Next week I turn 25. As I mark this milestone in my life, I can't help but notice the ways my life is different from how I imagined it would be at 16, 18, even 22. I thought by now I would have my career and finances figured out, that I'd feel more at home in the "real" world, that I would have a more definite sense of home. Most strikingly different: I thought I'd be married.
Of course, I never would have admitted to such a strict deadline on a serious commitment like marriage. But in my ideal life plan, I had long ago penciled it in at 25, nestled comfortably between "finish college" (age 22) and "have kids" (sometime before or around 30). It sounds a bit silly when I write it down, but don't we all have these kinds of "plans" for our lives that don't quite end up happening as we always imagined they would? It was so easy, so comforting, to look ahead in high school and college, when 25 still seemed so far away. But then, gradually, my hopes about what life might be became expectations I'd unintentionally placed upon myself—expectations I now realize I've failed to meet. So quickly—too quickly, it selfishly feels—my college friends and roommates started dating, then getting engaged, and after three whirlwind years of bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and bridesmaid dress fittings I suddenly find myself single and surrounded by married friends, unsure of where I fit in to my rapidly fragmenting social circle.
Where once it was easy (or at least easier) to balance work, ministry, and social life, I find myself increasingly worried that one of the three must suffer at the hands of the other. Since my paycheck demands that devoting less time to work is not optional, I find myself balancing ministry in one hand and my social life in the other, wondering which will drop first.
I recently expressed my concerns with a close married friend. My work with the church's junior high youth group is time-consuming, at times physically and emotionally exhausting, and a calling about which I'm growing increasingly passionate. But with so little free time to find and pursue new relationships, let alone maintain the ones I already have, I have trouble discerning where and how to spend my time. Ministry is important, but so are my non-junior-high relationships. Is it enough simply to throw myself into ministry and trust that God will make things happen in his time? Or is pursuing relationships, romantic, and otherwise, an equally worthy and God-honoring investment of my time? How can I balance the two without losing myself in either one?
My friend told me a story of a man she spoke to when she worked a job calling our college's alumni to ask for donations. This man told her she should not date anyone in college. "Not that there's anything wrong with dating," he said. "But at this point in your life, you just need to love people. If you're focused on loving the people around you, that's the most important thing, and if something is going to happen, it will happen."
What simple, beautiful wisdom! When I heard her recounting of the story, the superficial barriers I'd placed on the "competing" commitments in my life melted away to reveal God's singular purpose that unifies, or should unify, every aspect of my life. Pursuing that purpose in this moment, I realized, isn't about finding a husband, nor is it about throwing myself into a specific ministry. The motivation behind every aspect of my life needs to be glorifying God. I can do this by loving everyone God has placed in my life in the way he loves them. All too often, I realized, I commodify people and relationships based on what they offer me or what role I think they can fill in my life. When I'm tired and allow myself to operate this way, I see relationships as commitments rather than opportunities to demonstrate Christ's love and to receive it in return.
So as I'm getting ready to celebrate 25 years of life and look ahead at what is to come, I'm making it my goal to release myself from the expectations I've allowed to creep in. God offers freedom from these self-imposed categories we allow to define us and the ways we organize our social and ministry lives by offering his love freely to us and allowing us to share it with others through relationships. And whatever happens from there—I can know that it will have started with a solid foundation in the type of love that matters most.