The meaning of true commitment

Lisa and I were married in 1999, when I was 21 years old. I pledged to stay with her for the rest of my life: “till death do us part.”

Today, I am not the same man I was then. Of course, I’ve always been changing by degrees, but never had I so dramatically and rapidly changed than in 2012. How does one stay true to a commitment when one is a completely different person than when the commitment was originally made? I am learning the answer to that question now, and I will be learning it for the rest of my life.

For a long time, I’ve struggled with the concept of commitment in general. It seems so final, even arbitrary. What if things radically change? How can you foretell the future? Especially when it comes to smaller commitments, like “I’m starting this business, come hell or high water,” or “I’m committing to becoming a doctor, no matter what”—how can you know that you won’t need to adjust your plan? Or even abandon it? Usually, people will say they’re committed to something with the understanding that they may need to “renegotiate” that commitment later on. It’s about being flexible, honest with oneself, staying present and humble. But then these aren’t true commitments. They’re provisional at best. They’re relative, not absolute.

I like to keep my options open. How could I possibly know what is best for the future? I will always have a limited vantage point. If my perspective is always relative, if I can never be entirely objective, if I can never have access to a “God’s-eye view,” what business do I have making absolute commitments? And yet, I hear about the “power of commitment” all the time.

One way I’m learning to use commitments is to make them absolute, but within a narrow, time-bound context. For example, right now I’m committed to writing six days per week for at least 20 minutes at a time over the course of this month. Previously, I had not qualified my “commitment” beyond saying “six days per week.” But that was absurd. It revealed the lack of my understanding about commitment. What did it even mean? I will write six days per week for the rest of my life? No, it needs a time limit. So this time, I am limiting it to one month, because I know that I will be traveling next month, which could otherwise get in the way of my commitment.

This is all pretty much conventional wisdom about goal-setting. Some people seem obsessed about making “SMART goals.” This always turned me off, because it seems so rigid and anal. What about going with the flow? What about a little humility? What about living in the present moment and responding organically? Even so, my resistance to goal-setting was never itself absolute. I can clearly see that people accomplish big changes in the world, all because they had a plan and they stuck to it, not letting anything stop them. When my “go with the flow” mentality prevents me from ever setting goals, I tend to get stuck in what seems like an eddy in the river of life. Then, something in me gets really angry. Eventually, I make myself swim back toward the current. More often than not, this would involve cutting out addictive behaviors, and taking charge of myself. Eventually, I’d be thriving again. And then, eventually, I’d ease up on all the “goal-setting,” relax more, and find myself in another eddy. Thus the cycle continues.

Call it the “masculine” vs. the “feminine,” I don’t really care. I’ve already done enough analysis to tire myself out, trying to understand the nature of goal-setting, planning, and making commitments—”structure,” if you will—versus receptivity, openness, going with the flow, etc. My strong suspicion all along has been that this is ultimately a false dichotomy, and Life knows how to balance, or mix, or unite the two aspects in perfect health. Even so, this theoretical ideal of the perfect blend of directionality and receptivity has usually remained just that: theoretical. In the end, commitment still seems too final and arbitrary, too ostentatious, even preposterous. Why preposterous? Because when you commit to something, it seems that you’re placing yourself in the position of God. What if God wants you to do something different? What will you say then? “Sorry, God, I have a commitment to keep.”

So too even with marriage. Now, it is easy to simply appeal to the Bible and make an absolute statement: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:6) But we all must admit that there are times when divorce is totally called for. (Even the Bible admits that.) Besides, if you no longer buy into absolute, once-for-all, written-in-stone morality (as I no longer do), then what? You’ve no longer got that absolute, though external, basis to appeal to. The commitment was, in a sense, not truly yours. It had to appeal to a higher authority.

Now I must qualify myself here. There is one commitment that I have always gotten behind: giving my life to God, to the Whole, to Ultimate Reality, to whatever is the highest possible context for my life. In particular, I’m committing to that dimension of God which desires the best for His creation. In other words, I’m committing to Love. This is what began when I gave my life to Christ, and began again the countless times I re-committed my life to Christ. There is nothing that could ever turn me away from this commitment. There are no revelations that could sway me. At least not after 2012. My faith had been partially contingent, dependent on particular world views, particular cosmological claims. It is no longer contingent on any of these. I may not know who or what God is, but “God,” as I’m using the term, cannot not exist. In other words, it’s not a question of existence. It is truly absolute. This doesn’t mean I will perfectly live in alignment with that commitment. It just means that the commitment will never go away. Though I may stray and become nasty and unloving, selfish, confused, etc., etc., the commitment will remain. I’d rather die than give my life to something smaller. The only way to stay in alignment with this commitment is to be ever-vigilant, keeping my eyes and ears open to all that I don’t know and haven’t the foggiest clue about. Paradoxically, it is itself a commitment to humility, even though it may sound ever-so-strident and proud.

What I am finally beginning to discover is what that “power” of commitment actually is. Previously, whenever I heard about the “power of commitment,” I thought about what power is unleashed in your favor when you finally make a real commitment. The oft-cited quote from Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray captures this nicely:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.

This is a wonderful thought, and I’m not about to deny that it’s true. But what I’ve finally discovered deep inside myself is the power of commitment itself. In other words, I’ve discovered my own power to commit. It doesn’t depend on “Providence” or any material assistance. It doesn’t require a belief that such things will ever come my way. After all, perhaps the exact opposite will happen, and the world will violently oppose me as soon as I commit. It doesn’t matter. True commitment doesn’t waver in the face of obstacles.

So far, this still sounds just like what I’ve heard before about what a commitment really is. “I’ve burned my bridges.” “There’s no turning back.” Blah, blah, blah. Again, it all sounds nice in theory. But what about the problem I keep raising? In a nutshell, it is this: what if God wants me to do something different later on? And in the context of my marriage, this may sound absurd, but I had to take it seriously when faced with the idea of an absolute commitment: What if one day God wants me to leave my wife? If I can no longer appeal to the Bible in an absolute fashion, and I am absolutely committed to giving my life to God, how can I possibly commit my life unconditionally to my wife also?

Jesus is not going to help me on this matter: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) The kind of commitment to God that he called for puts God absolutely first. No allegiances to anything less can ever get in the way of that absolute commitment, not even to “wife and children.”

Even so, like I said, I have discovered the power of commitment deep inside myself. I’ve discovered that the question “What if God changes my mind?” is an abdication of the divine power that I actually have to commit. To take responsibility for your own power of commitment is to take responsibility for (at least one aspect) of your own divine power. Whether used for good or ill, we do have this power. It is the power of our will. True commitment can only be made by God, and guess what? Humans have this power. With true commitment, you tap into your own sovereign will. The only way to make a true commitment is to put yourself in the position of God, at least in the context of that decision.

Now, by the power of my sovereign will, I declare that my love for my wife is invincible and will never be shaken.

Although it is only 15 years into my marriage, it has taken my whole life to realize what true commitment actually means. My fear has been that God would want me to leave. But true commitment appeals to absolutely nothing outside itself. As far as this decision goes, I AM GOD. When I say my love won’t be shaken, I don’t mean that my feelings won’t be shaken. No, by “love,” in this particular context, I mean a decision. Call it brutal, call it violent, call it an experiment for this lifetime. But I have discovered the power of free will, and I defy all voices in myself or anyone else that would dissent. In the past, my commitment was assumed, based on the belief in an absolute moral standard. But that has been shaken. I have been shaken. Substantially. Upside-down. Inside-out. I’m not the person I used to be. But from now on, all transformations will carry with it this ongoing commitment. I may become a different person a thousand more times, but in each case I will need to come to terms with this same commitment. It is MY commitment, MY commitment to make and MY commitment to keep. Feelings can be shaken. True commitments can’t.

Commitments may sound arbitrary—as “arbitrary” as the existence of the Universe, perhaps? But God is still creating, and true commitment is a creative act. When we truly commit, we declare something, speaking something new into existence. When we truly commit, we are carrying forward the creation of God. God wants us to take responsibility for our God-given creative powers. God wants us to take a stand and show some resistance. God wants a stiffer medium to work with than just watercolors, which swish around on the canvas and drip onto the floor. By making true commitments, we turn our life into an arrow which nothing can stop.

The thing is, this creative power of commitment is morally neutral. We’ve seen wonderful creations and we’ve seen horrible creations. When you commit, you’d better know what you’re doing. When you make a true commitment, you’d better make sure it’s a good one. Commitment is risky. The world we now see is the result of all previous commitments. What kind of a world do you want to create? Are you ready to marry your devotion to God—your receptivity to hearing God’s voice, to obeying and following the guidance you receive—are you ready to marry that devotion with the power you have to lead, direct, and declare as God? Are you ready to embrace the power you have to create? Then please use it wisely. With fear and trembling at the power of your own will.

So how do I square my commitment to God with my commitment as God? That will be a question I have to continually ask and answer for the rest of my life. But here’s one quick stab at it. By “God,” we sometimes mean different things. If God means the Power of All Creation, then it doesn’t make much sense to say I am aligning my behavior with God in that sense. As I’ve said, creation is morally neutral in the sense that, in the world, we see every form of what we judge to be good and evil. This impersonal God, this Blind Force, which keeps chugging along, indifferent to anything that happens in the world, might give me raw power, but it doesn’t give me True North. It doesn’t give me a compass by which I can direct each step. But when we speak of God as Love, God as Lover, and we speak of the glory of God and the kingdom of God, we’re talking about something very special. We’re talking about a Divine Agenda, a Preference for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We’re talking here not just about God’s raw power of will, we’re talking about a specific will that creation would proceed in a way which manifests Love in the world.

These two ways of talking about God are what cause so much confusion around the concept of “God’s will.” Sometimes you hear people say, “if it happened, that means it was God’s will.” Well, yes, at least in the sense that there is no power apart from God. You might say it was God’s will power at work. But it makes the idea of aligning ourselves with God’s will meaningless. For those who would seek to align themselves with Something Higher—with the will of God, “God’s will” doesn’t just mean God’s will power. It means God’s specific will to manifest the highest and best possibilities. This is what Jesus was onto when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven.

When it comes down to it, God has given you free will as well. You share in God’s power. You have the power to commit, and thereby to create. But if you have awakened also to the Love of God, then you now have a higher standard by which to live your life and a higher purpose for which to use that creative power. Like I said, please use it wisely. What the world needs is more people not just to realize their raw power, becoming that Blind Force. What the world needs is for more people to become that Blind Force for the sake of Love.

I have decided that in this lifetime, I am using my God-given power of will to commit this man’s life to this man’s wife. I have taken a stand to be there for her until the end. Not because it’s the “right thing to do.” Sure, I’m still interested in doing the right thing, but now there’s a context. Within that context, I’ll have to use discernment and moral reasoning. But the context itself no longer requires any of that. It’s a fixed point. I have adopted these words as my own, appealing to nothing higher than my words themselves: what God has joined together, let no man separate.

Addendum (2021-11-04): From now on, I will only make congruent commitments, aligned with my heart, soul, mind, and strength. When I am not clear, I will humbly accept and be with my uncertainty. For the times I have allowed my mental will to go too far, rationalizing headstrong but heart-weak decisions based on fear, causing damage to myself and others, I humbly ask for, and open myself to receive, forgiveness.