Then and now: What your vows really meanWritten by Amy Van Veen
What's inside this article
If you were to look back on your wedding day right now, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Do you think about how much money could have gone toward investing in a house rather than in a venue? Or the drama of your wedding party? What about your first kiss as husband and wife? Or the wave of relief you felt as you walked back up the aisle together?
There might be something important missing from your nostalgic look back on your big day – your vows. If you had to, right now, would you be able to stand with your spouse and repeat them word for word?
The answer is probably no.
Most people, when asked about their wedding vows, cannot recall what they said. Some people use traditional vows, some people write their own, but in the blur of that moment when you vowed to commit your life to your spouse, your mind wasn’t storing away the exact words so you could recall them, on demand, in five, 10, 20 years.
Maybe you’re like Sam*, who regrets not having simpler vows. Maybe you’re like Jean*, who, in looking back, wishes she could rewrite them knowing what she knows now. Maybe you’re like Caroline*, who doesn’t remember them word for word, but remembers they were meaningful.
If your vows are one of the last things to cross your mind as you look back on your wedding day, and you can’t even remember what you promised to do ‘til death do you part, then the question has to be asked – what’s the point?
"I do . . . what was it I do?"
The biggest thing that Randy MacDonald, vice-president of church and community relations at Focus on the Family Canada, has tried to make clear to the hundreds of couples he’s married over the years is that the vows you make have nothing to do with signing a piece of paper.
"This is not a government vow," he explains. "A vow is something that’s only made between us and God and each other."
Or as Craig Groeschel, who co-wrote From This Day Forward with his wife Amy, puts it, "Marriage is not a contract; it’s a covenant. And what is a covenant? A covenant is a permanent relationship. Our God is a God of covenants. He makes permanent relationships with his people."
"A contract," he explains, "is designed to limit my responsibility and increase my rights. If you and I sign a contract, it basically says that I’m in as far as you are. I commit to what I think is fair for me, and you commit to what you think is fair for you."
But when people approach marriage with that mindset, there will always be tension because, Groeschel notes, "A contract . . . is based on mutual distrust."
However, when a couple looks at their "I dos" with the understanding that it’s an unconditional promise, then, MacDonald says, they will be able to lean on their vows during times of frustration and stress, while also looking back on it with celebration in times of joy. Their vows become a "marker point." With their vows, he says, each spouse is saying they will be the first to move towards each other, the first to forgive, the first to take the step to making things better.
But because it is a covenant, it’s between more than just you and your spouse – God needs to be the focus.
"So help me, God"
When you try to remember your vows, which part do you think about? "For richer or poorer"? "In sickness and in health"? Or do you think about the final phrase so many couples say – "so help me, God"?
"I think the problem for a lot of us is that we say that last part in a monotone voice, like it’s some kind of pledge we memorized in school, like we’re about to be cross-examined in traffic court: ‘so help me, God’," Groeschel explains. "Instead, we need to think of it as a request to the only one who can save us: ‘I’m deciding to do all of these things, and I really, really mean it. So please! Help me, God!’"
Over the years, MacDonald has helped a lot of couples work through writing their own vows. He notes that the process of struggling through what they would want to say to their spouse helps them work through the gravity of the promises they’re making. In the process of working through it, though, he does use traditional vows as a template, making sure the couple includes and understands "with God’s help."
"I need God in order to love another person unconditionally," Groeschel writes. "Without him, our marriage wouldn’t be anything special . . . But by making him our One, he makes us one."
"From this day forward"
But what if, after all of this, you still regret your vows? You still wish you could have done something different? You still wish you could change the last five, 10, 20 years?
The good news is your vows hold the key to this dilemma: "From this day forward." As Groeschel notes, "Those four little words are packed full of hope, brimming with promise."
"What happened in your past doesn’t matter." Groeschel goes on to explain, "Did you mess up when you were dating? That’s okay! Have you struggled with communicating? That’s okay! Have you said things you wish you could take back? That’s okay! Have you done things you regret? It’s okay. God’s mercies, his compassions, never fail. They are new every morning."
So while you may be discouraged, while you may look back on your vows with regret, while you may want to travel back in time to your wedding day and tell your past self what to really expect from marriage, you don’t need to. You can have a fresh start today, from this day forward.
"Draw a line at today," Groeschel suggests. "Your new lifelong love life, your new love affair with each other, the greatest marriage you can imagine, begins now." He goes on to add, "It might feel like you have too much to overcome. You don’t. It might feel like the damage is too great to be repaired. It’s not. You might not think you have what it takes. You don’t. But God does."
Ultimately, MacDonald says, you have to ask yourself if you’re going to love this person, ‘til death do you part. Looking back on his own vows, he says he asked himself that very question, explaining that it was "an impetus for me to move forward in learning how to love her and taking responsibility for that as a man of God and her as a woman of God."
While you might not be able to remember the exact words you spoke when you stood opposite one another so many years ago, I’m sure, if you take the time, you can remember the ways you and your spouse have fulfilled your vows over the years.
Recently, Liz* realized she didn’t need to remember the words when the actions of her husband spoke so loudly. "When I was sick and Peter* took care of me," she recalls, "though I don’t remember the vows, I thought, ‘Oh, he is doing what he promised to do.’ And for me it is a blessing that God has entrusted me to have Peter as my husband; therefore, I want to give the best to Peter because God is so kind giving Peter to me."
Your vows are more than a collection of words you say once and then forget. They are the point at which your relationship became a covenant between you, your spouse and, most importantly, God.
"Our commitment to each other is mirrored in our holy covenant before him," Groeschel explains. "And our commitments are based on decisions. The choices you make each and every day determine not only your relationship with God but also the quality of your marriage. The decisions you make today determine the marriage you will have tomorrow."
*Names changed to protect privacy
Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.
Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.
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