I am now in my 35th year of marriage to Ellie. Am I surprised we made it this far?
Not at all.
If I had it to do all over again, would I still say “I do”?
Without a doubt. I still do.
Did I comprehend all I was agreeing to when I said those words so many years ago?
Not even close.
After five years of dating, Ellie and I were still deeply in love on that perfect May morning when we made our vows before dozens of witnesses. Even though we both meant what we said, neither of us really knew what we meant when we made those promises to love and stay committed to each other through health and sickness … wealth and poverty … good and bad … until death separated us.
Little did we know that God would add to our family within the week. No, we had no plans for Ellie to get pregnant on our honeymoon, but nine months and five days after our wedding, our first son was born.
And less than four months after his birth, Ellie was a nursing, stay-at-home mom with a suddenly unemployed husband. That wasn’t in our plans, but it was in our vows.
As a bride-to-be, Ellie wanted to have four children, but when we said our vows we weren’t thinking that God would add that fourth child just one week after our sixth anniversary. By then we realized that having children was not going to be a problem for us.
Or so we thought.
Three of Ellie’s next four pregnancies ended in miscarriage. The one that did go full term came with lots of complications, including Ellie permanently losing all hearing in her left ear. Those were heart-wrenching times. But as God promises, weeping lasts for a nighttime, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).
Four years later Ellie was pregnant with our seventh and final child when our family was devastated by the line-of-duty death of my brother, a police officer in Maui. She and I never dreamed we’d ever go to Hawaii, much less to bury my brother there.
Romantic vacations haven’t really been part of our marriage history. In fact, most of my paychecks have only been enough to cover the basic necessities of a large family. There have even been some times where the fridge and pantry were almost bare. But God has always provided.
Even though there have only been a few weeks where I haven’t been employed, most of those jobs have been in journalism or ministry, neither of which is known for high salaries. When it comes to “for richer or poorer,” we’ve seen a lot of one, but not much of the other.
Thankfully, we’ve seen a lot more health than sickness. But just a few weeks after my 60th birthday, out of nowhere, an MRI showed a mass on my right temple, and a week later, I was undergoing surgery to remove an extremely aggressive cancerous brain tumor. At this point, we have no idea whether our life together will ever be the same.
It wasn’t in our plans, but it is in our vows.
Growing in oneness
Ellie and I weren’t practicing believers when we married back in 1985. But God in His grace drew us to Himself. Each of us—independent of the other—made a personal commitment to Christ within 15 months of our vows. In the early years of marriage and parenting, we were able to grow in oneness with each other and with God.
When I think back to the day we proclaimed our vows, in many ways I feel like I am so much less impressive of a man than the one who boldly promised to love and cherish Ellie every day of his life. I haven’t been the best provider. I’m not a strong leader. I’m moody and easily frustrated and way too self-absorbed. And I know Ellie has her own list of ways she falls short of the woman with all those lofty vows over three decades ago.
“I do” is not just something you say to your spouse on your wedding day. “I do” is every word you say and every deed you do for the rest of your marriage. That’s what “I do” really means.
Ellie and I have had over 12,000 days of opportunities to experience how much harder it is to say your vows on any given marriage day than on your wedding day. No matter how much we love each other, we let our guards down; selfishness is always ready to make an exception to a vow.
It takes a supernatural empowering of God’s Spirit for me realize that marriage is more about what I can do for Ellie, rather than what she should be doing do for me. God promises—when I ask Him—to empower me with His Spirit, freeing me from the slavery to myself in order to love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). Only through the limitless grace and unconditional love of His Spirit working in me can I fulfill my vows to Ellie like I promised to do back on May 18, 1985.
And it’s only by His Spirit that I can continue to be true to my promise for the next 35 years, or however many the Lord sees fit to give us together.
Ellie, I still do.
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