Ed Ames wrote a song decades ago that included the following verse:

Side by side two people stand,
Together vowing, hand-in-hand
That love’s imbedded in their hearts
But soon, an empty feeling starts
To overwhelm their hollow lives
And when they seek the how’s and why’s
Who will answer?

That song haunts me, because so many people are living without God, and bereft of Him they will never find the answers to their how’s and why’s when empty feelings start to overwhelm their hollow lives. How are Christian couples different though? They are also subject to the pain that comes from those hard questions.

In some sense, one would expect these questions to be anticipated by Christians who get married, but frequently they go unconsidered by newlyweds who have failed to truly consider what it is they are saying when they stand at the altar “together vowing, hand-in-hand.” We must consider these vows very seriously.

What Are Vows Anyway?

Before looking at them directly, it should be noted that while many traditions eschew vowing or taking oaths and covenants, doing so is a Biblical thing to do. Jeremiah 4:1-2 says God will bless those who swear vows and keep them. However, it is always to be done with caution (Leviticus 19:12; Exodus 20:7). The very word vow comes from the Latin votum which means “a promise to God.” So, one should understand that when we take vows, we are not promising these things to our spouse – we are promising them to God. Breaking these vows, then, is not simply betraying the commitment made to our spouse, but betraying the commitment made to God.

Further, we are commended in 2 Chronicles 6:22-23 to have witnesses present to hold us accountable to the vows we make. Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 tells us that we should fulfill our vows as soon as we can. Numbers 30:2 tells us that if we make a vow, we are expected to fulfill everything we committed to do – not just most of it and not just the “most important” parts.

What Do Christians Say and Mean When We Take Wedding Vows?

While the vows of other faith traditions greatly differ, the vows taken by Christians (including those at my own wedding), are usually very close to this: “I ______ take you ______, to be my lawfully wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, till death do us part.” Let’s look at this closely.

Lawfully Wedded

It goes without saying that a marriage that is performed outside the bounds of what God has prescribed is not a marriage. While the nation one lives in may provide further and helpful provisions for what constitutes a “lawful” marriage (such as age of consent), the ultimate law designating what is a legitimate marriage is always God’s Word as recorded in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. To save space, I would encourage readers to find the parameters of a Biblically lawful marriage in a historical confession, such as the Westminster or the London Baptist.

The central premise underlying this part of the vow is: The couple marrying promise God that they are both fit to marry according to God’s Law.

To Have and to Hold

These words seem to come from the Biblical prescription given to men that he should “hold fast to his wife.” (Matthew 19:5; Genesis 2:24) The Biblical term denotes “stickiness” and implies that the married couples are to grasp one another so tightly that two things are true: 1. They cannot drift apart. 2. Nothing can come between them.

The central premise underlying this part of the vow is: The couple marrying promise God that they will not be pulled or pushed apart, either by others or themselves.

For Better or Worse, For Richer or Poorer

Perhaps the most unfathomable element in the marriage vow is this element, which is often present even in marriages between non-Christians. Imagine the extent of this statement: “I will stay with you no matter how our lives go.” Many couples divorce today because one or both members has “fallen out of love.” Others separate and divorce over financial hardship, while still others divide over even more frivolous issues.

As a pastor, I always want to ask these couples, “If you have fallen out of love with your spouse, would you describe your life as better or worse?” Or “If you are experiencing financial turmoil, would you say you are richer or poorer?” Indeed, these couples are in a stage we would identify as “worse” or “poorer” and yet, these are precisely the circumstances under which they promised God to stay together.

I have seen it on occasion occur that a person will have their life markedly improve, only to think that they could have done better in their choice of partner. They may make some money, advance in their career, or have surgery to improve their look and sex appeal. To those I want to ask, “Is your life better or worse? Are you richer or poorer?” Obviously, they consider their life “better” or “richer” – and vowed to stay with their partner in that stage as well.

The central premise underlying this part of the vow is: The couple marrying promise God that they will stay with one another regardless of their life circumstances.

In Sickness and Health

I have had the great privilege in my ministry of sitting in the room with husbands and wives as their spouse took their last breath. In that moment, I have witnessed a bond that is simply incomparable in human relations. Having spent life together, regardless of length or brevity, this person sits holding the hand and kissing the forehead of the other, refusing to abandon them in their moment of greatest vulnerability and helplessness. There is a great love that one simply never imagines themselves being capable of as they sit offering ice cubes to their dying spouse who is not allowed to eat; or as they spend all their savings, retirement funds, and all that their credit can afford to borrow to attempt to save this person’s life. Yes, to this we commit when we take this vow.

And yet, what is perhaps more commonly broken is that second element – maintaining faithfulness in times of health. How many young ladies have hit this wall in their late-20s, thinking, “these are my last years before I become undesirable… am I happy with this man forever? I am still young and desirable; I could get another man if I wanted… maybe I should.” Or how many men, reaching that mid-life crisis dive into some ridiculous attempt to prove themselves to still be a man, despite their wife telling them she is perfectly fulfilled by him?

The central premise underlying this part of the vow is: The couple marrying promise God that they will not allow the transitory nature of health and sickness to separate them.

Forsaking All Others

It has been said that when a man marries a woman, he is simultaneously saying “yes” to her and “no” to everybody else. No person, man or woman, can carry a flame for another while simultaneously loving their spouse rightly. Indeed, there can be no thought entertained in a married person’s mind for the possibility that another person might ever be their partner.

In our age, this might look different than in others. Of course, Billy Graham had his rule about not being alone with women aside from his wife – a rule that is still wise to follow. But today, men and women would be wise to go farther. It is unwise to go about “liking” the photos of individuals of the opposite sex when married, and anyone in a committed relationship will testify to their discomfort with their spouse private messaging or snapchatting these individuals either.

The central premise underlying this part of the vow is: The couple marrying promise God that they will keep their eyes, mind, and body for their spouse alone.

Till Death Do Us Part

Why this lone provision for separation? Because it leaves the end of this marriage union in the hands of the one who ordained it. God alone decides who lives and who dies – just as He alone defines what marriage is and who can unite in one. If a man and a woman marry under the care of God, it is only appropriate for them to be separated under the care of God.

It was Christ Himself who said, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9) Couples will not be married forever (Matthew 22:30), but the end of it is to be in God’s hands.

The central premise underlying this part of the vow is: The couple marrying promise God that they will let Him decide when it is time for their marriage to come to His chosen end.

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