Twenty-one years ago, when my high-school sweetheart and I stood before family and friends in my grandparent’s flower festooned church and pledged to love one another till death us do part, my idea of love resembled the stock photos found in ready-made frames. The laughing children. The hand-in-hand beach walks. The doting grandparents.

In no image did I picture our family gathered around the grave of a beloved child; of too-tired nights to walk up the stairs to bed, let alone down a glittering beach; of pushing both a child’s stroller and a geriatric walker to bring an ailing grandmother to the hospital. I didn’t imagine either of us gaining weight or losing a job or our tempers or our time together. No one frames such photos.

Yet there they were, smack in the middle of our wedding vows, “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” I always thought there was an ‘or’ in there as if “for better” or “for worse” was an option. Hmmm, how long would it take you to decide?

Two decades later, I now understand the choice isn’t between the direction I want life to take and the direction it goes. The choice is how I respond to the inevitable disappointments and heartbreaks by building a wall between myself and my spouse—brick by isolating brick, as one popular marriage speaker illustrates—or by allowing myself to recognize the hurt and disappointments we share while still choosing to love and to cherish.

It’s not unlike my relationship with God, who it turns out also asks me to commit to him along the same lines—all except the “till death do us part.” In fact, throughout the New Testament Christ is referred to as the “bridegroom.” Those who choose a relationship with him are “the bride.” Only rather than be separated from Christ at death, we are received by him after passing through it.

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,” the apostle John writes in Revelation 19:7, “for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.”

Maybe that’s why marriage is so sacred and why those vows are so hard to keep. There isn’t any other relationship like it, where two parties make a life-time commitment to each other, not because they are born into the same family, but because they choose to be family despite all the wounds and hurts that come with it.

The photos framed by my life don’t resemble those lighthearted folk on store shelves. They reveal something deeper—the husband’s arms that held me weeping in the night, the faithful man that slept beside me on the couch when I was too tired to walk to bed, the gentle partner who loves and receives me despite all the ways I’ve disappointed him.

And this too is like God, the one who promises to be with us in our suffering, who abides with us in our weakness, and who loves and welcomes us despite our failings. Such love does not reveal itself when everything goes well, but when it doesn’t. Twenty-one years later or an eternity, that’s worth celebrating.