8 Lessons from 20 Years of Marriage

Photo by Foto Pettine on Unsplash

Twenty years ago today, my wife and I said “I do” before God, family, and friends in an evangelical church in North Georgia. It is almost unfathomable to us both that two decades have passed. We began dating during the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, an event that conferred upon me a bit of disposable time as a sports journalist. My father always joked that it would take a baseball work stoppage for me to get serious about a relationship. Apparently, he was right. This tells you a lot about the man my wife married. I pray I am a very different man today with different priorities (though I still love baseball, but not as much as I love Jesus or Lisa). I am one of those guys who, by God’s sheer grace, married awfully well.

We survived the sometimes awkward newlywed years. We have lived together through significant historical events: the Y2K scare (a non-historical event, actually), an election decided by hanging chads, the tragic morning now known as 9/11, the election of an African American President of the United States. God brought me out of the newspaper business (in the nick of time!) and into the gospel ministry.

Then, in the span of five short years, our family ballooned from “just the two of us” to six of us. As parents, we have learned a thing or two about playing zone defense. We spent nearly a decade in seminary and have now weathered 17 years in ministry. The Lord has been faithful through it all. Here are some things I’ve learned from 20 adventurous and beautiful years of marriage.

Eight Lessons 

1. We often enter marriage with unrealistic expectations.

We did. Those early years were somewhat difficult because we lacked a fully biblical view of both ourselves and the meaning of marriage. As Dave Harvey puts it so well in this book, marriage is the wedding of two sinful hearts, two hearts that want what they want and that want it now. Marriage is designed to display God’s glory. As we soon learned, it’s a laboratory for intense sanctification. I expected to be viewed as her prince charming, her knight in shining armor. No doubt my wife expected me to be those things. I expected her to be my near-perfect princess. There would be blue birds singing above our bed each morning when we threw back the curtains to reveal a beautiful sunrise. There would be no clouds, no rain. It took exactly 24 hours before our first fight unfolded (over what genre of music would be played on the car radio, with Michael Bolton and Johnny Cash in opposing corners) to burst that bubble. Soon, we realized that we were sinners desperately in need of transformation and that God would build our home by painfully revealing and then gradually killing our sin. It remains a work in process.

2. God’s complementary design is an ingenious creation.

As a man, I simply don’t have the tools to make it as well on my own. This has nothing to do with cooking and laundry, though the kids view my cooking with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist. My wife and I complement each other in an infinite variety of ways. In many areas where I am weak, she is strong, and vice-versa. This is God’s excellent design, and we are grateful for it.

3. Every couple needs godly role models.

Over the years God has put many gospel-picturing marriages in our path. We’ve been privileged to learn at the feet of couples who have been married for decades, have raised godly (and wayward) children, have suffered hardship together, and have persevered to become a compelling product of God’s marvelous grace. Every set of newlyweds needs a godly, mentoring couple who has weathered many years of life in a fallen world.

4. Trials either strengthen a marriage or undermine it.

Marriage is like a bridge: it must be perennially strong to hold the weight that will put stress on its foundation. In 2007, most of us recall the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed, sending 13 motorists to a sudden death. The culprit? Unrepaired cracks beneath. Once too much tonnage was placed atop the decaying structure, it gave way and crumbled. Marriage can be the same way when pressure is put on it, particularly pressure of an acute variety. My wife and I have walked through many dangers, toils, and snares together. No doubt, there were some cracks in our marriage, but it pleased God to strengthen them and make the bridge strong enough to buttress the traffic. Had Christ and his Word not been the cornerstone, the bridge would have tumbled down like a house of cards.

5. Ephesians 5 is impossible without God’s grace.

The twin demands of “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25) and “wives submit to your husbands” (v. 22) are impossible to keep without God’s enabling grace. Our hearts are simply too selfish to live for another unless God changes them.

6. My primary love language is self-love.

Serving does not come easy for me. I seldom wake up and think, You know, I’m going to find 17 sacrificial and servant-hearted things to do for my wife today because I want to give her a picture of Jesus. More typically, my heart seeks to devise ways to be served, even to be served in the name of “ministry.” This is because I love me and have a wonderful plan for my life. Thankfully, God uses marriage to uncover and chip away at this terrible sin—and through parenting he brings even more soldiers into the battle against self-idolatry.

7. My level of spiritual maturity is most accurately measured in the mundane.

Godliness (or a lack thereof) develops in the press of everyday life. I can enter the pulpit and wear a mask of piety for 45 minutes, but my true colors are revealed in getting four young children ready for church. They’re unmasked during my first five minutes through the door at the end of the work day. You want to know who I really am or how my sanctification is progressing? Don’t ask me. Ask Lisa. She sees me every day in the mundane moments, and how I behave in them is who I really am.

8. Life is short, so our marriage must aim to exalt a greater marriage.

This may sound like a tired cliché, but it’s only a cliché if James 4 or Psalm 90 are cliché. Life is a vapor, and our days come to 70 or 80 years if God gives us a long life. My wife and I are amazed that two decades have passed since we exchanged nuptials on that steamy June afternoon. I pray God will help us remember that life is a vapor and that our chief end as humans is to glorify and enjoy him forever with every day he gives us—that even as we enjoy our lives together we’ll remind one another that marriage is not ultimate since we were designed to live for an eternal bridegroom.

More to Come

I am deeply, deeply grateful for Lisa and the life God has given us together. I’ve watched as the Lord has transformed her into a deeply committed follower of Christ, a Proverbs 31 woman, and a tireless, godly mother. I pray daily that I’m being transformed into a Christ-honoring husband as well.

If Jesus doesn’t return in our lifetimes, may it please him to give us many more decades together for his glory.

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