I’m going to wade into this thorny area today, because it’s one of the most common questions I get via email from readers:
“What do I do when my spouse doesn’t have the same sense of calling to the poor, or mission, or ministry, that I do?”
A common scenario is that one partner is gung-ho (naïve?), adventurous and super keen to dive into mission among the poor. Meanwhile, their spouse is a little more cautious (realistic) or perhaps doubtful.
For those of you who are not yet married, this is an important issue: Do not get married to someone who doesn’t share your sense of calling. Don’t ignore the red flags, don’t assume that they will come around. Talk, talk and talk it through. And don’t go by promises or vague agreement. The proof is in action only.
If they are not already living this stuff out, don’t fool yourself into thinking that they will suddenly change after marriage. About 99.9 percent of the time, it doesn’t happen.
Now, having said that, let’s get real—and a little bit more nuanced for those of us who are already married.
Let’s say you think you may have a mismatched sense of calling. Here are four important questions to ask as you explore why there might be a difference in calling and what to do about it.
1. Are you prioritizing the health of your marriage?
Is your marriage healthy? Sometimes, one spouse feels neglected while the other goes off “doing radical ministry.” Some of us need a good kick in the pants about this (myself included, from time to time).
Remember Isaiah 58, a favorite passage of us “radical” types:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and NOT to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
We LOVE the stuff about loosing the chains of injustice. Bring it on! Smash those chains. Set the oppressed free? Yes! Share your food with the hungry? Boom!
Then we get to not turning “away from your own flesh and blood …” Hang on, what’s that family stuff doing in there? That’s not about justice. Or is it?
I’ve had to learn this lesson continually over the course of almost 20 years of marriage, while doing mission work and living with my family in Cambodian slums.
If I neglect my wife and kids, who am I to say that I love my neighbor in this slum? Loving my neighbor starts with loving my family. Otherwise I’m just a poser, practicing piety for others to see, all the while neglecting the very first ones God has given me to care for.
It’s all connected.
2. Have you considered personality differences?
Sometimes what we assume is a difference in calling could just be a difference in personality. I’ve come to understand this more deeply as I’ve gotten to know my wife better.
Nay has a deep love for God and the poor, but it looks completely different from mine. I’m a thinker, pioneer and strategizer. She’s a warm, welcoming, loving presence. Compared to her, I’m a cold, dead, calculating fish.
While I ask questions like, “How can we scale this initiative up and reach more impoverished people?” she doesn’t bother with talking about it, she just gets on with loving our neighbors, one by one.
At first, when Nay didn’t engage in my big-picture pontifications, I thought she didn’t care about these things as deeply. Vice versa, my capacity for one-on-one discipleship only goes so far. It would be easy for her to write me off as someone who is useless in ministry.
But by God’s grace, he has wired us differently and called us to minister in different ways. I’ve come to see that her giftings are a huge blessing in ministry, and we need each other.
I’ll repeat that, because the sooner you have this revelation, the better things will go for you. Trust me:
You need each other in ministry BECAUSE of your differences. God brought you together for a reason.
3. Are you forgetting gender stuff?
There are personality differences, but there are also gender differences. Guys, can we just be honest for a moment here and recognize that our wives have usually faced more safety issues in their lives than we have?
When we were living in the Downtown Eastside of inner-city Vancouver, I didn’t think twice about walking down a dark alley. But my wife did. I didn’t think twice about inviting a homeless crack addict to sleep on our couch. But my wife did.
The truth is, she faced all those fears and still got out there on the streets night after night and hung out with prostituted women in addiction. They became some of her closest friends.
Most of us guys have probably not had to consider the possibility of being raped or mugged just walking through a park or down an alleyway. But our wives have. Repeatedly.
And those different experiences may shape how our wives approach new opportunities for mission. They often have an extra dose of insight and realistic concern about the dangers that may come up in ministry.
It’s not that they are less committed to God or the poor, but that they have a deeper understanding about safety and security issues. Let’s embrace that insight as a gift of balance, and work with it. Not allowing fear to undermine what God may be calling us into, but moving forward with an extra level of sobriety, grace and concern.
4. Are you allowing God’s timing to unfold?
Finally, consider that God does not always reveal everything to both spouses simultaneously.
Consider Mary and Joseph. The angel appears to Mary and gives her some pretty solid details about what is coming up: a child will be born, you’ll call him Jesus, he’ll be the Savior of the world, etc.
Meanwhile, poor old Joseph is left in the dark, wondering whether his wife has stabbed him in the back.
Eventually, he gets the message, but consider the tension in that relationship during that in-between-time. Holy smokes. Imagine being a fly on the wall in that carpenter’s household.
The lesson for me here is patience, patience, patience.
If God is doing something, he’ll communicate in his timing to both of you. Trust him. If God is in it, he’ll bring you both along.
I don’t know what challenges you are facing in your sense of calling as a couple. Each situation is unique, and some are not covered by the areas I’ve mentioned above.
There are times when you may be called to gently invite your spouse to move out of their comfort zone. The only way we can do that is with wisdom and sacrificial love, which come from God.
I do know this: We’re called to lay down our lives for our spouses. We’re called to love them and care for them and be concerned for their safety and their call into mission.
So how about you? If you have a story, new perspective or advice, share it in the comments. This is an area we can learn from each other.
Craig Greenfield (@) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2016). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, his passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world. Get a free copy of Craig’s first book Urban Halo at his website. This article was originally published on Craig’s blog.