When David promised me "with all my worldly goods I thee endow," an honest-to-goodness titter passed through the crowd at our wedding. People had seen his car—an ancient, rust-encrusted Buick he bought for $50—and most of our friends knew he was a grad student with the usual burden of student loans to repay.
It's no wonder then that our first apartment was in a neighborhood apparently designed to panic our mothers. Wrought-iron bars on the windows, doors with double deadbolts. We got used to the nightly thump-wump-thump of the police helicopter patrolling over our building after dark. When my sister came to visit, she saw a woman lose her purse to a young hoodlum just down the street. Another friend told me someone regularly sold drugs just a few doors from our concrete front steps.
It was that kind of neighborhood.
But the rent was cheap and the apartment was, well, furnished: a battered red couch, greasy kitchen cabinets, rotting curtains, wobbly dining room chairs and a bed that swayed and mattress that bumped in odd places (I layered it with old linens and a good mattress cover, not wanting any indirect contact with the numerous sleepers of the past).
Judging by our contentment and thankfulness, it could have been a palace. And it was during those first couple of years of marriage that I discovered one of the things I like most about David—and one of the things that binds us most tightly together—a spirit of thankfulness.
While together in our first home, we started paying down school loans. We covered David's current school costs without taking on further debt; he worked various odd jobs between classes and I had the dubious honor of being in charge of the sock wall at Dillards. Not only did we survive; we were happy as clams. David cheerfully stuck pieces of cardboard into his shoes to protect his socks (the soles had worn through in places); we gave up pop and juice and drank only water; and we never set foot in a restaurant—not even a McDonald's—until our first anniversary.
David painted the greasy kitchen cabinets and built new shelves from wood he scrounged out of a dumpster. For entertainment, we'd sit on our bed in our tiny bedroom (the only room we could afford to cool in the Oklahoma heat), playing cards and watching the $10 TV we'd purchased (you had to change channels with a pliers). We made pizza for friends and invented elaborate rules for "Killer Uno."
I felt so thankful to God for giving us a life together, and it became a point of connection for me to realize that David was really thankful too. I'd hear him in the kitchen or bathroom, breathing a quiet "Alleluia!" or "Thank you, Lord" and realize that part of what he was so thankful for—beyond his salvation in Christ and the daily guidance of God's Spirit and other "spiritual" things—was our home, and me.
In November 1990, that first Thanksgiving of our married life, I made a list of the "Top Ten Things to Be Thankful for in 1990." I used to make a list like that every year, as a spiritual exercise. Guess whose name is at the top of that list? David topped the chart in 1989 as well. I still have those lists, stuffed in with all the letters we wrote to each other while we were apart—in Oklahoma and Chicago—the year before we married.
I remember that it was easy to make that list—despite our financial deprivation. It was in those early months of marriage that David and I slipped into what's become a thankfulness norm for us. We enjoy, separately and together, quietly and out loud, what God has given us.
You don't hear a lot of premarital counselors instructing young couples, "You know, you need to be thankful because that's really important for your relationship." They ought to, though. For David and me, thankfulness is a kind of Superglue. It gives us a strong sense of hope and confidence about our future—our future together. Because we've grown accustomed to looking for God's goodness, we've come to expect it (you can't force or fake this kind of hopeful joy). Because we've seen God give us strength and patience in our relationship in the past, we're convinced God is going to be with us in future troubles—from within or outside of our marriage. It's not that we glibly assume that because we're Christians we're never going to have illnesses or financial setbacks or rebellious teenagers (someday). It's more that we've become deeply convinced that God will keep on working in us and through us, no matter what comes our way.
In that sense, a thankful spirit is giving our marriage a sense of glad expectation. We expect to be together for decades—and we expect God to be with us too. Thankfulness defeats gloominess or feelings of hopelessness about our marriage. When we're thankful together, we're helping each other put our faith in God.
Thankfulness is binding because it requires some humility. You can't be thankful and boastful at the same time. David is humble enough to know whom to thank for his talents, his health, his family, his job. That humility makes him accessible to me; it puts us in the same place as fortunate-beyond-reason recipients of God's unparalleled giving.
The humble aspects of thankfulness remove the necessity of power struggles between us. Neither one of us has to try to be better or stronger or more "in control" than the other—because by being thankful we're openly acknowledging that we've both had failures and been needy and God has taken care of those problems, even when we didn't deserve it.
Thankful Heart, Happy Heart
My kids have a VeggieTales video called "Madame Blueberry" (Everland). Julia and Robbie know that Mom's favorite song is the one where a young girl and a little asparagus sing that "a thankful heart is a happy heart. I thank God for what I have—that's an easy way to start."
So I'm thanking God for my thankful spouse. As different as David and I are, we need this foundational point of connection. I'm thankful for the way gratitude is having its effects in our family. It plays a role in our contentedness and offsets the cultural pull to materialistic living. Thankfulness colors how we pray and how we teach Robbie and Julia to pray. It creates a backdrop for enjoying the world God's put us in and for showing our kids that we live out of joy as well as out of obedience.
We've come a long way. Instead of living in a crime-ridden, poor neighborhood, we now live two whole blocks from one. We have our own home. We can afford new shoes, and we can eat out on date night. In the summer we air-condition the whole house, and now we play cards with our beautiful kids. We have confidence that God has "carved us into the palm of his hand" for an abundant life here on earth and blessing forever in heaven.
We have everything to be thankful for.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.