Keeping Your Marriage Vows
About the Guest
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.
Alistair BeggAlistair Begg has been in pastoral ministry since 1975. Following graduation from The London School of Theology, he served eight years in Scotland at both Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh and Hamilton Baptist Church. In 1983, he became the senior pastor at Parkside Church near Cleveland, Ohio. He has written several books and is heard daily and weekly on the radio program, Truth For Life. The teaching on Truth For Life stems from the week by week Bible teaching at Parkside Church. He and hi...more
What were you really saying when you vowed to love “until death do us part”? Author and pastor Alistair Begg talks about the solemnity of the marriage vows.
Keeping Your Marriage Vows
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 Monday, July 20th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. [Here is] a little twist on the old saying: “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.” It was a letter from a pastor in Eustis, Florida. 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. (This sells real well today in this culture. 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.
(Signed) “Reverend Norman L. Conaway, Eustis, Florida
Bob: [Using an announcer’s voice] And now, with an opposing opinion, here is Dennis Rainey. [Laughter]
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 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, and be warm, and be fed.” What I would want to say is: “I'd love to talk with you and with your husband because there is, clearly, 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.”
Bob: We have to give Abby some credit for, at least, acknowledging that the answer to this issue is ultimately a spiritual answer. 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, when you and Susan married—I have to ask you this question—did you understand the covenant/the vow that you were making to Susan, at that point?
Alistair: In the sense of the sort of immensity of it and what was really involved in this deal— no.
No—all I understood was: “I want to marry you. Let’s get married. Let’s go and I’ll do my very best.” I think, in the saying of the vows on the day, there was—in the midst of all of the emotion and excitement—a very somber sense that came over me. I can remember the feeling.
Dennis: That was exhaustion—you were just tired!
Alistair: That was fear. [Laughter]
Bob: Well, that’s interesting because I remember the day that Mary Ann and I got married—being in that little room off to the side and just thinking, “How do you make a decision, at 23, that’s supposed to last a lifetime to marry somebody’s who’s going to change and you’re going to change?” It’s got to be a faith-based decision in the first place.
Alistair: Yes, my son asks me that all the time: “Dad, how’d you know that Mom would be…? How’d you know that you would be…? The answer is: “We didn’t know any of the answers to those questions. What we entered into was a covenant committed to one another, under God, and before the gaze of all of our friends and loved ones.
Dennis: You grew up in Scotland. You hold to a pretty conservative view of the vows today. In fact, you believe that the vows—really, and the words of those vows—really have important meaning for us today.
Alistair: 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 the material from the Oxford English Dictionary is better than Webster's—[Laughter]—but 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 say what need to be said in comparison to—in pastoral ministry—I've heard some unbelievable vows.
Dennis: Yes, you spoke at one of our I Still Do® events. You were talking about a couple who came into your office, and they wanted to kind of mix it up and freshen it up a bit.
Alistair: [Laughter] 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 did they want 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.
Bob: 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." 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.
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: It’s a wonderful question because it allows you to unfold from it all of the elements--physical, emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual--that are wrapped up in that question. Because somebody would say, “Well 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, in 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.
Dennis: But you know, Alistair, this is a culture of people who have experienced marriage once/twice—some who’ve been used without marriage, without the covenant / without the commitment. They wonder: “Can there be a relationship that goes the distance? Can it truly be a lasting love like you write about?”
And it can—that is the hope of the gospel—that Jesus Christ takes two selfish, imperfect, broken human beings and He gives them a will to love, a commitment to follow through with that love over a lifetime. That’s what a covenant is—it’s made at a point in time but it’s reinforced, repeatedly on a daily basis, to the little choices we make with our spouses.
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. We're able to come alongside them and say: "Let me show you here. Let me help you unfold this."
Dennis: And 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, and they're not the same instruction book.
Bob: And neither one of them is the Bible.
Dennis: Yes. 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 wanting not 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.
Dennis: I think what we’re saying here is: “If your covenant is going to be good, it must be sourced in a healthy respect for who God is and a healthy reverential awe of just pleasing Him as the Holy God of the universe who does hold us accountable to keep what we promise.”
Bob: I have two questions. 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—that it was given to man as man within the framework of the very origin of society—that 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—so that 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.
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: Well, no you would not. 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—and 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.
Bob: No matter where you got married, or who you said anything in front of, God was there when you got married; wasn’t He?
Dennis: He was. I think that’s what Paul is alluding to in 1 Corinthians 7, when He talks about a wife who may be married to an unbelieving husband. He’s saying: “…to remain as you are. Don’t send him away.” There were some, evidently in the church there at Corinth, who found themselves in unequally-yoked marriages.
Perhaps they were saying, “Hey, now that I’m a Christian and he isn’t, I’ll get rid of him and marry a believer.” It seems that the Scriptures indicate that, in those situations, we are to stay put and, as a believer, begin to sanctify the unbelieving spouse.
Now, in the case of two people who aren’t Christians, their greatest need and greatest question is not about the marriage but is about: “Who will be your Lord? Who will be your Master?” It’s about the gospel: “Will you come to faith in Christ?”—and that’s how you being the process of building a godly marriage.
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, 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: 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.
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 our life.
Dennis: He does call us out of our sin, then; doesn't He?
Alistair: He does. And the wonderful thing is that He calls the person who recognizes, "I need help." So, I would say just simply: “Turn to Him. There's no special formulaic 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: I think you have seen on our website where we have a link to an article called “Two Ways to Live” that really maps out what you’re talking about here: “How do we make sense of marriage? How do we make sense of life and our priorities? How do we decide which way we’re going to live?” I’d encourage our listeners—go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.” Look for the article that says “Two Ways to Live” and decide for yourself which path you’re on / which path you want to be on: “How are you going to live? What priorities are you going to establish and live by for your life?”
Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can click in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “GO DEEPER.” Look for the link that says “Two Ways to Live” and then look for the information about Alistair Begg’s book called Lasting Love.
It’s a revised edition of the book that Alistair has written on the subject of marriage—very helpful book and one that we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order a copy of the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Or you can call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alistair is going to be joining us in October——this is Saturday, October 17th. We are going to be doing a live event from the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. It’s a one-day event for marriage called I Still Do®. Along with Dennis and Alistair, our friend, Alex Kendrick, is going to be there, talking about prayer in marriage. Crawford and Karen Loritts are going to be joining us.
If you don’t live in and around the Lynchburg, Virginia, area, you can still be a part of this event because it’s going to be simulcast to churches all around the country—and for that matter—all around the world. Find out more about how your church could host a one-day I Still Do event.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Click on the link there for I Still Do. Your church can sign up as a host site for this event in your community. Or if you have any questions about it, call us at 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I had the opportunity—this was a few months back / I was out in California—I had the chance to have lunch with a husband and wife, who are regular FamilyLife Today listeners. In fact, they mentioned that they’ve been listening for about
20 years in the Central Valley of California. I thought, “Well, we’ve only been on the air for 23 years.” So, they’ve listened most of the time. They were just sharing things they’ve heard / things they’ve learned—how God has used FamilyLife Today in their life and in their marriage and how their family is different as a result.
I remember walking away from that lunch and thinking: “That’s why we do what we do—so that we can provide practical biblical help for marriages and families—so every home can be a godly home / so that every home can be moving in that direction of godliness.”
And I just want to say how much all of us appreciate those of you who partner with us in this ministry—those of you who are Legacy Partners and give each month—and those of you who, from time to time, will get in touch with us and make a donation because God has used this ministry in your life or in your family and marriage in some way. We are grateful for you linking arms with us and always look forward to hearing from you.
If you can help with a donation today, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I CARE,” and make an online donation. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—make a donation over the phone.
Or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and the zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk more about what it is that we pledge to one another when we say, “I do.” In other words: “What is it that we should be living up to today as husband and wife?” Our guest again tomorrow will be our friend, Alistair Begg. Hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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