Charlie was a quiet man who loved God and people. Even in his late 60s, he worked to provide for his family and served faithfully as a deacon at church. When Charlie’s mom got sick and there was no one to take care of her, he moved into her place to help her with toileting, showering, and dressing—all the things she’d done for him when he was a child. Charlie fulfilled a godly duty to his mother, but because she lived far away, this meant sacrificing time with his wife.
When Charlie began to care for his mom, his wife became difficult and overly dependent, seemingly needing constant attention. She was embittered toward Charlie and his ailing mother. Charlie confessed to his friend Levi how hard it was to endure this criticism when his mother clearly needed help. His wife wasn’t working or helping him care for his mom. Charlie also confessed he preferred time at his mother’s home. After all, she was kind and appreciative, and his wife wasn’t.
Levi asked him, “What will you do after your mother passes?” He expected Charlie to say he wouldn’t go back home to his difficult wife. Charlie’s actual response was astounding: “I made a commitment to my wife before God and his people. I won’t leave her. I love her. That promise holds me.” If you’re enduring a difficult marriage, rehearsing that covenant promise can hold you too.
There are times—amid infidelity, abandonment, or abuse—for a married couple to separate (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15). But too often in our culture, a marriage has simply become a contract of convenience that can be discarded. Biblically speaking, covenants should be different. Biblical covenants are a binding agreement with blessings when kept and curses when broken (Deut. 28). Throughout the Bible, God relates to his people through covenants, and we’re told marriage ultimately serves as an illustration of Christ’s covenant love for the church.
I made a commitment to my wife before God and his people. I won’t leave her. I love her. That promise holds me.
As newlyweds begin their life together, they celebrate joy and the beginning of a new family. They also make binding covenant promises because married life is never easy. It demands our life and all. Husbands must love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25–30).
Marriage doesn’t exist so a man and woman can pretend like they’re a power couple. Marriage exists so sacrifice may be put on full display. Whether or not you said the old vows’ words—“love and cherish” through “rich or poor, in sickness and in health”—your marriage still requires that encompassing commitment. You must die to self through the work of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13).
No matter how good you think your marriage is, you and your spouse are still sinners, and you need to rehearse your vows. You need the words of law and gospel inherent in the covenant commitment you made.
Look at what the law of Ephesians 5 demands. Wives, submit (v. 22). Husbands, love (v. 25). We’re told to do this because our sinful desires run contrary to God’s covenant love. We want what we want, and when we don’t get it, we get cranky. So God tells us what to do. Wives are told to submit to their husbands as Christ lovingly submitted to the Father, his covenant head in his work of redemption (1 Cor. 11:3). Husbands must speak and show love to their wives in ways that put Christ’s love for his church on display (Eph. 5:25–33).
Husbands, serve your wife with your words. Ensure your words to your wife reflect God’s words. Speak with gracious words to “wash her” (v. 26) and aid her holiness. Speak with words that encourage her. Jackie and I have a son with autism, and when days are long and hard, it’s important for me both to take my share of caretaking responsibilities and to encourage her with the truth that the final resurrection is coming and the brokenness will end.
Wives, help your husband both by listening to him and by speaking bolding. On those dark days when he’s not communicating well but you know he’s hurting, look for the nonverbal cues that let you know he needs you. On my dark days (or just when I’m not getting what I want), Jackie’s quick to remind me to turn from my anger and to turn toward Christ’s love. When I’m doubting, she reminds me of the gospel truths that I’ve spoken to her and preached to our church: “You’re raised with Christ and that’s enough.”
Couples, know that God’s demands for marriage aren’t ultimately about you or your spouse. They’re about Christ and his church. We’re caught up in something so much bigger than we are, and these spiritual realities ground the practical, daily work of marriage. Do you simply want to learn how to “put up with” your spouse, or do you recognize that marriage is more? Ask instead, “How can I display God’s love by loving my spouse?”
How do we obey these impossible commands? We cling to the gospel. Charlie, in his simple yet profound way, understood the meaning of covenant. He understood grace is one-way love grounded in Someone greater than us. Because of Jesus’s death for us, Christians understand that he holds us fast. He’ll never leave nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5), but we still need to rehearse the story of Christ’s love on a regular basis.
No matter how good you think your marriage is, you and your spouse are still sinners. You need the words of law and gospel inherent in the covenant commitment you made.
In the same way, spouses should regularly rehearse and renew their marriage vows with one another. Don’t wait until your relationship is at emergency level to “work on” your marriage. When you feel your relationship is in a good place, remember God’s goodness and rehearse your promises. Like a strong tree, absorb the sunshine so you can stand through the storm.
Find God’s grace in the church as well. At a wedding, couples make their vows publicly because they’re held accountable by God’s people. Accountability from the church should continue throughout the marriage. Look for models in your church who have strong marriages centered on Christ. Look for people who have suffered well and connect with them. Let them love and support you. Seek out godly mentors who can speak hard truths into your life and arrange regular meeting times with them. Be vulnerable to trusted Christians and let them care for your marriage.
God’s steadfast, covenant love fuels us when we’re depleted, and rehearsing both his covenant promises (and our own) can help to uphold and strengthen any marriage, no matter the challenges that arise.