On June 8, 1952, in Collins, Mississippi, a petite, 18-year-old Alabama girl and a quiet, 21-year-old Mississippi man looked each other in the eyes and made commitments to each other. He promised to love and cherish her. She promised to honor and respect him. They both vowed that their commitments would stand through any circumstance life could throw at them.
Val and Colleen Williams—my parents—surely had lots of things on their minds on that hot day 60 years ago. In that moment, before God, family, and friends, everything seemed perfect, and it was hard to imagine that any problem could ever diminish that love and commitment.
But wedding day vows are just promises pledged in the midst of hope. True marriage is day-to-day commitment.
The problem for most starry-eyed newlyweds is that they say their vows under the most ideal of circumstances, not the most trying. It’s not until life gets hard that couples begin to realize the weight of their words.
Certainly my parents looked forward to being homeowners, but they had no way of knowing that they would forfeit their first home in the throes of a poor housing market a few short years later. They surely envisioned on their wedding day the joy that a child would bring, but they couldn’t have anticipated the eight years of emptiness they would feel waiting for God to finally bless them with their first child. And nothing could prepare them for the intense pain of burying one of their own children.
As a young couple so much in love, they couldn’t have fathomed how jobs and bills and just the day-to-day care of life could ever get bad enough to threaten their commitment. And in the prime of health, neither could see 60 years down the road when debilitating disease would slowly rob one of function and require the other to take the role of primary caregiver.
Countless times they have been nudged to the brink of giving up, just like every other couple married more than a few years. But one day after the other, by the grace of God, they have stood by the bond of their word. Today their love burns brighter than it did on the day when, as naïve young lovers, they made such bold promises in simple faith. They see clearly now what was only an ideal on their wedding day—that love is commitment.
My parents aren’t the only ones who have been blessed by their years of sowing into their marriage. Their commitment has cast a vision for their children. And we, by God’s grace, are following their example to cast a similar vision for our children.
Unfortunately, my children face a cultural landscape of marriage that is far different than the one my parents did in 1952. Back then, 11 Mississippi couples married for every couple who divorced. Today in the Hospitality State, for every two couples who marry for the first time three others put their witness to divorce papers. And of those who divorce, 11 of 12 claim “irreconcilable differences” as the reason.
So much for commitment.
As couples call it quits, their children are placing less confidence in marriage and have fewer examples of persevering through the hard times (most couples who end their marriage do so before their tenth anniversary). And that’s the reason so many marriages today are weak: When inevitable suffering comes, most couples choose comfort over commitment. Sadly, they are missing the hidden gem of marriage—commitment through suffering. I’m not siding with the cynics who claim that marriage is God’s way of making people suffer. What I am saying, though, is that resolute commitment in the midst of suffering builds a marital bond that is all the more strong.
Modern social science research bears witness to the vows of commitment. In a recent long-term study, researchers found that three-fourths of unhappily-married couples who chose not to divorce or separate reported themselves as being happily married after five years. On the other hand, those who did divorce and remarry were no happier, on average, than their unhappy peers who stuck with it.
Scripture and time also bear witness. The Apostle Paul reveals this truth that oftentimes, the road to a hopeful future must first travel a painful landscape.
[W]e also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
The grace and love of God have a perfect application in marriage. In that same passage, Paul points out that God loved us and Christ died for us when we were least lovable—when the situation was the least ideal. Following His example, it is in those times—whenever circumstances (or a spouse) get difficult—that we are able to exercise the most powerful tool of an intimate relationship. Marriage is not about what we can get from a relationship, but what we can give. God allows these difficult times so that we can learn to trust the empowering of His Holy Spirit to make us a channel for His unqualified love. Working through these difficulties with resolve, our relationships are strengthened, giving us hope to sustain us and to build a marriage that goes the distance.
My wife Ellie and I each are blessed to have parents who have remained committed to each other for over six decades. In a very real sense, our calling to full-time ministry is an outgrowth of the heritage our parents have passed to us. We wish everyone could experience the blessing of such a legacy. Our desire is to proclaim God’s truth about marriage and family, to equip men and women to fulfill their commitments to each other, and pass that legacy on to the next generation. Although it may not be a legacy that was passed to you, you can choose to make it a rich gift that you leave your children.
© 2012 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.