The Key to a Lasting Marriage is Commitment by Charles R Swindoll
The passages below are taken from Charles R. Swindoll’s booklet, “Commitment—The Key in Marriage,” which was published in 1981 by Zondervan.
A VOW IS A VOW
Marriage isn’t begun in a context of vagueness and uncertainty. Two people, fully conscious and very much awake and aware, declare their vows. I realize vows may vary but without exception, they include words like:
“for better or for worse . .”
“… ‘til death do us part.”
Right? Remember those words you promised before God? Did He hear you? I’m being facetious–—of course He heard you! Does He take such vows seriously? Read for yourself:
When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! (Ecclesiastes 5:4 NASB).
Yes, He not only takes them seriously, He remembers them permanently. A vow is a vow. A solemn promise by which one individual binds himself/herself to an act or service or another person. What is it God commands?
“Pay what you vow!”
Now, listen very carefully. Read this slowly. No amount of psychological therapy, positive thinking (often dubbed “grace”), semantic footwork with the biblical text, alternative concepts, or mutual support from family and friends can remove your responsibility to keep your vow. Unless you are a victim of the conditions I talked about in my booklet, Divorce (biblical bases for divorce and remarriage), you are responsible for your marriage vow. I repeat–—a vow is a vow.
Of course it’s difficult! For sure, there will be times you are inwardly convinced you can’t go on. But I remind you of your vow, your stated commitment:
. . .for better, for worse. . .
What you are experiencing may be some of the “worse.” And no marriage is exempt from such times. (7-8)
A Needed Clarification
It would be wise for us to pause a moment and clarify a matter seldom addressed in books on marriage, especially those that support commitment to the vows that were taken. There are unique occasions when it may be necessary for some couples to separate, temporarily. Due to various circumstances–—all of them prompted either by emotional sickness or gross demonstrations of sin to the point of danger–—there are times when life and health are seriously threatened. To remain together in such cases frequently leads to permanent damage and even tragedy in a home.
It is unrealistic and unfair to think that regardless of sure danger and possible loss of life, a godly mate and helpless children should subject themselves to brutality and other forms of extreme mistreatment. At that point, commitment to Christ supersedes all other principles in a home. I am not advocating divorce . . . but I do suggest restraint and safety via a separation.
It is one thing to be in subjection. It is another thing entirely to become the brunt of indignity physical assault, sexual perversion, and uncontrolled rage.
At such crisis times, call for help! Seek out a Christian friend who can assist you. Talk with your pastor or a competent counselor who will provide both biblical guidance and emotional support. And pray! Pray that your Lord will bring about changes in the unbearable circumstances surrounding you. Ask for deliverance, safety, stability, and great grace to see you through, to settle your fears, to calm your spirit so you can think and act responsibly.
What is it David writes?
Be gracious, 0 God, for man has trampled upon me;
Fighting all day long he oppresses me,
My foes have trampled upon me all day long,
For they are many who fight proudly against me.
When I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee.
In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust;
I shall not be afraid, What can mere man do to me?
All day long they distort my words;
All their thoughts are against me for evil.
They attack, they lurk,
They watch my steps,
As they have waited to take my life….
Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call;
This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
In the Lord, whose word I praise,
In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me? (Psalm 56:1—6, 9—11 NASB).
Powerful words, waiting to be claimed!
PRINCIPLES THAT ENHANCE COMMITMENT
Let’s consider several principles from I Corinthians 7 that enhance our marital commitment. To help make these thoughts stick, I will be brief and to the point. I find four principles in this great chapter.
1. Christian marriages have conflicts, but they are not beyond solution.
Take a look at 1 Corinthians 7:28:
But if you should marry you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
Writing with a compassionate heart, Paul says that he is trying to “spare us.” One of his suggestions is that some not even marry (vv 7, 26). But this is not God’s will for most of us. So then, when we marry, we can be sure of this—times of disagreement, fleshly flare-ups, are bound to happen.
Remember this: There is no such thing as a home completely without conflicts. The last couple to live “happily ever after” was Snow White and Prince Charming. Even though you are committed to your mate, there will still be times of tension, tears, struggle, disagreement, and impatience. Commitment doesn’t erase our humanity! That’s bad news, but it’s realistic.
The good news is this: With the Lord Jesus Christ living within you and with His Book, the Bible, waiting to be called upon for counsel and advice, no conflict is beyond solution.
Before moving on to the next principle, drop down to verses 32 through 35:
But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;
but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,
and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.
Talk about realism! If you are married, there is no such thing as giving the Lord your “undistracted devotion” 100 percent of the time. Know why? Because you married a distraction! Just the difference between you and your mate—the male-female differences—have a way of keeping you trusting.
In our day of unisex and narrowing the gap between men and women, it is easy to pick up an erroneous idea that you and your partner are very much alike. No, that simply isn’t true. Listen to one authority:
An effort has been underway for the past few years to prove that men and women are identical, except for the ability to bear children. Radical feminists have vigorously (and foolishly) asserted that the only distinction between the sexes is culturally and environmentally produced. Nothing could be farther from the truth; males and females differ biochemically, anatomically, and emotionally. In truth, they are unique in every cell of their bodies, for men carry a different chromosomal pattern than women. There is also considerable evidence to indicate that the hypothalamic region, located just above the pituitary gland in the mid-brain, is “wired” very uniquely for each of the sexes. Thus, the hypothalamus (known as the seat of the emotions) provides women with a different psychological frame of reference than that of men. Further, female sexual desire tends to be somewhat cyclical, correlated with the menstrual calendar, whereas males are acyclical. These and other features account for the undeniable fact that masculine and feminine expressions of sexuality are far from identical. Failure to understand this uniqueness can produce a continual source of marital frustration and guilt.1
And never forget, those differences create conflicts . . . but in the Lord and under His control, none are unsolvable.
2. Working through is harder than walking out, but it is God’s way.
Again, listen to several verses from I Corinthians 7:
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife (v. 27).
Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (v. 24).
But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband
(but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away.
But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away.
And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away (vv. 10—13).
The obvious, underlying theme here is like our Olympic hockey team’s game plan: Don’t quit, hang tough, stay at it, regardless.
My wife and I declare our commitment to each other several times a year. We get alone, often for an overnight somewhere cozy and private. While there we look at each other and verbalize our promise to remain faithful. We actually declare aloud our commitment. Can’t explain how or why it works, but there’s something reassuring about putting things like that into words. As our ears hear what our mouths are saying (from our hearts, actually), our loyalty is reaffirmed.
Another fact is this: We have removed the term “divorce” from our vocabulary when we are working through a tough time. We do not refer to it, we do not use it as a threat, nor do we tuck it away in a safe place in our minds for some future use. The passages we just read pulsate with commitment:
“Do not seek to be released. . .
“… remain.. .
“… the wife should not leave. . .
“… the husband should not send his wife away.”
Why? Why is it best to work through rather than walk out? I can think of several reasons:
• It is the continual counsel of Scripture.
• One’s growth in Christ is strengthened.
• The testimony of Christ before the public is enhanced.
• Working through forces needed changes. To walk out means we take our same hang-ups into the next relationship.
• Children in the family remain more secure, stable, and balanced. They also learn to run if parents run … or work out the difficulties if that’s what Mom and Dad model.
I’m sure there are some who read these words and disagree—especially if you are thinking of walking out. Before you do, let me share with you a brief observation from an article out of a popular secular magazine:
No Role Models: For better or worse, divorce continues to split families at an alarming rate. The number of children involved in divorce has tripled in the last twenty years. And though parents, children and professionals are struggling to deal with such new domestic realities as single-parent families, there are no longstanding precedents, no established role models to draw from. Divorce and its aftermath can be a labyrinth of confusion and conflict, some of which may never be resolved.2
There can be no denying it. Walking out may seem to be the solution. Even the secular authorities are beginning to question that now. No, there is a better answer than walking out. Work through!
3. Being committed to one’s mate is not a matter of demanding rights, but releasing rights.
Listen to these words:
Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (1 Corinthians 7:3—4 NASB).
A couple of words in those verses pierce deeply, don’t they? Duty. Authority. Selfishness within us hates terms like that! “I’ve got my rights!” says today’s liberated woman. “Hey, don’t tie me down!” yells today’s macho man.
God has a better way: Surrender your rights. Lay down your arms. Release your grip on the things you’ve been fighting for. Commit the risk to God. Trust Him to defend you and keep you from being ripped off. I say that to husbands just as much as I do wives. Releasing rights, ideally, is a mutual thing—a duet, not a solo.
4. The Christian’s ultimate goal in life is not to be happy, but to glorify God.
This is one of the greatest insights God ever gave me. If you will meditate on it long enough, deeply enough, it will literally revolutionize your life. It has mine. It is based on the last two verses in 1 Corinthians 6 and leads into these thoughts we’ve been considering on commitment:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (vv. 19—20).
Two significant thoughts deserve our full attention. I will personalize them:
I AM NOT MY OWN.
I AM TO GLORIFY GOD.
If it were possible to set in concrete one all-encompassing truth from this booklet, those two statements would do it. Please read them again.
Our ultimate goal, our highest calling in life is to glorify God–—not to be happy. Let that sink in! Glorifying Him is our greatest pursuit.
As I glorify Him, He sees to it that other essential needs are met… or my need for them diminishes. Believe me, this concept will change your entire perspective on yourself, your life, and your marriage.
A CONCLUDING THOUGHT ON COMMITMENT
We have thought about several reasons Christian marriages have grown weaker in our generation. We have also given consideration to some principles that strengthen our commitment to our mates. Every major point has been amplified from one or more biblical statements. And yet … I’m sure a few of you who read these words look upon your situation as an exception. Frowning, you’ll lay this booklet aside with a sigh and think, “But you just don’t know the person I’m married to. Our only answer is divorce. I just can’t commit myself to this marriage. We’re finished.”
For your sake, I share the following letter. It was written to me almost a year after I spoke on commitment in our church in Fullerton, California. The wife who wrote it understands what a difficult marriage is all about. Believe me, I know. Their home seemed beyond repair.
Dear Pastor Chuck:
Tonight, I commented to you about how much I appreciated your comments concerning your stand on divorce, remarriage, and commitment. I thank you for your supportive and compassionate understanding of this area of difficulty in many marriages.
I really wanted to tell you how I have been blessed since I last wrote you nearly ten months ago (after you gave your sermons on commitment). I decided to remain steadfast in commitment to my own marriage that was in the middle of a divorce action at that time. God has changed me. He has given me a new love for my husband and, in turn, my husband has been changing in his attitude toward me. He is still uncommitted about his relationship with Jesus—–a miracle I am anticipating.
Six months ago we sat and listened to a psychologist (not a Christian) tell us to get on with the divorce because there was absolutely nothing left of our marriage and no basis upon which to build.
Well, God’s grace has allowed the contrary. It’s still a real struggle some days, but I have learned that as we “pull” toward each other rather than “push” at each other, the direction is more secure and sound.
So, commitment is not just another word in my vocabulary. It has become a real part of my life.
No, commitment is not just another word. It is the watchword for a struggling, hurting, eroding marriage that seems destined to be locked up and closed forever.
Commitment is the key.
Great God of might:
We are impressed anew with the truth of Your Word. With all seriousness, You have declared what You expect from Your children. And commitment is one of those expectations. In marriage—my marriage—it is the key. But it’s tough, Father. Swirling around us are loud and intimidating voices that muffle Your message and confuse us.
You say, “Stay”; they say, “Leave.”
You say, “Remember your vow”; they say, “Forget.”
You say, “Trust Me”; they say, “Walk away”
You say, “Surrender”; they say, “Fight!”
Step in, 0 Lord, and take a firm grip on our weak lives. We are tired of the uncertainty that comes from following wrong advice. But unless You give strength and stabilize us, we can’t keep going.
Show us, individually, just how mighty You are. Work miracles in my life and in my mate’s life. Start today, 0 God of might. Start with me.
We ask this in the name of Your Son.
WHY SO LITTLE COMMITMENT?
What’s happening? Why is the divorce rate skyrocketing? How come so many Christians are walking away from their commitment with no biblical justification?
I have boiled it down to four reasons. Perhaps there are many more, but these are the four I encounter most often.
1. Public Opinion
Ours is the “everybody’s doin’ it” craze. You know, the “don’t sweat it” philosophy. The media ignores or, with a slick wave of the hand, glosses over the fact that a certain person recently walked away from his or her marriage. So does the press.
All this dulls the senses of the public. The edge of our discernment is dulled. By and by we tend to tolerate (and later embrace) the same compromise. No longer is it in vogue to be ashamed or embarrassed—–certainly not to blush! Guilt is now an obscene term, something no one should bring on another by asking the hard questions.
This is nothing new. In Deuteronomy 6 God’s people, the Hebrews, are just about to enter a vast, new territory. The promised land. Canaanite country. Sounds inviting, but it held numerous perils for those monotheistic, protected, sheltered people who had hovered around a cloud by day and a fire by night. Idolatry, humanism, and carnality in the raw awaited them in Canaan. And they would soon be living in that pagan culture where public opinion would be in conflict with their training under Moses. So God prepares them with this strong warning:
Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build,
and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied,
then watch yourself, lest you forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery
You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name.
You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you,
for the Lord your Cod in the midst of you is a jealous God (Deuteronomy 6:1O—45a NASB).
Without question, the Lord God stood against His people being dulled and lulled to sleep by the people who surrounded them. How relevant! Public opinion has a way of weakening our commitment.
2. Accommodating Theology
There is another reason Christian marriages are weaker in commitment. I call it “accommodating theology.” This is nothing more than fitting the Bible into my lifestyle. In other words, I alter my theology instead of adjusting my life.
Ezekiel the prophet faced a group of people who did this. Jehovah warned him ahead of time so it wouldn’t jolt him too severely Read Ezekiel 33:30—33:
But as for you, son of man, your fellow citizens who talk about you by the walls and in the doorways of the houses, speak to one another, each to his brother, saying, “Come now, and hear what the message is which comes forth from the Lord.”
And they come to you as people come, and sit before you as My people, and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain.
And behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not practice them.
So when it comes to pass—as surely it will—then they will know that a prophet has been in their midst.
The Living Bible says it straight:
They hear what you say, but don’t pay any attention to it (v. 32b).
Now, don’t misunderstand. They are not obnoxious and ugly. No. In fact, they are gracious, flattering, and even good at listening. But down underneath, they really have no plans whatsoever to let biblical theology get in their way.
This requires great rationalization. It demands the ability to ignore some obvious things, reinterpret and explain away certain passages of Scripture, and to call upon grace (that vast dumping ground for every conceivable act of disobedience) to get them through. By accommodating one’s theology, it is remarkable what the mind can do to remove even the slightest trace of guilt!
I write with emotion. I’m sure it shows through. Within the past three years I have watched about ten marriages dissolve. All Christian marriages. Yes, both husbands and wives. All very much involved in Christian activities and church ministries. In each case one of the mates in each marriage has willfully (and skillfully) accommodated his or her theology so that the Scriptures actually “approved” their plans to walk out.
There were no ugly fights or bold public announcements like, “I am denying the faith!” No need for that. Calmly and with reserved respectability, they simply left. That’s it. Against my counsel and strong efforts to stop them. Against scriptural injunctions. Against their mates’ desires. In spite of the certain damage to their children. And regardless of the shame it brought against the name of God and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Hang on—–not one seems to be wrestling with much guilt or personal shame. In fact, several say they have never been happier. A few openly insist they are closer to the Lord than ever before in their lives. Some are still engaged in public ministries.
How? Accommodating theology, that’s how.
3. Delayed Consequences
A third reason we see less commitment and an increasing number of broken marriages is a practical one—they get away with it without divine judgment.
Solomon once wrote about this:
. . .Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the Sons of men among them are given fully to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NASB).
You’ve heard it before: “All God’s accounts are not settled this month.” I remember reading the words of a sixteenth century saint similar to that one:
God does not pay at the end of every day. But at the end, He pays. (Ann of Austria)
I’ll be honest. This is one of the most difficult things for me to accept. It’s beyond me why a holy and just God does not deal more quickly with disobedience among His wayward children. It would certainly do a lot to build a wholesome fear in the lives of those being tempted to disobey. But even though I cannot explain it, I must declare it: Delayed consequences cause couples to walk away from each other.
Funny, isn’t it? Being here-and-now thinkers, we tend to deny the devastating effects divorce will ultimately have on us and, for sure, on our children. Because momentary relief is such a determined pursuit by an unhappy mate, the added “benefit” of little or no divine discipline provides the encouragement needed to carry out the plan.
4. Christian Approval
There is a fourth reason so many believers are breaking the bond of marriage. It ties in with the third one we just considered. For lack of a better way to say it, Christian approval encourages it.
Remember the Corinthian church? Remember how lax they were with the brother in their midst who was living in sin? Listen to the account:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s Wife.
And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst.
For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.
In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?
Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:1—7 NASB).
Church discipline is virtually unheard of in our day. The Corinthians were equally guilty of that same problem. They had a man who was guilty of incest. Rather than being ashamed, rather than applying discipline, they boasted about their tolerance and they were proud of how broadminded they had become.
And so it is in America today. Precious few are the churches that take a stand against disobedience in their midst. How seldom do we hear of someone being disciplined because he or she breaks his marital vow! Such Christian approval has helped foster a shallow view of commitment in our day. (9-16)
1. Dr. James Dobson, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1975), 114.
2. Linda Bird Francke and others, “Children of Divorce,” Newsweek [New York], February 11, 1980, 58—63.