by Suzan Braun
In Married for Life authors Stuart and Jill Briscoe share their engagement story which has become the bedrock for how they have lived a marriage and ministry partnership that has endured 50 years.
In their day, the traditional engagement ring was three diamonds set in a row. Some people would tend toward the extravagant and buy a solitaire, and others dared to vary the stones a little, but three seemed proper and right for Stuart and Jill because most of all they wanted to remember that God was at the center of their marriage and Stuart and Jill were set securely on each side of Him. They were as they said, "all bound up in the bundle of life's experience together by an eternal circle of gold-speaking of the sterling quality of His commitment to us and to our marriage."
The event wasn't quite what Jill imagined it would be. It had to fit in-between Stuart's busy banking and speaking schedule and her teaching job. As a result, they found themselves in downtown Liverpool during rush hour buying the first pretty three-diamond ring they laid their eyes on.
Never mind, Jill thought. "I'm sure Stuart will make up for the lack of atmosphere by his Wordsworth-like words as he gives it to me." As they tumbled back to the car and unwrapped their precious parcel, Stuart gently took Jill's hand and slipped the ring on her finger. Here it is, she thought excitedly.
"Well darling," Stuart announced emphatically with an extraordinary amount of satisfaction, "That's that!" And believe it or not, that was indeed that! So much for Jill's romantic dreams.
They returned home and found Jill's mom talking to a friend who sold diamonds. She was busy promising her that Jill and Stuart would buy the ring from her. "We've already purchased the ring. But...but...maybe next time!" Jill told the lady. Stuart took the phone out of Jill's hands, took her in his arms, and said just as emphatically as the first time:
"There won't be a next time, Jill. Don't you remember I told you—'That's that'?"
Suddenly those two words became the most romantic, loving, incredible words Jill had ever heard. There have been hundreds of times throughout the years that Jill has repeated them to herself. And for the last 50 years that has been that!
"Marriage is ordained by God; it's not a human idea subject to revision and open to evolutionary processes," Stuart said. And because their marriage is based on Biblical principles, Stuart and Jill are leaving a legacy that is a model for all of us, especially in an era where Christian marriages are falling apart.
So how do we begin to tell their story and reveal the secrets of this successful union that God has orchestrated?
Maybe it all began with a name. So excited about the gospel-spreading work of a pioneer missionary woman named Eva Stuart Watt, Stuart's father told his mother just days before she delivered their firstborn, "If this baby is a boy, his name is Stuart."
Or perhaps the seed of such a blessed partnership was planted in the heart of a young woman, who with a sense of foreboding, relinquished her wish list for the perfect mate to God, when He seemed to be saying, "Leave that to me, Jill."
Both Stuart and Jill were children growing up during World War II in Britain. The Briscoe home was a safe haven for soldiers and their church, the Tin Chapel, pastored by Stuart's father, a place to discover faith and hope. In Liverpool, the bombs fell every night in Jill's world as she and her family ran to the dugout beyond the garden. Where were God and Jesus? Jill wondered. Did they know about the war and that everyone was in danger?
As the years sped by, God was arranging for Stuart and Jill's lives to intersect, preparing them for far more than either one could ever dream or imagine. Stuart began preaching at 17, and upon high school graduation, started a banking career that was briefly interrupted by a two-year stint in the Royal Marines. While attending Homerton College in Cambridge, 18-year-old Jill found Christ during a hospital stay. After graduating, she became a teacher and very active in street ministry to young people. Stuart spent his free time preaching, while earning his living as a bank inspector.
Set against the beautiful backdrop of the English countryside at Capernwray Hall, a Christian youth center in England, Stuart and Jill met Easter weekend in 1957. A walk before breakfast led not only to marriage 18 months later, but a life of matrimony and ministry that has impacted multitudes for Christ all over the world. Recently, several thousand were on hand to help the Briscoes celebrate their golden wedding anniversary at their home church.
"How is it possible that somebody as young as we are can possibly be married for fifty years," remarked Stuart that day. "But apparently it's true, and we recognize it has to do with the grace of God and we are grateful to Him for drawing us to Himself." Sharing the podium with Stuart that day Jill continued, "When I think of the two principles that Stuart and I were privileged to have been taught before we ever married, the guiding light was the high view of Scripture and obedience to it! That would affect all our relationships, not least our relationship with each other."
Other significant gems of wisdom were shared. "We are convinced of this," said Stuart passionately, "the sworn enemy of marriage is SELFISHNESS! Therefore, before we marry, we should decide, 'Am I willing to leave the old life in which I did what I wanted unhindered, and yield myself to the wishes and preferences of somebody other than myself?' This is necessary before marriage and needs to continue throughout marriage for a good marriage to take place."
Jill continued, "We all know that opposites attract; this natural incompatibility is the reason for marriage, but it's hard because opposites also irritate." She went on to give this example. "Our firstborn David's first words were, 'Oh dear!' because he was with me, the worrier, most of the time. Stuart, the positive one, on the other hand, has a phrase that I have heard for 50 years when any huge problem is in front of us, 'I don't really anticipate any major difficulties.'" One lesson in marriage lies in learning to accept and celebrate differences.
Stuart and Jill are international speakers, teachers, and authors. In 1970, they brought their family to the United States when Stuart became senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wis., where he served for 30 years. In 2000 he stepped down and since that time, he and Jill have been serving as ministers-at-large, traveling all over the globe teaching and encouraging pastors, missionaries, and church leaders.
Shortly before leaving on a recent trip to India, Stuart and Jill sat down with JBU and shared some of their godly wisdom on what makes a marriage and ministry partnership endure for 50 years.
JBU: We hear so little about the Biblical marriage covenant today. Could you speak to why this is God's best plan for couples and why it needs to be a foundational component of marriage today?
Stuart: I think if couples are doing any kind of marital preparation, they are very much aware of what the covenant is, but one of the problems we have in the culture now is that even a contract is re-negotiable. You see this with our athletes, for instance. A year or so down the road, they want out of their contract and insist it be renegotiated or they won't show up and play. So if people have not built in that fundamental value of letting their yes be yes and their no be no, when the better becomes worse and the richer becomes poorer and the health becomes sickness they won't refer to the covenant they made, so the original marriage covenant in their minds becomes void. There is a deep rot in that thinking and so they believe I owe it to myself rather than I have an obligation to a transcendent principle; I have an obligation before God.
Jill: As our value systems diminish, I think lying and cheating become a part of our lives. First, it's just a little lie, a half-truth-which is a whole lie. But then it gets easier to not tell your spouse something that you should tell your spouse. Just not coming clean...We have to discipline ourselves to live up to our promises to one another.
JBU: What advice would you offer to couples who are struggling with ongoing conflicts?
Stuart: I remember something dear friends told us on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. They came to a time in their marriage when they knew they were making each other very unhappy because they were being selfish. So as not to continue in this, for selfish reasons, they decided to stop being selfish!
Jill: Just to promise each other, God helping me, I will start and practice being unselfish today! You know you just have to start at the beginning, really. And today, I refuse to fallout with you or anyone else.
Stuart: And you can choose to take it one step further. I will choose to think of acts of kindness. And I will go and do them and I won't talk about it, I'll just do it.
JBU: With the declining state of marriages in the church, how do ministry leaders reach out and help?
Jill: The church needs strong programs from birth up including great children's programs that teach Biblical principles regarding family and marriage and relationship to God and each other. I think that even though we touch on these things in church curriculum, it needs to be a major theme, for a year maybe. Churches that offer these sorts of programs and even offer them to the community, will find they will attract all sorts of people because so many are hanging on by their fingernails in their marriages and their children are hurting as a result.
Stuart: I certainly agree with the need for teaching, but there needs to be teaching that will counter the prevailing philosophies in our secular culture at the present time. When we see the extensive breakdown of marriages and families, it so often has nothing to do with ignorance regarding marriage. The underlying issue is a spiritual malaise in the church in North America where we have become more concerned about being happy than being holy. So many have not come to the point of recognizing that they are called to be set apart by God for Himself, to live in His power according to His principles, not their own. People are breathing in pop culture and I think secular pop culture is diametrically opposed to discipleship. Until the church can effectively counter the enormous inroads of our current culture, it will be hard to turn things around.
Discipleship says deny yourself. Pop culture says you owe it to yourself. Even people in the church are spending far more time in the 'you owe it to yourself ' mode than in the 'deny yourself ' mode. If people are not intentionally keeping in tune with the fundamental principles of discipleship, it's a major problem.
JBU: Are there any parting thoughts on marriage that you have for couples who are serving Him in ministry?
Jill: If the fundamentals of marriage are in place and you add the ministry element, then there are unique pressures and strains on that marriage. But if you are doing the basics, there will be a safe base to work through those pressures in a positive way.
Stuart: The question we are asked all the time is how we balance marriage and ministry. Balance means equilibrium; which means two competing forces in equality. My point is, as soon as we talk about balancing marriage and ministry, there is an unspoken assumption that they are competing forces and this is fundamentally wrong. They are not. Both are ordained by God. Both are predicated on love. Both are manifested in goodness. So why are they competing? In actual fact, your marriage and your family can become a platform for your ministry. Ministry to each member becomes the ethos of the family.
Perhaps the best way to express what the future holds after 50 years of marriage for Jill and Stuart is said in their closing remarks of their book, Married for Life.
"Things don't change much," Stuart concludes. "And we don't want them to—that's why we plan on doing what He's allowed us to do as long as He lets us do it... commitment to our growing family...and continued service as opportunity permits." Jill echoes, "We are 'doing today' and refusing to 'do tomorrow.' We are learning to be thankful for each other every single day. We intend to put our heads down, and holding hands together, run the course leaning hard, having fun, and working our heads off for the Lord!" And that's that!