Jay Blogs – Lessons Learned

On May 24, 1993, I had my first date with Ashley, who is now my wife. It actually didn’t start out as a date. We were just friends who hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks; we were just going to dinner to catch up. As we sat there, waiting for our linguini at Orleans Pasta House, I said something moderately funny. Ashley laughed, and in that moment, God flicked a switch in my heart. My impossibly lizard-slow brain caught up to my heart a few seconds later, and I thought, “Oh… Ohhhh!!!! This is her, Lord! She’s ‘the one!’”

God obviously did the same thing for her that night, because we stayed up until 2 a.m. talking on a work night. After I drove her home, I called my mom, waking her up. I told her, “I need for you to meet this girl, because she’s the one I’m going to marry.” We were engaged on August 15, but I had reserved the church by May 30th, one week after our first date. Like the old lady says in my favorite line from When Harry Met Sally: “I knew the way you know about a good melon. You just know.” 

On April 23, 1994, at Perkins Chapel on the SMU campus, we were hitched.

Everybody’s story is different. Just like there’s no fixed pattern to everyone’s personal stories of salvation, we each have a different tale of how we met and knew the one we married. If there was a pattern, everyone would look for the pattern instead of trusting in the Lord. 

That was how we got married; staying married has been a much more interesting story. And as Ashley and I celebrated our 30th anniversary last week, I was thinking about some of the many, many things God has taught me about life, love, and marriage over the years. Here are a few:

You may have heard this before, but it bears repeating: The purpose of marriage isn’t to make you happy; it’s to make you holy. I heard this years ago. I don’t like the romantic idea that one needs marriage to make one complete, because you don’t. There are lots of people running around out there who are living full lives as image bearers of God and are not married. The apostle Paul (who was single and celibate) wrote on the fullness of singleness, and Jesus and others in Scripture were single without losing the completeness of themselves (1 Cor. 7).

What marriage does is help you perfect yourself, or hold a mirror up so you can surrender and let the Lord perfect you. It shows you how selfish you are. I don’t mean that you’re a selfish pig (although sometimes it may show that, too). I mean that it reveals how fully and mostly self-focused we are in our singleness.

Here’s what I mean: When you wake up as a single guy on Saturday morning, you have your whole day ahead of you. You think, “I’ll get up, go work out, wash my car, have lunch with Larry, watch a couple football games, then shower and go out with the guys.” The day is centered around you and your plans. Then you get married. All of a sudden, there’s this new other person in the room with you. She has an agenda, too, and if you’re going to be married well, you have to consider her plan and yours. You have to become us and develop our plans.

And that’s just Saturday. As those of us who are married know, having another person not exactly like you constantly in your life—a person who you’ve now discovered (like you) is most assuredly not perfect and who rubs you the wrong way from time to time—forces you to die to yourself, to become students of one another, and to learn to serve each other. Over time, if you’ll be faithful to engage, doing this again and again begins to transform you into a better, more whole person, one who looks more like Jesus, one who is holier.

Which brings me to the second thing I learned from marriage: your spouse won’t meet your deepest needs. Todd Wagner, the guy who married us, told us to read a book called The Marriage Builder by a guy named Larry Crabb. I’m not even sure it’s in print anymore, but it had some great insights that always hung with me, like this big one: all of us have needs for safety, security, well-being, and identity—to know that we are good enough, that we matter, and that we are deeply loved. And your spouse cannot be the one to give you any of these things. That’s why marriage can’t give you happiness in the sense of meeting “your needs,” meaning your deepest needs—these needs that we all have. Only Jesus can give you these things; we were made so that only He could do it.

Like pastor Matt Chandler says, people make really, really bad gods, even our spouses who we love dearly, and when we try to get them to meet needs only God can fill, they will fail miserably. Even if they want to, they can’t. They’re not God. Crabb taught me that, when we look to God alone to meet all these deep needs for us, it’s a lot easier to do all the things I already talked about in our marriage, like dying to myself and serving my wife. I can look out for her best interests and take care of her because I’m not looking to her to complete me. I can love her the way God designed me to love—sacrificially.

God wired her to respond to me when I love her that way, and she does, however long it may take sometimes. We’re both stubborn, and sometimes we’re slow to listen to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes God really has to shake us to get a hold of us. The deeper we press into Him and the more we’re listening to the Spirit in other parts of our lives, the better we care for each other.

When we love each other like this, we don’t always get happiness because life is hard and we can’t control the world around us. But we do get joy, the satisfaction and peace that come from knowing that we are both deeply loved by God and that there’s someone in this world who is all for me, who will be brutally honest with me because she wants God’s best for me, sometimes even more than I want it myself. There is deep peace in having someone all for you.

The third thing God taught me is the beauty of the “timeout.” Early on in my marriage, I took Ephesians 4:26, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” literally, meaning I thought we actually had to resolve every conflict and every fight we had before we went to bed. That was the stupidest misconstruction of Scripture ever. As a result, we spent a lot of late nights, exhausted, having arguments that went absolutely nowhere. It finally occurred to me that if we were really going to take that verse literally, we had already failed because it was now 2 AM. The sun had gone down hours ago, and we were angrier than ever.

We realized that if we could just go to bed, take a walk, or get some distance, actually take a timeout, and let the Holy Spirit work on both our hearts, we would soon be in a place where we could engage in conflict resolution in healthy, God-honoring ways. Either of us could call a timeout, and the other would have to respect it, backing into “neutral corners” until we could come back productively. The “timeout” was a marriage saver.

Fourth, families of origin are beautiful yet dangerous things. Having moms and dads who love you, support your marriage, and are ready to be wonderful grandmoms and granddads are a gift from the Lord. Even when you come from the healthiest family, however, you come with a whole host of preconceptions of what constitutes success, how to resolve conflict, how to celebrate holidays, how to motivate, inspire, and discipline children, and a million other norms that, for you, are second nature. They are the air you breathe, and your spouse has many such notions that are completely different and equally normative to him or her.

Unless your family is really dysfunctional, your natural tendency is to believe your family’s way is the “right way,” which lays the foundation for all kinds of conflict since your spouse feels the same. Yet, your family’s way probably wasn’t “the right way,” because there’s probably more than one “right way.” Furthermore, every “right way” also carries with it a shadow side, like definitions of success, which may motivate you to flourish but may also really damage your relationships with others. Over time, the better path is to pray through how your own family—this new family you’re now building—will do things, creating a new way that may be a synthesis of your family’s approaches or something altogether new.

Finally, I learned to just stick with it. While there are absolutely unsafe environments that require different measures, most strong marriages are about faithful perseverance. No one’s marriage is awesome because they’re so compatible; if it’s working, it’s because they’re working (and praying), just like you may be now. If you feel like you’re just staying together and making it work for the sake of the children, that’s a really, really good reason to make it work (speaking as a child of divorce). One of the greatest purposes of marriage, other than to mold, shape, and form you more fully into the image of God, is to testify to his nature and character. What gives more glory to God than two people, broken and struggling, yet pressing into the Lord and finding a way to love each other? Doesn’t God persist in loving us, initiating resolution, and chasing us down when we’re really hard to love and not particularly desirable?

A friend’s mom told me in an unguarded moment one time about her marriage: “We’re not married because we love each other. We love each other because we’re married.” We’ve pressed into Jesus these 30 years and stayed after our decision to love each other because we swore to God and each other we’d do it in Perkins Chapel on April 23, 1994. And, despite the work (actually, because of it), God has graciously given us a deeper depth in each other and in Him than we could have ever hoped for.