Honoring Our Marriage Vows – You are a Sacrament
Yesterday an internet friend of mine tweeted “How many of you would remain faithful to your spouse after a civil divorce? I have for 8 years. I keep my promises.” I tweeted her back to let her know that I had been doing the same for over 14 years. There were some twitter trolls who then attempted to have a field day with that, ridiculing us and even posting obscene remarks about our sex lives or the lack there of. But in all of that there was one legitimate questions.
“Just curious. Why would you do this? What would it accomplish?”
I didn’t answer him at the time, not sure how to give a proper answer to that in 140 characters. As you can see it took me way more than that in the length in this blog. Now, though, after having written all of this I might simply have said “Because it is the best witness that I can give in the name of God and of Jesus Christ. It is the best way that I can demonstrate the divine life and love that is contained in the sacrament of marriage. Because it communicates grace. That is still more than 140 characters I believe. Read the blog though, as long as it is, because it took me a bit to write. Lol.
Jesus said, let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. Anything more is from the evil one. (Matt 5:37) We are told that vows and oaths are not even necessary for the followers of Jesus, that our word should be good enough. Whether it be entering into a covenant or agreement, making a vow, swearing an oath, giving a promise, speaking our word, as His followers what we say should reflect the honor, integrity and consistency of God the Father and of his Son, Jesus. And rightly so, for we are His witnesses in this world, we live, speak and go forth in His Name. Our actions and our words should have the same steadfast constancy as the God that we serve. And for the sake of this Name we should need no more evidence or persuasion to instill in us the desire to act in honor and integrity concerning our word. In reflecting, demonstrating and proclaiming the reliability of our God and of our Lord Jesus, we must be reliable ourselves. If we are not, it is not just ourselves we cast doubt upon but rather upon the very Name on which we stand. Anything else is not only from the evil one but gives testimony to his ways and glorifies him as well. It is in fact giving false witness to the Name of God, profaning and taking in vain the Lord’s name, and is thus a breaking of the second and eight commandments.
You would think that this would be well understood among believers, especially Catholics. But instead, it seems, that the greatest opposition that comes against the honoring of marriage vows is among the Christian community. For we have become a people that expects our God to serve us rather than seeking to serve Him. In our self-serving immaturity we warp and pervert the word of God. His word says that He will answer our prayers and give us the desires of our hearts and we use this against Him that He may serve us by answering our prayers and giving us whatever our hearts desire or makes us happy. His Word says that we are saved, redeemed and forgiven. We use this as an endorsement of our sins, an exemption from having to uphold any standard whatsoever. For why is that necessary since we have a savior that paid the price? When we have a God who is loving and merciful? We quite readily call upon the Name of our Savior. We rely on that Name to protect and to serve our needs. But we will not so readily uphold the standards of that Name, the honor of that Name. We will easily mock that Name with our words and behavior. We have no need to honor our vows despite the cost, to our own harm (Psalm 15:4) in serving our God but instead rely on Him to serve us by giving us an exemption from our vows when the keeping of them becomes too hard, too inconvenient or might cause us to suffer. This hardness of heart not only rivals but exceeds the hardness of heart of the Israelites of the Old Testament, for they did not have the benefit of the Spirit and the heart of Christ within them, while we claim that we do.
We should not have to quote scripture, chapter and verse, in order to defend the honoring of our marriage vows, it should already be known for under the new covenant of Jesus, through the action of the Holy Spirit certain things should be written upon our minds and hearts. We should not have to be instructed in them.
"But this covenant which I will make...says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord" Jeremiah 31:33....I will make with them an eternal covenant, never to cease doing good to them; into their hearts I will put the fear of me that they may never depart from me (Jeremiah 33:40)...I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart, so that they will live according to my statutes, and observe and carry out my ordinances; thus they shall be my people and I will be their God (Ez 11:19-20)
But it seems that we do have to prove in chapter in verse what we have been called to do. Rather than be allowed to follow the Spirit in our hearts, to follow the teachings of our Church, rather than just being left too it, we instead face opposition and must defend that which should already be known. I often want to ask my fellow Christians in the words of Christ to Peter..."of what concern of yours is this? You follow me [Jesus]" If God has asked this of me then what concern is it of yours? I am doing no wrong. I commit no sin by doing so. Why has it become your mission to turn me away? Follow Him yourself and do not concern yourself with what He is asking of me.
Even so, there is much scripture to support the idea that we should be honoring our marriage vows. God has not asked us to do something unique to Him, something that His word does not uphold. In serving God we can rely on the fact that He is God. That He will uphold and defend His own self and His own Word and by so doing, defends and vindicates our actions in serving Him.
Regardless of the arguments concerning marriage itself and when or if divorce is allowed, there is still the issue that we took a vow and that vow was before God. The majority of scripture tells us that vows remain until paid or fulfilled. And a vow spoken till death do us part remains and is only paid or fulfilled at our deaths. There can be no other fulfillment except to fulfill all conditions of the vow that we ourselves have spoken.
God, all knowing, all seeing, ever present is witness to our vows. There is nothing that is so far that He cannot reach it and no secret so dark that He cannot penetrate it. So it is not unreasonable to say that all vows, whether spoken or unspoken are seen by Him, are heard by Him are witnessed by Him. But marriage vows are made publicly, before God and before others and He is a witness that cannot be denied.
"May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight....remember that even though no one else is about, God will be witness between you and me...May the God of Abraham...maintain justice between us" Genesis 31:49-50,53
"Because the Lord is witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have broken faith" Malachi 2:14
God cannot lie, he cannot testify falsely to a vow that He has witnessed. He will and he does maintain justice. He does demand the fulfilling of vows.
When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. Numbers 30:2
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. Duet 23:21
Even vows made rashly or ill-advisedly that are regretted later are to be fulfilled. As with the covenant made with the Gibeonites in Joshua 11 or Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11...."You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break" Judges 11:35
Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth. Duet. 23:23
Be not hasty in your utterance and let not our heart be quick to make a promise in God’s presence. God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few...When you make a vow to God, delay not its fulfillment. For God has no pleasure in fools; fulfill what you have vowed. You had better not make a vow than to make it and not fulfill it. Let not your utterances make you guilty, and say not before his representative, "It was a mistake," lest God be angered by such words and destroy the works of your hands. Rather fear God! Ecclesiastes 5:1, 3-6
The honoring of vows is so important to God that if we do not He will destroy the work of our hands but if we do He will hear us call in times of distress and rescue us (Psalm 51:15) and we may abide in his tent and dwell on His holy mountain (Psalm 15:1,4)
And finally the two verses that I find the most interesting of all.
Guard your step when you go to the house of God. Let your approach be obedience, rather than the fools’ offering of sacrifice; for they know not how to keep from doing evil. Ecclesiastes 4:17
Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my alter! I am not pleased with you, says the Lord Almighty, and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations. Says the Lord Almighty. But you profane it by saying of the Lord’s table, ‘It is defiled’ and of its food,’ It is contemptible. And you say, ‘what a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously says the Lord Almighty. When you bring injured, crippled or disease animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands? says the Lord. Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king says the Lord Almighty, and my name is to be feared among the nations. Malachi 1:10-14
These last two verses do not speak specifically to God. They speak to what we offer God. When Jesus became the unblemished lamb for our sins the sacrificing of animals, to fulfill and pay vows, was no longer necessary. But we still offer the incense of our praise, our prayer, our worship, our adoration, our obedience, our very lives. In not fulfilling our marriages vows do we offer the fools sacrifice rather than the sacrifice of obedience? Are we the cursed cheat trying to substitute the blemished sacrifice for what is acceptable? Do we expect God to serve us in accepting it? Do we do justice to the Name that is to be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun when in His Name we do not keep our word, we do not honor our most solemn vows and promises?
The path of the righteous is level; O upright One, you make the way of the righteous smooth. Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts. Isaiah 26:7-8
Do we serve God or does God serve us? If we serve God than we would not dispute someone’s decision to honor marriage vows, for the rightness of that should be written on our hearts. It is only when we expect God to serve us that our stony hearts look for the ways and the loopholes to release us from keeping our word, to remove from us the accountability of commitment that we spoke in making those vows. And these vows remain regardless of what our spouses do, or if they come back, regardless of if it is easy or hard, regardless of how we feel or might want later. To break faith with our spouses, to break faith with our God to act with treachery and duplicity has no place in us. For our word should be as trustworthy and sure, as honest and dependable as the God that we serve.
In the Catholic Church marriage is even more than a promise to be kept, a vow to be honored, it is a binding life-long covenant and a sacrament. A sacrament is a visible living sign of an invisible reality. Like the other six sacraments of the Church, marriage is a sign which reveals the Lord Jesus and through which his divine life and love are communicated. The sacrament of Matrimony is a sign to the world of the invisible God living in our midst. It is the sign of the living God who bears fruit in the lives of two people. Not just on their wedding day but every day they are a continual sign of God’s power in the world. There is a unique and special grace and power within every couple God has joined together. In saying that marriage between two baptized people is a sacrament, the Catholic Church is saying that this relationship expresses, in a distinctive way, the unbreakable bond of love between Christ and his people, between Christ and his Church. It is an expression of his covenant with us. As such, in the sacrament of marriage not only to the couple make a covenant with each other but Jesus makes a covenant with them.
The sacrament of marriage is unique in regard to the other sacraments in that it is not the priest who confers the sacrament. “According to the Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1623). The sacrament of marriage is not confined to the ritual or ceremony but is continually and mutually conferred on each other as they live united to each other. The union, the couple themselves, as a sacrament communicate the grace of God to each other and to the world around them.
This does not mean that those who are married sacramentally will be magically free from problems in their relationship, from hardship or from attack from outside forces. What it does mean is that if they remain in the sacrament and remain as the sacrament they have a grace and power to withstand what comes against them.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. 2 Cor 12:9
God’s grace is always sufficient, is more than abundant, and is more than what is necessary. The couple may be insufficient, the husband or the wife may be insufficient but grace is never insufficient. And the grace that is conferred and communicated in the sacrament is more than sufficient. We have a choice.....we can rely on the sufficiency of God’s grace in which all things are possible or we can rely on ourselves in our insufficiency and nothing is possible. The sacrament is a source of God’s grace that can be relied upon at any time. The husband and/ or the wife can communicate this grace to each other at any time. Each one of them has the right, the authority and yes, even the duty to invoke their sacrament and the graces within that sacrament. Each can give sacramental witness to the divine life and love of Jesus and in the power of unified love they can withstand any attack against the marriage. Even when only one spouse remains faithful they remained united to Christ who remains ever faithful to the covenant that he entered into with them. Rather than looking to what they lack they instead look to the sufficiency of grace in their sacrament and the promises of God to breathe life and grace into His sacraments. They call upon their sacrament, rely upon it and enforce it to dispense grace and blessing through it to their spouse, their children and the generations after them that will live with the legacy of their sacramental witness.
Those who have decided to remain in their sacramental marriage, despite and in the face of civil divorce, are merely upholding their vow to remain faithful in good times and in bad. They are upholding the name of God and giving true witness to it. They rely on the grace available to them through their sacrament to be sufficient for them. Knowing that God is faithful to the sacraments that Jesus has instituted. If we could not believe that God would uphold this sacrament in honesty, honor and integrity then we cannot have faith and rely on any of the sacraments, including baptism. Either God upholds his Word, his promises and his purposes or he does not. If he does then we can rely on the promise of grace in the sacrament of marriage. If he does not then there is nothing to hold on to as his followers concerning his grace at all. We know as well, that while we do so we continue to communicate grace to our spouses, to our families and to the world around us.
“I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” 2 Cor 12: 10
Remaining in the covenant of our marriages, as well as the covenant Jesus Christ has entered into with us concerning it, we give sacramental witness to his divine life and love.
I pray that God will give us strength, wisdom, love and courage. That he assist us with his grace in living out our lives as husbands and wives in the fullness that He intended when calling us to it.