In Matthew 19:3-8 we read:
The Pharisees also came unto [Christ], tempting him, and saying unto him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?”
And [Christ] answered and said unto them, “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?’ Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
They say unto him, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?”
He saith unto them, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.”
From the beginning it was not so
Lesser laws: they are what receive we when reject God’s highest ordinances and covenants. Lesser laws—the scriptures prove—always come with rough consequences, merciless micromanagement, and what appear to be unfair rules. But, if we will not accept God’s perfect laws which lead to peace and happiness, what then do we expect when we reject them? Lesser laws cannot give us the same peace and happiness that higher laws give. Wickedness never was happiness (Alma 41:10).
The original covenant God gave to Adam and Eve was that they were to be man and wife—one flesh. They were commanded to keep the covenant of eternal marriage which included: multiplying and replenishing the earth (having children and teaching them the gospel), and acting as stewards over the earth (Moses 2:26-30).
This was the covenant. There was no divorce given as a lesser law until God’s highest laws were rejected. It was fear and selfishness, on the part of mankind, that brought about something other than what God intended. It is us that choose to have less than what God wants to give us—it is us that choose laws and systems that cannot endure.
Marriage is a power and a responsibility
From the beginning, marriage has been about a covenant with God. It has been about having families and teaching them God’s plan. It has been about joining God in His work and glory (Moses 1:39). It has been about being wise stewards over the resources of the earth that we may have what we need to nurture, raise, and care for our families and lead them to God. His plan is for us to form family units that can last forever. His plan is for us to become like Him, and He has eternal family. His plan is for us to develop the attributes that He has that make true love and eternal love a reality, not merely a whim for the movie screen or a classic novel.
But, over time we have turned marriage into an institution. We have turned it into a “nice tradition.” We have turned it into a romantic gesture. We have turned it into a selfish attempt to force a commitment. We have made it into something to serve the individual instead of to serve God. Thus, under such selfish oppression marriage cannot endure as it was meant to do.
Now, I’m most heartily an advocate for romance and true love. But, what I have found (and what God is always trying to teach us) is that true love and romance—of the highest and best kind—are only available when we enter marriage as it was intended from the foundations of the earth: as a covenant.
Seeing marriage as a covenant changes all the rules for dating and romance
We all grow up waiting to run into our one true love. We date looking very little into the spiritual depth and personalities of the individuals courting us. We focus solely on physical appearance and putting our best foot forward. We focus on expectations instead of realities. We make assumptions based upon the feelings of love and infatuation that have no root in eventual reality. We try to pretend to be things we aren’t simply to get the attention of those whom we shallowly admire. We look forward to that all important first kiss.
We all formulate dreams of eternal bliss that begin with specific wedding colors, the perfect dress, the perfect bride/groom, and flower petals strewn across an aisle while family members weep tears of joy and happiness as they prepare to pose for wedding pictures in perfectly coordinated outfits.
Parents often are worse off than their offspring, building up materialistic ideals for wedding receptions, honeymoon locations, and other social events as they plan to “give their daughter or son away.” The fact that two people are about to embark on one of the most difficult, though potentially the most rewarding, covenants and ordinances the earth has ever known seems to garner no attention whatsoever. No time is devoted to its understanding and instruction.
Very few—very few—ever stop to wonder if they are prepared for more than the whirlwind romance that has led them to an altar. They are spurred on by the anticipation of all that marriage holds little understanding what it will take to hold that dream together. And, despite how God intended it “from the beginning,” most people carry in the back of their minds the very modern reality that divorce can be easily obtained and is a valid option if they ever get to feeling the least bit “out of love” or if their spouse makes any seriously wrong moves.
Seeing all dating and marriage as the build up to the keeping of God’s highest and holiest covenant and ordinance should change everything. Dating should become a true practice in getting to know the personality traits and spiritual depth of others. Making friends and learning to find those that share our testimonies of God and His plan should become a familiar practice. We should practice learning the difference between infatuation and physical attraction (which are of course important) and the ever critical spiritual and intellectual attraction.
Dating in this way should prepare us to find the person with whom we share all three: physical attraction, intellectual attraction, and most critically, spiritual attraction. If we are attracted to someone and share commonalities in thinking but we have no confidence in their desire (or ability) to keep God’s highest covenant (whether they hold a temple recommend or not), how could we ever have confidence in making such an attempt at marriage with them? To step into the covenant with such a poor foundation is a treachery on the part of ourselves. Do we think we can force a marriage to work by solely romantic ideals? It has never, once, in all of history worked that way.
Being equally yoked is far more about spiritual attraction and unity than anything else. The common goal of both persons entering marriage should be to enter into and keep the covenant. For spiritual commitment to God always precludes the capacity to create an environment for true love within a relationship. And yet, if the spiritual connection is there but there is no intellectual or physical attraction, that too would be an unwise match. The goal is to find someone who loves and adores us and who will, as God always intended, remain loyal to God, the marriage covenant, and to us. A person who understands the covenant, desires to accept the covenant, and who is willing to sacrifice all that may be necessary in their own lives, goals, and agenda to keep the covenant.
Marriage is about two individuals remaining individual but giving their will over to God. Their unity comes from understanding that marriage is about giving their will to God, and they both do it TOGETHER. Thus, they don’t lose their lives to another person, they lose their life to God (Mark 8:35).
The marriage covenant is all about agency
Another false belief that many romantics hold is that there is only one true love for them. Marriage as a covenant completely obliterates this nice, but ultimately ridiculous romantic belief. Covenants require agency (free will), faith, and grace. If there was only ever one true love for any of us, and that person existed separate from our ability to choose, exercise faith, and receive forgiveness, then agency, faith, and the atonement of Jesus Christ could not exist.
Any time we expect that something can happen to us without us actually choosing it and without us acting to make it real once it has happened to us, we are deceived. Choice is the power that makes a person right for us. Agency is that powerful. And if there were only ever one true love for us and we failed to choose them, or recognize them, or maintain our relationship with them, then a loss of it would ensure that we could never attain true happiness in this life or the life to come. Such a reality would render all of life unjust and eternity unsalvageable.
However, the atonement of Jesus Christ is real, meaning that we can repent when we mess up. Thus, ensuring, that if we screw up a relationship or abandon a covenant, we can sincerely repent and try again. The fact that the atonement of Jesus Christ exists demands that we can be fixed, healed, and restored. And that also means that we can find true love by choosing it and acting upon it to make it real, and valid for this life and the life to come.
Because marriage is a covenant it is something we have the power to keep, perfect, and retain for eternity. Because it is a covenant, if we mess up it can be worked on. If we make mistakes or sin, we can repent and through faith make it right. The covenant is the focus. Not the other person. We do all that we do to keep our covenant with God, not solely to hold on to or please the other person (who may very well never manage to please us as we would ultimately wish).
The marriage covenant is made together but the covenant is individual
God’s plan is that we become as He is. All of that cannot be accomplished in this mortal sphere. However, there are many godly powers and blessings that God can dispense to us in this life, and He does so through ordinances and covenants. Ordinances and covenants grant us portions of God’s powers and attributes in this life; powers and attributes that once attained can be maintained and perfected in the next.
In the beginning, divorce, abortion, infidelity, fornication, adultery, abuse, and murder were made possible in this life because of the gift of agency; just as marriage, children, fidelity, chastity, charity, and the creation of life were all made possible because of the gift of agency, as well. Thus, though many people usurp godly powers through the formerly mentioned sinful acts (tampering with life and death), there will come an end to their ability to do so. Those able to retain the powers to create and exist in family units (beyond this life) will be those who have entered into, and kept, God’s ordinances and covenants. Thus, marriage as a covenant, is what allows each of us (if we keep the covenant) the privilege of existing in family units beyond the grave.
The marriage covenant, unlike all other gospel ordinances and covenants, can only be entered into between a man and a woman, together. Because it is together that they create life, nurture the life created, and help those souls through God’s plan. However, the covenant and promises they make are not to each other. God gives them both a covenant, the same covenant, and each individually chooses whether or not to accept that covenant with God. They promise God to keep the covenant to God. The covenant then requires that each party accept the covenant with God, for it must be kept together, but the accountability for the keeping of the covenant with God is individual.
If we keep our individual covenant with God, the blessings promised to us cannot be forfeited by the rebellion of our spouse whose accountability is separate. If our spouse refuses to keep their individual covenant of marriage with God they cannot, by association, remove our blessings. Only we can do that. Agency is that powerful.
Say YES to the covenant
Romance is great. I’m a fan. Falling is love is great. I’m a fan. But, if we would ever truly change the trend of declining marriages and family relationships in this world, then, we must return to the doctrine that can save them.
We must teach our children to prepare not for marriage, but for the covenant. Marriage is not meant to be simply a contract between to people that encourages them to stay committed for this life for financial and merely psychological purposes. Marriage is a covenant that is about accepting God’s covenant to have families and guide them through the plan. It is not solely about finding an eternal partner. It is about finding a person that understands God’s covenant and who wishes to keep it by our side.
We must teach our children to dream of the covenant and not simply the person they will enter into it with. We must teach our children to date and to court for marriage by looking for the kind of individual who understands the covenant and wishes to keep it. We must ensure our children understand the covenant and have a desire to keep it.
We must remove our focus on the social events surrounding the wedding and instead make the covenant the star of the occasion. That we might be willing to subtract such events from our wedding visions and replace them with covenant preparation and instruction, would be ideal. Do we have the courage to stop trying to please others (and ourselves) and start trying to ensure we, and our children, make the covenant more important than anything else? We must return the sacred nature to marriage and family. We must get better (as married couples) at understanding and keeping our covenant with God and set better examples for our children.
I could wish that a trend would begin in all Christians, but especially Latter-day Saints; that instead of people saying, “Will you marry me?” that they would instead say, “Will you say YES to the covenant with me?” That might make a bigger change than anything else could. Because the other party would then truly consider just what it was they were saying yes to.
Whether we have made the covenant, are struggling currently with the covenant, or are pondering entering into the covenant, we should stop and study it. We should remind ourselves what the covenant of marriage is (especially the sealing, or New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage). We should decide if we merely want to get married (create a temporary commitment), or if we are actually ready for the covenant (which is about far more eternal and holy things than the marriage we all envision and plan for). We should remind ourselves of our promise to God, and what that promise entails. We should remind ourselves of the blessings and powers that come to us if we keep it. We should ponder (especially if we are struggling in our marriage) what we can do to keep our covenant with God instead of focusing on what our spouse could, or should, be doing to keep their covenant.
The New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage was instituted by God. It is His power and privilege as God to keep this covenant, Himself, eternally. And He offers it to us IF we too will say YES to and keep the covenant.
[Note: Because of the wickedness of mankind, because of our selfishness, abuse, infidelity, and neglect, there are times when divorce is not only necessary, it is the best option. I know because I’ve been through a divorce myself. This choice to divorce, however, is between each individual and God. And, this article is intended to help us all improve, better understand the covenant, make better individual choices and use wisdom, so that we might prevent the necessity for such a thing, where possible.]