Revive Our Hearts Podcast

How Your Marriage Can Thrive

Leslie Basham: Do you have a list of things you’d like to see changed in your husband? He probably has a similar list for you. Donna Avant says true change began in her home when she and her husband simplified that list.

Donna Avant: What is the one thing that, if God would enable me to change it, you feel like would make our marriage so much better?

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of Seeking Him, for October 18, 2018.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: I want to introduce you today to a new friend, Donna Avant. We’ve gotten to know each other in recent months because her husband John is now serving as one of the leadership team at our parent ministry Life Action Ministries.

It’s been so good to get to know you and to welcome you to Life Action Ministries. And today we’re really thankful to welcome you to the Revive Our Hearts family.

Donna: Thank you so much, Nancy. I’m excited to be here.

Nancy: Now, you and John are in a really new role here because for many years your husband was a pastor, thirty-some years?

Donna: Yes. He’s been in the ministry for thirty-nine years, and thirty-five of those he’s been a senior pastor at different churches.

Nancy: So you’ve been a senior pastor’s wife.

Donna: Correct.

Nancy: And you’re really familiar with that role.

Donna: Yes.

Nancy: And now the Lord has you both in a different role, but we’re very excited about how He’s using both of you, your heart for the world, your heart for God’s kingdom, your heart for people, and your heart for the mission and the message of revival.

But as I’ve gotten to know you, the thing I’ve thought would be of particular interest to our listeners today is just something of your personal journey, your story, because I think there are a lot of our listeners that are going to be able to relate to pieces and parts of that, and who are going to be very encouraged as they see how God has redeemed what was a difficult, maybe even hopeless-looking situation.

Donna: Oh, yes.

Nancy: And He’s given you and John a really beautiful marriage today and a beautiful family, but it wasn’t always that way. I love hearing those stories because it gives us all hope.

Donna: Well, thanks, Nancy. My story is one that, if you put a lot of facts on a piece of paper about my life, you would never pick my story to be a senior pastor’s wife for many years because I did grow up in such a dysfunctional, broken home.

My mom and dad were married for a few years before they had me, and they were both very broken people coming into a marriage. My dad had been abandoned by his father. My mom’s home was really not really functional either, although her mom and dad were together.

When I was six years old—even before six—they would take me to church, but it was a game, and I did not realize that until later. They went to church because that’s what they were supposed to do, that’s what culturally they had been told to do. And so the good thing for me was at church I did learn about Jesus. I had Sunday school teachers and a youth pastor’s wife who poured into my life.

When I was a child, I heard the gospel, and I wanted Jesus. I wanted what I saw in some people’s lives around me. And at six years old, I was listening to my pastor at a Baptist church in Amarillo, Texas. My mom and dad were standing there that day, and I began to cry.

My dad, at that moment, even though my dad was not a believer at that moment, he leaned down, and he said, “Donna, do you want to go talk to the pastor?”

And I said, “Yes, Daddy, I do.”

And he actually picked me up, and he walked me down the aisle, and I prayed that day to receive Christ.

I went and talked to the pastor about baptism. I remember very vividly walking out of that big church, holding my daddy’s hand, and I remember looking up into my daddy’s eyes, and I knew at that moment that my daddy did not know the Jesus that I just had in my heart.

Nancy: You realized that even as a six-year-old?

Donna: I realized it as a six-year-old.

Nancy: Because the Spirit of God had come to live in you and was already giving you that insight and discernment.

Donna: Yes.

Nancy: As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, Praise God for Sunday school teachers, youth workers, pastors, who invest in the lives of children and young people. And they probably had no idea what kind of home you were coming from. Would they have thought you were coming from a believing home?

Donna: Not until my teenage years. We had moved to San Antonio, Texas, and I did have a phenomenal youth pastor and his wife. When my mom and dad split up, and my dad walked out, I didn’t live very far from where my youth pastor lived. I remember walking to their house and sitting with her and telling her, “My mom and dad are splitting up.”

I was sixteen at the time, and I felt like my world was coming apart, especially because just a few months before my dad left our home, I had gone on a youth retreat, had gone on a youth mission trip that summer. During that period of time I felt like God was calling me to the ministry. As a sixteen-year-old girl back in those days, in 1976, that didn’t . . . What do you do? You walk down the aisle, and you take the hand of your pastor, and you say, “I feel God is calling me to the ministry. What did that mean?” I really didn’t know what that meant.

Nancy: Sure.

Donna: And yet, that youth pastor and his wife poured into me and encouraged me. And I knew one thing that I wanted. I did not want the life that my mom and dad had. I wanted a Jesus life. I wanted the life that I saw in some of the families in my church. I wanted to talk about Jesus in my home.

When I went to Baylor University—and that’s a whole story in itself how God provided for me to go to Baylor University—but when I went to Baylor University, the way I met John was I was in a history class. I sat in the back of the history class because I wasn’t a very good student.

And every time that the bell was supposed to ring for us to change classes at Baylor, about five minutes before the bell would ring, this guy on the front row would raise his hand. Our teacher’s name was Dr. Davidson. He would say, “Dr. Davidson, Dr. Davidson, I just really need to ask you a question.” And he would make us late. I would always get so frustrated because it was, like, “What is this nerd? I mean really, nobody cares about this stuff. We just need to get on to our next class.”

Nancy: So the nerdy guy on the front row . . .

Donna: Yes. He ended up being John Avant.

Nancy: Who ended up being . . .

Donna: . . . my husband!

Nancy: Your husband.

Donna: Yes. Basically, what happened was a few days later I was on the steps of Tidwell Bible Building, and I was introduced to him. And when I was introduced to him, I heard his voice, and in my mind, I went, Oh my word! That is the nerd from history class! But I have to say, he was a cute nerd! (laughter) He was a very cute nerd.

He did get my phone number, and he called, and he asked me out. We went out to Wendy’s and to see a movie on our first date, and we just fell madly in love. I will tell you that after that first date, I walked upstairs to my roommate (her name was Linda), and I remember sitting cross-legged on the bed, and she said, “How was your date with the nerd from history class?”

And I said, “Well, first of all, he’s cute. And second of all, Linda, I’m going to marry this guy.”

And she said, “How do you know that?”

And I said, “Watch me, and I’ll show you.”

Nancy, from the very first time I met John, he’s so passionate about Jesus, and that’s what I fell in love with him for. He was so passionate for Jesus, and I was so drawn to that because I’d come from such a dysfunctional home where, if you did talk about Jesus, it was just on Sunday morning. He was just a little corner of your life. And this man’s life was consumed about his passion to follow Christ.

Nancy: So having come out of a family that hadn’t stayed together, did you have fears going into marriage?

Donna: Oh, that fear is what almost destroyed our marriage. My dad had left my mom when I was sixteen, and, very quickly, he was on is fourth marriage by the time we were, maybe, into ten years of marriage. And so I had trust issues. I had a lot of trust issues.

And with those trust issues came a lot of angerbecause I grew up in a home where things were thrown and words were yelled and screamed. There was no healthy way of resolving conflict in my home. I had never seen that. So it was very damaging to our marriage.

Nancy: So when you and John got married, it wasn’t immediately happy ever after?

Donna: No, not at all.

Nancy: Even though he was passionate about Jesus.

Donna: Yes. And I was passionate about Jesus, too. But when you put two people together from two different backgrounds and throw them together in a marriage, it’s impossible without Christ.

Nancy: Did the sparks start to fly pretty soon after you got married?

Donna: Yes. Actually, even on our honeymoon sparks started to fly. You know, just trying to understand his idea of what marriage looked like and my idea of what marriage looked like were just so different.

Nancy: How were they different?

Donna: His mom and dad loved Jesus. His mom and dad never fought in front of him, but they did know how to resolve conflict. Well, I came from a home where conflict was just a part of life and yelling and screaming. So when he heard me yell or scream or cry, he didn’t know what to do with that.

Then there were some issues where, even though he was passionate about Jesus, he shares with men all the time, even though he was passionate about Jesus, he didn’t pray with me. He felt like prayer was real intimate. And even though here we were sharing a bed of intimacy, he didn’t know how to pray with me.

And so we went into marriage, even though he was a pastor, we didn’t pray together. Nancy, we did not pray together. And when our marriage got really bad, I remember him sitting down and saying, “I’m not your dad. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to leave you. But at the same time, Donna, our children, when they leave this house, they’re not going to come back if we don’t learn how to be married the way Christ shows marriage.”

Nancy: So had you said to him, “I’m afraid you’re going to leave me”?

Donna: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I’ll tell you one story. He was pastoring a smaller church at this point, and I had two little ones at that point. It was before the day of cell phone and texting. He said he was going to be home at a certain time, and he wasn’t there. I loaded the two babies up in the car, and I drove to the church. I watched him get in the car from across the street, and I watched to see if he was going to go where he said he was going to go.

That’s how much distrust there was in our marriage. And he did . . . he went to work out. Then he got in the car and came home. (laughter) And he was just so stunned that I didn’t trust him. But I just had so many trust issues.

Nancy: With those issues, were you one to stuff? How did you express your frustration?

Donna: Oh, with anger, with anger, yelling, and screaming. That’s the way I dealt with it.

Nancy: And how did John deal with that?

Donna: He would just shut down. He would just totally shut down. He might go in the other room, but he would totally shut down.

The turning point came one day where he said to me, “I’m not your dad. I’m not going to leave you, but we went into this marriage with you saying what you wanted your definition of a family. You wanted a family that loved each other. You wanted a family that was going to be Christ honoring. And that’s not what we have right now, and I don’t see how we’re going to get there.”

Nancy: And you were how far into the marriage by this point?

Donna: Oh, maybe ten years or so.

Basically, I remember getting on my face before the Lord and just saying, “God, I can’t do this.” And God gave me a verse to help me with my anger. I think once I started dealing with my anger, then God began to work in my heart.

And the verse He gave me was in James where it says, “Man’s anger does not produce righteousness.”

And my anger had become a manipulative tool. If I yelled enough at John, if I stomped my foot, if I throw something, if I do that with the children, then they’ll do what I think they should do.

And God began to work out that verse in James in my heart, Nancy. I realized that, no, my anger isn’t hurting anybody but me. I began to quote that verse a lot and just began to live it out.

And that was one of the turning points in my Christian life, was to realize that. You know, it’s a good thing to memorize Scripture. It’s a good thing to do Bible studies. But it doesn’t do any good if you don’t live it out. If you’re not obedient to the Word, if you don’t ask the Holy Spirit to work it out in your life, then it’s just pharisaical. It’s just a bunch of head knowledge.

But God began to work out that passage in James in my life. And I will say, one of the most joyful times in my life was when he came to me, and he said, “You’re not the same person you used to be.”

Nancy: So the Word began to make a change in your life.

Donna: Yes!

Nancy: Were you communicating with anybody else about this?

Donna: Yes.

So, one of the other turning points in my life was when Esther Walker began to mentor me. Esther Walker was the wife of the man who led my husband to the Lord and also really helped discern the call of John’s life of ministry. He gave John his first time to speak in a church. He just really mentored John.

And even though Esther lived far away from me, we got together a couple of times, and she was always accessible by phone. One day I remember John and I had some kind of fight—who knows what it was about. I was in the closet curled up in a ball, and the enemy was speaking to me, “You’re such a fake! You hypocrite! Who are you to go lead a Bible study at church? Who are you to call yourself a pastor’s wife?”

I remember calling her and crying, and she said, “Donna, did God call you to teach that Bible study?”

And I said, “Yes, ma’am, He did.”

And she said, “Well, then I think you need to be obedient to the calling of God on your life, and you need to go and teach that Bible study. Here’s a basic principle that I want you to take in your life: Obedience is not hypocritical. It’s the enemy that makes you think that.”

Nancy: Yes.

Donna: So I remember getting off that closet floor, getting the kids out the door for school. I remember going and teaching that Bible study that day with that truth echoing in my mind: “Obedience is not hypocrisy. Obedience is following the call of God on your life.”

And I think, as a woman, I was taught to live by my feelings. And I don’t think as women we’re supposed to deny our feelings, but we’re supposed to live on the truth.

Nancy: Yes.

Donna: And the truth was God had called me to do that, and I needed to walk, not on my feelings, but I needed to live and walk in the truth.

Nancy: And I want to back up with that principle.

Donna: Okay.

Nancy: Yours is a marriage that well might not have made it if you had just gone on your feelings.

Donna: Absolutely.

Nancy: So when things were really tense, were really angry, when there was conflict that you guys didn’t know how to resolve, why did you guys stay together?

Donna: First of all, we stayed together because John has two incredible parents who have a legacy of marriage, and I know John didn’t want to disappoint his mom and dad. I didn’t want to disappoint John’s mom and dad. I always said I married into the family because of his mom and dad.

Nancy: And what do you mean by that?

Donna: They just loved each other, and they loved the church, and they loved Jesus, and they loved me. And I didn’t want to disappoint his mom and dad.

Nancy: So your in-laws really had a part in investing in you, not just taking their son’s side in this.

Donna: Oh, yes. I have a letter in the drawer next to my bed that I cherish. It was written by John’s dad. They had been in our home once when I had one of my explosions—as I used to call them. I think it really concerned them. The letter that he wrote me was not as a lecture. It was an “I love you. I’m praying for you. You’re like a daughter to me. God’s going to help you.”

I cherish that letter, Nancy, because it was a letter that I didn’t have from my own father.

Nancy: He gave you grace.

Donna: Yes, he did. He gave me grace.

And one of the things that God chose to do was . . . We had a meeting, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to just sit, and we’re going to talk. We’re going to talk about what are the issues.”

And out of that, we developed a concept called “the one thing.” We teach it in a course called, “Valiant Marriage.” And what “the one thing” is—sometimes in marriage, we think so many things need to change in order for us to go on.

Nancy: Survive. Right?

Donna: We get overwhelmed. And so we came up with a concept for our own marriage: “What is the one thing that could be changed?”

John’s one thing . . .

Nancy: So you ask each other?

Donna: Yes. “What’s the one thing that, if God would enable me to change it, you feel like would make our marriage so much better?”

Well, when at the height of this marriage issue . . .

Nancy: Craziness.

Donna: Yes. John asked me first, and his commitment was, “I’m going to ask you what the one thing is, and I’m going to make a commitment to change it by God’s help, but I’m not going to ask you to change your one thing until you begin to see me fulfilling mine.”

He took ownership. He took leadership as a husband. And that meant the world to me because I had never seen that before.

And my one thing was this: “John, we’re sending our kids off every day to school”—and it was a public school that they were going to at the time—“and I feel unprotected. I feel helpless in the morning.”

He’s a night owl. He likes to stay up late, not because he just wants to stay up late, but because it’s quiet, and he can get sermons done and read the books he needed to read, and nobody was bothering him. I needed him to get up in the morning and pray with our family and do some kind of family devotional before we all went our separate ways.

The first time I said that, at first he got a little bit angry, but he took ownership. “I’m not going to get angry. I’m just going to do it.”

And, Nancy, he did it! He began to get up. They were not complicated devotionals. It was just praying over our kids and praying over me. We would read a verse, and we would use different tools, but it wasn’t anything complicated. It would never take more than five to ten minutes. And our family began to change.

And then God helped me to begin. His one thing for me was for peace in our home. And as God began to help me work through my anger, then the peace came in our home. And the peace came because John was being the spiritual leader, and the peace came because I was submitting to my husband’s authority, but at the same time, I was first submitting to God’s authority and His Word and not excusing it.

Nancy: Yes.

Donna: I wasn’t saying, “Well, I’m just this way. I’m just how I am, and you just better accept it.” No, that’s not the Christ-like. The Christ-like says we’re to continually submit to His authority and ask the Lord to change the things in our heart that are not pleasing to Him.

Nancy: So God took an angry, fearful, untrusting, distrusting wife, and He really changed you.

Donna: Amen!

Nancy: He used His Word. He uses mentor—Esther—and time.

Donna: Yes.

Nancy: So we have some women listening right now who are still in the angry, crazy stage. And maybe their husband is too. Just give some words of hope that that really can change, and maybe a “one thing” for a woman listening to do to take the next step.

Donna: I think the most important thing I could say to any woman is, first of all, quit pointing a finger at your husband and look in the mirror. You can’t change your husband. Only Jesus can change people. Your anger is not going to change anybody. Your bitterness is not going to change anybody. It’s just going to hurt your kids, and it’s going to hurt you.

I would say: Get in God’s Word, and ask the Lord to begin to change you with the power of the Holy Spirit.

And He will because He’s a good Daddy. He wants to be there for us. He wanted our home to be a home of peace, but I couldn’t change John, and John couldn’t change me. We had to look to our Heavenly Father.

And the other thing I would challenge is to be real. Take off the mask. Quit playing the game.

If you’ve got a marriage that’s hurting and troubled, and you’re in a local church, you need to seek out an older woman. And my guess is, when you do she’ll probably laugh and go, “Oh, my. Can I tell you some things!” And she’ll listen, and she’ll encourage you. But reach out to somebody. And get on your knees and pray.

And the other thing I would say is: What do you really want?

The course that we teach in “Valiant Marriage,” the definition of valor is to lay down and die to yourself, to live for things that really matter. That’s valor.

I knew what really mattered was a home that had a mom and a dad who loved each other and that loved our children. I didn’t want my children remembering me that way I was. I didn’t want my children to remember me as the yelling, screaming, lunatic mom.

Nancy: And how do your children look back? Your children are now grown, have families of their own.

Donna: Yes.

Nancy: So how do they look back on you as a mom?

Donna: Well, I wish they were here to say it. I have three kids who love Jesus, Nancy. And that’s all I can say: They love Jesus. I’ve had my girls challenge me. I’ve had my girls say, “Mom, you might not have taught me how to sew or cook, everything. You might not have taught me the perfect way to clean the toilet. You might not have taught me how to make things that maybe other mothers did.” But my girls will look at me and say, “But, Mom, you taught me how to love Jesus, and you taught me how to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and you taught me how to serve. You taught me how to study God’s Word.”

And I think my children would all say that, “You’ve taught us to love God’s Word, that it’s more powerful than anything, and you pray for us.”

I think that’s what they would say.

I also think, with this change that we’ve just made to Life Action, my son said something that really impacted me that I had never seen about myself. He said, “Mom, you stress out if the toilet backs up. You stress out if the lawn guy messes something up. You stress out if something you make doesn’t work right. But, Mom, you handle the big things. You’re always ready for the next adventure. You always want to be a part of what God’s doing, and you handle that with so much grace. But, Mom, the little things still get to you.”

Nancy: So we’re all still in process. Right?

Donna: Yes! And that is from my twenty-seven-year-old son who is an attorney. So I was, like, “Okay.”

Nancy: There’s still room to grow. I want to continue this conversation, Donna, and talk about some things you’ve learned about how to pray for your children.

Donna: Okay.

Nancy: I think this conversation has got to be very encouraging to some women who are identifying with where you were several years ago, or maybe where you are today in terms of stressing on some of those little things, but to know that God is a redeeming God who is making all things new, and that includes us, our marriages, our kids, our circumstances. He’s always at work.

Donna: Yes.

Nancy: I just love seeing what God’s doing in you, and I think that’s going to be an encouragement to a lot of women listening today. So be sure and join us tomorrow as we continue this conversation with Donna Avant.

Leslie: That’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. She was joined today by Donna Avant who reminded us of the hope Jesus provides through even the most difficult relational conflict.

Her story today may have prompted you to ask yourself, “How will my children remember me?” And maybe the answer is not what you’d like to hear.

However, in striving to be a better mom, it’s easy to feel pressured to become the perfect mom, using the best child-training methods, choosing the ideal schooling option, serving nutritious meals every day, keeping a clean, organized home.

Is your blood pressure rising right now? Seriously though, it’s natural to struggle to see beyond all the demands of being a parent. That’s why we need to be reminded of the bigger picture of parenting established by God.

Author Paul David Tripp talks about this in his book, Parenting: Fourteen Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family.

Paul Tripp doesn’t recommend a particular parenting style or technique. Instead, he points us back to the gospel and reminds us that training your children begins first with allowing God’s grace to shape what you believe and how you live out your beliefs.

This is an excellent resource for moms and dads, and we’d love to get a copy into your hands. We’ll send you Paul Tripp’s book on parenting when you support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any size. We’re grateful for whatever amount the Lord prompts you to give today.

And know that, when you give, your support helps advance a movement of women around the world who are pursuing Christ and making Him known to others.

You can visit ReviveOurHearts.com to make a donation and request the book, “Parenting,” or ask for the book when you call with your gift. The number is 1–800–569–5959.

When Donna Avant was facing challenges raising her children, she began praying Scripture over them. She kept praying those Scriptures for years. Now she looks back and sees some dramatic results of those prayers. Tomorrow you’ll hear the full story and discover how your prayers can come alive. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants your marriage to thrive. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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