A covenant is a binding agreement. Our world acknowledges a myriad of secular covenants, particularly in the financial realm. Financial covenants, like a mortgage or business partnership, aren’t to be entered lightly, and it is good that there are serious consequences to those who break such financially binding agreements. Economies can fail when parties default on such agreements, particularly en masse.
Secular covenants give us a tiny glimpse of the importance of spiritual covenants. The covenant vows of Christian marriage are a serious thing. We stand before God, friends and family as our witnesses, and repeat vows to another person. In sickness and in health. For richer and for poorer. Til death do us part. The ordained minister of the gospel speaks a final word of blessing and warning, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
But in the 1970’s California became the first state to pass no fault divorce laws. What God had joined together became much easier for man to put asunder without Biblical cause or process. Soon, believers who benefit from God’s faithful covenant with themselves began taking advantage as much as unbelievers of the government’s easy path to undo such covenant vows.
Marriage vows are not the only covenants we make with another. My denomination takes the vow of church membership quite seriously. I covenant with pastors, elders, and other church members to pursue the purity and peace of my church. I covenant with them that they can count on me, and they in return covenant that I can count on them.
I’ve made covenant vows to my children as well. When I chose to bring them into this world and not give them up for adoption, I committed, at least in God’s and the government’s sight, to protect and provide for them. My commitment to my children feels a lot like God’s to Abraham in Genesis 12-17. God took both sides of the vow with Abraham. He would fulfill His covenant with Abraham because God was faithful, not because Abraham was. Similarly, I bear the heaviest weight of my covenant with my children. They may rebel, but I will remain their mother. They may run from me, but I will pursue them nonetheless. To do less would be to abdicate my responsibilities in their lives.
We tend to make covenant vows, particularly the marriage kind, in the filtered sunlight of a warm (but not hot) spring day. We make them as the sun shines and the flowers bloom. Loved ones smile warmly around us. And the ones with whom we are entering covenant welcome us toward them.
But the shining starts of our covenants aren’t the point of these covenants. They aren’t the reason for these covenants. The vows we make in front of God and family in our white dresses and tuxes, with filtered spring sunlight illuminating our pictures, aren’t for these days. The sweet days of filtered sunlight and happy smiles don’t require binding agreements to keep folks together. No one has to twist your arm to love your spouse, care for your child, or persevere with your church on such beautiful days glowing with the warmth of new hope and promise for the future. No, covenants aren’t for those days at all.
Covenants are for storms.
Covenants are for deserts.
Covenants are for drought.
Covenants are for prison.
Covenants are for pain.
I had a medical procedure recently that eventually required morphine. I tried to be strong. I wanted to avoid narcotics and the side effects they cause me. But, I couldn’t endure the pain of the procedure. I kept physically moving away from the pain, a natural response. I needed something to help me endure.
It is natural to move away from pain, be it physical pain from a medical procedure, or spiritual/emotional pain from a relationship. The role of covenant vows is to keep us from breaking faith when pain threatens our relationships, when we are naturally tempted to move away and avoid. Societies can not function with the breaking of vows. Neither can our churches or homes. This is why our government has laws for defaulting on a contract. Our economy would fail if folks could default on mortgages or break agreements in a business without consequences. When the going gets rough, we need incentive for following through with our commitments.
In Christian relationships, particularly in the home and church, covenant vows serve a serious, necessary purpose. They call us to stay engaged, work through problems, persevere, and look for solutions. They call us to do it not just for a week or a month, but for a lifetime. Moving away from pain is natural. Writing others off who cause such pain is the easy way out. For a season. But such avoidance is devastating to societies, it’s devastating to homes, and it’s devastating to churches.
In a society that tells you to take the path that leads you away from pain, I want to encourage you that if you’ve made a covenant vow to someone, you, your family, and your church will be better off if you can stay engaged. During my medical procedure, the issue causing the pain had to be addressed. Avoidance of pain was possible. But avoidance of pain without dealing with the underlying issues that caused the pain would have led to far worse consequences.
Doing the hard work of staying engaged in a painful relationship isn’t easy.1 It requires perseverance. It requires spiritual nourishment. It requires confidence in a worthy finish line despite the dehydration, painful blisters, and debilitating muscle cramps along the way of the marathon to get there. It requires hope in something better that gives perspective to the pain of current days. God instituted binding covenant vows to help us stay engaged in such times.
If a man or woman’s word is their bond, then vows made to others before God, friends, and family become the safety net keeping us from breaking faith when pain and struggle leave us weary, without energy to persevere. In those moments, don’t look longingly for escape from the vows. Remember that faithfulness to vows are how successful societies function. Others may break their vows to us, but by God’s grace, we won’t break ours to them. We pursue the good of the community over what seems the good of self. And you know why that works in the Christian community? Because ultimately, individuals flourish when communities flourish. Satan whispers that there is peace in freedom from hard relationships with others. And in some sense there is–for a season. But Satan doesn’t also whisper to you the caveats, the consequences that follow the temporary refreshment of freedom. Breaking faith with others comes with deep, harmful consequences – to societies, to churches, to families, and to you the individual.
Persevering in covenant vows has upfront costs. It requires death to self and endurance through pain. But it has long term rewards, for our children and grandchildren, for our churches and those who come after it in our pews. And know it has long term rewards for you as well. When your family, church, and society flourish, you will too!
We were made in the image of our God, a God who makes covenants and follows through on them every last time. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” We were created in His image, and it is worth meditating on what His faithfulness in hard relationships means for our own. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.
1 I am not dealing here with issues of domestic violence or abuse. If you or your children are not safe, no relationship can flourish. Your first priority is getting to a safe place. If you need help getting out of a physically abusive situation, I recommend contacting the folks at giveherwings.com.