When we consider goals, one of the questions to consider is, “How will we know when we have achieved it?” Some goals are straightforward in this regard, but others are less so. If I have a goal to read a certain book, it’s easy to know when I am done, but what if I have a goal of having a good marriage? How do I know when I have accomplished it?
It is helpful to remind ourselves what marriage is and what we vow on our wedding day. The marriage rite of the ACNA states it this way, starting with the declaration of consent:
___, will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together out of reverence for Christ in the covenant of Holy Matrimony? Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?
And then the vows themselves:
In the Name of God, I, ___, take you, ___, to be my wife, 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, until we are parted by death, according to God’s holy Word. This is my solemn vow.
The finish line is clearly stated — death. Death is not something young couples ponder on their wedding day, but it ought to be. I recently read an article detailing how in 20th century America, the average life expectancy doubled from 40 to 80 years. One of the effects of this doubling has been to push death into the margins of our existence.
But death still happens to us all. The church marks death as the finish line of marriage in keeping with the teaching of our Lord and the Scriptures. The covenant is only rightly broken by death. Only at the death of the husband or the wife is the marriage complete and done.
So, with that in mind, how do we define success in marriage? Perhaps a workable definition is, “A successful marriage is completed when one of the couple sits by the bedside of the other as they die, with love for each other and few regrets.” This is not to say that if your husband or wife dies apart from your presence you have had an unsuccessful marriage, but the idea remains. If the word of death arrives unexpectedly and the widow can say, “We loved each other and kept our vows to each other,” then the marriage was a success.
This definition accomplishes two important things. First, it sets marriage as a lifelong commitment. There is no way to succeed in this thing unless we stay bound together until death. Second, it helps put into perspective the ups and downs of life together. We will hopefully have many experiences that bond us together. We hope for much joy together, but those joys are not the ultimate goal. They are a pathway to our goal. And poverty, sickness, and adversity do not nullify the covenant. As we strengthen our bonds on the journey, we are more likely to reach the finish with love intact.