Forsaking All Others

The Impossibly Uncompromising Promise of Marriage

Sam Bush / 5.17.22

It turns out the romantic comedies were right. For decades, we have rolled our eyes at the youthful idealism, the naive romanticism, the absurd devotion that one person foolishly gives to another. “You’re my world! You’re my everything!” they say. Psychologists and the fathers of teenage girls both agree that to say such things is neither healthy nor wise, not to mention idolatrous. Any responsible adult would scoff at such earnestness. And yet, the romantic comedy marches on, winning our hearts over and over again. When Annie Banks stands at the altar in Father of the Bride, we can only fight the tears for so long. 

Wedding season is upon us and with it come some of the most famous lines of the modern era. Whether or not you’re a Christian the words “dearly beloved,” “to have and to hold,” and “for better or worse” still ring familiar throughout the western world. Anyone attempting to write their own vows has their work cut out for them if they want to outdo the original script which is famous for its air of gravitas. One line during the service often goes unnoticed but is particularly potent. Amidst pledging to love, comfort, honor and keep one another, the betrothed promise to forsake all others.

Chalk it up as an antiquated way of pledging one’s fidelity, but something about the word “forsake” takes it up a notch. It’s one thing to promise not to have an open relationship with your spouse, but to forsake all others sounds a bit too uncompromising. What about one’s children? Or your career, family, friends? What about those in need? Is this really a declaration to abandon all of humanity for the sake of one person?

As of this week, my wife and I have been married for seven years, a milestone that made us nervously joke about the 1955 comedy, The Seven Year Itch, the underlying theme of which is that a marriage starts to decline after seven years when a husband and wife begin to feel the beginnings of boredom and discontent. The film centers around a man whose family is on vacation for the summer while he stays back home to work. He soon begins to fantasize about past lovers and then attempts to seduce his new neighbor played by Marilyn Monroe (who immortalized the movie with its famous subway grate scene).  In other words, it’s probably not the perfect movie for your anniversary night.

Conventional wisdom often suggests that love is kind of a renewable energy, a bottomless well to which we can return when our worldly passions run dry. But experience goes to show that our own interests are constantly competing for our time and attention. Love does not exist in a vacuum but is a living entity, always in motion between a giver and a recipient. With so many things vying for our affection, it’s not hard for our love to get misplaced. The Seven Year Itch may provide a less flattering portrait of wedlock than, say, The Princess Bride, but it shows us the reason why it’s necessary for people to pledge their fidelity in the first place: we are prone to wander. Hence this impossibly inflexible vow to forsake all others.

As severe as it may sound, the promise to forsake all others will likely come as sweet relief for people who have been told that they can do anything. A world of endless possibilities sounds nice, but it is not a world I’m all too familiar with. The promise to forsake all others is a stark reminder that there is, in fact, such a thing as competing loves, that we are finite, that the choice of one path implies that other paths will not be taken. After all, there is only so much time and space in one’s life to devote. We may try to fit our loved ones into a block schedule, but love refuses to be compartmentalized. It is not a piece to the puzzle, but the puzzle itself, the final portrait that all the other pieces were working to reveal.

The vow to forsake all others extends even to a forsaking of oneself for another’s flourishing, a vow that mirrors Jesus’ own “marriage” to the church. Because the kind of love Jesus had was anything but calculated. Time and again, Jesus is not big on moderation. When asked to rank the most important commandment, he responded by saying, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:29-30). This marriage is far more than an exchange of goods or a contractual agreement, but, rather, a shared oneness. As his bride, we receive all of the benefits of Christ as Christ himself. Though our own fidelity may stray in thought, word and deed (to Jesus and otherwise), the tie that binds holds fast all the same.

In the end, love requires forsakenness. Love is not the experience of getting everything we want but the desire to give everything we have away for the sake of another. Its shape is cruciform in the sense that the way of life is the way of death. The generous act of Jesus was that, being rich, he became poor for our sake so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Christ himself vowed to never forsake us at the cost of forsaking himself. He chose to hold nothing back, giving himself entirely even to the point of death.

This kind of marital commitment may seem routine to some, but it is utterly strange,  pushing against our natural approach to love by all accounts. Our culture of self-care and “me time” points to an ultimate goal of self-fulfillment. When we make relational commitments, be it a friend or romantic interest, we often see people as a means to more happiness. We tend to have an instrumental view of people, seeing them as either assets or liabilities and then order our lives in such a way that our relationships maximize our own happiness. But the idea of love as self-gift throws a wrench into self-fulfillment. A loving relationship is laying down whatever we think is best for us for the sake of another. In that sense, it is quite possibly a threat to our happiness in that it requires self-sacrifice. It is not just counter-intuitive, but reasonably insane.

And so the romantic comedies will always prove us wrong. We may sneer when a pair of love birds gives themselves to each other entirely, but their devotion to each other is distinctly Christian. After all, who else would willingly sacrifice everything they had for the sake of another?

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3 responses to “Forsaking All Others”

  1. Pierre says:

    This piece gave me a lot to think about. I’m single and beyond ready to find someone, as I believe beyond any doubt that God made me for marriage. But in the meantime, as I wait, what I have to rely on is friendship. It’s hard to be in a stage in life where virtually everyone I know is married, and thus to know that there’s nobody in my life who has forsaken all others for me (and I for them). My need for my friends has increased at the same time that my friends’ need for me has decreased. I believe friendship is good in its own right, but of course it can’t translate to what a marriage bond is.

    I wonder how friendship fits into this framework outlined above. It seems that the author is arguing for some kind of hierarchy, that a marriage covenant is necessarily at the pinnacle of what humans can achieve in loving each other, and that friendship is somewhere down the scale because it’s more likely to be ‘instrumentalized’. I guess it’s hard for me to hear it argued that friendship is a lesser form of loving when it’s all I have, but I can’t really refute it, either. As Leslie Knope once said, “Friends help you move. They drive you to the airport. Boyfriends just… love you and marry you.”

    I don’t mean this all to sound self-pitying, I just yearn for a theology that will love and value single people without over-valorizing married people. If we can’t mirror Christ’s self-forsaking love in our friendships, what else are we called to instead?

  2. Sam Bush says:

    Such a thoughtful and articulate comment, Pierre. Thank you!

    It wasn’t my intention to portray a kind of relational hierarchy, but I can see how it came across that way. I also totally agree that marriage can be over-valorized as if the chief goal in life is to be married, an idea that Paul refutes in 1 Corinthians 7. I find comfort in how Jesus relates to us as both our collective bridegroom as well as the friend of sinners no matter our relational status. And I’d like to explore Christ’s self-forsaking love in the context of friendship more – I think there’s a lot there!

  3. Glen Roberts says:

    The other commandment Jesus mentions, which with the one you quoted regarding loving God was the one that says love your neighbor as yourself. These two fulfill the law and the prophets. Two commandments three relationships. Is not a spouse the closest neighbor we have? How can we love our neighbors / spouses while not loving / taking care of ourselves? And is a spouse who does not take care of his self / her self, does not love the self able to love the other spouse? And research shows that people have the best wellbeing when their lives are held in a web or a community of meaningful and caring relationships. So how does sacrificing one’s self, one’s friendships, one’s relational life for a spouse even qualify as love? Is that for the either spouses best interest?

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