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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
16. Life sure does move quickly. Boy does
it. Blink. Five years.
Blink. Ten years. Blink.
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.