Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Laying a Foundation for a Healthy Marriage

Leslie Basham: As a newly married wife, Holly Elliff wondered if she really knew her husband.

Holly Elliff: I am here in a state where I did not grow up with a crazy man, and I’m committed to him for the rest of my life. 

Bill Elliff: He may be an axe murderer. (laughter)

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Thursday, January 26. Nancy’s talking with some good friends of Revive Our Hearts in a series called, Building a Marriage That Glorifies God.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Well, Bill and Holly Elliff are no strangers to our Revive Our Hearts audience, and I’m so glad to have them with us in the studio today. Bill Elliff, the pastor of The Summit Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Holly Elliff is his wife. They are the parents of eight children.

We are going to talk a lot about those things over these next days. But Bill and Holly, you were on your way through our area to go speak at a marriage conference. I’m on my way, actually tonight, to go attend a parenting conference. So we are doing this family thing this weekend.

And I said “Could you guys just stop by our studio here in Michigan and talk with our listeners about marriage and family?” So you got up at what time this morning to catch a flight?

Bill: I don’t think Holly ever went to bed.

Holly: It was more just that I dozed for a few minutes, I think, between three and four. But we are glad to be here.

Nancy: Well, we are so thrilled to have you here. When I heard you were coming I emailed a few friends and said, “You know Bill and Holly. You know our listeners. What would our listeners like to hear from Bill and Holly Elliff?” And boy did they send me some great questions. So I’m just going to lob you some of the questions that our listeners, I think, would like to hear from you, and have them have a chance to get to know you.

Holly: That’s great.

Nancy: You have been married how many years now?

Holly: Thirty-eight.

Bill: Yes, that’s exactly right. (laughter)

Holly: We have been married long enough now that we have to look at each other to answer the question, “How long have you been married?”

Nancy: Bill, I remember you planned a very special getaway for you and Holly for a certain anniversary. It had something to do with a cave. Is this coming back at all?

Bill: Oh, my stars! Yes.

Holly: The funny thing was we had planned it out. We renewed our vows at the beginning of that weekend. And then we took off in a friends little, tiny convertible car just for fun with our eight children waving goodbye to us on the sidewalk for this twenty-fifth anniversary weekend. And we drove and drove and drove in the middle of nowhere. And then Billy turned off on a little path through a field, literally.

Nancy: And you didn’t know where you were going.

Holly: We’re bouncing around in this snazzy-looking, little convertible, but we are driving through corn fields.

Bill: In Arkansas.

Holly: In Arkansas. And we kept driving. And finally I turned to him and said, “Where in the world are we going?” It was a long way through a lot of fields. And then we drove into the woods, and there were rocks and trees and nothing else.

Bill: And a door.

Holly: And a door. There was nothing else. No electronic devices worked.

Bill: Well, see, like a Caribbean cruise is so predictable.

Holly: That’s true.

Bill: To me this was good. Nobody had done that. And nobody really wants to ever do it again. (laughter)

Holly: It was a very, very unique place. It was. It was fun. 

Nancy: And your lives have been anything but predictable, your marriage from the start. In fact, let’s go back to the beginning. Somebody wanted to know, “How did you know when you were first got to know each other that he was the one, that she was the one?”

Holly: We dated for a while in part of junior high and part of high school until I moved away. We then re-met in college and wanted to be together, but our hearts were not in the same place. The Lord had to get my heart on track, but once that happened, we were just drawn to each other. There was almost just a kindred desire to move in the same direction that had not been there previously.

And from that moment on we could not wait until we could get married. It was way longer than we wanted it to be. We were engaged for much too long, because I can vividly remember going to sleep and dreaming that the Lord was going to come back and waking up thinking, “Wait till June sixteenth. Please wait till June sixteenth.” Because the thought of not being able to finally get married was sad to me.

So we pursued that for a long time. We’ve always prayed for our kids to know that they know that they know that that is God’s person for them. Just a witness of the inner Holy Spirit in their hearts to just confirm that to them.

Bill: The Lord had completely flipped my heart around at seventeen. I just had an incredible season of personal revival. It was during the early seventies, late sixties, and the Jesus Movement, the Asbury revival. And I came to college on fire.

Holly: As a matter of fact, I went home the middle of my freshman year and mother said, “Well, what about that Billy Elliff? Do you think you’ll ever date him again?” And I said, “He is crazy. He is preaching on tables in the cafeteria.” So at that point, I didn’t see any way that we would ever be together because I thought he was a fanatic.

Bill: And I would be around her and be tremendously drawn. I don’t know how to explain that except the Lord drawing to her. But then when we were together, she was on such a different page spiritually than I was that it would frustrate both of us. And really halfway through that freshman year, a wind of revival came through that campus and Holly . . . God really did a fresh work in her life, and it was all over but the shouting when that happened.

Nancy: I think in saying that you just illustrated what seems to be such an important point for people to consider before they get married. How many times have we seen young people with stars in their eyes and really just the chemistry and the whatever flowing there. And they get married, but they’re not on the same page spiritually.

Bill: I won’t marry people unless there are four foundational things. One is a right relationship to the Lord that both of them know the Lord and are walking with Him. Secondly a right relationship to their family. They have their parent’s consent and blessing.

But the third is a right relationship to time. And you say, “Well, how do you know when it’s time?” And I say well, when you go back to the original purpose of marriage, it was that this person was to be a completer to you so that you could better display the glory of God. And if you’re in a spot in your relationship where that man is pulling you away from Christ, she’s pulling you away from Christ, and you can’t begin to see, at least in embryonic ways, they are helping me to God. If you can't see that they are helping me to manifest, to reflect the image of God, then it's not time.  It’s not, “Well, we’re going to get married then we’re praying that will happen.” So it’s a major consideration. I honestly, if a couple can’t illustrate that, I personally won’t marry them because I just feel like we need to resolve that first.

Nancy: Well, I’m just thinking of all the emails we get here at Revive Our Hearts from women who say, “I married this man who didn’t know Christ or wasn’t really pursuing Christ or he had these major issues in his life he hadn’t dealt with. But I thought it would change,” or “I wasn’t walking with the Lord at the moment, so I moved past the warning signs.” “My parents weren’t in favor of it.” Just the exact things you’ve talked about. And then here they’re twenty, thirty years later writing us and saying, “We’re miserable. We can’t make this marriage work.”

You just wish you could push the rewind button and say, “Go back to the foundations. If those key things aren’t in place, don’t get married. Just wait for the Lord.” I know we have single women who are listening to this program. We have parents who have young adult children. And sometimes those parents are the ones pushing their children into marriage and not waiting for God’s time.

Bill: Nobody has ever come in to me and said, “We want to get married and then we want to learn to hate each other and have a divorce." Nobody says that.

Nancy: They don’t even fathom that could ever happen.

Bill: But it happens. I tell them, “If I gave you a house for a wedding gift, I gave you the money.” And you went out and said, “Well, we don’t want to lay a foundation of concrete in here because it’s going to cost too much. So we’ll just put sand.” You might get a house up, but when the stress comes, you will have lost your entire investment.

So nobody comes and says, “I want to get married and then have a disaster.” So you have got to lay the foundation. No construction engineer would think of building a house without putting a lot of money and time and thought into laying the right foundation. And that’s got to happen with couples.

Nancy: You mentioned that there were four things that have to be true of couples. Remind us of the first three and then tell us what the fourth is.

Bill: Well, a right relationship to the Lord; a right relationship to my family; a right relationship to time; and then the biblical freedom to marry. And you know sometimes there’s not that freedom and sometimes there is. So the whole area of divorce and remarriage, you know, we have to deal with a lot with couples.

Nancy: And to ask the questions.

Bill: Ask the questions. And those are hard conversations, but really, really important conversations. Just to assume that that has no effect, the statistics about that don’t reveal that.

Nancy: Okay, let’s go back to your early days. You had this courtship and long engagement, maybe too long. God turned Holly’s heart. You got married and lived happily ever after, right? (Laughter)

Holly: We got married while we were still in college,  and we moved into a pink and white trailer that was eight feet wide. It was so narrow that we couldn’t even put any kind of table to eat on. Ao we cut the little table in half and nailed it to the wall and ate on that half of the table. If we had company, we would bring in a cardboard box. And that was the other half of the table or place to put the food.

I can remember we were really so naïve about so many things. We were having a great time, but we were very naïve.

We filled up the gas tank.

Bill: Butane tank.

Holly: The butane tank. We assumed that it would last us all year long. So we filled it up and thought, “That’s great. We’re set for the year.” And I think three months later we had no heat, and we were freezing.

Bill: About thirty days later, right? 

Holly: There were just a lot of things we didn’t know. We were young.

Bill: I think the interesting thing as I look back on it, back then nobody got marriage counseling. We didn’t have that.

Holly: That’s true.

Bill: But what we did have was great parents. We came from great homes, which one of the great tragedies now is the opposite is true with so many couples. They are starting with a deficit. So you really need an IV of marriage training in ways like you wouldn’t have it otherwise if you came from a stable home and a good understanding. So we knew a lot just from observing our parents.

And early on in our marriage, I will never forget this, we were in seminary. The precursor to FamilyLife, the fellow that started that was in Dallas. We heard about it, and we went to a seminar. It really was dramatically life-changing for us as a couple. I mean, it just opened our eyes up to principles that honestly we are still operating under today in so many ways.

Holly: I think in those early days of our marriage, the Lord was really gracious in giving us opportunity to hear truth from men and women who were further down the road. I remember going to a conference that Francis Schaeffer did. Hearing him speak about just the whole mindset, our worldview, that so greatly impacted us in the way we thought.

Elisabeth Elliot. I can remember hearing her teach. She challenged my heart about who I was to be as a woman. God was really faithful to put men and women in our path that impacted us in ways that we didn’t even know we needed at that point.

Nancy: The fact that you had parents who had walked with the Lord and stayed married to each other and were faithful, what a gift that was to take into marriage. As you look back, what are some of the things that you observed in your parents, consciously or otherwise, that you took with you into marriage that were helpful for building that foundation?

Bill: Well, my mother and dad, they said, “Our greatest desire is that our kids would know that we love Jesus.” That was simple statement, but they really lived that out. My mother loved Jesus. She would sing about Him, and she couldn’t even sing that well. Her favorite song is on her tombstone, a line from it: "Jesus is all the world to me." And He was.

And my dad, although he was extremely busy and we didn’t see him as much, but we knew that he was doing something noble. He was a pastor. It was always represented that way to us in such a dimension that all four of his children went into the ministry. So we just watched that.

My parents were respectful of each other. I know they must have disagreed, but looking back on it, I never saw that in their conversations. Holly and I, our kids have seen that, I think, to be honest about it, at times more than my parents did. But I think they just modeled godliness.

And the most important thing was that they were centered. They were just centered on the Lord. When there was a problem, they would go to the Word. They would find out what God says. It was the final authority for their life. I think if we can give our kids that—that one thing—just a passionate love for Christ, and then an understanding of the Word of God as authoritative. Well, then they’ve got all they need really. That takes them in so many dimensions. Because now I know I’m going to go to the Word if I’ve got a problem.

So many times with my kids, when they face a decision, I will say to them, “Look, the issue is not the issue. The issue is this is the moment when God is molding you and trying to help you to see what’s the final authority for your life? Is it going to be what others say, what you feel, what society says, or is going to be what God says? So this is a test. This is all about trust and where you look in dependency.

Nancy: And the same is true in marriage—not just for your children, but in the marriage that’s going to go the distance. Do you go back to Scripture? Do you go back to Christ as the center? And how soon into your marriage was it before you hit that first significant bump in the road where you had to get back to the Word, back to Christ? Do you remember your first major argument?

Holly: Oh, I remember we went on our honeymoon, and we came back. The week after our honeymoon I was washing my face in the sink. Billy is way taller than I am. I looked up after I washed my face,  and he was making this horrible, scary face in the bathroom mirror. I don’t know why, but . . .

Bill: She burst into tears.

Holly: I burst into tears. I ran back in the bedroom, told him to leave me alone. I can vividly remember thinking, “I am here in a state where I did not grow up with a crazy man. And I’m committed to him for the rest of my life!”

Bill: He may be an axe murderer.

Holly: So there are those moments that don’t take very long to show up in a marriage where you suddenly maybe have the thought, “What have I done?”

Nancy: Yeah, I just think every couple must have those moments.

Holly: You do have those moments.

Bill: I think that happens to everybody. It usually centers around something very practical. I think for most couples this issue of, “Are we going to trust the Lord or not?” is about finances. And I remember, we had just moved to seminary, had been married about a year. We had no money. I mean no money. We were away from our families, and it was bean city USA. I mean, literally, we were down to I think a can or two of beans.

Holly: We had counted our change. We were picking up Coke bottles on the side of the road.

Bill: I was in seminary. Holly was teaching as a speech pathologist but not making enough money for us to make it. We were very tempted to call our parents. We thought, "We could pick up the phone and make that call, and they’d help us." And we said, “No, let’s see if the Lord will provide.” And we got down. God had given us a promise from 1 Timothy 6 about our marriage, that He was going to supply us with all things richly to enjoy.

Holly: When we were talking about when to get married, we had figured out our budget, and it was going to be negative ten dollars a month, I think, just to be the minimal without food. So Billy had said, “I don’t think we can get married yet.” And that night the Lord really gave us that verse as a promise that He would provide what we needed. So we got married based on that promise.

Bill: And I remember in seminary when we ran out of money, we got down one night and we just cried out to the Lord and said, “Lord, You’ve made a promise. We’re going to trust you.” I went to campus the next day and I met a man, young man, that I barely knew. He walked up and said, “I’ve been looking for you.” And he said, “Last night God impressed upon my heart and my wife’s heart in prayer to give you this.”

And you know seminary students are just dirt poor. This was in 1975 or 1974. He handed me an envelope and walked away. I opened it up. I thought there’d be fifteen bucks—this is going to be wonderful. We can eat.

Nancy: Another can of beans!

Bill: Another can of beans! And there were four one hundred dollar bills. The Lord just said, “I’m going to do it. You trust me. I will provide.” Nancy, I took my two boys who are both in seminary to that very spot on the campus not long ago. I told that story. It was like the twelve stones that the guys set up. “I just want to remind you boys that if you will listen to the Lord and let His Word be authoritative, He will do exactly what He promises.”

Holly: And at this moment, three of our kids, four of our kids, are trusting the Lord for big things in their life.

Nancy: And every one of those tests in marriage, in parenting, in the family, in the four walls of our homes, are in the order of the day. I mean they come. But every one of those becomes an opportunity for the faithfulness of God to be displayed—an opportunity for the next generation to know God in a way that they might not otherwise. So it’s for a bigger purpose. There’s a bigger picture than just, “What are we going to eat tonight?” In responding to that test and in leaning hard and finding God to be faithful, we’re showing those around us for generations to come that God is faithful.

Leslie: Your family isn’t primarily about you. It’s about God’s glory. Bill and Holly Elliff have been talking with Nancy Leigh DeMoss about how important every family is in building God’s kingdom. Every family is different, and you are facing unique opportunities and challenges in your relationships. What I do know is that you can bring God glory. You can devote your unique circumstances to Him. You can watch as He works through you.

We’d like to send you a book that will help you live out God’s will in your relationships. It’s called Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas. He asks, “What if God designed marriage not to make us happy but to make us holy?” This book will give you a purpose in marriage that goes far beyond personal fulfillment or romantic ideas. I think you’ll find it helpful whether you are married or hoping to get married at some point.

We’ll send you Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas when you support Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any size. We’ll also include today’s conversation with Bill and Holly Elliff on CD. Just call 1-800-569-5959. Ask for Sacred Marriage and the series Building a Marriage that Glorifies God, or donate online and request the book. You’ll find out how to do that at

Well, sexual temptation affects everybody. You need strategies for facing it. And you need to learn ways to help your spouse overcome temptation as well. Bill and Holly Elliff will show you God’s power for purity tomorrow. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

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


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About the Speaker

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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