Covenant Marriage: Present-Love and Future-Love

Western romantic stories run on present-love. Present-love fuels the boy-meets-girl excitement of Romeo and Juliet. Present-love drives the beat of Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” (until he has to say bye, bye, bye, at least). Even marriage has to bow before present-love, if present-love leads elsewhere (like it does in every single romance in the new Musketeers).

The elevation of present love is also obvious in the Millenial approach to marriage: a 2014 TIME Magazine survey showed that well over half of Millenials like the idea of marriage, but would prefer a model where partners would have the option to reup or walk away after a set number of years. In other words, marriage is fine when we’re in love; but if love leads us elsewhere or “fades away,” we shouldn’t be locked into a relational framework that makes leaving hard.

Now, present-love is fantastic. I absolutely love my wife, and I love being in love with her. I love her being in love with me. I enjoy so much about her, and I plan for things always to be that way. Present-love should fill a marriage like cream fills a Twinkie. The Bible is all about present-love too; Song of Solomon is a book-length, blush-inducing panegyric on it. Check it:

As an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
    so is my beloved among the young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
    and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
    and his banner over me was love.
Sustain me with raisins;
    refresh me with apples,
    for I am sick with love. (2:3-5)

Oozy.

So the Bible loves present-love; present-love is great.

But it isn’t enough. And the covenantal nature of Christian marriage offers something greater than present love. Here are the man’s oath and vows from the Book of Common Prayer:

Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?

I take you to be my wedded 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, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.

This oath – this solemn statement of love, made in covenantal marriage – has nothing to say about present love. Every promise asked and every promise made is a promise of future-love.

The bedrock of covenantal marriage isn’t that I love someone a whole lot right now (though hopefully I do); it’s that, even in my early thirties or mid-twenties or late teens, whenever I’m making those vows, I’m promising that I’m going to make them true day after day after day after day after day, as long as we both live. It’s looking forward, not to what I hope will be true thirty years down the line because we’ve beta-tested this thing and it seems promising, but what I will make true, by God’s grace, as long as we’re together.

What makes future-love so great? Two reasons:

1. Future-love doesn’t change, though we do

There’s song by the band Voxtrot – they didn’t make it, but they were great – that’s both so clever and so painful:

“I’d leave you for the person you used to be.” (from “Soft and Warm”)

We change over time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – it might be very healthy – but in one sense, we become different people as we age and (hopefully) grow. I don’t have the same preferences I did when Allison and I married, less than five years ago; I don’t have the same habits; even my temperament is a little different.

If present-love is my highest aspiration, then I’d better hope each iteration of Allison likes each iteration of me at least as much as she did the one she married, because there’s always the risk she’ll reach a point where I’m “too different,” or she becomes “different,” and someone else becomes more appealing.

Future-love promises that it doesn’t matter who either Allison or I “become,” because I’m me and Allison’s Allison; and we’re sticking together.

2. Future-love gives security rather than anxiety

Again, if we’re living for present-love, then we become beholden to wherever “love” (i.e., my feelings) might lead. I’ll always be wondering when I might feel like the National’s “About Today:”

Today, you were far away
and I didn’t ask you why
What could I say? I was far away
You just walked away
and I just watched you
What could I say?

How close am I to losing you?

By contrast, future-love promises an endurance that transcends circumstances. It transcends the small changes that can rouse up pettiness and grumbling. It transcends disagreements and fights. It even transcends being sinned against. It promises never to fight against my wife, but always to fight for her and for our relationship.
For Christians, of course, this is grounded in the steadfast future-love of God himself. The death of Jesus for our sin, which bought us to be his Bride, is the promise that God’s love for his people will transcend time and circumstance. He saved us, as Titus 3:3 says, when we were eaten up with sin and self-centeredness; he stays with us, not because we’re faithful, but because he has sworn his own faithfulness. God’s enduring future-love gives security to his own people; it also gives us a bedrock on which to promise future-love of our own.
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