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Emptied: Experiencing the Fullness of a Poured-Out Marriage
by Jonathan Pitts
Learn More | Meet Jonathan Pitts | Meet Wynter Pitts
Before You Begin
A Special Note from Jonathan
At 3:45 p.m. on July 24, 2018, I hit send on an e-mail to our publisher with the final, edited manuscript of this book attached. Around 7:30 p.m. on that same July day, Wynter breathed her last breath as I desperately tried to save it.
It never crossed my mind how God would use the sending of that e-mail to encourage my heart on the most difficult day I have ever faced—and in the weeks and months to follow.
It was a proud moment and a relief for sure. Wynter and I had been laboring through the writing process for several months, doing our best to capture our story in a way that would speak to engaged couples, young marrieds, and anyone looking for a new outlook on marriage. We had a sense of accomplishment and truly believed that God was going to work through our story to reach others who might identify with our journey.
It was a neat experience for us to write the book because in a lot of ways we felt we were stepping into a new season of marriage. As husband and wife, we had grown together. We were both committed to a type of marriage that would focus on the other person. Though we came to our marriage with different backgrounds and expectations, we daily practiced the discipline of a godly marriage. We practiced because we never felt like professionals. What we lacked in profession, we made up with intention. Along the way, we realized we were picking up younger couples whom God would allow us to pour our lives into. Our intentions were shifting theirs.
Intention. I’m grateful I can say without pause that we were intentional. Without question we were deliberate about pursuing fullness in marriage. Each day Wynter and I would find opportunities to pour ourselves out for each other, and each day God would fill us with more and more of His power to do it again the next. And in His power, we experienced the fullness in marriage only God can give.
Even while Wynter’s heart was full of gratitude and excitement about our new journey, in a moment her physical heart failed her without warning. On that day she started a new journey with a new eternal reality, trusting God with me and our four girls left here on earth.
Her sudden death was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. It was beyond reason and beyond understanding. She was 38. We had celebrated our fifteenth anniversary less than a month earlier on June 27.
But God, in his infinite wisdom, sent me signs of His goodness despite my lack of human understanding. In His providence and foresight, He allowed me to turn in our marriage book the same day Wynter passed from death to life. He was reminding me and anyone looking on that He is the author, and that as the author He decides when the book will end.
Wynter’s life is an amazing book. Much of it you will learn from reading this one. God gifted her and used her to reach a generation of girls, moms, and families for His kingdom purposes. Likewise, our marriage was a good book. It was full of ups and downs, highs and lows, and the eventual resolve and excitement that comes in any great story. Just like a great story, our book seemed to end way too soon. And just like a reader, I sit here wishing I could experience more.
Despite the shortness of our book, I’m thankful I can say our story ended with a beautiful climax—including four beautiful memorials to Wynter in our daughters. I have no regrets, and I assure you that if Wynter could write, neither would she. We lived each day asking the Lord to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” We had no idea how soon our journey would come to an end, but we lived each one as if it was numbered, pursuing the best for each other and offering our marriage up to God.
My hope is that Wynter’s death will continue to bring life. That her story and our marriage will stand as a light on the path of your marriage—and that whatever might be dead or lost or unattended will begin to receive nourishment and sustenance. I pray that you might begin or commit anew to a poured-out marriage so that you might also experience the fullness promised from God for those who live out Christ to each other.
I’m not sure how long your book is, and I’m certain you aren’t either. But I encourage you to make it a good one. To remember each day that the next is not promised, and that the one you have right now is the best one to lay down for each other in order to experience the fullness of a poured-out marriage.
Marital bliss. We all want it, and no one goes into marriage expecting less. Most boys expect it to just happen when they grow up, as if their sheer presence is the key ingredient to the marriage recipe. Many girls idealize marriage, symbolized by their growing fantasies about its inaugural day. Normally we memorialize this assumed bliss with a special wedding ceremony photo, but rarely does the image capture what the true state of our marriage relationship will be on a day-to-day basis.
For most of us, that masterpiece is nicely framed and gently placed somewhere like on the fireplace mantel, a perfect rendition of what we hoped for our marriage relationship. But in reality our marriages are more like the snapshots Great-Aunt Clara took during the wedding—a little blurry, with someone’s head in the way and the bride in mid-sneeze. Day in and day out, we spend our energy desperately seeking that perfection, only to discover it’s tucked away among a zillion other images far less perfect and flattering.
Not too long after framing that masterpiece, couples discover marriage is much more like a journey than a snapshot. It cannot be captured in a frame. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It will take more than they ever thought they could give, and it will test every aspect of their will.
We understand. We can relate. We are one of those couples.
Now, before you think we’re going to rip our marriage or yours, please know that’s not the route we’re taking. We just happen to be a couple of realists who are passionate about pursuing the dream we both had in mind 15 years ago when that beautiful, black-and-white 8x10 photo that now sits on the fireplace mantel in our family room was taken. Thankfully, God has been gracious all along the way, opening our eyes and ultimately our hearts to begin painting a portrait much grander than we ever envisioned.
We are on the journey, committed to the pursuit of the dream God birthed in us when He pushed our paths together. But we’ve realized a few things along the way, and we want to share them with you.
Emptied. The word is simple, and we all understand it. In marriage, emptying ourselves is the key to unlocking what God had in mind to ultimately bring about what He has for you and for us in this most vital relationship.
We are to be emptied. More than that, we are to empty ourselves. But empty ourselves of what? Obviously, we can empty ourselves of only what fills us up. Which begs the question, What are we full of?
- Real joy, real peace, and real happiness are found when we empty ourselves of me. We’ll talk about that, but not simply for the sake of discussion. We have a purpose in mind—emptying ourselves of me as we work on becoming we. So often we come into our marriages with our own agendas, with our own desires. It’s about what I want and what I can get. We make it about our own needs and expectations. But marriage at its best and in the right form rarely has its focus on self. It is other focused. It seems counterintuitive, but real joy, real peace, and real happiness are found when we empty ourselves of me.
In the pages ahead, we’ll share our honest story of being emptied. You’ll learn that some of our emptying was intentional, and some was forced. We’ll share about how we brought a portrait into our marriage that was well intentioned and even God ordained, though living it out was not as automatic as we had hoped. We’ve learned and continue to learn that emptying ourselves is a daily decision. It’s a journey. It’s a way of life.
In the end, your emptiness is primarily where God can fill your marriage with the purpose, passion, and fullness He had in mind from the very beginning—and has in mind as He paints His masterpiece, one stroke at a time.
Hot and Ready
Hot and ready. That’s how I’ve always liked them.
I also prefer them perfectly round, slightly fluffy, and glazed with goodness. I’m talking about my donuts, of course.
I’ve never quite understood those who prefer donuts to be dense, almost cake-like, and I pray earnestly for the handful of souls who don’t enjoy them at all! I believe desserts are my love language, and a nice hot donut is essential to my existence. Okay, so I may be exaggerating slightly, but when my now-husband invited me on an hour-long drive for a hot, sweet, and fluffy donut, I knew he was the one.
I guess you could say he had me at “donuts”! By the end of that first long drive, however, we offered each other a different taste of reality.
Here’s the full story.
Jonathan and I met on our Philadelphia college campus in 2001, days away from entering our fourth year. Unlike most universities, the school we attended operated on a five-year program. We were both considered juniors with one year left to go.
I had just returned from studying abroad. I’d spent the last four months strolling streets in England, Italy, France, and Ireland, and I was convinced that returning to the States was temporary. My mind and heart were set on finishing my undergraduate degree and then returning to London to live. Notice I did not say to work or to study. Neither of those two things were the goal. I just wanted to live freely, touring the cities and working here and there as necessary in small coffee shops along cobblestone roads.
When I met Jonathan, unlike some of my peers, I wasn’t interested in “finding a man.” I liked to have fun, and I wasn’t opposed to a free dinner, but I was self-focused. I’d grown self-sufficient, with little thought put into what a future would look like with anyone permanently by my side.
It wasn’t always that way. When I was younger, I knew I wanted a family. Like most little girls, when I closed my eyes and pictured my future, the overwhelming vision in my head featured a husband, two kids (a boy and a girl, of course), and a dog. I dreamed of having what I didn’t have then—a complete family.
I grew up in a single-parent home and a primarily female-dominated environment. As I grew older, I didn’t ponder the term husband often, if at all. The idea of giving a male companion a consistent space in my life just didn’t cross my mind. And considering the available options on my college campus, it became easy to push any idea of marriage, at least at that point in life, farther and farther into the distance. I figured any pieces I needed for my dream of happily-ever-after to become reality would come after. After what, I wasn’t sure, but it certainly wasn’t on my agenda the evening I met Jonathan.
There is no denying, however, that I was immediately intrigued by Jonathan. Something about this man drew me. It may have been his caramel-colored skin and that beautiful face of his! He was cute—really cute. But there was more.
We met at a house party, of all places, and I distinctly remember sitting in a room full of noisy people and noticing only him. He was funny. He was loud, too, yet despite his efforts to fit in with the other guys from his group, his kindness and good-hearted nature stood out. Thinking back on this night reminds me of the saying “You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy.” I’m being a bit facetious, but I think this explains what my heart was drawn to that evening.
I should stop here to tell you that when Jonathan and I met, neither of us were following the biblical standards set for us in our childhood homes. Sure, Jonathan was in the gospel choir, and I occasionally ventured to a local church or an on-campus service, but neither of us were actively seeking to grow in our personal relationship with Jesus.
Yet I believe it was the very presence of God’s love that attracted my heart to his almost immediately. When I think of the night Jonathan and I met, I can’t help but thank God for His sovereignty. His hand was working out the details of my life and weaving the pieces together to accomplish His perfect will, despite my personal efforts or shortcomings. Jonathan was God’s perfect gift for me, and I didn’t even know it.
For me, it was love at first sight. I laid eyes on Wynter months before she ever noticed me. I have distinct and vivid memories of seeing her on numerous occasions during our third year, the year before we officially met. I would often be leaving my dorm for my first class of the day as she was heading back to her apartment from a class. I’m 100 percent sure she was oblivious to my presence then, because, as she mentioned, the first time she remembers seeing me is at a party a year later. I guess my face wasn’t as memorable as hers.
Wynter’s walk was a mix of poise and purpose. I didn’t know where she was going, but I sure did want to follow. Something about her captivated me, although I had zero confidence to ever approach her. In all honesty, and I joke about this on a routine basis, I didn’t think I had much of a chance with her because she seemed to walk with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. To say it plainly, she looked a bit snooty.
Now, before you go judging me for my prejudgment of my wife, allow me to explain. Wynter is about as introverted as introversion gets. She has always been the most reserved person in the room. Though she’s confident, she’s quiet. And though she’s purposeful, she’s not boastful. All that contributed to her walking by my dorm looking as though she had little concern for what was going on around her. So I let it go. I chalked up my interest in her as a loss without ever building up the gumption to stop her and introduce myself.
Then on that momentous night at a party given by one of my closest friends, we finally met. Ironically, Wynter wasn’t so quiet as we talked and danced. We ended the evening by exchanging phone numbers, and I had every intention of calling.
Continuing with the lack-of-confidence theme, however, I never did. It’s not that I didn’t want to, or that I wasn’t interested. I guess you could say I was nervous, and over time it became easier and easier to push the risk of failure to the background.
But God had a plan, and it was realized through the stalkerlike tendencies of a quiet yet confident girl. Yep, you heard it right. Wynter was a stalker! Thankfully, that habit didn’t last long, but God gave her just enough stalking ability to learn that we each had a class in the same building at the same time. She came early to class, which I soon realized wasn’t typical for her, just so we would cross paths. She intentionally ran smack-dab into me, saying, “Hello,” and waiting for my response. For days, I would say, “Hey, how are you?” and walk by, showing little interest in her. I crack up as I think about it now, and we’ve laughed together about it, but my confidence level was still zero.
Thankfully, Wynter’s wasn’t. One day she caught me off guard. She gave me her normal “Hello,” and I played it cool with a casual reply. But instead of letting me walk away, this time she somewhat abrasively and confidently asked, “Why haven’t you called me yet?”
Dumbfounded, I simply replied, “I don’t know. I’ll call you soon.”
Jonathan’s rendition of our first introductions still makes me chuckle. Although his words are true, I feel the need to add a few details from my vantage point, starting with the fact that I wasn’t a stalker.
Okay, maybe I was.
Please keep in mind, however, that we met long before the days of social media, so I had to track him down the old-fashioned way. I asked a friend for his schedule and strategically placed myself in his path—daily!
I did this because I knew Jonathan was, at the very least, intrigued by me as well. A few days after we exchanged phone numbers, a friend asked me about him. I told her he hadn’t called yet, and she was just as baffled as I was. She said, “That’s so weird, because I know he really liked you.” A mutual friend of mine and Jonathan’s had told her that, so I knew it had to be true.
Her words gave me the confidence I needed to get to the bottom of what was going on with him. Although we had spent only a few hours together, I knew almost immediately that something special was happening between us, and I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t responding. With this knowledge in my arsenal, I developed a plan for forward progress.,p>He finally seized the opportunity and called. We chatted for a bit about our families, our class schedules, and common campus life before the conversation lent itself to an invitation for the first of what would become our forever dates.
We went to see the movie Monsters, Inc. Nothing else we wanted to see was playing, but seeing it allowed us time to work through our nerves. Jonathan was so nervous that, when he dropped me off at my apartment afterward, he drove off before I could even get my keys out of my purse to unlock my door. In West Philadelphia. In the dark. Late at night. Not good.
It must not have taken Jonathan long to realize dessert was my sweet spot, because when he found out about a grand opening for a store in my favorite donut shop chain an hour away, he invited me to go there with him.
Back to hot and ready.
So thoughtful, right? He was a keeper, and I knew it.
This was early in our friendship, so we were still enamored with every gesture, smile, and word shared. Our conversations were effortless and flowed nicely. I genuinely enjoyed being in his presence. If I’m honest, however, I have to say I was equally excited about our destination. I really wanted donuts, and I wanted that big red “Hot and Ready” sign to be on.
As we pulled into the small, empty parking lot, we were greeted by the words “Hot and Ready,” and both Jonathan and I silently cheered. This was going to work out perfectly. We bounced out of his red 1989 Toyota Corolla and casually strolled into the donut shop. We each ordered a few donuts, and when asked if they were “for here or to go,” we chose “for here,” but I added that I would like a half-dozen donuts to go. This box will be for breakfast, I thought to myself. I was being a responsible adult and thinking ahead. Jonathan laughed.
I don’t remember how long we stayed, but I am sure I savored every moment, bite, and crumb. As we left, Jonathan carried my extra half-dozen donuts to the car. This is where things get a little fuzzy. Somewhere between our last bite and flirtatious smile inside the donut shop and arriving at my apartment, something terrible happened.
Jonathan decided he needed another donut.
He also decided he didn’t need to buy one somewhere, because after all, I had six extra donuts. What he didn’t know was that I had a well-thought-out plan for each one of them.
This, my friends, is what led to our first full-fledged argument. We didn’t know it then, but we were fighting over something way bigger than donuts.
I guess you could say I won. He left hungry and free of the extra sugar he so angrily wanted. And though at the time I felt entitled, I would soon realize that getting my way didn’t feel quite as filling as I would have liked.
Yes, I was selfish; I intended to eat every single morsel of those donuts myself. More important, however, was that we got a peek into our very souls. For a moment, I could see the real Jonathan, and he could see the real me, both of us imperfect, set in our ways, and feeling entitled.
Mistakes, history, expectations—these are three realities we all bring into our marriage relationship that can quickly crush our dreams. Everything about our evening had been great, but then these three realities came rushing in, quickly invading our relationship with toxicity.
This incident alone was not enough for too much pause. I accepted him, and he accepted me. We moved past the donuts and quickly into our futures from there. We accepted these realities without addressing their roots, in an attempt to make ourselves a new reality.
I still can’t believe the strength Wynter had to deny me one of her “to go” donuts. It was a shock. As I grew up with a twin brother, nothing was ever “mine.” Everything was shared. Obviously, this incident wasn’t enough to stop me from pursuing her, however, because only a few months later, I proposed.
At that point in our relationship, she could do nothing wrong. She came into my life faster than anything I could have ever imagined. She was a godsend for sure. We had many more moments like we had in the donut story early and often in our dating and engagement life, and well into marriage, but we idealized our future together, somehow creating room for hope. It would have been difficult to imagine that our marriage could ever be on a rocky path.
Yet I found my face flat in the rocks right after the wedding. It was the week I had been living for—our honeymoon. Our dating life had been only eight months long, but our engagement had lasted a full year, and it had been full of raging hormones and strong emotions. We were married two weeks after our college graduation, and I was ready to start my life. I was ready to grow up. I was confident that our honeymoon would be the embodiment of everything I thought our marriage and future would become.
We faced many challenges throughout our engagement, some that we’ll reference in the pages ahead, but I had little worry about our future. I had a great deal of confidence in my ability to make it work, to teach Wynter everything I knew about marriage and show her how it was done.
I thought I was ready. My parents’ marriage had been a great example for me. I knew Scripture, and I had learned all about marriage in church and youth group. I had sung four years in our college’s gospel choir. I was an Eagle Scout, and I had served most of our college years in our college’s Army ROTC program. I was the walking, talking, Boy Scout motto—“Be Prepared.”
That is, until I wasn’t. You see, I was the epitome of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 23:27:
- Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.
Jesus was describing a group of men who looked good from the outside. They observed the law, and they wanted to make sure you knew it. Their faith was all about looking the part. They fasted and kept all the laws that would make people think they were pure, but inside they were greedy. They were selfish. They were hypocrites!
I was living the life of a hypocrite in many ways. This may sound harsh, but it’s true. I kept my outer self nice and shiny. Just like whitewashed tombs in a cemetery, I looked “beautiful.” I had the uncanny ability to make you think nothing but rosy thoughts, all the while harboring decay. I had impure thoughts and impure motives, and I took impure actions. But I covered it all up with accomplishment, success, and a “good guy” reputation.
Thank God Jesus died for hypocrites! The scariest thing about my hypocrisy wasn’t that I was living a lie. After all, God forgives liars. The scariest thing was that my hypocrisy was allowing me to build up a false sense of security and worth. I put myself on a pedestal in my own eyes, which also allowed the expectation that God “owed” me in marriage. It went something like this in my mind:
I’ve been a morally good person. I’ve followed Jesus as best I can. Sure, I’ve made a few mistakes, but after asking for forgiveness, I’ve made up for them with more work. More accomplishment. God owes it to me to bless my life in marriage.
For years, I would build up two tabs. The first was what God owed me, and of course, God owed me the perfect marriage. The second was what my future wife would owe me. I thought, Because I’ve been so perfect, she’ll be honored to cater to my every need.
Of course, I didn’t vocalize these thoughts; a big part of me was blind to this reality. And now I can’t help but laugh at my 23-year-old, naïve self who thought much more about himself than he thought about the woman God would give him, even in his ignorance and self-centeredness. I was about to experience one of the great shocks of my life!
We honeymooned in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on the west coast below the Baja Peninsula. Wynter’s aunt and uncle, a young couple who mentored us in our dating and engaged days, gifted us this honeymoon at their beautiful time-share property. It was scenic. Picturesque. It was the perfect place for me to experience what I thought had been accruing for me, what was stored up in my mental marriage “IOU” box. I was ready to collect, and I just knew I was in for the week of my life.
Well, I was. It was just different from what I’d been expecting.
It turned out Wynter was just as much into the intimacy of conversation and mental rest as she was into any physical act. It took me many years to figure this out, but the combination of communication and rest (intimacy and a clear mind) leads to the latter. In my selfishness and immaturity, I had completely missed this lesson.
We had an amazing honeymoon. We rode horses through the mountains and zip lined through the forests. We swam and we sunbathed. But in addition to all that fun, that first week of marriage was a shocking reality check. I realized my marriage wasn’t as much about me as I had thought.
And as if that shock weren’t enough, I soon realized that thinking marriage would be mostly about me was only the first of multiple expectancies I had created in my mind. Every single one of them was the outcome of stored-up sin, false beliefs, and selfish expectations that shaped the early part of my marriage and led to so many disappointments, many of which I could have avoided through conversation.
I had brought these beliefs into marriage from a variety of mental gardens. You don’t think about these gardens until you realize the rotten fruit they produce. From television, to my peer groups, to my role models, to my observations in life, I had filled my mind and heart with non-negotiable standards that are unobtainable and unreasonable for any spouse to meet.
This was week one, and that’s all it took for me to realize that my growth as a husband and man would be impossible short of a miracle. That marriage wasn’t about only me was the first and most eye-opening expectation crusher, but others were so serious and engrained that to this day they are difficult to overcome.
We have many similarities in our backgrounds. We both grew up in Christian homes. We both committed our lives to Jesus Christ at a young age. We both attended charismatic churches. We both enjoyed Brian McKnight, enough to go to a concert together a few months into dating. In those days I mostly focused on our similarities, paying little attention to our differences. I assumed my personality was strong enough to win her over to my side in any area of life where we differed. Because Wynter is a woman of few words, I didn’t realize she had the same aspirations.
Boy, was I wrong, and so was she. We soon found our differences were quite different. I had little desire to become more like Wynter, and she had little desire to become more like me. Our perspective on donut availability was just the beginning of the challenges we would face, giving us a sneak peek into the life God was calling us into when we would finally say “I do.” My stomach stayed empty after that argument about the donut, but little did I know how much further I would have to go in marriage.
Years later, we’re still joking about those donuts, and every time we see that “Hot and Ready” sign, we’re reminded of the beginning of our journey. It remains one of our favorite date nights! The story is hilarious, and if we were sitting face-to-face, you might have a similar story to tell.
Like us, you likely began your journey with rose-colored glasses that minimized your differences. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for us, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for you. Those glasses seem like common shades God gives each of us, allowing us to continue to put one foot in front of the other on our way to the aisle. Can you imagine how many of us would follow through with marriage if we knew everything about each other from the beginning? Don’t get us wrong; we do believe that we should seek to know and understand each other as much as possible prior to marriage. Premarital counseling can help couples work through some of the factors that can affect their marriage. We went through premarital counseling with our pastor and it did help us begin to understand the differences we were bringing to the table. But what if we knew all our future spouse’s quirks, sins, and mistakes? What if we knew their entire history and all that they were bringing to the table hidden somewhere below the surface during our dating and engagement seasons? What if we could read all the expectations we had like a checklist? This would be quite paralyzing.
We thank God that He allowed us to see each other and our future through a set of rose-colored glasses. It’s the only way He would get us into the same garden and ready for His pruning process. The pruning would begin early, and it continues, though the picture is much clearer and beautiful with each passing moment.
How did God’s sovereign hand push your path together with your spouse’s path? How has God orchestrated your story, and in what ways do you need to memorialize those God moments to recommit yourself to the journey?
Father, from the very beginning of our days together, I’ve seen Your supreme hand at work. Even as I have focused on me, you have seen a we, and Your hand has continued to push me away from my own agenda and closer to Yours. Lord, I am in desperate need of Your help, because on my own, I continually get in the way of what You’re doing. Help me focus on the fact that what You have started, You will continue, and that what I cannot accomplish on my own is Your specialty. Be gentle with me as You empty me of anything and everything that keeps me from pursuing the we You have in mind. In Jesus’s name, amen.
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