16 Lessons Learned from 16 Years of Marriage
Sixteen years ago today I covenanted with Tracey Funderburk to become one in marriage. We stood with our family and friends at the First Baptist Church in Lancaster, South Carolina, on that hot July day. In some ways it seems like it has flown. In other ways, that memory seems distant.
What lessons have I learned in sixteen years?
1. Marriage is the best thing God has got going on this earth for most people. We love being married. Marriage and family are awesome. We would do it all over again. When God created the world, He created one man and one woman for a lifetime together. Marriage makes it into the first chapter of the Bible. The family is more important than and is the building block of church, government, and society.
2. All those prayers are really worth it. Dr. Earl Crumpler challenged the congregation in a Sunday night sermon in about 1986 that young people should begin praying for their future mate. As a seventh or eight-grader, I then began asking God to select the woman I would marry. I know my mother regularly prayed for years for God to give me a good mate. Boy, did He. If you’re not married, pray for your future mate. Pray for the mates of your children and grands. Some things really, really matter, and who you marry is one of those.
3. Sometimes love awakens quickly. Laying on my dorm room floor on Friday night, January 31, 1997, I wrote in my journal, Whatever is in the future, Lord I trust You. To lead along new paths. Ways I have not known. I am Yours. I give myself to Your love. I walk into the unknown trusting. I then got up, walked across campus to a music school party in a friend’s apartment. A cute blonde from South Carolina walked into the room, got my attention, and I met Tracey Alane Funderburk.
Eight days later, we went on our first date. Standing in the foyer of Tumbleweed Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, on a cold February evening, I thought, “This young lady next to me is gorgeous.” Sitting knee to knee at a small table over supper, I realized there was a lock to my heart whose key was kept only by this woman in front of me. I knew at that moment that I would spend my life with her.
4. When the decision is something massive in your life, as you seek God for direction, He will move heaven and earth to guide you. The Bible promises that when our hearts are fully His and we seek Him hard, He will show Himself to us (2 Chronicles 16:9; Jeremiah 29:13). To read more about how God showed Himself to me during those days, read here.
5. Laughter is great medicine. The first year we dated, I often thought that Tracey was to me like one bringing laughter. Through the years we found that laughing together, laughing with each other, and laughing at ourselves helps brighten the days, bond us together, and help us make it through the rough spots. May our homes be filled with laughter.
6. The family that plays together, stays together. We enjoy having fun. If we had enough money, I think we could officially be full-time “having-funners.” Look for ways to play, explore, and discover. Spend time together. Communicate to your family with your time that you would rather spend your free hours with them than with anyone else in the world.
7. The family that prays together, stays together. Through the years I learned that prayer doesn’t have to be long, complicated, or impressive. Prayer simply opens our lives to the Spirit of God. Take the time to grab your spouse’s hand and say, “Let’s pray.” As children come along, make family prayer a natural habit. Pray for your family and with your family. Teach children to pray out loud. Walk into their bedrooms at night while they sleep and pray quiet prayers over them. Open the door for the Lord to walk through the doors of your home. Open that door through prayer.
8. Make regular, spiritual habits a normal part of your marriage, and do it early.
I knew that I wanted our family to be one where talking about things that really matter, like our faith and our feelings, was natural and regular. Early in our marriage I began regularly opening the Bible, reading and praying with my newlywed wife. We had many conversations those first few years that started with, “Let me tell you what I read in my devotional time this morning.” We learned together to talk about our feelings, our hopes, and about things we believed about God and how He was working.
If you will establish that atmosphere between the two of you when you start your marriage, it will already be established when children arrive. They will grow up in a home marked by spiritual things, good communication, and the love and fear of the Lord.
9. Sex is a fantastic pleasure of marriage, but it is not the main course. I heard a Hollywood actress say, “In the movies, life is mainly about sex with a few other things thrown in. In real life, life is mainly about a whole lot of other things with some sex thrown in.” When a guy is twenty, he usually thinks that marriage is a whole lot about sex. In reality, sex, as designed by our Creator, is a part of a relationship marked by mutual submission, trust, and sacrifice. Sex at its best is a whole lot about communication and pleasing each other.
Sex is fantastic. I think it is one of God’s best blessings He created. But it is only one part of life. And, as Kevin Leman says, it begins in the kitchen: unloading the dishwasher, cleaning the house, getting the oil changed, speaking kindly, and having a good attitude to your mate.
Also, remember, the need for purity never stops. Read more about the need for purity in marriage here.
10. Expect from the Lord. Morris Keller gave me great marriage advice when I was in college. He said, “You will want to expect from your wife, wanting her to meet your needs. That’s a trap. You need instead to learn to expect from the Lord.” Psalm 62:5 says about the Lord that “my expectation is from Him.”
When we expect from people and they don’t deliver, we feel disappointed. We may withdraw our affection from them because they did not meet our expectations. However, if we expect first from the Lord, then it frees us to graciously receive the good things that do come to us through our spouse. Enjoy those blessings. But then when our spouse does not meet our need as we might wish, instead of falling into an expectation trap we are free to love them. Expecting from God first and being satisfied with what He allows us to receive from our spouse frees us to love and appreciate them without always trying to make them into something else.
11. Children are a blessing from the Lord. They are to be cherished. Thank God for those children. Together we share in the miracle of creation. The Bible says that one of God’s purposes for marriage is that we may produce godly offspring. Start praying now for your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. God’s Word says that our lives influence many generations.
When Tracey was pregnant with our first child, I read James Dobson's book Straight Talk to Men: Timeless Principles for Leading Your Family. That book greatly impacted me as Dobson shares stories from his own life and relationship with his father and son. Dads, we have about eighteen years to impact our children. Make the most of it. They need us intentionally investing in their lives from day one.
12. Create margin in your life. Our first year of full-time ministry, we attended a conference for pastor families sponsored by the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The key note speaker was a medical doctor beginning to receive notoriety because of his writings. In books like Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives , The Overload Syndrome, and In Search of Balance, Dr. Richard Swenson challenges the pace of our society and the consumer culture of always having to produce more, what he calls the escalation of the norm. That weekend, a strong seed was planted in our lives. We determined that year to take the challenge of learning how to build margin into our lives.
Swenson writes, “Marginless is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.”
As a young pastor, I realized that I can win the world and lose my family. Andy Stanley has a great book for dads called When Work and Family Collide. The book was formerly titled Choosing to Cheat. He challenges dads to not regularly take time away from their families. I decided that, using Andy Stanley’s illustration, I would not regularly cheat my family of time and attention. I would not be a pastor who tried to please everyone else but neglected my own family.
Your children won’t care about the plaque they gave you at work or school. They will, however, remember sledding down icy slopes, leisurely reading books by the fire, and taking long walks in the woods.
13. When life stinks, you can’t check out. Life will be different than you expected and much harder than you expected. When newlyweds stand at the altar, they dream of all of the good things that will happen. I doubt if many think, “Life will be very stressful at times. We will get on each other’s nerves. We will have financial struggles. We may lose our jobs. We will watch our parents die. One of us may watch the other one die of cancer. Our children may give us heartache. “
The first time Tracey and held hands was a Sunday night at church. At the close of the service, the pastor told us to join hands with the person standing next to you. I rejoiced and thought, “Please pray a long time!” I still remember that evening a young woman sang the solo, “Life is Hard, but God is Good.” Well ain’t that the truth? Life is hard.
Tracey and I have journeyed through unexpected trials, heartaches, and valleys. The stress and challenges that come with being a couple in pastoral ministry have at times been daunting and disappointing. Pastoring a church the first year of marriage was what I call being baptized with fire. Whatever your lot in life, life will include difficult times.
In such times, we cannot check out. We need each other. Though we may like to stay in bed, pull the covers over our head, and check out, we simply cannot. Life goes on. Lean into each other instead of leaning apart. Give each other grace when the other one is not at his or her best. This is a season. There is something to be said about just showing up. Elisabeth Elliot often taught this simple, practical advice: Trust God and do the next thing.
Or, as Dolly Parton sings in her song "Try," And whenever you think you ain't gonna make it, put a smile on your face, suck it up and fake it for a while. Give it a try. At least you'll know you tried.
That’s good advice. And yes, I used Elisabeth Elliot and Dolly Parton in the same point.
14. Everyone changes. Choose to change together. I have a bald spot now that surfaced a few years ago. My weight increased quite a bit since our first date. Bodies change. Interests change. Hobbies change. Musical tastes change. Dreams change.
Tracey amazes me how she has changed for the better through the years. When we first dated, she had no interest in history and bored easily with reading. She mainly wanted to have a good time. Seventeen years later, she can’t get enough of books. She wants to read about classical education methods and historical biographies. This year begins her ninth year of homeschooling our children. She directs our homeschool community of about thirty families. She exhibits a thirst for learning that still surprises me. Sometimes I say, “You would have never been interested in that in 1997.” And she agrees and laughs.
You and your spouse will both change. The key is, learn to change together. Move towards each other. Don’t expect him to be just like he was twenty years ago. Enjoy the fact that she acquires new tastes and interests. Just make sure you adapt together.
15. Friends are a blessing. Charles Swindoll says that you are blessed if, when you die, you can count four or five people in your life who have been real friends. You will have many people move in and out of your life. The only contact you will have with some of those folks in your wedding party ten years from now will be annual Christmas cards. Some friendships are seasonal. Their purpose and blessing is for a specific season of life and marriage. Then as seasons change, so do relationships. A few may last over various seasons. Some friendships will fade away or end abruptly. Some walk away from you.
Enjoy the friends God gives you. Life is better with friends. But remember, friends come and go. But God remains. Put your trust in Him, and love your friends.
It is a wonderful thing to have a few companions in the journey of life who will pray for and encourage you and your wife. You pray for and encourage them as well.
16. Life sure does move quickly. Boy does it. Blink. Five years. Blink. Ten years. Blink. Fifteen.
An eighty-something year old widower told me yesterday that last week his boys helped him clean out everything from his house’s attic. “It was a bittersweet week,” he said. They rummaged through filing cabinets, toys, and stacks of his wife’s sheet music before sending some to Goodwill and throwing away the rest. From that perspective, life moves quickly.
After sixteen years I can definitely say that I would marry her all over again.