I’ve made plenty of mistakes in life including in my marriage. Sin and failure are a part of being human (unfortunately).
But I’ve also made some good choices that brought the blessing of God. One was taking Shirley Jean Cookson as my wife on October 10, 1976.
One of our sons is getting married this week on the same day–forty-five years later. We’re happy to share the date (we were married on my Grandma Boehme’s birthday.)
Marriage is the bedrock of a thriving nation. Nothing creates greater social stability and happiness than great marriages.
What are the secrets to a successful marriage?
Successful Marriages–Our Greatest Social Need
Marriage used to be one of the most stable institutions in America because of Judeo-Christian principles and godly character traits that were practiced by the majority.
For example, most men and women didn’t have sex until they married. At the altar, they made a commitment to each other “until death do us part.” For centuries, most Americans saw marriage as a covenant before God and a means of nurturing children in the love and stability of family.
Divorce was rare and frowned upon.
Not today. Most people “sleep around” before marrying (kind of like kicking the tires on cars), and there is little sense of a binding covenant in the relationship. Divorce takes place for almost any reason despite hurting kids through the break-up and sometimes jerking them around from house-to-house.
We must change the “cheapness” of marriage in today’s culture by renewing our commitment to God’s principles and practice marriage and family according to His design.
Jokingly, here’s the first piece of advice I give to prospective couples who come for marriage counseling:
First, you must choose a good spouse–one of excellent and noble character. Second, do what she says. Then you will have a good life (happy wife = happy life).
Women usually smile and men frown.
Truthfully, that equation works well in most homes (and also goes both ways i.e. mutual submission).
Beyond the humor, let’s look at some common stages of married life (I’m sure there are others), that we can learn from them, and what’s the ultimate key to a happy and successful marriage.
Stage One – Love
“Falling in love” is not a biblical concept and most marriages historically were chosen by parents–not personal feelings or desire.
But I remember the “sparks” when God brought Shirley and I together. We were young, had similar dreams, and yet seemed opposite in many ways (hence the corresponding attraction).
And we stood madly in love–so much that I even forgot to propose. I just assumed (and she agreed) we were God’s choice for each other, and after a lengthy engagement (separate mission work), we moved up our wedding date because we couldn’t wait.
Oh, the excitement of young love.
Decades later, I still occasionally drop to one knee and apologize for not proposing. It didn’t matter. We loved each other.
Stage Two – Discovery
Living together for the first time leads to many discoveries about the personality, habits, and ideals of your spouse (marriage means joining your lives in spirit, soul and body). Here’s my second piece of marriage advice for young couples:
Study your spouse well. More importantly, accept your findings.
Translation? When you discover things you don’t like about your spouse, don’t try to change them. Accept them with love and trust the transformative process to God. Serve them in areas of weakness or difference–don’t judge or look for greener pastures.
Make it a lifetime of discovery (most of which is wonderful).
Stage Three – Disappointment
The discovery phase sometimes leads to disappointments or potential division between you–especially in areas of difference. She likes the bedroom warm, and you like it cool. She prefers spontaneity and you are a planner. She insists you squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom whereas you just grab the middle.
I used to call Shirley “Right Angle Rita” when we first married because everything needed to be “just so” in our home environment. If fact, when I got up at night to go to the bathroom and returned to the bedroom, my side of the bed was made. (Just kidding–but almost.)
Disappointment over differences can lead to division or stress, and without commitment, divorce.
But there’s a better way.
Stage Four – Adjustments
Marriage is truly the greatest 24-7 discipleship school God ever designed. With love and commitment as the foundation, marriage forces you (if you’re teachable) to adjust to your spouse’s desires and habits and multiply the fruits of the Spirit in your life (Galatians 5:22,23).
She doesn’t like to take out the garbage, so you do it. You enjoy set mealtimes so she provides them. She prefers you to discipline the kids–so you comply. The list is endless about daily changes you both make to create family unity.
Stage Five – Coasting
Sometimes decades of home habits and automatic responses can lead to a “coasting” time in the marriage relationships where apathy creeps in. Mid-life crises often happen during this stage when you’re “not paying attention” as you were earlier.
Shirley and I entered this stage unwittingly and needed to get back to our “first love.” It wasn’t easy after six kids, a busy missionary life, and all the temptations to live on autopilot. But God broke through and showed us the need for further growth in our relationship–especially during the empty nest phase.
Stage Six – Appreciation
Our wake-up call helped birth a deep appreciation and sense of gratitude for each other.
The writer of Proverbs 31 says, “Her husband praises her saying, ‘Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all (verses 28-29).'” That’s how I feel about Shirley after forty-five years of marriage. She feels the same about me.
We’ve learned to downplay each other’s weaknesses and praise the other’s strengths. We no longer look at the half-empty glass of our spouse’s quirks. Rather, we stare at the half full and overflowing cup of our better half’s strengths and gifts with deep appreciation and praise.
You arrive at this place of beauty through one amazing principle. It’s what I call the “Secret of Happiness” for human existence, starting with our relationship to God.
It remains the same necessary ingredient for great marriages. It doesn’t sound like it, but it delivers.
Death to self.
Only sin (selfishness, self-centeredness) divides and hurts relationships–not personality, gifts, or opinions. Unity flourishes when we die to our desires and live to prefer others. One person living a selfless life makes a good marriage. Two, doing the same, creates a great one.
Here’s my favorite quote on selfless living by Leonard Ravenhill:
The person who has died to self has no [selfish] ambitions so he has nothing to be jealous about. They have no reputation, so they have nothing to fight about. They have no possessions, so they have nothing to worry about. They have no rights, so they can’t suffer any wrongs. They are already dead, so no one can kill them.
Death to self comes from an attitude of humility, not superiority. It uses the words “please forgive me” and “I love you” often and with great sincerity.
God’s goal for marriage is to teach two people to live selflessly for Him and each other. That can only be accomplished through his amazing impartation of grace, love, and daily empowerment.
God-filled, selfless marriages are our country’s greatest social need.
Grow yours for a lifetime. And if you’re single, pray for a revival of great marriages—including a possible future union for you and God’s choice of a noble spouse.