Gary & Lisa ThomasYou could never tell Billy Graham’s story without mentioning Ruth’s, and you could never tell Ruth’s story without mentioning Billy’s.
God called more than an individual man or woman—he called a couple, and through that couple, He created a family that continues to impact the world.
Does anyone doubt that today’s world needs more ministry-minded marriages eager to bring God’s hope and love to a hurting world?
How can the church help to build more such couples for the challenges facing the next generation?
The challenge is that most Christian singles today get married for roughly the same reasons that non-Christians do: they want to live happy lives with someone they enjoy being around, have romantic feelings for, and to whom they are physically attracted. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem much wrong with this, but such a motivation will never create lives like Billy and Ruth’s, or like Adoniram and Ann Judson's.
“Subjection to Hardships and Suffering”
When Adoniram Judson wrote to Ann Hasseltine’s father asking for permission to marry his daughter, he didn’t sugarcoat the dangers Ann might face:
I have now to ask whether you can consent to her subjection to the hardships and suffering of a missionary life. Whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India, to every kind of want and distress, to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death.
Widely considered “the most beautiful girl in Bradford, Massachusetts,” Ann had more than her share of suitors. Yet Adoniram won her affection, and his letter to her father, sadly, proved prophetic.
Once in Burma, the couple lost a child to tropical fever, and when war broke out, Adoniram was arrested for being a “spy.” He hung upside down for days on end, suspended from the ceiling. In a particularly heartbreaking episode, Ann finally secured a visit with her husband eight months after his arrest and handed over a precious bundle: their newborn daughter Maria.
Months followed, and though Adoniram was finally released, both Ann and Maria died of fever soon thereafter.
I can’t even imagine what inner agony Adoniram went through, but he supernaturally persevered and went on to live a life overflowing with faithful spiritual labor.
Marriage with a Purpose
God may not call every young couple to the foreign mission field or to an international ministry like he did the Judsons and the Grahams, but in Matthew 6:33 Jesus does call every believer into mission itself: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.”
The Judson's endured some of the worst nightmares imaginable but as a pastor I see nightmares of a different kind, the nightmares of indifference surrounded by affluence: marriages trying to hold together without a mission, lives being lived without purpose, relationships that exist for no other purpose beyond their own “happiness.” Such homes inevitably collapse under the weight of their superficiality.
The successful Christian homes I’ve witnessed are based on worship and Kingdom focus. Nothing energizes a family like God’s call and nothing keeps them together like expressing and sharing God’s love. Few things keep boredom away like a true movement of God’s Spirit. Active Kingdom work (inside or outside any “formal” ministry) keeps a marriage alive; it keeps us on our knees; it seasons our days and joins us in a common pursuit. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed how miserable people can make each other when they live primarily for themselves. It doesn’t matter how fascinated with each other they might be; in time, if they live without mission, they will likely grow bored with each other and frustrated with their marriage.
All of this is why I want young people to begin asking “why” they want to get married before they ask “who” they want to marry. If your goal is just pleasant days and romantic attraction, you’ll make your choice accordingly—and then be tested when you face life’s inevitable trials and the cruel onslaught of sickness and life disappointment. You will be more likely to base your marital choice on things that pass away, and less likely to value character, strength, and faith—essential qualities for a true Kingdom servant.
If, on the other hand, your goal is to join your heart and hands with someone who is equally zealous to seek first God’s Kingdom, that will re-direct your thoughts, attractions, and affections to an entirely different place. You’ll value wisdom, character, a will surrendered to the Holy Spirit, and a heart motivated by sacrificial love.
When we get married for trivial reasons, we’re likely to get divorced for trivial reasons. Let’s create a larger view of marriage, encouraging unions like Billy and Ruth’s, Adoniram and Ann’s. These are not easy lives, but they are rich lives filled with meaning and eternal impact.
Gary Thomas is writer in residence at Second Baptist Church, Houston, and a frequent teacher at The Cove. He is the author of the recently released The Sacred Search: What if It’s Not About Who You Marry, but Why?, from which this article is adapted, as well as the bestseller, Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make us Holy More than to Make Us Happy?. You can connect with him on twitter or Facebook. More at GaryThomas.com