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40 Lessons From 48 Years of Marriage and Family (Part One)

By Dennis Rainey

Forty-eight years ago I married Barbara Ann Peterson. Looking back now on the first 12 months of our marriage, I’d have to describe my newlywed self as a “Rookie”—repeatedly failing to appreciate the dignity of the gifted woman, friend, partner, lover, and confidant God had brought me.

But after six children, 26 grandchildren, and approaching five decades of married life, I’ve learned more than a “few” things. This week I’m listing half of the critical lessons I’ve learned about marriage over the years, and next week I’ll pass on 20 more. Some of these lessons I’ve really learned while others I am VERY much still learning.

I’m glad Barbara and God are patient with me.

Here’s my first 20.

1. Marriage and family are about the glory of God.

Genesis 1:27 makes it clear: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” From the beginning, marriage has been central to God’s glory on planet Earth. The Bible begins with a marriage and ends with a marriage. What God designed, lifted up, and gave a transcendent purpose, man has dumbed down.

Today the purpose of marriage is often mistaken to be personal happiness - to find another person who meets my needs. God created marriage to reflect His image, to reproduce a godly heritage, and to stand together in spiritual battle. Your marriage, your covenant-keeping love, will be your greatest witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Marriage is about the glory of God—not about the happiness of man.

2. Marriage takes place on a spiritual battlefield, not on a romantic balcony.

Satan’s first attack on the image of God was to destroy the image-bearers’ relationship with Him. Then Satan went after Adam and Eve and their relationship with one another. If he targeted marriage from the start, why would we think our marriages would be any different?

I think we often forget that our marriages—our families—can be targeted by the enemy to destroy the image-bearers—to destroy the legacy passed on to future generations.

3. Jesus Christ came to forgive our sins and give us peace with God and one another.

We can never experience peace (oneness) in marriage as God intended if we are not at peace with God personally. The problem is we are born selfish and sinful. We need the Savior. This is why God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sins and be our Lord and Savior. Jesus bridges the gap between God and man.

The familiar passage John 3:16 spells it out, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The gift of eternal life and peace with God can be received and experienced if we place our faith in Jesus and His payment for our sins. The bible refers to this as the “new birth”… Jesus said, “You must be born again.” John 3:1-8

This is the great hope for our marriages, that two selfish, sinful, and broken people can surrender to Christ and receive God’s forgiveness. Only having experienced His love and forgiveness can we truly love and forgive our spouse.

4. Your spouse is not your enemy.

Ephesians 6:12 tells us that our battle is not against flesh and blood.

The Scriptures explain that your spouse is not your enemy. Instead, your spouse is a gift from God to you. In all of your spouse’s strengths and imperfections, God has given you a gift. You can either receive it by faith, or you can reject it.

Your spouse is NOT your enemy.

5. The couple that prays together stays together.

In the first months of my marriage, I went to a mentor and asked, “You’ve been married 25 years. You’ve got five kids. What’s the best single piece of advice you can give me as a young man who’s just starting his marriage?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “Pray with your wife every day.”

I said: “That’s it? Pray with your wife?”

“That’s it.”

So I went home and Barbara and I started praying together. This worked really well for a couple of months … until the night we went to bed facing opposite walls. Although it wasn’t the most comfortable position physically, it expressed where we were spiritually and emotionally.

There seemed to be a tap on my shoulder that night and it wasn’t Barbara. God was speaking to me in my conscience. He said: “Hey, Rainey! Aren’t you going to pray with her tonight?”

I said, “I don’t like her tonight!”

He said, “Yes, but you made the commitment to pray every day with your wife.”

I replied, “But God, you know that in this situation she is 90 percent wrong!”

God said, “Yes, but it was your 10 percent that caused her to be 90 percent wrong.”

I wanted to roll over and say, “Sweetheart, will you forgive me for being 10 percent wrong?” But after the words got caught in my throat, I simply said, “Will you forgive me?”

Barbara and I are both strong-willed, stubborn, rebellious people. But we’ve been transformed by praying together. Now we are two strong-willed people who bow their wills before Almighty God on a daily basis and invite Him into our presence.

Praying with your spouse will change the course of your life, marriage, family and legacy.

6. Isolation is a subtle killer of relationships.

Genesis 2:24 gives us a prescription from Scripture: Leave, cleave, and become one. The enemy of our souls does not want a husband and wife to be one. Instead, he wants to divide us.

In John 17, Jesus prayed for the church to be one. He knew that we can be convinced of anything in isolation.

Isolation kills relationships.

7. It’s easier for two broken people to build a marriage and family from the same set of biblical blueprints.

What would a physical house look like if you had two different architects, two different builders, and two different sets of blueprints? You’d get some pretty funny-looking houses wouldn’t you? The same will happen in your marriage if you and your spouse are building your relationship and family from different plans.

If you want to get the same biblical blueprints for marriage, Barbara and I would encourage you to go to Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. It’s the best marriage insurance you could ever buy.

8. It is healthy to confess your sins to your spouse.

James 5:16 reminds us, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

If you want a healthy marriage, develop a relationship where your spouse has access to the interior of your soul. Are you struggling with a specific temptation? Multiple times I’ve asked Barbara, “Will you pray for me? I’m struggling with _____________.”

Maybe you’re struggling with a bad attitude … you need to forgive a person … toying with something you shouldn’t be toying with. Bring your spouse into the interior of your soul so you may be healed.

9. It is impossible to experience God’s design for marriage without being lavish in your forgiveness of one another.

Ephesians 4:32 says we should forgive each other “just as God in Christ forgave you.” Failing to forgive or ask for forgiveness kills oneness, unity, and life in marriage.

I love this statement by Ruth Bell Graham: “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Why is this true? Because forgiveness means we give up the right to punish the other person. Marriage brings plenty of matters (either committed or omitted) requiring us to surrender the right to punish the other person. Bitterness creates isolation (see number six above) not oneness.

10. One of the greatest threats in any marriage is losing a teachable heart.

Proverbs 4:23 reminds us, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Most of us do all we can to prevent a heart attack. Why? Simply put, because if the heart dies, you die.

The Bible is filled with references to the heart. In fact, the Great Commandment is one which calls our heart to love God totally and fully, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Pay attention to the “loves” of your heart. Guard it lest it become hardened or not teachable.

A teachable heart is a spiritually receptive heart. When was the last time you asked your spouse to forgive you?

Remember, from the heart flows the springs of life.

11. Every couple needs godly mentors who are a lap or two ahead of them in life.

If you’re a newlywed, you need someone to coach you on the habits you establish at the beginning of your marriage. If you’re starting out with your kids, you may need someone just to say: “You two are doing a great job.” If you are “empty nesters” you need life coaches who can affirm your emotions in this phase of life.

Every couple needs a mentor. Who’s yours?

12. What you remember may be more important than what you forget.

We all tend to suffer from spiritual amnesia—forgetting what God has done for you. Wanting to remember God’s faithfulness, I started a spiritual milestone file in 1998. It now has over 1750 “milestones” in it—remembrances of the little things, and the big things, God has done for our marriage and family.

Spiritual milestones remind us of three things: what God has done in the past; who God is—His provision, care, and deliverance; and the need to trust God today and walk by faith.

When we forget what God has done in our marriages and families, we can forget the truth about Who God is and fail to trust Him today.

13. Marriage was designed by God to be missional.

Matthew 28:19 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” And Acts 13:36 says, “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep …”

I want to be about the purposes of God in my generation with Barbara. She is my “missional” partner in life. We are not two individual people who are just doing our own “thing.”

We are two people who work at merging our life purpose and mission to one as we move toward the finish line. We are partners for life, running the race to win. I Corinthians 9:24-27.

My challenge to you is: As a couple, “Will you believe God for too much, rather than too little?” Remember what A.W. Tozer said: “God is looking for people through whom He can do the impossible. What a pity we plan to do the things we can only do by ourselves.”

14. It’s okay to have one rookie season, but it’s not okay to repeatedly repeat it.

As I mentioned earlier, I was “clueless” in our first year of marriage. I was selfish and immature … just like most new husbands, I suppose!

It’s good to stop … to learn from your early mistakes in marriage. It’s not good when you find yourself repeating those rookie errors after 20 or 30 years.

15. Never use the D-word in your marriage.

Never threaten divorce in your marriage. Never allow the D-word to cross your lips, ever! Instead, replace the D-word with the C-word—commitment. In marriage you need to commit to a covenant-keeping love that says, “I’d marry you all over again.”

I can still remember an argument my parents had when I was five years old and divorce was not in vogue. Your kids are highly sensitized to what your relationship is like and how you communicate when you disagree. Let them hear you express your commitment to one another. Your children are like little radar units, locked on, watching, and listening to you two.

16. Give your calendar a breath of fresh air—by giving it ample amounts of the pure air of MARGIN.

The Apostle Paul warns us “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16

Look carefully at your schedule and learn from over-scheduling. Leave room for inevitable interruptions and emergencies. Watch for others trying to control your schedule and take care not to live like they do… on the edge of disaster. Pump unfiltered pure air into your schedule through date nights, 20’ walks around the yard, and three-day getaways.

Take time together to truly think and evaluate what is taking place in your lives and family.

17. Ask God to help you two EXPERIENCE HIM TOGETHER.

There is no greater adventure known to man than a lifetime of seeing God work and experiencing Him together. Best place to start: Read the Psalms and Proverbs then share with each other what you learn.

18. Lean into your extended family.

Yes, we know … it’s broken and it can be painful. But press into it anyway. Don’t give up praying for yourselves and them.

19. Men and women spell romance differently.

Do you even need me to spell it out? Ok, here goes …

Women spell romance:

R E L A T I O N S H I P and L O T S O F T I M E.

Men spell it: S E X.

My advice is: Enroll in the lifelong school of “how your spouse speaks romance” and don’t ever graduate.

20. Your marriage must be built to outlast the kids.

Our romance gave us children, then our children tried to steal our romance!

Barbara and I had to make an effort to plan special dinners together and go on short getaways two or three times a year. We fought to schedule and keep these times on the schedule. It was a hassle finding a babysitter. But the time alone together was worth it.

Too many couples drift apart during the parenting years because they are so focused on their children that they forget to continue building their own relationship. Then when the kids leave the nest, they feel they hardly know each other. Don’t make that mistake.

In anticipation of Valentine’s ask God to give you one of these “20” you can focus on.

Dennis Rainey

To read part two, click here.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12


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