Marriage Grace: Forty Years and Counting

Steve JolleyCommunity News

She was six weeks out of high school and I was six months away from graduating from college. Just eighteen and twenty-two when we got married.  We were young, naïve, in love, and clueless about what we were getting into.  I had a part-time job as a waiter in a steak house, and she had her first full-time job as a teller for Bank of America (making $400 a month!  You read that correctly, a month).  Our honeymoon lasted less than forty-eight hours, and was, well, anti-climactic to say the least.  In the years ahead we would need God’s grace and guidance.

This July 28th, Donna and I celebrated forty years of marriage together, two grateful recipients of the grace that four decades ago we didn’t realize we needed to sustain a marriage. She came from a broken home and has not spoken to her biological father since she was five years old.  I came from a loving, intact Christian family, but was a fairly immature surfer when I promised life-long love in the wedding vows.  In a sense, Donna and I grew up together.  We learned to pay the bills, go to work, be responsible with credit cards (we had never heard of Dave Ramsey), be nice when tired, and, in general, be adults.  But most importantly, we were learning to grow and depend on God and his grace.

Those early years of marriage were a time of rapid growth in knowing both each other and Jesus.  Pouring ourselves into seminary, ministry and church life, first in Portland, Oregon (2 years) and then in Denver, Colorado (2 years), our experiences began to breed in us a deeper realization and appreciation for the gospel of grace.  As we served college students in both of these cities, little did we know that we were also laying a foundation for our marriage.  In the process of shepherding college students we were also growing as husband and wife.  It has only struck me in hindsight that progress in spiritual maturity and a maturing marriage were mysteriously inter-connected.  It is very difficult to have one without the other.

Shortly after arriving in Santa Barbara in our fifth year of marriage, we started making babies. Once again we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We were blessed with two wonderful girls, Krista and Kori.  Marriage is, of course, a big adjustment to life, but having children is a complete tectonic shift, to say the least.  Our world was rearranged.  No more spur-of-the-moment decisions to run out and grab a burrito and take in a movie.  No more spontaneous romance.  No more sleeping in. We discovered that there were lots of no mores.

While we found that having children really restricted our freedom, the surprise was that it was a wonderful exchange.  What was given up paled in comparison to what was gained and the joy we experienced in our children was more than we could have imagined. Our daughters not only brought us immense happiness and laughter, they also became one of the primary vehicles God used in our marriage to keep us from becoming unalterably selfish.  Children brought us the grace to look beyond ourselves.

The cover story of the August issue of Time Magazine is titled Having It All Without Having Children.On the cover are a couple (we suppose married) lying on a beautiful beach appearing to be blissfully thankful to be childfree. The article notes that America’s birthrate is at an all-time low with more and more couples choosing to not have children.  Europe has already been on this trajectory of childfree marriages.  The article notes that, shockingly, one quarter of all married Italian women are choosing to not have children.  The reasons for these childless marriages are many; financial, time constraints, career pressures, diapers, exotic vacations, artistic pursuits, and freedom.  At the end of the day (or the end of the article) it all seems to come down to pure and simple narcissism.  How sad.  Having children has been one of the greatest gifts Donna and I have received.  Our life and marriage would have been diminished if we had chosen to try, Having It All Without Having ChildrenInstead, we had children and in the process, had so much more.

One essential ingredient to knowing God and living the Christian life is humility.  And, there is no better way to be humbled than having teenage children.  The shock of having adorable little children is that they grow older and become something called adolescents, which is a way of saying they are not babies, not adults, and generally not really sure what they are.  So once again Donna and I unknowingly entered a season of life referred to as the teenage years.   God would use our children to continue to shape our faith and marriage.  For us, the teenage years were difficult (more like hell, really).  Our confidence as parents was shaken and we learned to pray and depend on God for mercy and grace more than ever.  Being desperate, out of ideas, embarrassed, and frankly scared to death, we ran to God with a humility that we had not known before.  In the process, God’s grace came as a gift from unexpected and at times unwanted givers —teenagers.

Pondering the last forty years, it has finally become very clear to me, that marriage, like our friendship with God, is an ever-changing relationship.  While a happy marriage is a wonderful gift and provides a firm foundation from which to live life, marriage is never static.  Age, children, grand-children, work, health, finances, and a myriad of other factors–some wanted and some unwanted–conspire to change the dynamics of how husbands and wives live together.  But, it has been through all the ups and downs, ins and outs of married life I have learned more about God and drunk more deeply of his grace. I am so thankful that forty years ago I promised to God and to Donna to live in the covenant of marriage.  As a young man, little did I know how I would receive and be shaped by God’s grace through marriage.

After forty years we have a sense that we are enjoying a very sweet season of marriage.  Our children are grown, married (and we like both of our sons-in-law a lot), produced four grandchildren that seem to us the center of the universe! We are healthy, active (tennis, surfing, SUPing, bike riding, hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, etc.), and enjoying the warm and fruitful ministry at SBCC.  On top of all that, we really like each other.  We are having fun together.  Sometimes, thankful for God’s blessings, we wonder if life could get any better.  But again, marriage is not static.  So whatever lies ahead in God’s providence we are confident that through our marriage we will continue to learn more of God’s grace.  Forty years and counting.