No Secret Formula

Longest Marriage of a Living Couple

Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher are from North Carolina. Herbert is 104 years old while Zelmyra is 101 years old(!!!). They have been married 86 years this May and hold the Guinness World Record for the longest marriage of a living couple(!!!). Needless to say, with a marriage that’s longer than many people’s lifetimes, they’ve probably picked up a Denver Nugget or two of wisdom throughout the years. Here are a few of those nuggets from their interview:

2. How did you know your spouse was the right one for you?
We grew up together & were best friends before we married. A friend is for life – our marriage has lasted a lifetime. 

5. What was the best piece of marriage advice you ever received?
Respect, support & communicate with each other. Be faithful, honest & true. Love each other with ALL of your heart (no secret formula)

6. What are the most important attributes of a good spouse?
Zelmyra: A hard worker & good provider. The 1920s were hard, but Herbert wanted & provided the best for us. I married a good man!

8. You got married very young – how did u both manage to grow as individuals yet not grow apart as a couple?
“Everyone who plants a seed & harvests the crop celebrates together.” We are individuals, but accomplish more together.

12. At the end of bad relationship day, what is the most important thing to remind yourselves?
Remember marriage is not a contest – never keep a score. God has put the two of you together on the same team to win.

13. Is fighting important?
NEVER physically! Agree that it’s okay to disagree, & fight for what really matters. Learn to bend – not break!

14. What’s the one thing you have in common that transcends everything else?
We are both Christians & believe in God. Marriage is a commitment to the Lord. We pray with & for each other every day.

Friendship: “True friendship doubles the joy and cuts the grief in half”
Notice that they said a critical factor in knowing they were right for each other was their friendship prior to marriage. It wasn’t something temporary like looks or occupation, but something deeper and more important than that. I think one of the first questions to ask ourselves when considering a relationship (and eventually marriage) with someone is “will I become a better person just by being around him/her”.

Furthermore, I think another thing to consider is that while we should be friendly towards all, we need only be true friends with a few. And one of those few should be our spouses. In fact, out of those few, I believe our spouses should absolutely be our best friend, confidant, and loving ally. In fact, notice how they place little emphasis on their individual needs because of their faith and trust in one another as a team. “Everyone who plants a seed & harvests the crop celebrates together. We are individuals, but accomplish more together.” Marriages like this don’t last when the daily friendship is back-to-back (hostile) or even shoulder-to-shoulder (being roommates rather than soul mates). They last because of an intentional DESIRE for a daily face-to-face connection, which takes a lot of work.

While a lot of things about today’s society makes true friendship (especially in marriage) harder to achieve, I think a practical lesson that can be gleaned from Herbert & Zelmyra’s marriage is that though they’ve been married for a long time, their friendship has been even longer. When you are with someone that doubles your joy and cuts your grief in half, I think that’s fertile grounds for a long-lasting, healthy relationship.

Fighting: “Fight FOR your marriage not IN your marriage”
Though they don’t say it directly, I believe Herbert & Zelmyra’s marriage has lasted as long as it has because of their understanding that both are imperfect, sinful people. They don’t idolize each other as God (the weight of that burden is crushing) and they don’t dismiss one another as irredeemable (the weight of this resignation is demoralizing). Early on, I think they reached an impasse: they could either fight FOR their marriage or fight IN their marriage. The fruit of their marriage indicates they have committed to the former option again and again (okay, 2PM). Here is what they say about fighting for the good of their marriage to the glory of God:

Remember marriage is not a contest – never keep a score. God has put the two of you together on the same team to win.

[…]

NEVER physically! Agree that it’s okay to disagree, & fight for what really matters. Learn to bend – not break!

I think some of the best practical lessons shared by Mark Driscoll at the Real Marriage Conference and displayed by Herbert & Zelmyra is to attack the problem, rather than the person, as well as hate the sin, but love the person. Another critical lesson is to prevent flareups and angry exchanges by not treating mistakes as a sin. I think these lessons are very practical because they apply to ALL relationships, not just marriage. The funny thing is, a lot of these flareups occur as a result of miscommunication between good-willed people! In his book Love & Respect, Emerson Eggerichs says the following:

Once you decide to see each other as good-willed people, it changes your perspective and the filter through which you view your relationship. Whether you’re arguing over sex or taking out the trash, you can rehearse what you know to be true: “He’s a good-willed man.” “She’s a good-willed woman.” Even in the middle of conflict, you can see each other as partners, allies and friends.

Call me naive, but I think that a lot of arguments and miscommunication could be prevented if only we would hold fast to and seek to understand where the other person is truly coming from and if they meant well (despite the results).

The Masculine Mandate: Work and Keep
Since the beginning of time, man’s mandate has been to work (nurture) and keep (protect). It goes without saying that marriage falls within this mandate. This is what Richard D. Phillips, in his book The Masculine Mandate, has to say about the husband’s responsibility in working (nurturing) and keeping (protecting) within the context of marriage:

1) A husband is to work (nurture) in marriage by building up his wife’s faith and hope in Christ through his ministry of God’s Word in her life. This includes the following (based on 1 Peter 3:7):

  • Living Together –  Phillips says, “live with” is the Greek word that means “commune” and gives us the noun community. Peter is saying that husbands are to live with their wives in a single shared life.
  • Pay Attention – Peter says men should live with their wives in an understanding way. Phillips points out that this isn’t to mean men are merely to “be understanding” or to live “with consideration”. He comments that the Greek text actually says that husbands must live with their wives “according to knowledge”. In other words, a husband must know what is going on with his wife.
  • Show Honor – Peter tells husbands to also live showing honor to the woman. Phillips adds that the word for “showing honor” might be better rendered as “cherishing” her […] A husband is to convey to his wife that he values her greatly, that she is precious to him.
2) A husband is also to keep over his wife by ensuring she is safe and dying to self so that she can live, following the example mentioned in Ephesians 5:25. Here are some convicting words on the matter:
But the main threat against which a man must protect his wife is his own sin. A friend once expressed his awakening to this truth in these words: “I used to think that if a man came into my house to attack my wife, I would certainly stand up to him. But then I came to realize that the man who enters my house and assaults my wife every day is me, through my anger, my harsh words, my complaints, and my indifference. As a Christian, I came to realize that the man I needed to kill in order to protect my wife is myself as a sinner.”

Zelmyra concisely confirms what Phillips has described above. When asked what a good husband should be, she responded, “a hard worker & good provider. The 1920s were hard, but Herbert wanted & provided the best for us. I married a good man!” I’m going to take a leap of faith and trust that after 86 years of marriage, she knows what is truly necessary in a husband.

Covenantal, not contractual: “Because love is a loyalty sworn, not a burning for a moment”
As I’ve studied on marriage in the past year, I’ve learned a lot about covenantal love and relationships. I think one of the main characteristics of a covenant relationship is devotion. And, to tie it back to the main story, I can’t help but look at Herbert & Zelmyra as an example of loving devotion. It boggles my mind how they’ve been married since May 1926. Just think about all the history they’ve braved together: The Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, segregation/racism, etc. And through it all, they’ve stayed best friends and remained committed to the Lord:

We are both Christians & believe in God. Marriage is a commitment to the Lord. We pray with & for each other every day.

In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller touches on the contract/convenant dichotomy. But even before he gets there, he first talks about the dichotomy between love as an emotion and love as an action:

If we think of love primarily as emotional desire and not as active committed service, we end up pitting duty and desire against each other in a way that is unrealistic and destructive.

Indeed, when Paul wrote “Husbands love your wives” in Ephesians 5:25, the ‘love’ he is referring to is the sacrificial love, agape (one which God displays throughout the bible). And that sacrificial love is at the core of  covenantal love. In contrast, contracts are selfish and contingent. Contracts are all about “what have you done for me lately?”. And sadly, that’s what marriage has largely devolved into in practice. “I provide X, you provide Y, and we’re good. Otherwise, see ya later”. This mentality is why modern society finds marriage to be stifling and backwards. However, Keller notes that our modern society has it backwards regarding the covenantal aspect of marriage:

…What you think of as being head over heels in love is in large part a gust of ego gratification, but it’s nothing like the profound satisfaction of being known and loved. When over the years someone has seen you at your worst, and knows you with all your strengths and flaws, yet commits him or herself to you wholly, it is a consummate experience. To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.

Keller’s words about being fully known and truly loved is “a lot like being loved by God” touches on the mystery of marriage. Indeed, I believe that the beauty of marriage is that its beauty is extrinsic. That its beauty is extrinsic makes marriage a great mystery. And that mystery, as Paul puts it, is that marriage is to be a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is forgiving, loving, cherishing, reconciling, sacrificial, YOU NAME IT. However, I’m not merely pointing this out to connect it with the husband’s responsibility to be Christ-like to his wife. I’m making a bigger point, which is that the foundation of a lasting marriage is the anchoring of each spouse’s identity in God. Think about it – we cannot truly forgive and reconcile with one another unless our very cores have been forgiven by and reconciled to God first! Marriage isn’t ‘worth it’ because of the people in it; it’s ‘worth it’ because of the redeeming God who is working through the people in it! I conclude by quoting Richard D. Phillips, who comments eloquently and poignantly on the deeper reality of marriage:

…I do not have to wait until I fully understand my wife in order to love her. In Christ, I have no warrant to withhold my love until she changes according to my self-serving agenda. I am free in Christ, through the resources of God’s redeeming grace for me, to love my wife. Because God has forgiven me, I can truly forgive her. Because God has given to me, I can gladly give to her. With God’s compassion for me, I have compassion to give; with God’s grace I can show grace. And with God’s Word dwelling in our relationship, my wife and I can grow in this grace so that we learn more and more to love one another while drawing more and more from the wells of God’s saving love for us.

There’s no secret formula that makes marriage work. There’s only an invigorating gospel that makes marriage glorious.

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