No wedding is complete without someone saying, “I had no idea what I was doing when I said ‘I do’.”
Well, it is time to put that refrain to death. This generation is learning from its mistakes. May the next generation know exactly what “I do” means.
It goes like this. I met a girl. I was quickly attracted to her. In other words, I liked how she looked. Then I got to know her, and I had even more reason to be attracted to her. So I asked her to marry me. She said yes, though she had a few reservations that we ironed out before the actual wedding.
And I had no idea what I was doing when I said “I do.”
I thought I was saying, “I am really attracted to you. In fact, I am attracted to you more than anyone else I’ve ever met. And I am going to close the door to being attracted to other people.” That, I thought, was impressively mature. My bride hit the jackpot.
The problem, of course, began when she disappointed me and, in a moment, I was shocked by how her attractiveness made no difference. She still looked the same and had the same fine attributes, but I was no longer as attracted.
Attraction is fun, and in Western systems of courtship and marriage, it is the way couples get started, but attraction is about me. It’s about how someone makes me feel. In that sense, attraction is rubbish. It gets people together but it is powerless to keep them together. Even more, attraction, without the addition of other forms of love, promises to separate marriages and any once-close relationship.
What must supplant attraction goes by different names – commitment, faithfulness, love that only death separates, covenantal love and others. Those are all good, and I am sure they guide many people, but they all fall short for me. Commitment seems sterile, so does faithfulness – dogs can do that. Covenantal love sounds too legal.
“I love you because I love you.” That is a great one. God spoke it to the Israelites and he continues to speak love to those who are with Jesus.
The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
But this sets the bar too high. God loves because he is love; I am not love. So I have to search for other ways to describe this different-than-attraction love.
Servant-love? No, that is an important expression of love, but servants don’t share their hearts with the one they serve. They just do what they are supposed to do. The New Testament injects servant-love with new meaning and vitality, but there are times when it feels too impersonal.
“Admire” or “enjoy” are better than attraction. They are less self-referential. They suggest that there are praise worthy features in the other person. These, however, take time. When the thrill is gone in a relationship, admiration and enjoyment won’t offer any new power to love.
What we need is something that captures the imbalanced nature of the love of Jesus for us. He loved us first and he loved us more than we will ever love him in return. In response, we too want to love others first and more. That’s the way to be fully human.
The idea of debt captures it.
Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:7-8)
When we owe someone, there is a slight imbalance in the relationship. This is what “I do” means. We commit ourselves to give more than we receive.
Sample vows could go like this.
There are a number of reasons why I am attracted to you.
Now I will move on to better things.
I am committed to learn how to love you
more than I love me and
more than I want to be loved by you.
I want this to be obvious to you.
I want this to imitate the unity we can have with Jesus.
I want this to please God.
May God show me grace and mercy.
This vow aims to do at least two things. It dethrones the usurper Attraction, separates it from Jesus’ style of love, and re-establishes the imbalanced nature of Christian love. Unity shows up, as it should. Unity reminds us that real love is not silent when the other spouse is loveless. We can and should speak out when the other person is aiming for lesser things, such as mere attraction. For example, when the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he loved them more than they loved him, but he also pleaded with them to open their hearts and love him in return. In this, Paul was not saying, “I need love.” He was saying, “As members of Christ we are called to love one another. When we don’t, someone gets hurt and the glory of God becomes veiled to the world.”
For the next generation to get it right, we must loose our infatuation with attraction. We must prefer arguments about who is in debt to whom. “No, I owe you love, and I’m not listening to one more word of your protests.” I owe you more than you owe me – that’s where we go when we meditate on the love of Jesus. Then we can know exactly what we are doing when we say “I do.”