We thought we were going to a nice, quiet conference for church lay leaders. We would drive a few hours to a church in Champaign, Illinois, sit through a few sermons and workshops, sing some songs, and come home. Little did we know that one concept presented at that conference would change our marriage forever.
We don’t spend money the same way anymore. We don’t make decisions the same way. One little idea — a few mere syllables of sound — came, picked us up, flipped us over, and stood us on our heads.
Before the conference, we were a nice Christian couple. We knew God had brought us together. We went to church together. We often prayed together.
But we also felt a little aimless. We had fallen into daily routines not much different than our nonChristian neighbors’: commuting to work, driving kids to school, watching videos. Sure, we helped at church, but were we making any difference in our world?
The conference speaker pegged us when he said, “Most believers just want to be happy. They would also like to have friends and enough money, and then if God is pleased with them, that would be great, too.”
We didn’t see anything wrong with that. But then he said, “The problem with these subtle, unvoiced life visions most believers have is that they are destructive lies. Jesus said clearly that if you seek your own happiness, you will never find it. As soon as you make happiness and security your goals, you make them impossible to attain.”
Ouch! Could it be that we, active churchgoers and Bible readers, had without realizing it, been living mostly for ourselves? That night we drove to a nearby Steak ?n Shake. Over milkshakes, we had one of the most honest conversations of our marriage.
“I’m not worthy to be a Christian,” I said to Karen. “I may look like a Christian on the outside, but down in my fundamental goals and drives, I’m not much different from anybody else. I think my major goal has been to move to a bigger house.”
“I know exactly how you feel,” Karen said, looking intently at me. “My life vision has been to have children and to live in a big house in the country.”
We felt awed, scared, and excited all at once. We sensed that an ugly, long-standing wall in our hearts had been made visible. But now it was falling.
“What would it be like,” I asked, “if we got rid of these old life visions and replaced them with a new one built on God?”
The Third Hunger
We wanted a short, clear statement of who we were and why God brought us together. If God had brought us together — and we believed He had — he must have had some reason for doing so.
Looking for help, Karen and I visited a Christian bookstore, planted ourselves in front of the “marriage” section, and read every title. We pulled most of the books off the shelf to read the dust jacket and table of contents. We counted 116 books on improving communication, revitalizing your sex life, or other topics. But not one told a married couple how to serve Christ together. Even popular books on finding a life partner said nary a word about how your callings are a critical consideration. It’s as if we tell singles to be “single for Christ” and married couples to be “married for yourselves.”
Karen and I turned to the Bible and searched Genesis for the purposes God designed for marriage. Marriage was created to give people companionship — “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18, NLT). It was created as a place for bearing and raising children — “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28, NASB). Most people of any religious or nonreligious persuasion would agree on those two goals.
But we came to see that Genesis assigns a third meaning to marriage: joint, fulfilling service. God tells Adam and Eve, “I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals” (Gen. 1:28, TEV) and places them in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and guard it” (Gen. 2:15, TEV). It’s as if God said, “Take care of this, you two. It’s a big job, and you’ll need each other. Together — till, plant, replenish, create.”
It seems God grants three purposes to marriage: (1) companionship, (2) children — if that’s His will, and (3) contribution. According to God’s Word, we were joined to make a difference. We were married for a mission.
God has planted this hunger deep within every Christian couple. It’s more than a hunger for companionship. It’s more than a hunger to create new life. It’s a third hunger, a hunger to do something significant together.
Marriage expert Dennis Rainey points out, “One of the missing ingredients of couples today is they do not have a mission; they do not have a sense of God having called them together to do something as a couple.”
The Rough Draft
With Genesis and our longings to guide us, we began to write a life vision for our marriage. We called it a “marriage mission.” We started with our individual gifts and interests and wrote this (figuring that if we couldn’t write it, we didn’t know it):
1.To model a Christ-centered marriage and family in a world that’s torn apart;
2.To lovingly help each other express and blend our God-given gifts: counseling and healing the hurting (Karen), teaching people how to live the Christian life (Kevin), helping (our son, Andrew), and giving (our daughter, Anne).
3.To serve Christ, His church, and other people more fully than we could alone.
We soon found that what we had written guided our decisions. For example, we both wanted to do something at church, but what? Our small church always had three or four jobs crying to be done. In the past, we had sometimes taken on too much. This time, however, our new marriage mission made our decision easy. We decided to lead a small group: I would teach, Karen would talk with the group members and pray for them. It fit what we felt God wanted us to do.
Then we came to a strategic decision, a fork in the road. Should Karen go to graduate school? Whatever we decided would change the course of our married life. The stakes were high: three to four years of classes, many in the evening. Karen would be driving a long distance each way. I’d be watching the kids more, and we’d all feel extra stress. If that weren’t enough, the financial burden was more than $20,000.
“If you go to school,” I said, “it’s going to be tight financially. We’ll need loans. We’ll be staying in this house.”
Stymied by the decision, we reviewed our new marriage mission. Could it help?
“Your dream is to counsel and heal the hurting,” I reminded Karen. “If you’re going to do that fully, you’ll need the degree.”
“And if you do more writing, which is part of the teaching you want to do,” Karen said, “that can help pay tuition.”
“Who cares if we don’t have a bigger house, anyway?” I said. “That’s not the most important thing to us anymore.” We looked at each other and almost laughed. Something radical had happened to us. We were starting to act as if the most important thing in our lives was serving Christ together.
The Next Stage
A few years later, we decided to revise our marriage mission. Point 1 and Point 3 were something any Christian couple should write. Though important, they weren’t specific enough to explain why God had brought Kevin and Karen together. We wanted something sharper, clearer.
We also wanted to shorten our marriage mission so we didn’t have to look it up. We wanted it short enough to remember and say.
We also wanted to emphasize more our joint calling, not just our individual ones.
Finally, we were struck by Frederick Buechner’s saying that vocation is “where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” and our mission didn’t specify which deep needs of the world we wanted to soothe. So we wrote this:
1. To help married couples
2. To help church leaders
3. To help the poor.
This short marriage mission doesn’t say everything about us (for example, that Karen and I both like to help new churches get started). But it does guide us — for instance, in our giving. Each month, in addition to writing a check to our church, we give to a family agency that helps marriages, two church leaders we respect, and a group that creates jobs for the poor. We occasionally give to worthy causes not mentioned in our marriage mission, but the weight of our giving is thrown into these purposes. That makes deciding where to give easier; and with focused giving we can make a greater impact.
Nearly every business or church benefits from a clear mission statement. Why can’t your marriage? God doesn’t want us to be driven or haphazard but purposeful. Long before business texts praised the power of a corporate mission, the Bible illustrated couples living one.
Consider the case of Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18. Roman emperor Claudius expelled every Jew from Rome. Aquila and Priscilla, as Jewish Christians, were forced to flee the city they called home. Had their life vision been to settle in one place or to live comfortably on their business income, this sudden dislocation would have immobilized them. But apparently they held a higher life vision: teaching together and opening their home to Christian leaders. During they day, they continued their successful tent-manufacturing business. But when Paul needed a place to stay — for a year and a half — they took him in. When a gifted young teacher named Apollos needed further instruction in sound doctrine, they invited him into their home and helped him with his theology.
Our friends Sue and Tom would laugh to think they were being compared to Bible characters. But they have a life vision and act on it. They bring Christian friendship to forgotten and hidden people — in a nursing home and in a juvenile detention center.
“We started taking our first son to the nursing home when he was six weeks old,” they told us. “The old people loved him. We have also taken him to the youth prison. The teenagers there have never seen an intact family doing things together. Some of those teenaged prisoners even have children the same age as ours.”
Over the years, Sue and Tom have poured money into tracts, videos, and sound equipment for their ministries. They’re not complaining. Financially they may have less, but in purpose and contentment, they have more.
What Is Your Common Purpose?
For a writing project, we once asked 16 Christian couples, “Do you believe God brought the two of you together?”
All 16 told us, “Yes, we do.”
Our next question was, “What do you think God may have brought you together for?”
There were long pauses.
Some Christian couples focus on raising children. Kids are an exquisite gift from God, priceless, and raising them is one of God’s primary purposes for marriage.
But what if a couple is not able to bear children (as we once feared would be the case)? Even if a couple does bear children or adopt, the child-rearing period of life comes to an end. Our marriage together will last longer than the years our nest is full.
Some couples share the goal of getting ahead — succeeding in careers, getting out of debt, finally getting that dream house. Those shared dreams can indeed bring a couple together, but once they are achieved — or never achieved — what’s left?
We believe every Christian marriage benefits from a mission, one that works in all situations, no matter how rich or poor you are or whether you have ten children or none. Do you and your spouse share a mission that is distinctly Christian, one that sets apart your marriage and makes it a gift to others? You can know and enjoy what Carl and Martha Nelson describe: “There is probably no higher level of human sharing than that between a man and a woman, united in love and marriage, working on an assignment that’s been handed to them by God.”
Copyright © 2000 Kevin & Karen Miller. Used With Permission.
KEVIN MILLER is a vice-president of Christianity Today International and editor-at-large of Leadership Journal. KAREN MILLER, LCSW, is a marital therapist and pastor of community and discipleship at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.