the critical thing, if both partners in a marriage treat each other with real Love, the feeling of love will naturally follow. I mean, how easy is it to feel a deep affectionate love for someone who is always patient with you, always kind to you, always puts your needs above their own. What if even in the midst of a conflict or disagreement you were not prideful, held back your anger, always trusted, always hoped, and always persevered towards finding your marital intimacy again? That’s the beautiful thing about true Love. Showing true love, brings about feeling of love.

This isn’t necessarily an easy answer to martial success. The standard for Love is pretty high. It’s why getting married is such a monumental decision that comes with a truly awesome responsibility. And chances are nobody is going to live up to it perfectly all of the time. Both of you will likely mess up from time to time. But that’s okay, love keeps no record of wrong, and love always hopes. Even if you’ve been failing pretty miserable thus far, it’s never too late to start to be loving, even if you don’t feel that much love anymore.

This summer I’ll be celebrating 4 years with my beautiful bride (please, no applause is necessary). I know we aren’t close to setting any marriage records, and by many standards we are still newlyweds, but if anyone were to ask me my advice for how to have a successful marriage it would be this, “Everyday, do at least one thing for your spouse, with no thought of what you would get in return.” It could be something as simple as sweeping the floor, changing that baby’s poopy diaper, or just getting her a cup of ice water when she’s thirsty. It’s not important what you do, what’s important is that in that moment you don’t care what she does for you, but all you care about is what you can do for her, and that’s what love is about, forgoing the self for the sake of someone else. That one gesture won’t necessarily move mountains. But having that attitude every day can make the next fifty years be truly amazing.

 

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