A Word from Your BCC Team: You’re reading the second of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog miniseries on Biblical Counseling and Marriage. In today’s post, Li Beach shares biblical wisdom regarding decision making concerning marriage and ministry. You can read Part 1 by Robert Cheong at What Principles Guide My First Meeting with a Couple in Marital Crisis?
The Call to Ministry
I came to know the Lord a year after college through the faithful preaching of God’s Word. Shortly thereafter, the Lord instilled and grew in me a desire to go overseas to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who had not yet heard. At the same time, I desired to be married and hoped that God would bring a husband and we could go overseas together.
As the years came and went, no husband appeared.
Eventually, I went overseas as a single woman. I still desired to be married, but I had to entrust my hopes and dreams to the Lord. If marriage were in God’s plans for me, He could easily bring the right person along, despite being half-way across the globe and serving in a place where meeting a potential spouse was very unlikely. After being overseas for a year-and-a-half and fully loving being used to share the gospel with many who had never heard, I returned to the States for a three-month sabbatical, during which time I hoped to equip myself to go back to the field for the indefinite future.
But, God surprised me.
He brought a man into my life who began pursuing me. He seemed like a good guy, but there was just one problem—he was not anywhere close to packing his bags and moving overseas with me. So, I faced a dilemma: how should I respond to his interest in me given our divergent desires for the future?
The Call to Marriage
I am writing this article to those of you who may be facing a similar dilemma. Just as the Lord helped me, so also I hope to help you. But I want to make a few things clear upfront. First, I am not writing to address whether one should go overseas as a single woman. Second, I am not writing to address one’s calling to missions or to marriage in the abstract. Third, given that there are no identical situations, there is no cookie cutter solution. Fourth, I am specifically writing to those of you who are torn between desiring to go overseas and considering the prospect of or already in a dating relationship. As I reflected on the many conversations with friends who have offered me counsel or who are having similar considerations, I want to propose that the decision to date and eventually to marry a particular man should not hinge on a shared mission focus or the lack thereof but rather on whether you can follow him as he follows God.
The call to marriage is a call to follow someone, not a vocation. It is astronomically more important to marry someone who seeks to follow God so that you can follow Him together. What if you made it a condition of dating that he be willing to be a missionary? What if you insisted that in order to date you he needs to be willing to move to a certain region of the world or participate in a certain type of ministry? Insisting that he becomes a missionary presupposes that your plan is God’s will for the two of you. It is building your life around a place and not around God Himself. A vocation may change and any current ministry opportunities may come to an end, but marriage lasts a lifetime. Despite the changing seasons and shifting sceneries, its end to give glory to God should remain the same. Let Christ alone be the foundation of marriage and trust that He will establish ministry opportunities for a couple in the many years they will have together.
All this may sound easy enough on a conceptual level, but I have found that there are some common pitfalls that can secretly creep into our thoughts, even without us consciously acknowledging it. There are many potential challenges that might complicate our decision making.
5 Common Pitfalls
Allow me to share a few common pitfalls I’ve come across, whether rising from within my own heart or those of fellow strugglers.
Having the Martyr Mentality
Going overseas for the sake of the gospel should be highly honored. However, I wonder if sometimes we might be over-elevating it to the “highest calling.” I wonder if we think we might get more approval from God if we were overseas serving in a difficult place than if we were working faithfully at our job and serving our family and local church.
I remember feeling as if I was being “selfish” if I chose getting married over going overseas. Marriage only affects me and going overseas affects so many people who have not heard the gospel. Was I being “selfish” or was I being prideful? It is humbling to think that ultimately, we are not indispensable. God is able to raise up messengers as He wills.
Pitting Missions Against Marriage and Seeing Missions as the Higher Calling
Whether to get married to a specific man is a totally separate question from whether to be a missionary in a given place. Yet, we often hear the two pitted against each other. In evaluating whether to get married or even whether to date a specific man, you should not be asking “is it him or going overseas?” but rather “is it him or is it not him?”
On the same token, may I advise that if you are going to say “no” because of some character or compatibility issue, don’t use missions as the excuse. Marriage and missions have two very different time frames. When we get married, we are committing to a lifetime of faithfulness to our spouse whereas when we commit to going overseas, we are committed to serve for as long as the Lord would have us—understanding that our time there might end due to changing circumstances (i.e. health, war, need, etc.). If the Lord is calling you overseas, it may be for a season, it may be for a lifetime—you won’t know how long until each day arises.
Marriage is a high calling—the Bible tells us that it pictures Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Have you ever considered what a great responsibility it is to let your marital relationship be a demonstration of the gospel? Consider also, singleness and a lifetime of celibacy is a wonderful gift that God gives (1 Corinthians 7). If you choose to forego marriage and be a single missionary, that too can be a wonderful calling. Which one will you choose?
Finding Identity in Being a Missionary
I know that for me, I want to do good work and to be valued for what I do. Whether I was working at a research lab, a school, or a law firm, I found value in my work, especially with the praises of colleagues in producing very tangible products. Being a missionary also became a position in which others attributed value to me. Whereas the previous vocations were more secular in nature, being a missionary seemed to have an added temptation to be the source of my identity due to its spiritual nature. I wasn’t just working, but working for God. I was advancing the kingdom of God by bringing the gospel to those who had never heard it before. In an email to a pastor friend who was trying to help me sort through my thoughts, I wrote:
“I do honestly enjoy the work…So, I was actually really sad to think that I had to choose between two things that I really wanted. Somewhere in there, I was also finding ‘worth’ in work (good work, nonetheless) and not wanting to give that up.”
I wonder if you may be facing a similar danger in that you are finding your identity in a vocation, even in being a missionary, overshadowing your identity in Christ. And in that regard, are you using this same standard of measurement to assess the man you are considering to potentially date and marry?
A Guy’s Inauthentic Conversion
Another danger of deciding whether to date or marry a man based on whether or not he wants to go overseas (or any other ministry you have in mind) is that the man might decide to be a missionary in order to win a woman’s affections. Here, the man is following the woman and not the other way around. Why is that bad? Unless the Lord is the one who calls the man to overseas work, there might come a day when he is going to regret it and that will be cause for a lot of conflict in the marriage. If he “converts” to being a missionary so that your relationship will work out, how certain are you that this “conversion” will last?
The Guy Changes His Mind
What if the guy planned to be a missionary, but at some point during dating or marriage, he changed his mind? What would that do to you? If you are more committed to following him than to going to a particular place in the world, then his change of mind might be hard, but it won’t be the end of the world. But if you are more committed to being a missionary than to being with him, then it might be time to break up. Again, date and marry a man for the man, not for what he is going to do with his life. And be willing to follow him wherever the Lord might lead him, whether in the US or overseas.
3 Challenges to the Decision-Making Process
Having looked at the pitfalls, let’s consider three challenges to the decision-making process.
Dating by Vocational Calling
If you have already been serving overseas or want to serve overseas, I know it is very tempting to make that a “requirement” when considering whether or not to date someone. On the surface, it sounds noble and wise, but I wonder if using that as a gauge is adding an unnecessary, if not unwise, requirement. Missionaries do not necessarily make good husbands—some do, but there are also sadly many stories of failed marriages on the field. Missionaries are not “better” Christians.
I wonder if using vocational calling as one of the preliminary evaluation criteria is causing you to miss out on getting to know someone whose life has been transformed by the grace of God and who could potentially be a wonderful godly husband?
And as mentioned before, vocations can change. Dating on the basis of vocational calling presumes that we know what God has in store for the future. If it is the vocational calling that is holding a marriage together, will it vanish as the vocation vanishes? Underneath that mutual calling to the mission field needs to be a fundamental commitment to each other regardless of where the Lord leads them. If one spouse can no longer stay on the field, will the other spouse grow bitter?
Feeling Like a Sellout to Leave the Field
In that same email I referenced above, I wrote:
“I was wrestling with what seems like God making me choose between [missions and marriage] and I felt torn. Part of the reason is that because I’ve gone through the ‘letting go of marriage’ to go overseas phase, it almost felt shameful to go back. I know that is not true and that marriage is a good thing to desire and pursue. I guess my prideful heart didn’t want to be ‘that girl’ that left the field because of a guy.”
For me, leaving the field also meant disappointing my friends and wearing a scarlet letter of shame. I saw being overseas as an honorable thing and participating in a noble task. But my response clearly showed that I had also developed some unhealthy biases, and even wrong judgments on others who had left the field. If being a missionary were the ultimate calling in serving God, then anything else would be second at best. No surprise, I felt ashamed to give it up.
Dragging out the “Missions or Marriage” Decision
With all that said, it may be that the Lord is calling you overseas and that you desire that more than marriage itself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The warning/exhortation I want to give you is to settle that early. Break-ups are never fun. But early break-ups are a lot better than those that are dragged out. It is also unfair for the guy you are dating if you are set on going overseas.
The End of My Story
I hope pointing out some of these potential pitfalls and challenges has helped you in examining your heart. This article is not meant to guilt you into saying “yes” to potentially dating or marrying a man who has been pursuing you. There are a bunch of reasons why you could say “no.” Just keep in mind, if you desire to pursue marriage, your decision should be based more on this man’s character than on his vocation and willingness to go overseas.
So what happened to me?
After wrestling with the idea of dating this man, even though he was not prepared to go overseas, and yet seeing many commendable qualities in him, I decided to give it a shot. To my surprise, after a few months of dating in the US and then continuing the relationship long-distance, we got engaged and married shortly thereafter. He moved overseas for a little bit to allow me to wrap up what I was doing on the field, and we moved back to the States where I am a full-time housewife and serve at our local church (talk about struggling to not use a worldly perspective to assess the value of what I do). After our return to the States, the Lord has brought along many people from the country I served in that we can minister to with the gospel. My husband’s time overseas has fostered in him a greater burden to serve there in the future. We have no idea what the Lord has in store for us in the future, but we are content to follow Him together as He leads us. What a joy it is to follow God together as a single unit!