By David Sanford, Crosswalk.com
Almost every marriage can be better. Yes, it takes growing amounts of courage, but it’s very doable and so worth it. I can say this with confidence after 37 years of courageous marriage. Believe me, we had lots of help! Because experience is the best teacher—especially other people’s experiences—I want to share that help in this article.
Then again, shortly after agreeing to write this, my supposedly routine back fusion surgery went terribly wrong (due to a very rare medical condition). After two weeks, I still couldn’t move. But God! I re-learned how to read, how to walk, and how to live at home, where I rejoined my wife, Renée, on New Year’s Day—weeks ahead of schedule.
Bottom line: The two of us are happy to report that “How to Have a Courageous Marriage” still works!
So, what makes a courageous marriage?
1. Ask for wisdom from couples who are finishing well.
In our twenties, Renée and I read a small stack of great books on marriage. More importantly, we talked with a lot of women and men who had been married 30, 40, and 50 years. We didn’t just ask about regrets. We also asked what they relished most. Their answers have informed a number of our most important decisions over the past 37 years.
Cultivate a child-centered family? No. Plant our roots deep in a good local church? Yes!
2. Seek to enjoy a grace-filled marriage.
Younger married friends introduced us to the delightful and especially wise book, Grace Filled Marriage, by Dr. Tim Kimmel with Darcy Kimmel. They contend that grace, not love, is the missing ingredient in most marriages. Why is grace essential? The Kimmels say that grace gives you a secure love, a significant purpose, and a strong hope. They also say that grace frees you to be different and vulnerable, and frees you to be candid and make mistakes. We agree!
3. Actively nurture a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly, no matter what.
Imagine you’re a writer who still can’t read after nearly a month. Thankfully, Renée encouraged me to open a favorite book and keep looking at it until my brain could make sense of what it said. Some 40 minutes later, suddenly I could read perfectly. We were elated.
Almost immediately, Renée encouraged me to follow my favorite morning routine: reading my Bible and praying through my personal stack of 100+ hand-written prayer cards.
This produced an amazing surge in my spiritual recovery. In turn, that surge seemed to greatly accelerate my mental, emotional, social, and physical recovery. Within a week, I could walk. Within another week, I received the green light to move back home.
The bottom line? Nothing is more important than one’s spiritual vibrancy. I’m living proof!
4. Maintain a strong lifelong commitment to personal growth.
One of our mentors told us most people refuse to give up their protracted infancy. Another said most people die at age 25 and are buried at age 75. Still another said most people live in a rut—a grave with both ends kicked out. Their point? Lifelong personal growth is rare.
Then again, it’s essential in order to have a courageous marriage. That’s why both of us made a commitment as teenagers to never stop growing spiritually, socially, mentally, emotionally, and volitionally. Yes, I took several major steps backward after my recent health crisis, but I’m rebounding far faster than my medical and therapeutic teams predicted. They’re thrilled—and so are we!
5. Anticipate diminishments to your health and well-being.
Sorry, but “forever young” is a generational myth of epic proportions. My oldest son-in-law just turned 39 and is gearing up to run a half-marathon in May. I’m proud of him and praying for his physical well-being every day. After all, I was only 41 years old when my doctor had to break the bad news.
My days of fast-paced full-court basketball for an hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday were over. If only I were in as good of shape now!
6. Firmly reject pick-and-choose-reality.
We live in air. We gladly breathe it in. We live in a culture that has fully adopted the tenets of pick-and-choose-reality. “There is no such thing as absolute truth.” “Truth is simply the most popular illusion.” “I can do, be, and believe whatever I want.”
Do we gladly embrace these and other current cultural mantas? Or firmly reject them? Sadly, we see couples where one spouse embraces them and another rejects them. In such cases, separation and divorce seem almost inevitable.
In contrast, the courageous couple worships the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, as revealed in the Scriptures. They celebrate the Lord’s sovereignty (greatness), providence (guidance and goodness), holiness (glory), love (graciousness), and mystery (“God alone knows”). They have built their lives on the rock of the Lord Jesus Christ, their God and Savior.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Ben White
7. Address anger head-on.
Courageous couples never assume that they have “arrived.” Some issues can stay mostly submerged for years, rearing their ugly heads only when least expected. That’s true with my anger, which can be volcanic. When that last happened unexpectedly in early December 2016, Renée and I both knew it was time for me to address my anger issues head-on.
That included making a deep-hearted commitment, apologizing at length to both Renée and our youngest daughter (separately), and then discovering that God had brought a new mentor into my life.
Thankfully, that mentor has gone on to publish a compelling book titled Confessions of an Angry Man. Everything I needed to start and stop believing, and start and stop doing, is portrayed in Brent Hofer’s brutally honest yet hope-filled confession. No, my anger issues weren’t as bad as Brent’s, but eventually they would have been.
I’m so glad for his transformative impact in my life!
8. Enjoy doing life together.
Over the years, we’ve made no apology of spending quality time together. That includes traveling a day here, two days there, a week in southern Florida, two weeks in Europe, additional weeks trekking in the Alps, the Amazon, the Andes, the Sahara desert.
No, we didn’t traverse the whole planet before my health went kaput, but no one can say we didn’t try for thirty-plus years.
Pity the couple who never decides to live, whose chief excitement is daydreaming, who never dares to passionately pursue their plans now, today, this year, the next five years, before it’s too late and family and friends lament what might have been.
After our honeymoon, Renée and I told everyone what a wonderful time we had together that week. No, we didn’t go to some exotic location. Instead, we mostly stayed in northwest Washington state. After living in two cities (Seattle and Portland), we quickly learned that being together anywhere was wonderful. Thankfully, it still is!
9. Practice vulnerability.
We both like to laugh at the line, “If it weren’t for your wife’s faults, she would have married a better man.” Of course, one’s faults at (say) age 20 or 30 are not necessarily the same at age 50 or 60. Then again, some are. Our advice? Get used to it.
Love overlooks sins and it certainly doesn’t linger on my spouse’s imperfections. My own? I seek to acknowledge my failings to Renée as quickly as possible after the Holy Spirit or my conscience reveals them to me.
10. Cultivate emotional intelligence.
The Bible Project co-founder Jonathan Collins, his wife Tristan Collins, and writer Melissa Binder have written and published a new book, Why Emotions Matter. It’s been a huge eye-opener for us, but we haven’t finished processing it together as a couple. Actually, it’s the kind of book we’ll probably read every year or two. It’s that good!
11. Schedule counseling before you need it.
Counseling comes in many forms. Professional. Pastoral. Wise friends. Mentors. Over the years we’ve welcomed one and all. We still do. Then again, we have to laugh about what happened after our 20th wedding anniversary. To celebrate that milestone, we make appointments to see a marriage counselor. When he asked why we were there, we said we wanted to pick up a few more tools to improve our skills in marital communications and conflict-resolution.
After three sessions, the counselor “fired” us. If only he had been more discerning!
12. Practice radical forgiveness with each other.
Each morning I pray: “Lord, Your marvelous, amazing mercy and grace make it obvious that I will extend instant, full, unconditional mercy and grace to those I know and love.” It may be that they’ve wounded or hurt me. More likely, it may be that they’ve wounded or hurt themselves (and others).
We made a promise to our kids that if they confessed something particular egregious to Renée or me, we would instantly forgive, give them a bear hug, and never bring it up again. When one college-aged child gave us a lengthy letter, Renée and I read it silently. Then I walked over to our grill, put the 4-page letter inside, closed the lid, and ignited the propane burners.
As promised, we gave them a bear hug. The relief was palpable. Instantly, they had a fresh slate.
When I wrote a half-page letter to Renée, she did the same for me.
Courageous marriage is brave enough to practice radical forgiveness with each other—and our children—every time. Few commitments are more transformational. It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ applied to real life. What good news, indeed!
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Pablo Heimplatz
David Sanford‘s book and Bible projects have been published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His next book is Life Map Devotional for Men due out concurrently with his wife’s next book, Life Map Devotional for Women.