The First Twenty Years are the Hardest
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2007.
It was twenty years ago that Lisa Maxwell and I walked down the aisle at the First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As a minister, I go to more weddings than most people, but Lisa is still the prettiest bride I have ever seen and marrying her was—by far—the best decision I have made since giving my life to Jesus Christ.
We were married on June 6, 1987 (the anniversary of D-Day, which has turned out to be a good way for me to remember our wedding anniversary). Lisa and I like to say that the first so many years of marriage are the hardest. At the beginning we said that the first year was the hardest, then the second year, and so forth, until now we can say that the first twenty years are the hardest.
From the statistical standpoint, this may actually be true. Recently Lisa saw a report which claimed that more divorces occur in the twentieth year than at any other point in the course of a marriage. I probably would have guessed that more marriages end in the second or third year, but I'm not all that surprised. The pressures that come at mid-career, or when the children reach high school or go off to college, or when your parents are getting older can be enormous. After twenty years of marriage, all of those things can happen all at once. But by the grace of God, we are still married.
Lisa first caught my eye during orientation week at Wheaton College, where we were both freshman. She was sitting on the edge of a couch, looking all beautiful, and it wasn't too much longer before I asked her out. Not lacking in confidence, apparently, I called her on Thursday for a movie Friday night. By Thanksgiving I was pretty sure that I was in love, and I came back from vacation with only one unanswered question: How many children did Lisa want to have?
Several weeks later we were walking through the Daley Center Plaza in downtown Chicago. It had started to snow, and happy children were sliding down the iconic sculpture by Pablo Picasso. It seemed like a good time to ask about children, so I went for it. "Four," she said. "Are you sure you don't want five?" I asked, but four was close enough; we can resolve that issue later, I thought. The following week I wrote down her ring size, and for the next year and a half I carried it around in my wallet, for future reference.
Meanwhile, Lisa was still trying to make her mind up about me, which is only one of the reasons why I wouldn't necessarily recommend any of my methods to anyone else. What happened next was important, though. I went to my father for spiritual advice in the art of romance. He was eager to help, for Lisa was already far more popular with my family than I was. He asked me a simple question: "Have you told Lisa that you love her?" The answer was no, not really. To which my father replied, "Well, I think you'd better tell her."
And so I did. But that was not all I told her. I also told her that I had a calling to serve God in ministry, that I was committed before God to try to lead my family in a godly way, that I believed my calling would lead me into a more public life than some people have, that this would place especially heavy demands on her if we got married, and that it was better to say all that now so she would know what she was getting into. Maybe you can tell that I have never believed in long, drawn-out conversations that struggle to define a relationship; I prefer for a man to say where he thinks a relationship is going, and then to give a woman a fair chance to decide what she wants to do.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Lisa decided that maybe she was up for all of that, even if it meant living with me for the rest of her life. The next year we got engaged, the year after that we were married, and now we can tell you that the first twenty years are the hardest.
Lisa and I have experienced many blessings in marriage, family, and ministry, as well as some disappointments. I think especially of the children we have lost through miscarriage, and the sad loss of Lisa's father—one of the best men I have ever known. But God has always been faithful. There has never been a day when we did not have good food to eat and a place to call home. With every major life transition, God has provided clear guidance for our next place of service, with many specific answers to prayer. We would say, as David said, "The lines have fallen for us in pleasant places" (Ps. 16:6). While it is true that the burdens of life have grown heavier through the years, so has our strength to bear them together, as we learn to trust in the faithfulness of God.
If there is one practical principle that Lisa and I would insist on for marriage it is the absolute necessity of resolving any conflicts the same day they occur. We have taken Paul's words to the Ephesians very literally: "Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil" (Eph. 4:26-27). In order to prevent Satan from ever getting the chance to divide our partnership, we have sometimes stayed up late into the night. But in twenty years, by the grace of God, we have never gone to bed without being totally reconciled.
I praise God for the privilege of sharing those twenty years with my very best friend. Being married to Lisa has made me a better man than I was, and gives me the hope of becoming a better man than I am. And if you ask me next year, I'll probably tell you that the first twenty-one years are the hardest.
Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture.