Today’s question comes to us from “a slightly confused sister in the Lord.” “Hello, Pastor John! I was wondering if you could help me think through two questions. First, I have a deep burden and desire for missions as a calling. This is true of me and brings me a lot of joy! However, it also brings confusion — especially in dating. I feel guilty in fostering relationships with wonderful men who don’t share my calling. Would I be in sin if I married a godly man who didn’t share my calling to missions? Second, while I feel inspired to spread the gospel to unreached people, I don’t feel called to minister in remote places. I am much more drawn to international cities. I wonder if this helps alleviate the first question. In APJ 1422 you said, ‘Marriage is not fundamentally the linking of arms in the pursuit of an agreed-upon vocation.’ You seem to have a less restrictive view on calling. What thoughts can you offer to me as a woman, who does not have the gift of singleness, to think through missions and marriage?”
Last night as I was thinking about this question, I asked my wise wife if she had any thoughts about it. And I suppose it’s because we’ve shared life for 52 years that the first thing she said was the first thing that was coming to my mind as well. She said, “I suppose it hangs a lot on the seriousness and confidence about her calling to mission.” Because our young friend said, “I have a deep burden and desire for missions as a calling.” And I think Noël and I would say, “That’s serious. Are you right about that?” And she also said, “I feel guilty in fostering relationships with wonderful men who don’t share my calling.”
Consider Your Calling
So, Noël’s first thought and my first thought was that, however our young friend conceives of her calling, or however she arrived at a sense of this calling, we don’t want her to act against her conscience. We don’t want her to sense a deep burden and desire, and even leading from God, only to forsake that burden and desire and leading for the sake of a marriage relationship. It’s always dangerous to act against your conscience, even if your conscience is not infallible as a guide for God’s will.
“God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible.”
Now, it’s true that the Bible portrays marriage as a good and beautiful and even normative pattern for men and women in this world that God created. The Bible begins, at the very beginning of Genesis, by creating — God creating human beings as male and female — and saying that it’s not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). In other words, marriage is the normal way that God has planned for the human race to fill the earth for his glory, and a man-woman relationship is the normal and good and beautiful way that God aims for the human soul to experience the kind of togetherness that we all long for.
But! — and I put a big exclamation point after this but. But! — with the fall of the world into sin and the disruption of the normal course of created life and the horrible lostness of the human race and the urgency of rescuing people from eternal destruction, with the inbreaking of the age to come with Jesus Christ, an age that will have no marriage and no giving in marriage, Jesus said (Matthew 22:30) — with all of that — it would be wrong for me to say that marriage is a mandate from God for all his children, because the inbreaking, the breaking in, of the kingdom, may in fact call for a self-denial even of marriage and children for the sake of more pressing kingdom purposes. This was certainly true for Jesus, and it was true for Paul: neither of them married. Paul blessed marriage, but he also exalted singleness for the sake of the kingdom.
So, all of that to say that our friend who asked this question has more than one door opened to her in the Bible. Both doors, the one leading to the path of marriage for the glory of Christ, and the other leading to the path of singleness for the glory of Christ, are both biblically legitimate and can yield a beautiful and fruitful Christ-exalting life.
God Is Never Boxed In
I think if I were having a personal, face-to-face conversation with this young woman, I would want to take the approach that I have so often taken with people when they present me with either-or dilemmas, both paths of which seem bad. I would want to say that God, precisely because he is God and not man, is never boxed in — in the way we think we are — between two options, both of which feel disappointing. In her case, one option would be to marry a man who doesn’t share her mission passion and be disappointed about her calling. And the other option would be to stay true to your missionary calling and be disappointed that you forgo marriage.
And I would want to say this: Don’t think that way. God is God, and there are more options than you know. God may have a third way for you. And this is exactly the direction that Noël’s thoughts were taking when we talked last night. Noël has given a good deal of time to thinking about single women missionaries and interacting with young women. She’s written about these things in her book Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God. And she reminded me of a story that took place at one of our Desiring God national conferences.
At the end of one of the sessions, two single women who were pondering missions engaged Noël in the hall outside where the session was about this very dilemma: Should I wait to find a husband before I go to the mission field? Or should I go and perhaps never find a husband? Noël pointed out to me, now twenty years later, that the young woman who went to Pakistan as a single woman found her husband there, which seemed absolutely crazy, impossible. That’s not going to happen in Pakistan. The woman who stayed is still single. And I’m not saying — oh, don’t hear me say — that the woman who stayed was disobedient. That is not the case at all. She’s living a productive, Christ-exalting life right now.
But I smiled when I heard that story that Noël recounted because the way I was going to put it is this: the best place to find a like-minded husband or wife is precisely on the path of your missionary calling. That’s the best place. In other words, the third possibility is to follow your sense of God’s leading toward missions with a patient trust that, if you indeed don’t have the gift of singleness, if you would dishonor God by singleness, God will lead you to a like-minded spouse, even when you think it looks absolutely impossible.
Blessed on the Path of Obedience
Last December at the CROSS Conference (the missionary conference for 18–25-year-olds), one of the panel participants who leads a pretty rigorous missionary preparation ministry said, in all seriousness, standing on the platform with David Platt — he was not joking — “Many of the single men and women who come to our training find spouses there.”
“It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart.”
Now, it’s easy to joke, say, about Christian colleges being matchmaking institutions. Well, how fitting and beautiful and appropriate and wonderful is it that the place a person finds a like-minded husband or wife is precisely on the path where you’re doing what you believe God called you to do, for goodness’ sake? That may be getting a solid, Christ-centered education in a college for living a God-centered life. What a great place to find a spouse! Or it may be missionary training or a missionary life in a place where you think, “There’s no way I’m going to find a spouse out there — Pakistan, for goodness’ sake!”
Look, he’s God. He’s God! It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart. God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible for man to do.
So, I return to my wife’s first thought: How serious and how deep and how confident is this sense of calling in this young woman? Because if it is serious and deep, then probably she should set her face, her heart, to pursue it and trust God that, on that path, she will find her greatest joy and do the world the greatest good and bring Christ the greatest honor.