“To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” I was only 21 years old, but those were the vows I made that June day 42 years ago to my even younger bride. Maybe your vows were similar to mine.
Have you ever counted how many “ifs” there are in the traditional wedding vows? You know, “I promise today to love you ‘if’ you continue to consistently treat me in a way that makes me feel good about myself” or “I promise to love you ‘if’ you keep your attractive figure after bearing me three children.” Count them. How many “ifs” did you say in your wedding vows? That’s right. Zero. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. On our wedding day, we were making a solemn promise to our future spouse in the presence of God and the gathered witnesses that we would love our spouse no matter what. That’s what “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” means. No “ifs.” We were, in a sense, telling our bride or our groom on that sacred day that we had decided ahead of time that we would love them no matter what would happen in the future. Think about it: On our wedding days there was no way of knowing what the future held — what changes — what challenges — what hardships. Nevertheless, we were pledging our faithful love to our soon-to-be spouse. We were pledging a “decided-ahead-of-time” love that does not quit when those changes and challenges come.
When did the Lord decide to love us? Did He choose to love us after some probationary period in our Christian experience after seeing that maybe we would make an okay bride for Him, after all? No, thankfully. Did He decide to love us on the day of our salvation? No. His decision was made long before that day. The Bible says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:4-6a). Think of it. Even before God uttered those words, “Let there be light!” He had already decided to love us. Christ’s love for us, His bride, is a “decided-ahead-of-time” love. His love is a “predetermined” love. No conditions. No “ifs.”Even before God uttered those words, “Let there be light!” He had already decided to love us. His love is a “predetermined” love. No conditions. No “ifs.” Click To Tweet
We could go even further. Being omniscient, God was very aware when He decided before the creation of the world to love us that we would be, in fact, totally unworthy of His love. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached to the congregation at Westminster Chapel, “He loved us, not because of anything in us; he loved us in spite of what was in us, ‘while we were yet sinners.’ He loved the ungodly, ‘while we were yet enemies.’ In all our unworthiness and vileness He loved us. He loved the church, not because she was glorious and beautiful — no, but that He might make her such.”1
The Bible is clear that the Lord decided ahead of time to love us. His love was a decision He made, not merely irrespective of His bride’s potential unworthiness of His love, but actually knowing ahead of time that we would disappoint Him with our unfaithfulness and offend Him with our sins. His was a “predetermined” love — an unconditional love — a “no-matter-what” kind of love. No “ifs.”
It is so humbling to think how often over the years my love for my wife has been a reaction to my perception of her love for me, a response to my sense of her respect for me, a reply to her support of my leadership. If I have felt loved and respected, I have showered my love on her. If I have not felt her love and support as I have desired, I have withheld my expressions of love. How un-Christlike! More often than I would care to remember, my love has been conditional. There have been way too many “ifs.”
Yet, on that warm June day long ago, I had vowed my predetermined love for her. I had promised her that I had already decided to love her “as long as we both shall live” no matter what. And my beautiful blue-eyed bride was not the only one listening attentively to my vows that day. So was my God. “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). How kind God has been to me in not treating me as my sins deserve (Psalm 103:10), but loving me unconditionally because of the cross of Christ. He is gracious beyond my wildest imaginations.
“For better, for worse.” My predetermined love for my wife means that I choose to love her ahead of time, not only in the good times but even when we encounter seasons in our marriage that are less than enjoyable. It might mean loving her unconditionally through the occasional irritability. Or, on a more serious level, it might mean loving her unilaterally during seasons of discouragement or depression when she’s not sure that she loves me. It might even mean loving her determinedly with a Hosea-like love through periods when she is living in rebellion against the Lord who bought her.
“For richer for poorer.” Seasons of financial struggle can take a toll on any marriage, can’t they? There is only so much money to go around, and the husband may have one idea on how to use that money while his wife has a very different idea. Arguments over money rip and test and tear at many marriages. But, if we have decided ahead of time to love our spouses in an unconditional, Christlike way, God’s grace will see us through. Many people are still waiting to have their love tested during the “richer” periods, thinking that being richer would make things so much more pleasant in their marriages. Yet, riches can bring their own strain on the marriage if they are not handled in a God-honoring way. Speaking from experience, no doubt, the writer of Ecclesiastes confessed, “Whoever has money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless” (5:10). Let’s not live in a delusional world. Having a bigger income doesn’t guarantee a happier marriage.
“In sickness and in health.” Few men who marry young (as I did) give this vow much thought as they prepare for marriage. Yet, as the years of marriage wear on, our bodies wear down. Will the bride who participated in strenuous recreational activities with us or who enjoyed passionate physical intimacy with us in our youth be just as loved by us when she needs her walker to get around or when she struggles through the fog of Alzheimer’s to show us the simplest of affections? It is so tempting in our “what’s-in-it-for-me?” culture for a husband to justify himself in finding some other object for his affections if his wife’s health fails before his. But if we have come to grips with the Lord’s grace and the Lord’s directive to “love your wives, just as Christ loves the church,” then we will love her through any debilitating illnesses or through the ravages of old age. A Christlike predetermined love will see us through the seasons of “in sickness and in health.”
No, there were no “ifs” in our wedding vows. And, that was the way it was supposed to be as we reflect Christ in our marriages with a decided-ahead-of-time love.