We were crying so hard that strangers in the airport were crying too. It was borderline wailing. I was saying goodbye to the girl I knew I would marry someday. We were certain of it, not simply because of the engagement ring I had given her just days before, but also because of the affirmation from God and others that this was the right step to take.
But I had also committed myself to a term as a missionary. That meant I would have to live out my engagement on a separate continent. That meant I would have to fulfill my ministry apart from my most significant relationship. That meant I would have to remain faithful, and trust that she would too.
More than anything, that meant a whole lot of pain.
Dating and Missions
Do dating and missions go together? No. And yes.
No, because the odds are against them. Wisdom is against them. How can the two endeavors coexist when both are so utterly demanding of affection, energy, and presence? Although this verse is about money, the general overtone of Matthew 6:24 comes to mind, “No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other” (HCSB). Arguably, few people can balance both well. Why sign up for failure and misery? No, dating and missions just don’t mix.
But then again, yes they do. Despite odds and wisdom, dating and missions will inevitably elope together. Human hearts refuse to be shaped according to law. In fact, it stirs them to rebel against it. In an ideal world, perhaps we could have only one source that grasps at our deepest affections, or be given the capacity to perfectly balance many objects of affection at a time. But that’s heaven. And we’re on this side. Significant relationships are going to spring up. They won’t always arrive conveniently. So yes, dating and missions do go together.
Embrace the Tension
Seem like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Good. Embrace it with me for a moment. In college, when God’s global mission was resonating in my heart more and more, I was simultaneously giving up any hope of getting married. After all, the single life seemed to work for Paul, my missionary hero. He even went so far as to say:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided (1 Cor. 7:32–34 NIV).
I certainly didn’t want to be divided, to flippantly embrace a tug-of-war of interests. Dating and missions appeared the same as texting and driving. So I made Paul’s appeal into a rule—just the opposite of what he said in 1 Corinthians 7:6. I remember even writing it up like a grand announcement on my Facebook page:
Sorry ladies, I love Jesus and missions more than you, so I’m going to be single for life.
Ok, so maybe those weren’t the exact words, but you get what I’m saying.
Now fast forward to life overseas, and imagine my surprise as the more I focused on my missionary endeavors, the more my heart burst at the seams with growing affection for a godly young woman I had met back home. Further still, the more I grew in genuine community with my teammates on the field, the more I realized I can’t do life alone. The idol I had fashioned of “Zach, the missionary hero” was crumbling. For me, to live out a godly life on mission, I needed a godly wife on mission.
So I went for it. I entered into the realm of the divided. I told her how I felt. A relationship budded and grew. Over time it blossomed into engagement. All the while I still had to be a missionary, and she still had to be a ministry leader and student. It was really, really good. And unbelievably hard.
For any of you crazy enough to brave the divided world of missions and dating, here are a few things from our journey that I’d like to share.
Keep your relationship grounded in your community.
I would never have embarked on a relationship without the ongoing prayer, wisdom, and affirmation of my teammates. Perhaps influenced by the communal culture in which we lived, our team chose to make big decisions together. This was a refreshing change to the privatized dating culture of the United States. The support and accountability of brothers and sisters in Christ is absolutely necessary to navigate the complexity of dating and missions.
Be faithful with your responsibilities.
Marriage is a covenant of total faithfulness. Why would you want to marry someone, then, who has a track record of being unfaithful? Therefore, while you’re in a relationship, it’s really important to fulfill your preexisting commitments in missions. Jesus taught this principle in Matthew 25:21: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Let marriage be the reward of your faithfulness.
Don’t let your level of intimacy surpass your level of commitment.
I’m borrowing this one, in part, from the popular book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. In it he urges readers to never let their level of physical intimacy surpass their level of relational commitment (i.e. don’t have sex before marriage). True, but I want to spin it further for those on the track of missions and dating.
Don’t allow your level of relational intimacy to surpass your level of missions commitment. The more you grow in a relationship, the more it demands of you. Remember Jesus, who was desperately eager to be reunited with his Father but first endured thirty-three years and a cross. Fight against moving so fast in the relationship that your ministry is quickly forsaken.
Set your longing on Christ.
My wife and I lived out our courtship and engagement during nearly two years on separate continents. We fell in love on Skype—that is, when my dial-up Internet actually worked. We know longing. As Proverbs 13:12 prescribes, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”. But this was actually the most redemptive part of our experience.
In our severe longing for one another, God taught us to long for him. For the soul that belongs to Christ, marriage and missions are subservient signposts to our ultimate calling and satisfaction: God himself. Allow God’s gracious gift of tangible, terrible longing to help you be the sojourner you are, longing for and living for the day you meet him face to face.