Thoughts on a Great Marriage

(My sweet friend Cassie Celestain interviewed me for her blog, True Agape, a few years back. She split the content into two entries—Loving One Another through Communication and Applying the Gospel to Marriage.)

How long you have been married, and how did you meet?

Riley and I have been married for five and a half years. We joke that we met through Hurricane Katrina. His dad took my high school youth group to do disaster relief work in New Orleans (I know—romantic, right?). During one of the devotions, he mentioned his son, who was going into ministry. A girlfriend nudged me and said he sounded cute. A few months after we got back from the trip, my friend told me she had found (read: stalked) this guy for me. She gave me his Facebook info, and so I shot him a message and said, “Your dad took us on a mission trip. Tell him thanks and hi.” (I found out later that his dad didn’t recognize my name until Riley said, “She says you called her Giggles.” Greeeaaaaat….) His dad said, “Oh, she’s a good girl!”

Riley was also friends with my youth pastor who apparently said the same thing, minus the Giggles part. He became interested enough to start pursuing me through Facebook and phone conversations. A couple of months later, he came to visit me at college, and we had our first date. (He teases that what sold him was hearing me say I just wanted McDonald’s because I was a poor college kid who was low maintenance.) Two years later, he popped the question IN THE MIDDLE OF CHURCH. I guess that’s a perk of being a preacher boy.

As a newlywed, what was your biggest frustration or challenge?

So we really struggled—like REALLY struggled—with communication. I think people just assumed that since we were headed off into the sunset via the ministry train, we had everything figured out. That was totally not the case. Neither one of us really had a great parental example of conflict resolution, so eight months into our marriage, we were sitting in a counselor’s office getting tools on how to fight fair and how to love one another through communication. I learned not to shut down in the middle of conflict, and Riley learned how to make me feel safe enough to come out of my shell and play. We’re still learning these things. But if communication is screwed up (or not happening), there’s no way to be a healthy picture of Christ and the Church.

What advice would you give to a newlywed couple?

My first response was to say a lot of little things addressing different symptoms—don’t do this, make sure you say that. But really, if you want to get down to the heart of it all, let Jesus define your marriage. Allow Him to shape your hearts as spouses and to create your roles and to help you love one another lavishly. He created marriage to be a beautiful, life-filled magnet that draws people to Himself. If we live this relationship out in our own strength, it will resemble a blackened, wilting thing that should have been a robust blossom. We will be burned out, angry, bitter, and hopeless. That’s the opposite of what Christ had in mind. Let Jesus fill you up consistently and overflow all over your spouse in grace, hope, joy, and life.

What is the best advice you received?

Our counselor told us that we had misunderstood the point of communication. Its purpose is not to be heard, but to understand the other person. When that clicked, our tone of conversation changed. The yelling and interrupting gave way to asking questions and creating a safe environment. That advice can bleed over into every area of your marriage with a very biblical question—are you putting your spouse over yourself? This affects the budget, the calendar, the bedroom, the kids. I love how God can give us a principle that seems simple (not easy, but simple) but that impacts so much of our lives.

What is the most important skill any couple should know and use?

Applying the gospel to your marriage. Remember that you are a sinner married to another sinner, both in need of grace—how profoundly that can influence your entire relationship. This skill requires you to know the gospel inside out, to allow it to envelop everything that makes you you. Once you grasp hold of the truth that grace overcomes, it permeates the atmosphere of your marriage. When you unleash the gospel to yourself and to your spouse, you are creating both a mask that will filter out the deadly poison of bitterness and a salve that will heal all wounds. Different people have different tendencies: for some, preaching the gospel to yourself will make a world of change in your marriage because it will obliterate any legalistic, shame-inducing bondage, while others need to focus on living out the gospel more for their spouse’s sake, sensing a need for approval or fear of abandonment. Any other skill feeds the cycle of performance-based relationship, but allowing the gospel to define your marriage is inviting God to display His power through you.

What should you never say to your spouse?

Be super careful to avoid comments that are neither helpful nor encouraging nor loving. There are tons of verses on speech that we should use and language to veer from. Riley and I had a talk this morning about the fact that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). When we allow the meanest thing that comes to our mind to fly through our mouth, it’s only fruit from a tree that we have allowed to grow inside of us. The main thing is to catch those hurtful words and phrases while they are still thoughts and ask God to uproot those trees from our hearts. If we hear words fly from our mouths that are seasoned with grace and love, that’s simply fruit from the trees we are cultivating. So my advice is to tend your inner garden—the rest will follow naturally.

What is the best resource you would recommend?

I have lots (of course; I had so much to learn). If you need a book on marriage, my favorite is When Sinners Say I Do by Dave Harvey. Mark Driscoll’s sermon series on YouTube called The Peasant Princess is an AMAZING resource for sex. (Don’t worry—it’s tasteful. But it’s awesome, too.) If you are looking for a creative place to get ideas on date nights, I love To understand more of the gospel and the purpose of marriage, get into the Word and start intentionally digging in. If you find yourself where Riley and I were and you just need someone to talk to, find a Christian counselor or a godly older couple. And if you feel like taking your marriage to a new level as far as friends go, plug into a Bible-believing small group for consistent encouragement, accountability, and spiritual food. (This shouldn’t replace church, but the more intimate setting can definitely be helpful.) If you’re a musically-inclined person, you might like the Steven Curtis Chapman album “All About Love” or the newer “When I’m with You” collection by JJ Heller.

How have you made your marriage work?

Can I be snarky? I haven’t. Haha. If the health of this marriage rested solely on the two of us (or me), we would have just upped the statistic of divorce. That’s what’s so great about the gospel. We are utterly incapable of perfection, and the God who is able comes and begins a work in us, helping us, convicting us, counseling us, encouraging us. It’s not what we do; it’s what He has already done. When we lose sight of that, we risk having a Kentucky-fried relationship, extra crispy. We moved up to Connecticut a year and a half ago as church planting missionaries. The enemy has placed lots of little grenades along the way, so I can speak from experience. It’s sooo easy to get caught up again on the performance train. But putting up reminders in places we need them and planting seeds of grace at every available opportunity—that’s where it’s at. That’s the sweet spot of resting in Christ and allowing Him to form (or reform) your marriage into what He has in mind. The beauty of it all is that the best relationship we can concoct in our wildest dreams can’t even begin to compare with what He wants for us. He is good, and we get to follow Him. (That’s the happily ever after part.)

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