Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Building Your Marriage on Solid Ground

Leslie Basham: As Tom Elliff looks back on his early parenting years, he realizes something important. Here he is, talking with Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Tom Elliff: Kids need anchors in their life. We decided that breakfast was going to be our anchor.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: That was an anchor in my family too.

Tom: I would read Scripture and pray. It wasn’t so much the content there; it was the consistency that we were after.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Thursday, July 16.

In the month of July, we’ve gotten a lot of practical ideas from some wise people. The interviews this month have shown us how to be better organized, communicate in marriage, and connect with our children.

The great lineup of interviews this month continues as Nancy welcomes today’s guests.

Nancy: I’m delighted to welcome to Revive Our Hearts this week some very special guests. You’re going to get to know and love them as I have over the years.

This is a privilege for us to sit and learn from two servants of the Lord who have been further down the road than some of us and who have a lot of life experience. I love opportunities to sit and ask questions and listen and learn from people who have walked faithfully with God and have a lot of wisdom.

Tom and Jeannie Elliff, welcome to Revive Our Hearts. We’re together at a conference in San Antonio this weekend where you’re speaking, Tom. I asked if you and Jeannie would be willing to step into our makeshift studio here in the hotel and share out of your lives with our listeners some of the things God has taught you about marriage, parenting, grandparenting, and leaving a godly legacy.

Tom, you were a pastor for many years.

Tom Elliff: 43 years.

Nancy: In Del City, Oklahoma, for many of those years.

Tom: Yes; the last 20 years I pastored there in Del City, and then just recently I have become Senior Vice President with the International Mission Board. But I’m a pastor still.

Nancy: You have a pastor’s heart. You and Jeannie have ministered to so many people over the years, not just from the pulpit as you’ve preached but as you’ve counseled and loved and shepherded people.

Jeannie, you’ve been very active in women’s ministry. You love teaching the Word.

Jeannie Elliff: I love it.

Nancy: I noticed your Bible when we were sitting next to each other at the conference last night. It looks like all it’s full of those Precepts sort of markings, all different colors. You love the Word, and God has given both of you a lot of wisdom and insight and understanding.

You said to me, as we were coming into the studio, “What are we going to talk about?”

I said, “We’re just going to let you mentor our listeners for a bit,” starting with the subject of marriage. You’ve been married how many years now?

Tom: This is our 40th year. We are celebrating our 40th anniversary in just a few months.

Nancy: So you’re going to take her somewhere really special?

Tom: Absolutely. Every year for the last 23 years, Jeannie and I have taken the first few weeks in February and gone to the same place with some friends of ours. We’re good enough friends that if we want to be together, we can be, and if we don’t, we’re not, we don’t have to be.

We thank the Lord for their graciousness in that. We just spend time praying and walking on the beach and talking about the future. I would say that most of our big decisions have been made . . .

Jeannie: That’s right. Our children’s mates . . .

Tom: Our children’s mates, that’s right.

Nancy: What? You picked the mates?

Tom: That’s where we prayed through those issues. I have a list of questions that I ask Jeannie. She has a list of questions that she sometimes asks me; however, I always ask her these ten questions every year.

Nancy: What are a couple of examples of those questions?

Tom:

  • Are we where you want us to be at this point in our relationship?
  • Is there anything about my life that you feel I need to change, as an illustration that I want to be like Jesus?
  • How can I better show you that I love and appreciate you?

Nancy: So you’re asking your wife these questions. Are you honest, Jeannie?

Jeannie: Yes, I am. The first time he did this, we were in Colorado. He said, “We’re going to walk up the hill and have breakfast at this restaurant. Don’t bring your purse, and don’t bring your planner or your Bible.”

Now, to not take my planner or my Bible is like . . .

Nancy: Being lost?

Jeannie: Yes! I mean, not taking the Holy Spirit with me is . . .

Tom: She was worried.

Jeannie: I just didn’t know what to do! So I got there, and I thought, “What is he going to tell me?”

Well, we sat at that restaurant outside. It was beautiful.

He asked me these ten questions for the first time, and that was amazing. I mean, I have never in my life had an experience that so touched my heart.

And he was so sincere. No excuses, no arguments, like, “The reason I do that is . . .”

That started us on a pilgrimage of communication.

Tom: You know, Nancy, one of the things the Scripture tells us is that a husband and a wife ought to be sensitive to one another. In fact, it says that the wife is to be as submissive to her husband as Sarah was to Abraham, and the husband is to dwell with his wife according to knowledge, giving honor unto her, as unto the weaker vessel, as joint heirs of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered [see 1 Peter 3:5-7].

So I knew that if I didn’t listen to her, I had no reason to expect that God would listen to me. I wanted to hear my wife’s heart. Not just the voice, but I wanted to hear what her heart was saying about some really critical issues in our married life.

Nancy: Now, we’re talking to a lot of women listening right now who are thinking, “What I wouldn’t give to have my husband ask those kinds of questions or listen to my heart in that way!”

I know you’ve met women like that. You’ve ministered to them. How do you encourage them?

Jeannie: The best thing to do is be an example. You ask the questions to your husband, and that will open him up. Ask him, “How can I make this home more pleasant for you when you come home?”

Start asking him questions. If you start that, he’s going to do it too.

Tom: And, I started just sharing these with men as some conferences.  And ultimately, we ended up publishing a little booklet of sorts for men, with ten questions that every man should ask his wife every year.  And sometimes I notice wives buying those, you know, to go home to give them to their children.  Or to say to her husband "You know, honey, I need you to ask me these questions because I've got some answers in these areas."

Nancy: Did you all start out your marriage with open, honest communication? Was it always that way? And how did you grow in your ability to do that?

Jeannie: I don’t think communication has ever really been a hard issue for us, because both of us are very verbal, and so are all of our children. So you can imagine what our house is like. But we’ve always been thrown together.

The very first year we were married, I was still in school. Tom was teaching at Ouachita, and we lived an hour away, so we lived and had to drive an hour to and from school every day, five days a week.

Nancy: Learning to talk.

Jeannie: That was God’s time for us to learn to talk with each other, and it was a wonderful time. We look back on that and think, “That was a gift from God.”

Tom: I would say that as we continued through the years, the issue has not been so much talking as it has been attention. You can talk without paying attention.

I think the issue has increasingly become, “Do I have your attention? Are you listening to me with your heart or just your ears? Are you even engaged in this conversation whatsoever?”

I think attentiveness is a big issue.

Jeannie: Exactly.

Tom: The first time I asked those questions, I asked them because we had had a discussion about the fact that we did a lot of talking but, Jeannie said, “I don’t know whether you’re paying attention to what I’m saying.”

And I thought, “You know, she’s right about that.” So this has become an annual exercise, and we’ve got all the bases covered in our marriage. Some of the other questions are:

  • Do we really know where we’re headed?
  • Are there some mutual goals that you would like for us to establish together, some mutual projects?
  • Is there any achievement in my life that would bring you joy? Not that would bring me joy but that would bring you joy?

Jeannie: And every year my answer is about the same on that one.

Nancy: And what would that be?

Tom: Well, we’re not telling. It has to do with some specific project.

Nancy: “Are you paying attention, Tom?”

Tom: No, no, no. It always has to do with writing, and I’ve honored her request, because I always tell her that I’m not going to argue with her.

So each year we do that now. But some of her answers, Nancy, have been a real shock to me. I remember I asked Jeannie one time,

  • What can I do to show you that I really love you and I care about you?

She said, “We travel a lot together.” Even now we travel an awful lot together.

She said, “I just want to know that you know I’m with you. You get busy talking with someone, and I’m just there. I want to know that you know that I’m with you.”

I remember one year the question I asked her was a question about appreciating her role as a pastor’s wife.

She said, “I’m glad you asked me that. The other day you were going someplace to speak, and you asked me if I wanted to go. I mentioned to you that I was teaching my ladies’ Bible class, and you said, ‘Well, just get somebody else to teach that, and come with me.’”

She said, “It’s not that I wouldn’t have gladly done that. But how would you have felt if I had said about a Sunday morning sermon, ‘Look, just get somebody else to preach. Come on with me. Let’s go do something.’”

She said, “Of course I wouldn’t do that, and I love going with you, but I want you to know that I really consider what I do—teaching this Bible class to these ladies—an important ministry, and I was prepared for it. And besides that, I was going to hear something I’ve probably already heard before.”

That’s a good point.

Nancy: So you’re wanting honest communication from your wife.

Tom: Nancy, if it’s not honest, it’s not communication in the truest sense.

Nancy: But it sounds like Jeannie also expresses those things that could be considered criticisms or concerns, but in a respectful way. Does that help you receive them?

Tom: Sure, I guess, most of the time. We both have talked about that, about how we communicate with each other.

There are good times and there are bad times to communicate. If you really want to share your heart with someone, you’ve got to make an effort. You’ve got to “set the table,” so to speak.

It’s not that you’re going to sail through your life yelling at each other and yakking at each other and expect that that’s going to be good communication. That is not it at all. You have to have good times.

If I were to give one piece of advice to any young lady and her husband right now, it would be that you need to spend time together each morning before you go to work.

Now, during all the years that our kids were in school—I’m an early riser anyway; so is Jeannie—we would have our individual quiet times. She had one place in the house where she’d go read the Bible and pray, and I’d do the same.

Then we made it a point of meeting together every morning at 6:00—a cup of coffee in hand, knee to knee, nose to nose—we’d sit right there. It wasn’t some big formal deal. We’d just talk to each other about what God was speaking to us in our quiet time; about our kids; we made decisions.

We have four kids. We made decisions in regard to, for example, something they had asked us the night before. They had learned to ask the night before, “Can we go do this?” and we’d just talk about those issues and if they should do it.

Then when we got to the breakfast table . . . and we always had breakfast at 7:00 when our kids were growing up. We felt like kids need anchors in their life.

With our society the evening times, whereas they formerly may have been good for families to be together, they’re really tough now if you’ve got ballgames and school activities. So we decided that breakfast was going to be our anchor.

Nancy: That was an anchor in my family too.

Tom: I would read Scripture and pray, and it wasn’t so much the content there. It was the consistency that we were after.

So when we got to the breakfast table, they knew that Jeannie and I had had our time together, and they’d say, “Can we?”

Nancy: They wanted their answers.

Jeannie: It presented a united front. It’s amazing how much that helps a child, because they have in their minds “divide and conquer” with the parents. If we came with the answer after the two of us had talked, there was no arguing. So it really, really helped them, I think.

Tom: When we first began doing that, Jeannie and I had to concur, and she said, “You cannot know what it does for me to know that I have your undivided attention 30 minutes at the beginning of every day.”

For me, I knew that I had her undivided attention. So during the day we know what’s going on in each other’s lives, and we know how to pray. We know what’s happening with our children.

But, Nancy, some of your listeners right now face schedules that are going to require them to be very, very creative. Let me put it that way.

You might have a double income family, and they work two different shifts and hardly even see each other; they’re actually raising children in their spare time, and that’s another tough assignment. It’s going to require some really tough decisions on their part to make this work.

Nancy: But you’re saying that in your marriage, by asking these questions, by taking that time each morning, you’re being intentional.

Jeannie: Yes.

Nancy: You’re not just going to let this marriage drift and happen. If you do it that way. that’s how so many end up at the divorce court.

Jeannie: That’s right.

Nancy: But if you want it to go the distance, you’ve got to stop, evaluate, and say, “Here’s where we are. Here’s what’s happening.” Ask questions. Be honest.

Tom: Nancy, we have discovered, as Jeannie and I have counseled with couples over the years and then worked with FamilyLife Ministries, one of the reasons—maybe the primary reason—that families are falling apart at an incredible rate.

You realize that over 50% of our public school children come from single-parent families. The ratio of divorce to marriage now exceeds 50%. It’s just an amazing statistic, when you think about all that’s happening to the family. That’s where the attack is.

But often the breakdown starts when you have couples where both of them are working outside the home, and they are not communicating. So when they are together, they’re at their worst.

That’s when they look their worst, they smell their worst, they’re tired. They don’t want to talk. They’ve talked and listened all day. They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to listen.

But when they’re at their best and they look their best, they’re with other people. They’re more energetic.

So here’s this man whose marriage is crumbling, and he says [of someone at work], “She’s dressed so well, and she smells so nice.” It’s this artificial atmosphere, where people clean up behind you.

Nancy: And they’re acting their best.

Tom: That’s right. So, “Let’s go to coffee.” And then from there it’s, “Let’s go to lunch.” From lunch it’s, “Hey, I’ll meet you later on.”

In the meantime here’s a lady who’s saying, “You know, this guy listens to me. My husband doesn’t listen to me.” And that’s where the drift occurs.

Nancy: So what do you say to these couples, and how do you prevent that from happening?

Tom: I realize we’re diving into a tough subject right here, and I’m going to bare my heart. My first counsel to couples as they come in preparation for marriage has to do with the fact that the way you start out has a lot to do with the way you end up.

Now, this is not the law of the Medes and the Persians, okay? This is just Tom Elliff talking. But my own conviction for many, many years has been that I would not perform a wedding if the wife were required to work outside the home in order for them to make it.

Nancy: Now, you know you just lobbed a grenade here.

Tom: We’re in trouble here. We’ll spend the rest of the week getting bad phone calls; I understand.

Nancy: No, I want you to bare your heart.

Tom: A lot of people are already in this situation. They’re going to be asking questions which we can talk about later. “How do I rectify that?”

But let’s just talk about starting out, because some of the people who are listening have children who are thinking about getting married. This is something we’re just going to throw out here for you to understand.

If you look at Christ as the role model for the groom, and the church as the role model for the bride, the Bible says, “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19, paraphrased). The church, then, as the bride, is the steward of what is provided—not the provider, but the steward of what is provided.

That piece of advice, among the five prerequisites I would hold out for couples to get married, is one for which I have gotten the most criticism on the front end. But I have a lot of letters from folks who say, “I’m so glad you told us that piece of advice.”

There are a lot of reasons we give people in counseling as to why that is the best approach. But of the many, many, many marriages you can imagine that I’ve performed—let’s just say in the last 30 years, to my knowledge (of course, this is not a scientific survey, but I keep pretty good records) fewer than 5 have ended in divorce; and when you consider what the contemporary records are . . .

By the way, each one of those that ended in divorce . . .

Jeannie: Well, they all came and said, “We lied to you.”

Tom: They said, “We lied to you. You asked us about this or about that, and we just lied to you. We wanted to get married in the church, and we knew what you were going to ask us, so we told you what you wanted to hear.”

So in each of those instances, there was a circumstance which brought about their divorce. And really, I say there are fewer than five. I only know of three, but I want to be fair; there may be some others, maybe more than that, that I just don’t know about.

But I think one of the big factors has to do with communication.

Jeannie: Also, I think when the man is the sole provider, then the wife can come along beside him and be on his team and cheer him on and encourage him. That’s what I’ve felt like my job our entire married life has been.

Tom’s been a pastor, a teacher, and I’ve felt like it was my responsibility to get on the same level—biblically, with an understanding of the Scriptures—that he has. I’ve not been to seminary, but I started inductive Bible study.

I started studying the Bible inductively and understanding the way he prepares a sermon. So when he sits down to prepare something . . .

Tom: I often ask Jeannie, “What have you found out about this? I know you’ve studied this passage.”

Jeannie: So we can converse, and it makes me feel a part. It makes me feel like I’m encouraging him and helping him. It really is very fulfilling for me to have that part in his life, in his work.

Nancy: There is so much pressure on couples, on women today, to be . . . her own self and to be a provider.

Tom: It starts in their own home. Listen to this little seed of destruction, sown unwittingly by well meaning parents into the hearts of a daughter.

See, I’m a believer in education. I’m a firm believer in education. I think people ought to get as good an education as they can get.

But don’t say this to your daughter: “You’ve got to get an education. You’ll get married one of these days; what if he leaves you and you don’t have an education? What are you going to do?”

Nancy: What are you going to fall back on?

Tom: Already they have said, “This education is your fallback. This job is your fallback position.” So even before they’ve gone to the marriage altar, the seed has been sown in their mind, “He might leave me.”

And the husband and his parents are saying, “Well, she’s got a job anyway. She’s got her own banking account. It’s not like you’re leaving her high and dry,” as if the whole issue were money.

Now, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and we don’t need to make the whole week’s programs about that. But I’m just saying that there are some issues out there which mitigate against good communication, and that happens to be one of them. You don’t need to spend your time together when you’re at your worst but when you’re at your best.

Nancy: We want you to give us some other counsel about what you would say to young couples as they’re getting ready to get married and as they’re starting into marriage. You’ve just given a very important one, something to think very seriously about.

I know that a lot of our listeners have been challenged either about their own plans or about training and preparing their children for marriage, knowing that God’s intent is that marriage should go the distance, that it should last and be a marriage to the glory of God. That’s the heart out of which I hear you saying that you give this counsel.

Tom and Jeannie Elliff will be back with us again tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts, and you won’t want to miss the wisdom and the heart God has given them to help your marriage and your family be all that God wants it to be.

Leslie: Today’s conversation between Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Tom and Jeannie Elliff has brought up a lot of important topics. I hope this will be the springboard to greater growth.

To help your marriage be growing on the right foundation, we’d like to send you John Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage. Nancy, I think you may have played a small role in this book.

Nancy: Well, Dr. Piper writes a lot of books, and he doesn’t need any help from me. But I did hear a series of messages that he preached on the subject of marriage some time ago, and I thought they were so helpful.

So I sent an email to one of his staff members and said, “Is there any way Dr. Piper would put this material into a book? I’d like to recommend it to our listeners.”

I was delighted to get an email back letting me know that in fact Dr. Piper was working on putting this message into a book. I’m so grateful that we’re able to make that book available, because it’s a solid message that will help couples center their marriage on the bull’s eye of bringing God glory.

When you make a donation of any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts, we want to say thank you by sending you a copy of This Momentary Marriage by Dr. John Piper. He calls this book “a parable of permanence,” and it will show you how you can forge a lifelong commitment no matter what circumstances or emotions may come or go.

Ask for Dr. Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage when you call with your donation at 800-569-5959 or donate online at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I just don’t understand my husband”? Jeannie Elliff will help you process those thoughts in a positive way tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

 

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.