The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages by Shaunti Feldhahn

So I’ve read a lot of books on marriage – some better than others – and this one is certainly one of the best.  While it does not provide the firm theological reason for marriage or explain the spiritual significance of marriage, it is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on the practical, day-to-day, “how-to’s” of building and having a happy marriage.

Based on solid research data conducted, collected, and reviewed both first and second-hand by the author, Feldhahn identifies 10 actions and attitudes that are the key to building a lasting, happy relationship with your spouse.  Some seem like common sense (like #2: believing the best), while others seem down-right counter-intuitive (like #5: keeping score).  But all are simple things that can be instituted in any relationships.

Melissa and I actually read this book together, and we’ve individually tried to implement the strategies identified by research as vital to marital happiness.  And, speaking from experience, they work (both those we were already doing and those we weren’t).  Feldhahn’s research included interviews and data from both Christian and non-Christian couples, and the results are staggering.  Through research she identified three groups of couples: those identified as “struggling”, those identified as “mostly happy” and, finely, those identified as “highly happy”.  When the data are reviewed, “highly happy” couples (what she calls “Yes! Couples”) are identified very clearly in the results.

For example, one of the strategies identified is “believing the best” about your spouse.  This means that, regardless of what your spouse says or does, you choose to believe that they have your best interest at heart.  The data indicated that in 96% of “highly happy” marriages, both partners answered the question, “Is the following statement true or false?  ‘Even in the middle of a painful argument, I know that my spouse is fully ‘for me’ and deeply cares about me.'” with “true”.  However, in “struggling” marriages, only 59% of the time did both couples answer “true” (meaning that 41% of the time one or both couples answered “false”).  By choosing to believe your spouse has your best interest at heart – even in the midst of an argument – couples are more likely to report they are happy and have happy marriages.

This is a book I highly recommend for anyone who is married or is going to be married – I’m giving it 5/5 stars (which means you need to go out and buy this book).  If you’d like to read a sample of the first chapter, you can access one by clicking here.  For the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher for an honest, though not necessarily favorable, review.


Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll

As a fan of Mark Driscoll, I was excited to have the opportunity to receive a free copy of Real Marriage when it was first introduced.  I’ve read many books on marriage, and this is certainly one of the better ones – but also not the best.

_225_350_Book.550.coverThe Driscolls’ book is frank and honest regarding marriage, and at times I found myself feeling like I didn’t live up to the ideal they described for the Christian husband.  That’s not to say shame on them, but rather shame on me – for everything I found myself convicted of was something that I agree with them on, and I do want to do better at.  The best part of the book was the first few chapters, but I was disappointed that nearly half the book focused on sex.  I understand why this is the case, but I also understand that while sex for Christians can only happen in marriage, marriage is much more than sex.  But it would be difficult to understand that from the way it is portrayed in this book.  I’m no expert on the topic, but my understanding is that just as many marriages fail due to issues of finances as anything else, so I find it interesting that they never once brought this up in the book.

Overall, I’ll give the book 4/5 stars.  I would recommend it for married couples and for newly-weds, but for those who haven’t read Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage or the Eldredge’s Love & War, I would recommend starting with those books.

For the record, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily favorable, review.

Best Books for 2011

Considering we’re over two weeks into 2012 and I’ve had this on my to-do-list since the end of December, it’s time for me to compile my list of favorite books I’ve read and reviewed in the last year.  But I’m going to do this a little differently than you’d probably expect.  I’m not going to pick my highest-rated books based on my reviews, but I’m going to list the books that have had the biggest impact on my life.  Yes, I read for enjoyment, but most of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog have also been because I’m seeking to learn and grow, so at the end of the year I’m looking back to reflect on which ones led to the most growth and change in my life.

So here goes – my best books of 2011 – and what I learned from them (for the record, these are listed in the alphabetical order, not in rank-order):

  • Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge – This one almost seems obvious, given my love of Eldredge’s works, but when you also consider that I’ve reviewed other books by favorite authors (Yancey and Lucado to name a couple) and not included them on my list, you’ll realize this isn’t an exercise in listing my favorite authors. No, this is an exercise in listing those books that had the biggest impact on my growth over the past 12 months. It’s sad to say, but when I looked at the list of all my reviews I found myself saying, “Wow – I don’t even remember what that book was about!” That’s not the case with this one, though. Beautiful Outlaw challenged my view of Jesus in a way that few other books have ever done so. While I have some reservations (mentioned in the two reviews I post), I put this book down with a desire to know Jesus more personally and deeply than I had when I started – and it motivated me to spend more time in the Word and in conversation and fellowship with Him and others. To me that’s the mark of a book leading to change and growth.
  • Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby – just like Now I Walk on Death Row and While the World Watched helped me once again see the world through another’s eyes: this time through the eyes of those who are lost believing the lies of Islam. And it opened my heart to the necessity of reaching those people through my own actions – including gifts and prayers.
  • Church Diversity by Scott Williams – take Transformational Church and combine it with While the World Watched and you have an idea of the impact of Williams’ book. This book challenged me to think about worship and leadership in many new ways, it confirmed much of what I thought was happening in situations I was facing at various times throughout the year, and it offered insight into how I needed to approach some of those situations. This book is definitely deserving of being named to my list.
  • Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron – Here’s the surprise book on my list, especially considering I gave it such a horrible review. But here’s why I’ve got to put it on my list of best reads: it caused me to reflect on how often I share Jesus with other people and ask myself the question, “Do others see Jesus in me?” My complaint about the book was that it didn’t focus me enough on the life and work of Christ – which then convicted me to say, “How can I do a better job than this book did?” I guess it’s like the old adage that says “You can learn just as much (if not more) from a non-example than you can from an example.” As I said in my original the review, the book is an absolute blast to read – it just didn’t have the focus I was looking for. But, six months after I read it, I still find myself thinking about it and recognizing it had a positive impact on my spiritual growth, so I’ve got to put it on my list.
  • Money & Marriage by Matt Bell – I wish I could say that all our money struggles were fixed after I read this book and that I was able to take every suggestion Bell had and put it into practice. What I can tell you is that it did lead to changes in how I view and manage money – all for the better – and so in that sense this book marked the beginning of a slow process for the better.
  • Now I Walk on Death Row by Dale Recinella – Here’s a book that tells the story of a real-life person who gives up everything this world counts as precious and trades it for the opportunity to minister to “the least of these”. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to be a prison chaplain, or even that I am looking to be one, but this book helped remind me there are lost and hurting people everywhere who need the love of Jesus – and that it is possible to be an agent for good in a lost and hurting world.
  • Radical by David Platt – to this day I still think back to the seemingly simple challenge Dr. Platt refers to as “radical” (read your Bible, pray, and give). And to this day I still struggle to do it! One of the best lessons I learned from the book, though, is the importance of sharing Jesus with other people and being motivated to do it. Platt’s comment that there “is no plan B” has been on my mind practically every day for the past year – and I find it convicting and motivating.
  • Simply Sacred by Gary Thomas – I’m still reading this book every day and finding more and more truth in it than the first time I read it. Melissa and I have been working through it as our daily devotional now for a couple of months and the insights Thomas shares have caused me to really examine my own beliefs and behaviors as I work to match them up with what God has called us to be and do. And since it’s the book we’re using for our couple’s devotional, it’s also challenged me to reflect on how we can grow spiritually as both a couple and family. Perhaps more than any other book on the list, this book has led to real change in how I act.
  • Transformational Church – I’ve spent the last eight years studying and working to better understand what it means to worship and what a church should be. Transformational Church is one of the best book I’ve ever read that answers that question. Without going into a lot of detail, the concepts and teachings in this book are ones that I applied in my own ministry and ones everyone in ministry should study, learn, and implement.
  • While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry – I really didn’t anticipate or plan for this to be a “Top 10” list, but I guess it has ended up that way. This book really helped me see what it was like to live in a segregated society through the eyes of a black person. While segregation is something we learn about in school, since I was born after it was illegal (and because I grew up in the North) it was never anything I experienced. When I moved to North Carolina eight years ago I was shocked by the amount of racial tension I found here. While the past certainly doesn’t justify certain actions and policies that are present now, it absolutely helps explain them. This book really helped me see the world through someone else’s eyes.

So there you have it – my list of the most influential books on my life for the year 2011.  While I don’t make resolutions, I did start last year with a goal of reading at least one book a month – a goal I more than kept when I looked back and realized I reviewed 33 books last year.  While most were wonderful (and there are some I really considered putting on this list), the ones listed here are the ones that a year after reading them I can look back and say (without even looking at the list of my reviews), “I remember reading this book – here’s what I thought of it and here’s how it changed me.”  To me that’s what reading to grow is all about.  Sure, in reviewing the list of books I read I saw titles that caused me to say, “Oh yeah, I remember that – that was a great book!”  But their recollection needed a little reminder.  The ones on this list, though?  No reminder at all was needed.

So what’s coming next?  Here are some on my “To Read” shelf that will have reviews posted as soon as they’re completed:

  • Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll
  • Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas
  • Radical Together by David Platt
  • Out of a Far Country by Christopher Yuan
  • Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias
  • Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

That’s just a small list – thank you to all those who follow this blog and listen to my ramblings and reviews.  Hopefully you find them enlightening, encouraging, and maybe even a little entertaining.  Here’s looking forward to another year.

A Made-For-Movie Family

Last night Melissa and I rented Soul Surfer, the true story of Bethany Hamilton, the teenage girl who lost her arm in a shark attack while surfing and then went on to become a championship surfer after the tragedy.  This was one of the best inspirational movies I have seen in a long time.  While I found the strong connection with faith to be a great aspect of the movie that wasn’t the reason I enjoyed it so much.  The reason I found it such a great movie was the wonderful portrait it painted of the strength of family.  The movie showed the ups and downs of family life – the good times, the hard times, the highs and lows, even the struggles.  But it showed a family that persevered through it all, that honestly confronted difficulty and worked through it – a family that didn’t give up when the going got tough.  It showed parents who honored their commitment to be faithful in both good and bad times, and it demonstrated how that love and commitment filtered down to their children.

One of the best scenes in the movie was when they brought Bethany home for the first time from the hospital, and her parents sat in the car to talk for just 30 seconds about their worries and fears.  It was an honest conversation between two people committed to each other and their children.  Throughout the movie I witnessed this couple share their pain and struggle with each other – like they were supposed to.  Too often in movies I see one of the two people in a marriage find support from someone outside the marriage and an affair (either emotional or physical) begins.  But here was a picture of a couple that valued their commitment to each other, their family, and their God to find that strength and support within.  And that was a refreshing and inspirational image.

This isn’t one of those long-rambling posts I can sometimes do, it’s just a short and simple one to recognize and applaud those strong families out there that I admire and which I try so hard to model my own family after.  I thank God for the family I have now (meaning my wife and kids) as well as the family I am in (including both my parents and siblings as well as my wife’s family).  God designed the family as the foundation for society, and I can’t help but wonder how much different (and better) society would be if more families were like the one I saw in the movie last night.

The Captain’s Family

This evening I watched The Captains, a documentary by William Shatner on the lives of the six actors who portrayed the main captains on various Star Trek series (Shatner for Star Trek, Patrick Stewart from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Avery Brooks of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager, Scott Bakula of Star Trek: Enterprise, and Chris Pine from the latest Star Trek movie).  I DVRed the documentary because I am a Star Trek fan and thought it would be an interesting show to watch.  And I was right, but not in the way in which I expected.

I was impressed with the amount and depth of (what appeared to be) some very real and honest conversation between Shatner and the other actors reflecting on their roles and the impact those roles had on their personal lives.  The part that struck me the hardest was when they all spent time talking about their families and the impact on them the show (and their profession) had: at least three (Shatner, Stewart, and Bakula) talked openly of failed marriages as a result of their commitment to their profession, and two of the remaining three (Brooks and Mulgrew) expressed significant regret and disappointment over the loss of time with their family.  In fact, Mulgrew expressed that her children resented her job so much during the years she worked on Voyager that they to this day have never watched a single episode and still despise the show because of what it did to their family.  That, to me, is depressing.

And while it’s easy to look at these very famous actors and say, “That would never happen to me!” the reality is I’ve known (and know) too many people who allow their work to consume their life to the exclusion of family.  And let’s be honest, it doesn’t even need to be work – it can be ministry, hobbies, exercise, or any number of idols we erect.  When I was in college I wanted to be a high school choir director – until I realized that I knew more high school music teachers who were divorced than happily married.  I went through a stage (no pun intended) where I thought, “Maybe being a professional theatre person would be fun” – until I realized I knew more divorced and/or single people there as well.  And what about leaders: I can not even count the number of principals, superintendents, and other people in leadership positions whom I know personally that have sacrificed their families and relationships on the altar of career success.

Now before I go on I need to be fair and say I also know plenty of HS music teachers, professional actors, principals, and other leaders who are happily married and who do have wonderful family relationships.  So it’s not impossible.  But what I know is that it is not easy.  This past month I have been gone on three trips, for a total of 12 days out of the last 28, and it’s been difficult (to say the least).  The girls missed me, Melissa missed me – shoot, even my dog missed me!  And I missed them.  Thankfully, the travel I’m doing now is for a short season and is not an indication of what the next several years will be like.  But even without travel it is so easy to become consumed with work, especially for men.  And the only way to combat that is to be intentional about investing time with family (which is, sadly, easier said than done for me).

Yesterday I was exhausted from a very busy week at work, but decided we needed some time away together so we took a day-trip down to the beach.  Just the four of us.  And we had a blast – the girls loved it, Melissa enjoyed herself, and I even was willing to let Chloe bury my legs in the sand (though not very deep).  This morning I took the girls to Lowes for the Build-and-Grow clinic (we made binoculars!) and then it was off to the pool so Celeste could show me how she goes down the water slide, “all by myself, Daddy!”  Now, understand, I don’t enjoy the beach (I hate sand) and I am not a fan of pools with lots of chlorine in them – but I knew it was important to Melissa and the girls so I went.

And it’s not just me, either.  One of the reasons men find it so easy to get consumed in work is because that’s where we receive a huge sense of respect and self-worth, particularly when people at work are praising us for a job well done.  It’s not that we consciously put family on the back burner – in fact, we often consciously put so much into work because we want to succeed and provide for our family – it’s just that at times we feel more appreciated and supported at work than at home.  This is one area Melissa has really helped me in, telling me she’s proud of me, or posting on Facebook or telling others about how she’s thankful for what I do (even if I don’t do everything I’m supposed to, to my shame).  I remember in pre-marital class talking about how we should never talk poorly about our spouse to other people because it tears them down, and I’ve tried very hard over the years to never complain about something Melissa does or says to other people (not that I’m perfect in this area, mind you, but I can say honestly I can (by the grace of God) count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of times I’ve violated that rule).

Over the past several months I’ve noticed, as well, how other wives lift their husbands up to people.  Check out this blog post by a friend from Florida where she lifts up her husband (who, for the record, was my roommate for 4 years).  I’ve also seen a growing number of wives posting wonderful things on Facebook about their husbands (which I can’t link to because, unless you’re their friend on FB, you won’t be able to see).  And let me tell you, ladies, how much this ministers to your husband’s heart.  My wife does it and it makes me feel proud, and when I see my friends do it I am reminded that there are those who still treasure, cherish, and invest in their marriages and families. And that brings me hope.

So here’s the point: don’t allow what’s happened to these “Captains” happen to you, and pray for Melissa and I as we journey through life together.  Marriage and family are under attack by the evil one.  It takes intentionality to keep it strong and growing.  Pray for us as we pray for you.  And may we never look back and realize we traded the most important thing for something fleeting and temporal.

Book Review: Money & Marriage by Matt Bell

This is one of those books I wish I would have followed the advice of nine years ago when we first got married.  I can’t say that much of the information in it was new to me, but the advice is sound and if we would have followed it years ago we would be in a very different situation financially right now.

As with most books I’ve read on the topic of money management, this book instructs couples to develop and stick with a budget, pay down (and stay out of debt), and give money to the church and other ministries.  It has some specific suggestions on how to allocate money to cover expenses by percentage and by income level (ie, a certain percentage towards housing and car and insurance), which is very helpful.  But the most informative section of the book was when it discussed outside (personal experiences and culture) and inside influences (personality type/temperament) on our finances.  The book also includes a lot of worksheets and guides which are intended to be used by the reader to help identify needs, develop a budget, and keep track of spending.  I can honestly say I fully intend to implement some of the tools in this book.  It was well written, easy to understand and read, and gave solid advice from both a financial and spiritual standpoint.  I would highly recommend this to any couple who is engaged or newly married, but I think it is also good for couples to read who struggle in the area of finances.  Statistics tell us that the number one reason for divorce (ie, a failed marriage) is disagreements over finances, so for those couples who struggle with this it would be a great resource to begin the conversation towards working some of those issues out.

Over all, I’ll give it a 4.5/5 stars.  For the record, For the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.