My wife and I recently moved overseas with our 2-year-old daughter to serve among an unreached people group on the eastern border of the Tibetan plateau. We have settled into an apartment and have begun learning the new language. However, the journey to finally get here has been filled with struggles and difficulties.
Two years into our marriage, we took an intercultural studies class together and both felt God calling us to reach the unreached people groups in some capacity. However, my wife felt that God was calling her to be a sender — to pray, to mobilize, to encourage others. I felt called to be a goer — to move and live among an unreached people group. And there ensued many years of conflict between us.
In fact, some of the deepest valleys of our marriage have been directly related to this seemingly irreconcilable difference. In time, my desire to go on the mission field began to take a place in my heart that only rightfully belonged to God. At one point, my wife said to me in desperation, “It feels as if our entire marriage of almost 10 years has been all about missions!”
That’s when I realized that something was desperately wrong! Our marriage shouldn’t be all about missions. If anything, our marriage should be all about Jesus, about growing deeper with Christ and more in love with him. This ought to have precedence over missions.
God began to ask me some questions. Have I primarily been pointing my family toward Jesus or towards missions involvement? I was horrified when God opened my eyes to the subtle signs of bitterness I was beginning to develop towards my wife. It became clear that if there is something I want so badly that it causes me to resent my wife because I perceive her as a barrier to obtaining it, then that “something” has become an idol in my heart. This idol of “missions” has come to define who I am. I was building my sense of identity on “missions” and not on God.
So God began to do the crucial work of recentering my sense of identity on him alone. I am first and foremost a child of God. My identity is in Christ. I am “seated with Him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6). My “life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). This is who I am! And who I am is far more important than what I do.
God is far more interested in the kind of person that I’m becoming than the kind of ministry work that I’m involved in. My conditions may change (i.e. where I live, what I do, and what circumstances surround my life), but my position is constant (i.e. who I am in Christ, his work on the cross on my behalf, and my citizenship in heaven).
It has not been a painless process. It has been a pruning and refining process. Elisabeth Elliot once said: “Sometimes we want to run, but God makes us walk. Sometimes we want to walk, but God makes us sit down. All because he wants to do something in our life that we’re not interested in.”
And that is exactly what God did in my life. He made me sit down, got my eyes off of the mission field, peeled away what I was building my identity on, and re-established his rightful place of centrality in my heart.
And that was when the priorities in my life fell back into place. The first and primary call that God has given me is to love my wife as Christ loves the church. Am I becoming a more sacrificial husband? Am I growing in patience and selflessness? Have I been demonstrating unconditional love to my wife? Have I created a safe and secure environment for her in our marriage? Am I more Christ-like towards her now than I was 10 years ago when we got married?
It has taken some time for God to bring me and our marriage to a healthier place. A place of freedom. A place of centering our lives on nothing but him alone. And only then were we ready to move, hand-in-hand and side-by-side, to the mission field.
A veteran missionary once told me: “We don’t need more people out here, we need the right kinds of people.” And the right kinds of people are those whose lives and identities are centered on God alone, and nothing else — not even missions.
They are those who live a life of true freedom in Christ, being compelled, not by human expectations or desires, but by the love of Christ.
Mike (M.A. ’06), a graduate of Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies, is currently serving in Tibet. His last name and photo are being withheld to protect his ministry.