A while back I wrote an article on “How to Protect Yourself from Moral Failure on the Mission Field”, but I failed to include something important. After reading my post, a missionary colleague many years my senior wrote to point out that my “how-to list” should have included “nurturing your marital relationship”. He was right. And in light of recent news of Tullian Tchividjian’s resignation due to infidelity, I thought it might be a good time to make a few observations on missionary marriages and longevity on the mission field. I don’t want to comment on Tchividjian’s case in particular, but rather the broader issue of protecting your marriage, as it relates to missionaries.
As with anyone in full-time ministry, there are lots of stresses and demands upon missionaries, including language and culture stresses that are a much smaller factor when you are working in your home country. And in the midst of various pressures, the marriage relationship is easily neglected. And if the marriage is neglected, that relationship is no longer the joyful, life-giving fount that God intended it to be. A good marital relationship can be a shelter and refuge from the stresses and demands of the outside world. It can be a place to laugh, to cry, to rant, to debrief, and to share all those things that would cause you to be virtually tarred-and-feathered if you shared them on social media.
But that relationship needs to be nurtured. Good marriages just don’t happened. And good marriages don’t stay good unless time and energy are put into them. But that doesn’t mean that having a good marriage is rocket science. And it doesn’t mean you have to go to marriage seminars and read lots of marriage books. I am told that there are many good books on marriage but I have only read two or three of them, and that was ten years ago when I got married. I’m sure many of those books are helpful, but I don’t particularly care for relationship books, unless it is stuff like Machen’s relationship to Fundamentalistism or Constantine’s relationship to the Council of Nicea.
There may be lots of good ideas and advice out there, such as “have a date night with your wife”, but there are no formulas. The “date night” idea doesn’t work for the stage of life and circumstances that my wife and I find ourselves in right now. We don’t get out much, and most of our time together is only after the kids go to bed. But the important thing is that husband and wife spend time together, do things that make the other person feel loved, and do things that both people enjoy. Do something, anything, that makes you both enjoy each other’s company. Play a game. Watch a movie (on those rare occasions you can agree on one). Read together. Sit around and chit-chat over a snack. Or something. (But don't forget THAT thing ~ 1 Corinth 7:2-9). Everybody is different and has different likes, but the important thing is that you make a conscious effort to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company.
Why is it so important to spend time doing things together? Because forging a close bond of intimacy and friendship between husband and wife is a pro-active defense against the temptation to become close to somebody else. We are most susceptible to find ourselves on the road to infidelity when we are dissatisfied with the person that we already have. Conversely, if a marriage is healthy emotionally, spiritually, and sexually, then the power of temptation is diminished because we have joy in the spouse that we already have. The risks involved in pursing another person become too great because we don’t want to lose what we already have. If our marriage relationship, however, is cold or distant, then those risks seem not as great compared to what we stand to gain. But if we already have joy and satisfaction in our spouse, then why risk losing that?
Nurturing a positive, close marital relationship is obviously worthwhile in-and-of itself because of the joy that it brings, and because it is honoring to God. But it also provides the benefit of being a bulwark against temptation and an aid in staying on the mission field long-term. In most cases of infidelity, the couple ends up leaving the field, never to return. In one fell swoop, the life and ministry that they’ve poured years into is done. But even if neither spouse ever commits adultery, the lack of a healthy marital relationship can become a contributing factor to leaving the field. A relationship that could have served to alleviate and mitigate stress becomes a source of stress and tension instead. Without that shelter and refuge, the other stresses of life and ministry in another culture are more difficult to deal with.
For many people (especially men), it may be difficult to put the time and energy into your marriage in order to make sure it is a satisfying relationship of joy and harmony. It may mean taking time away from other things, such as ministry or language study or Facebook or traveling or making your life more comfortable or watching live sports matches from your home country in the middle of the night. But whatever it takes, it needs to be done.
For the sake of your own joy and satisfaction,
For the sake of your spouse and kids,
For the sake of your ministry,
For the sake of the church,
For the sake of the glory of God,
Missionaries, nurture your marriage.