On Marriage and Ministry

“On Marriage and Ministry”

God is very graciously giving Frieda and myself the privilege to minister in different contexts and continents.  One side-benefit from these travels is being in close-up range with life and ministry on the front-lines.  We also witness some of the highs and lows, the pluses and minuses of missionary life.  Some of what we see causes us to lift our hands in praise to God.  Other situations cause us to fall to our knees in prayer.

Among those latter matters, it’s marriage relationships that leaves us particularly concerned.  By God’s grace, Frieda and I enjoy a blessed relationship – not a perfect relationship, especially as she has a very imperfect husband!  But when we compare what can be or could be with God’s help, with what often is, we feel distressed.  Even more troubling when we witness marriages under great strain, even worse, some breaking under the strain.

Certainly Satan is on the warpath attacking and destroying marriages across the board.  But when it happens in the very community of those who have been sent out to bear witness to the God who reconciles people to Himself through Christ, it seems like a double or triple tragedy.  Is there nothing that can be done to stem the tide?  Obviously this is far too complex an issue to be discussed in a brief reflection paper.  However, maybe the few scattered thoughts in this paper can help stir some to serious reflection, both mission leaders as well as those on their mission teams.  (If you happen to be a single worker, please don’t imagine that this paper has no relevance for you.  May it also stir within your heart such a strong passion to see reconciled relationships and harmonious marriages that you will pray with fervency and urgency to that end – for your own future marriage as well as for the marriages of God’s servants around you.)

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of mission field realities.  The most obvious and immediate situation is cross-cultural living plus cross-cultural community life on a mission team.  This is inescapable stuff which all of us fund stretching.  And it doesn’t take too long for most of us to discover that those wonderful missionary hero types around us not always quite as saintly as we imagined them to be.  But even worse, we discover that in the heat of living and working cross-culturally combined with the other stressors that have suddenly rained down on us, we also aren’t quite as saintly as we thought we’d be.  What is happening is some less than beautiful “stuff” that has be hidden away in our hearts suddenly gets forced out into the open – and it isn’t all that attractive – either to us or to those closest to us.

Go with me one step further.  Take a couple who have been accepted for the mission field.  Back at home, the mission leaders were aware of some “niggling disharmony” and “communication unpleasantries” between them, but they are hoping that the couple will mature and work things out on the field.  But what on the home front appeared as little more than just pretty normal though dysfunctional patterns of relating or communicating together, can quickly blow out into a storm of destructive behaviour and talk.

What about the marriage scene in cross-cultural marriages on the mission field?  (Frieda and I can also speak on this one from experience.)  Of course, there are many international marriages that have lasted the distance well.  But should we close our minds or eyes to the fact that, after the initial bliss of being in love and life as newly-weds, working out a marriage relationship – on the mission field – with a person from a different culture, can expose us to unexpected cultural clashes.  Often with the arrival of children, cross-cultural couples become painfully aware of some vastly different and often conflicting differences between their home traditions and values.

These are realities.  And there are many other situations that have the potential to produce tensions between missionary couples.  But nor would it be true to say that every missionary couple who passes through some fiery relational trial will suffer severe burns or scarring to their marriage.  However, from our observation we have been witnessing on the home front as well as on the field that some couples are just not making it, or heading down the wrong road in the way they are dealing with or responding to the stressors that have struck a very serious blow to their marriage relationship.

How should we be responding to the potential or the present marital tensions and conflicts?  Some may respond: “We can cope.  They are needed desperately on the field.”  But then if these are missionary candidates and haven’t shown any serious willingness to change wrong attitudes or bad relational patterns at home, why would we imagine that they will suddenly adopt different attitudes and patterns of relating once they get to their field?

Do we hear another mission leader commenting: “I agree – it’s very sad.  Bad marriage relationships shouldn’t be.  It’s not ideal.  But that is just the way things are these days, even with missionary marriages.  Let’s not expect perfect couples applying for foreign missionary service.  My own marriage isn’t perfect either!”  Of course!  But what is such a comment really saying?  Is it then okay to allow even some long term mission leaders to limp along in a marriage that too often erupts in ugly scenes that leave their workers running for cover or at least reeling with sadness?  What does it say about our understanding of the Gospel when in our most intimate relationships we just can’t put it together?  Perhaps some couples should be given a “time-out” until they really get their act together before being invited back to the field.

The Gospel is God’s message of hope that we are called to preach and live – a message heard through words and seen in life.  If then the marriages of missionaries aren’t mirroring the forgiveness and reconciliation message of the Gospel, does this not in fact bring into serious question whether or not such a couple are qualified, at least in God’s sight, to serve as messengers of God’s Good News?

Far be it for us to assume that such situations are straightforward and easy to cope with.  Our concern is not just to stir up an awareness of the problem but also to encourage serious reflection, especially as our sinful natures turn ever so easily towards patterns of rationalisation or justification of sin in our lives and in the lives of others around us.  Simply put, we cover up, hide, make excuses, or run from the real issues and hard work of dealing with that which is not godly and in keeping with the Father’s will.  Dare we treat issues of ongoing disharmony and evident conflict as “just a small thing” or “a personal matter”?

We believe that God’s will for our lives including for our marriages must be treated, not as some nice ideal out there, or excusing ourselves because “after all, we’re all human”!  Mission leaders are responsible for setting the pace in their own marriages as well as ensuring that the quality of marriages among those who are serving on their teams is all integral with the Good News they proclaim.  To consider anything less as the norm is to make allowances for what is fundamentally contrary to our missionary calling.

So this is a call to adopt a serious and biblical attitude towards marriage in general and marriage among our missionary community in particular.  It is also a call to ask some hard questions such as: Is it honouring and pleasing to God when “for the sake of the work” (i.e. a missionary husband and wife fulfil such important roles and functions in the mission) we retain a couple whose marriage is under a heavy cloud of stress and strain with cracks already appearing?

Brothers and sisters, we dare not trivialise or disregard deepening relational rifts for any reason.  For the sake of Christ and the Gospel, may God give us a renewed passion and longing to work hard, and keep on working hard,  to repair those cracks in hurting marriage relationships on the mission field.  The choice of the words “hard work” is deliberate.  The mission leader may face a negative reaction of anger and denial from the couple when their conflicted relationship is raised in an appraisal session (“Who do you think you are to criticise our relationship?”).  So it will take plenty of guts and lots of conviction to work hard to bring about an awareness of the need and to work towards finding the right path for each such couple.

However, remembering that our highest goal in ministering to a couple in crisis is always to bring wholeness and lasting joy and peace to their marriage will keep us motivated when the going is tough.  God wills that we and our workers fight to save our marriages from estrangement and separation – but that fight begins a long time before one partner is ready to push the other off the cliff, or to jump over themselves.  The hard work must begin when the cracks first appear, not when there’s a gaping hole.

Perhaps you have worked very hard, but to no avail.  That is very possible.  Even Jesus Himself could not stop people hating one another when He lived among men on earth.  Nor is prayer the magic wand that makes all marriage conflicts end on the spot.  After having worked out and prayed hard, if the missionary couple are still at each other’s throats, then obviously for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the name of Jesus, they should be released from the work until they are willing to let God change their hearts and attitudes.

In closing, three principle, foundational, biblical truths for us all to stand upon: Firstly, in God’s order, the marriage relationship was set in place ahead of all other human relationships.  Adam and Eve were called to work together before working with anyone else.  Hence, in God’s sight, it is the relationship of higher priority.  Secondly, God institutionalised marriage before He brought either the church or mission societies into being.  And thirdly, God designed marriage to become the human relationship that most clearly mirrors the divine relationship between Christ and His people.

Dear brothers and sisters, think on these things!

Equip & Encourage International

Graham Roberts

February 4, 2004

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