We thought we were going to a nice, quiet conference for church lay leaders. We would drive a few hours, sit through a few sermons and workshops, sing some songs, and come home. Little did we know that one concept presented at that conference would change our marriage forever.
Before the conference, we were a nice Christian couple. We knew God had brought us together. We went to church together. We often prayed together.
But we also felt a little aimless. We had fallen into daily routines not much different from those of our non-Christian neighbors: commuting to work, driving kids to school, watching videos. Sure, we helped at church, but were we making any difference in our world?
The conference speaker pegged us when he said, "Most believers just want to be happy. They would also like to have friends and enough money, and then if God is pleased with them, that would be great, too."
We didn't see anything wrong with that. But then he said, "The problem with these subtle, unvoiced life visions that most believers have is that they are destructive lies. Jesus said clearly that if you seek your own happiness, you will never find it. As soon as you make happiness and security your goals, you make them impossible to attain."
Ouch! Could it be that we active churchgoers and Bible readers had, without realizing it, been living mostly for ourselves? That night over milkshakes we had one of the most honest conversations of our marriage.
"I may look like a Christian on the outside," I said to Karen, "but down in my fundamental goals and drives, I'm not much different from anybody else. I think my major goal has been to move to a bigger house."
"I know exactly how you feel," Karen said. "My life vision has been to have children and to live in a big house in the country."
We felt awed, scared, and excited all at once. We sensed that an ugly, long-standing wall in our hearts had been exposed. And now it was falling.
"What if," I asked, "we got rid of these old life visions and replaced them with a new one built on God?"
Beginning the Search
If God had brought us together—and we believed he had—he must have had some reason for doing so. So we decided to begin building our new life vision by composing a short, clear statement of who we were and why God had brought us together.
Looking for help, Karen and I turned to the Bible and searched Genesis for the purposes God designed for marriage. Marriage was created to give people companionship: "It is not good for the man to be alone," we read in Gen. 2:18 (NLT). It was created as a place for bearing and raising children: "Be fruitful and multiply" (1:28, NASB). Most people of any religious or nonreligious persuasion would agree on those two goals.
But we came to see that Genesis assigns a third meaning to marriage: joint, fulfilling service. God tells Adam and Eve, "I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals" (Gen. 1:28, TEV) and places them in the Garden of Eden "to cultivate it and guard it" (2:15, TEV). It's as if God said, "Take care of this, you two. It's a big job; and you'll need each other."
God has planted a hunger deep within every Christian couple. It's more than the hunger for companionship. It's more than the hunger to create new life. It's a hunger to do something significant together.
Putting It to the Test
With Genesis and our longings to guide us, we began to write a life vision for our marriage. We started with our individual gifts and interests and wrote this:
Our mission is:
- To model a Christ-centered marriage and family in a world that's torn apart.
- To help each other express and blend our God-given gifts: counseling and healing the hurting, teaching people how to live the Christian life, helping, and giving.
- To serve Christ, his church, and other people more fully than we could alone.
We soon found that what we had written was guiding our decisions. For example, our small church always had three or four jobs crying to be done. In the past, we had sometimes taken on too much. This time, however, our new marriage mission made our decision easy. We decided to lead a small group: I would teach; Karen would talk with the group members and pray for them. It fit what we felt God wanted us to do.
Then we came to a strategic decision, a fork in the road. Should Karen go to graduate school? Whatever we decided would change the course of our married life. The stakes were high: three to four years of classes, many in the evening. Karen would be driving a long distance each way. I'd be watching the kids more, and we'd all feel extra stress. If those weren't enough, the financial burden was more than $20,000.
"If you go to school," I said, "it's going to be tight financially. We'll need loans. We'll be staying in this house."
Stymied by the decision, we reviewed our marriage mission.
"Your dream is to counsel and heal the hurting," I reminded Karen. "If you're going to do that fully, you'll need the degree."
"And if you do more writing, which is part of the teaching you want to do," Karen said, "that can help pay tuition."
"Who cares if we don't have a bigger house?" I said. "That's not the most important thing to us anymore." We looked at each other and almost laughed. Something radical had happened to us. We were starting to act as if the most important thing in our lives was serving Christ together.
A Time to Tweak
A few years later, we decided to revise our marriage mission. Points 1 and 3 were things any Christian couple should write. Though important, they weren't specific enough to explain why God had brought us together. We wanted something sharper, clearer.
We also wanted to shorten our marriage mission so we didn't have to look it up. We wanted it short enough to remember and say. We also wanted to put more emphasis on our joint calling, not just our individual ones.
We were struck by Frederick Buechner's saying that vocation is "where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." Our mission statement didn't specify which deep needs of the world we wanted to soothe. So we wrote this:
- To help married couples.
- To help church leaders.
- To help the poor.
This short marriage mission doesn't say everything about us. But it does guide us, for instance, in our giving. Each month, in addition to writing a check to our church, we give to a family agency that helps marriages, two church leaders we respect, and a group that creates jobs for the poor. We occasionally give to causes not mentioned in our marriage mission, but the weight of our giving is thrown into these purposes. That makes deciding where to give easier, and with focused giving we can make a greater impact.
For a writing project, we asked sixteen Christian couples, "Do you believe God brought you together?"
All sixteen told us, "Yes, we do."
Then we asked, "Why do you think God may have brought you together?"
There were long pauses.
Some Christian couples focus on raising children. Kids are an exquisite, priceless gift from God, and raising them is one of God's primary purposes for marriage.
But what if a couple is not able to bear children? Even if a couple does bear children or adopt, the child-rearing period of life comes to an end. Our marriage will last longer than the years our nest is full.
Some couples share the goal of getting ahead—succeeding in careers, getting out of debt, finally getting that dream house. Those shared dreams can indeed bring a couple together, but once they are achieved—or never achieved—what's left?
An On-Purpose Couple
God doesn't want us to be driven or haphazard but purposeful. Long before business texts praised the power of a corporate mission, the Bible illustrated couples living one.
Consider the case of Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18. Roman emperor Claudius expelled every Jew from Rome. Aquila and Priscilla, as Jewish Christians, were forced to flee the city they called home. Had their life vision been to settle in one place or to live comfortably on their business income, this sudden dislocation would have immobilized them.
But apparently they held a higher life vision: teaching together and opening their home to Christian leaders. During the day, they continued their tent-manufacturing business. And when the Apostle Paul needed a place to stay—for a year and a half—they took him in. When a gifted young teacher named Apollos needed further instruction in sound doctrine, they invited him into their home and helped him.
If Your Callings Don't Click
Given the uniqueness of every individual, trying to define a marriage mission can lead to a few glitches. Here are two questions couples ask most frequently as they walk through this process.
What if your gifts and calling are quite different from your spouse's? Should you try to meld them or just support each other in separate ministries?
One couple told us, "We have absolutely nothing in common. The only thing we like to do together is to go out to eat."
We suggested, "Then the next time you go out to eat, invite someone who needs encouragement. Or invite a non-Christian couple and agree that if God comes up in the conversation, you won't duck talking about your faith." They liked the idea.
Each marriage needs a balance of "his," "hers," and "theirs." While a marriage mission emphasizes "theirs," it's fine to include elements of "his" and "hers" that you jointly recognize and support.
And don't forget that when you support your spouse in her ministry—by praying for her or by watching the kids while she's gone—you turn an individual ministry into a joint one.
What if your spouse doesn't support your calling?
That's painful. Each situation is different, but here are principles that couples have found helpful.
- Don't assume your spouse's lower level of interest is because he or she is spiritually immature. When you love to give money to the poor and your spouse doesn't, it's easy to think, I wish he would just trust God and not be so selfish. Often, though, God simply hasn't bestowed on your spouse as much passion for giving (or praying, etc.) as he has given you.
One wife loves to invite guests over, but her husband doesn't. "I used to see that as moral failure in him," she says. "But over time, I've begun to realize he just needs quiet and order. That's normal."
Her new attitude has motivated her husband to meet her halfway. He says, "Now, when she wants to invite four couples for lunch, rather than just kill the idea, I suggest, 'How about two couples instead?'"
- Ask your spouse to join you. Because we know our spouses so well, we think we know when they wouldn't possibly be interested. We may drop a few "obvious" hints, but surprisingly, we don't often ask them directly.
- Let your spouse hear about the need or idea from someone else—not just from you. Have you ever thought, My husband doesn't seem to listen when I say something, but if somebody else says the exact same thing he thinks it's a great idea? This curious phenomenon can work for you. One woman's husband wasn't interested in teaching Sunday school with her. Then one night when she was going to a teachers' meeting, he decided to go with her to see what she was doing. The result? He says, "I found out you really need two people to handle a class of small kids. That motivated me to help."
- Find ways your spouse can contribute. When Karen and I worked with a youth group, Karen didn't want to lead relays involving bananas and shaving cream. She didn't like standing in front of sixteen-year-olds and talking about peer pressure, nor did she enjoy driving a van filled with teenagers.
But there were things she did enjoy. When we found those, leading the youth group went better for both of us. For example, Karen liked our "youth board" meetings. This small group included the most mature kids, and Karen planned each meeting and took minutes. Kids got to know her, and when they had a problem they usually went to her, not me. Fairly often, late at night, the phone would ring, and Karen would help a young woman navigate adolescence with her faith intact.
We believe every Christian marriage benefits from a mission, one that works in all situations, no matter how rich or poor you are or whether you have ten children or none. Strive to experience what Carl and Martha Nelson describe: "There is probably no higher level of human sharing than that between a man and a woman, united in love and marriage, working on an assignment that's been handed to them by God."
Kevin Miller is Associate Rector at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois, where Karen Miller serves as Executive Pastor.
How to Discover Your Marriage Mission
Every couple will discover their mission differently, but the essential actions are the same: pray, dream, talk, and write. We suggest you complete the following exercise. Then set up a night to talk about it.
- What are my God-given abilities? What are my spouse's?
if you're not sure, ask yourself these questions:
- What abilities do I find so natural that I don't even think of them as a gift?
- In what areas can I make a mistake, and instead of wanting to quit, I want to do more?
- What needs do I notice that others don't?
- What things can I do for a long time without tiring?
- In what areas does it bother me when someone does a task poorly?
- What abilities have others observed in me?
- What significant experiences has God used to shape me?
- What kinds of people do I care about and like to work with? What kinds of people does my spouse care about and like to work with?
- What kinds of things (computers, plants, animals, food, books, buildings) do I care about and like to work with? What about my spouse?
- What are some ways we've accomplished something together?
(e.g. planned a wedding, helped a friend move, sang on the worship team)
- As I've thought and prayed and read the Bible, what do I sense God might be saying to us?
Try to write a short, clear statement of who you are and how you'd like to serve God together. Don't worry about polishing your thoughts now. Just record your initial ideas.
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