Commitment—What is the Meaning of ‘For Better or for Worse?’

By John Hutchison Mar. 11, 2011 4:39 p.m. Biblical Exposition, Church Life

Just think about the meaning of the words in our wedding vows—“for better or for worse . . . in plenty and in want . . .  in joy and in sorrow . . .in sickness and in health . . . as long as we both shall live.” What a commitment we make in that moment of time, with “God and these witnesses” listening! Are these just empty words of tradition, or do they represent a genuine promise of commitment? The longevity and quality of your marriage depends upon it!

Commitment is a mindset . . . an attitude . . . a way of thinking that will enable you and your spouse to navigate through the still waters and the storms of a marriage relationship. Charles Swindoll (Strike the Original Match) compares working on marriage to remodeling a house:

It takes longer than you planned
It costs more than you figured
It is messier than you anticipated
It requires greater determination than you expected
Sometimes the only thing that keeps us going is hope!

Commitment is especially important when we face the inevitable conflicts that come in any marriage (or for that matter any relationship). While many today write into their divorce documents, “Irreconcilable differences,” God calls us to a higher kind of LOVE to resolve these differences.  Our English word “love,” in fact, is incapable of capturing the most important aspects of this love of commitment. Think about it. In a casual conversation I could say . . . I love playing golf . . . I love my grandkids . . . I love my dog . . . I love reading history . . . I love my wife (not in any order of priority!). And, as diverse as these are, you still know what I mean by all of them. The Greeks (original language of the New Testament) had four primary words for love, each of them emphasizing different aspects of this complex idea. Storge, though not a word found in the New Testament, was a general love of natural affection. Eros represented a love of physical attraction, of passion, a self-centered love seeking pleasure and satisfaction. Phileo was the love of friendship and companionship. All of these words were used in Greek & Roman literature to depict various aspects of love, and they had one thing in common—if circumstances changed love might change and fade away.

Agape represented the love of choice and commitment. It is a word rarely used outside of Scripture, but in the Bible over 320 times! This love is not dependent on the qualities of the one loved, or even on circumstances. It seems to be a love that has its origins in God—“We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) This is the love our hearts crave. Even though we did not deserve it, God loved and will always love us in this way (Romans 5:5-8). This is the love that is commanded in our relationships--“A new command I give you: Love one another; as I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34; 14:17). This is the love that is described in 1 Cor 13:4-7: “Love (agape) is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” When I officiate in a wedding ceremony, I always encourage the couple to include these words as a reminder of the fact that love is not just something we feel, but also something we do! Agape in marriage is the commitment a man and woman make to one another. This becomes especially important when the storms of life come . . . and they will!

What are some of the barriers in relationships that work against building this kind of commitment? Here are just a few factors that may be present in any marriage that undermine unconditional commitment:

  • Self-centeredness and stubbornness. Put simply, we are sinners, and central to our sinfulness is the choice of self-gratification. Several years ago a young man shared his personal story with an adult Sunday School group I was teaching. He had asked my permission to “bare his soul” before his friends. He shared that he had been having an affair for two years, and had now repented before the Lord and was seeking the forgiveness of his wife. You could have heard a pin drop in the room as we were all asked to become an “accountability group” for this young man. Their marriage was restored, and his story revealed that his own selfishness, self-gratification, and stubbornness had been at the root of the problem. Only commitment to his wife brought them back to a healthy marriage.
  • Spiritual and Emotional “baggage” from the past. Past experiences, especially unresolved sins or habit patterns, will haunt any marriage relationship and prevent intimacy and commitment. Bitterness toward God or others . . . inability to fully know forgiveness for a past sin . . . all of these emotional/spiritual handicaps will seriously limit the depth of commitment we can make. We must deal with these before God, and sometimes the help of a skilled Christian counselor can be just the thing we need.
  • Lack of clarity about the true meaning of marriage. This is another kind of “baggage.” If you have never seen an example of a healthy marriage, either in family or friendship circles, you will have a difficult time finding that for yourself.
  • Busy-ness. Most couples do not allow enough meaningful time spent together to nurture their commitment.
  • Poor communication skills. I want to elaborate more on this point in my next blog, but commitment includes expression to your spouse. How I do that (or fail to do so) is crucial in a healthy marriage.

Though I am not a professional counselor, as a pastor and professor I have sometimes met with couples who are struggling in their marriage relationship. When counseling with them, there is one factor that becomes evident very quickly, and this factor will almost always determine the destiny of their marriage. If a couple is committed to one another—that somehow we can make this work—there is a good chance the marriage will survive because agape never fails! If, however, one or both accept divorce as a possible choice to be made, the outcome is often exactly that. God is a redemptive God, and capable of bringing healing to any crisis. But his agape works most effectively in the hearts of those who trust him and are willing to commit themselves to one another.

Comments

  • Paul Mar. 24, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    Excellent post, Professor! Even Christians forget this, which is why the divorce rate is still so high...

  • Scared Jun. 27, 2011 at 8:32 PM

    I have tried "for better or for worse" that is why 10 years later, I am still in the same alcoholic relationship. He drinks, he hates me. He drinks, we lose everything. He doesn't drink, we thrive. He drinks, he loses his teeth, his job, his phone, our entire savings. Our apartment. We will be homeless. I stick with him but I am miserable and although I believe in marriage, I also believe in self preservation. I have been in bed all day and I do not want to.

  • pros May. 18, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    That vow is not in the bible.Why do people accept what they can't handle.poverty,sickness etc is from the pit of hell. it was not in the beginning when God created man.God is good and in Him there is no darkness.All those came when man sinned.If you give your life to Christ ,you become a new creation and you dont have to accept sickness.He's gift to us is health not the other one.

  • greg garrett May. 30, 2012 at 12:34 PM

    John,
    When will u be writing more blogs on for better or for worse? Look forward to hearing more. Thank You

  • Looking for answers Sep. 8, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    He doesn't touch me, he won't talk to me and he hardly pays bills. There is no communication, no sex and no money.... how can I stay with that ?????

  • Mari G Nov. 11, 2012 at 11:12 PM

    I got here searching for answers about what is the right thing to do...funny how we can google anything... Anyway, this blog post and a couple of the comments resonate with me...for better or for worse has to do exactly with the level of commitment each partner has. You hear about giving 50/50 all the time. Thing is, your definition of 50% may be very different than mine, so you might end up feeling cheated. So I say it is 100/100 - that means you give your all, mind, body, and soul, trusting, loving, protecting, cherishing. That said, is we have this level of commitment we won't cheat, become alcoholics, drug abusers, gamblers, or do anything that will undermine our relationship. The thing is we are human and humans cheat, abuse drugs/alcohol, and do things that break trust and make it so it is not a safe and healthy environment for the relationship to thrive. I am not saying you should not forgive, but if your partner continues to make choices that are affecting your well being, that is not life dealing you (the couple) a bad card, or hard times, or worse times God takes care of those who take care of themselves. Giving selflessly does not mean to give to your detriment. If you don't have yourself, what do you have to give? It is hard sometimes because we love and we are human...and sometimes (though we may resist because we want something else) we just have to follow and trust in God's plan for us. God is Good...it is our own free will that makes us stubborn and guides us to make bad choices like cheating and addictions. So to me, For better or for worse then means "we are so committed to this relationship and to each other that no matter what LIFE brings (not some choice you are making that is hurting us and the relationship) we will be able to weather the storm" - any conscious choice we make that undermines that commitment is something we are Very aware we are doing out of our own volition and should not be rolled into the "for worse" part of the vows...that is just plain copping out on your partner and destroying the relationship. The only way to restore the trust that has been broken is through repentance (vow to never repeat the damaging choices/behavior again!) and forgiveness (more for you that for them as this is how you will be able to trust again). But then as the saying goes: it takes two to tango! Can't make someone do something they don't want to do.

  • MG Jun. 24, 2013 at 9:12 AM

    Thanks for this. I love him with everything in me and have for over 29 years. I'm trying desperately to hold on but I'm not sure he will and I'm losing a little more hope every day. Part of me wonders if I'm being selfish by trying so hard to keep the marriage together. He's trying to be a good husband, but I know that he is so unhappy with me, and maybe he would be happier if I let him go. Even though I'd be devastated, he'd still have my love and my friendship forever. I could never not love him. Is there a point when holding onto marriage becomes the selfish choice?

  • Omenge samuel Sep. 8, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    Read all through

  • Lee Martin Oct. 18, 2013 at 12:09 AM

    I know this is a long time ago but this reply is intended for "scared" or even anyone in the same situation but you go on in your statement to say that you have had your ups and downs and basically that you are miserable, well I assure you that your man isn't happy either especially if he had made efforts to be sober... Here's where my advice comes in.... Your man is too weak to defeat the demons he carries on his own and he needs to pray for God to be with him and to help him get away from his addictions and those pesky demons. I only say things with such audacity because I have been there and have dealt with the same kind of problems and I finally realized and admitted I couldn't do things on my own... As soon as I admitted that and asked God for help I felt his support I knew with all my heart that my new strength was his and that I would win.. I finally had hope!

  • ruby Jun. 9, 2014 at 10:07 AM

    well i believe that the first thing that will sustain marriage is respect for each other. If there is no respect everything else sour. The couple should think about the feelings of each other. I believe 80% of the problem starts from the men. I will advise the women that they should look for something to do rather than just sitting in the house. Women should try not to change with respect to their services towards the men even though after delivery certain things will definitely change. If the woman has something to do it will definitely occupy her so much so that what the man does will not be soo much of a taught.

  • Evelyn b Jul. 30, 2014 at 6:16 PM

    I divorced my married x in 1988 my 2nd marriage and I have not married again till now. I married almost after17 years of being in a failed relationship and 26 years since I divorced.
    My husband has been married 2 times as I have been and we are both into our 55's and neither one of us believe in our future. As diversed as our past have been we are the same. I make money he expect mine to be his . He acts as if he is retired but yet does noes not produce the income of a retired man no future travels. I am still working and that he has no intention of contributing to our future is just wrong.

  • SO LOST IN THE WORLD Oct. 4, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    I have been married for 16 years and been with him for 24 years. I love him with all my heart. He has a disability that sometimes makes him sick for days but then he takes medicine that doesn't pertain to what he normally takes and then lies to me about it. I know him well enough to know what is going on I confronted him but he keeps deny it .He has not slept with me or even touched me in years so he fell out of love with me. So there's more but I left and am getting divorced, he now keeps telling me he loves me and he will help me he will change I know well enough he won't cause he hasn't in years. I love him so much it hurts me so bad but I can't live like that anymore. I feel like I have failed but I have been told that I have kept my end of my vows and he has not but the pain is immense.

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