by Layton Friesen
As a minister, I discourage couples from making up their own marriage vows. I don’t think it’s possible to make up your own vows. What you can make up is a promise. There is a world of a difference between a vow and a promise.
I can make up a promise. “I promise to bring you tomatoes tomorrow.” I promise this because I know I have tomatoes, my schedule permits it tomorrow, and I like you enough to give you tomatoes. The whole promise revolves around me, and my ability to know what I have and to give what I have. If tomorrow comes and goes, and I don’t show up, the promise is broken and cancelled. If I still want to come another time, I need to make a whole new promise.
But a vow is not something I make. A vow is something I take. When I take a marriage vow, I am entering a house given by God, and shaped over millennia by nature, tradition, law, Scripture, and Church.
A vow is received, stewarded and bestowed by a community with roots in ancient places and times, back to creation: “The one who made them in the beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4). Marriage is a reckless and bracing adventure because we enter not knowing what we will find, not only in the stranger we wed, but in the shape of marriage itself.
I, Jane, take you, John,
to be my husband,
To have and to hold
From this day forward;
For better, for worse,
For richer, for poorer,
In sickness and in health,
To love and to cherish
For the rest of our lives,
According to God’s holy law.
This is my solemn vow.
A vow is not broken like a promise. The vision embodied in a vow goes far beyond my abilities and maybe even my desires. I will fall short of the vow two minutes after taking it, but a vow is not broken by that. The vow keeps turning me in the right direction; it draws me onward to a destiny I cannot reach on my own steam. A vow is broken not by falling short of it, but by abandoning the covenant all together.
So a vow is a prayer, a cry for help. It is taken not by people impressed with their own abilities who now promise to bring these capacities to marriage. A vow is taken precisely by people who know they are prone to wander—Lord they feel it. God helping me, I will.
In days of yore, a sailor looking out onto a stormy sea and knowing that he must stay on deck and at his duty, but realizing too that he could not (for the waves would wash over the deck and his strength would fail to keep him at his work), would take a rope and tie himself to the mast. That is Eugene Peterson’s picture of taking a vow.
We take a vow because we know we must maintain covenant loyalty to at least this one person in our lives, but we know our own fickleness. The vow reaches out to God and the community and keeps us, even when we cannot keep it.
Of course, each person will bring their unique take on this ancient fellowship. But in our society today, many people think marriage itself is like play dough, something we fashion to suit our whimsy.
Recently the state has asserted the right to make up marriage according to post-1960’s sexual revolution whims. But we do not get to make up what marriage is; we are only stewards who receive it. If marriage is something we create, it only lasts as long as our attention spans. One small resistance to that is to take a vow.