In my missionary ministry, I have determined not to intentionally do anything that I know will cause my immediate family to suffer, whether spiritually, emotionally, or physically. This determination has caused me, on several occasions, to make some very difficult choices. This has really hit home when it involved saying ‘no’ to a particular ministry opportunity, and even, on occasion, leaving behind a productive ministry situation, for the benefit of my family.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, recommended singleness as a viable option for missions (and ministry in general). In Kelly’s and my 17 years on the mission field, we have known several single missionaries (both male and female) who, as a result of their singleness, have no doubt been more effective in their particular ministry than they might have been otherwise. In a lot of ways, having a family “complicates” your life. As Paul says in verses 33-34: “a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided,” and “a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.”
On other occasions, and in other contexts, though, we have seen how being married, and having a family, can be a distinct advantage in regard to ministry effectiveness. For those who are married, and who struggle with the challenges of parenting, it is many times preferable to receive the spiritual ministry of someone who, by personal experience, is able to identify with their situation. In order to have a truly effective discipling ministry, though, it is necessary to be a good example in our own family life to those we are discipling.
Even Paul, in the midst of his singleness, saw the need, on occasion, to defer in ministry to the welfare of those who shared a special “family-type” relationship to him. In 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, for example, he states: Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia. In Titus 1:4, we learn that Paul considered Titus as his “true son” in the faith. It is evident he considered several young ministry partners, including Titus, Timothy, and perhaps a few others, as his “adoptive family,” and had a special concern for them which he did not share indiscriminately with everyone else.
On the other hand, we have the examples of men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and C.T. Studd, to name a few, who, in several important aspects, placed the welfare of their immediate family in great risk for the advance of God’s kingdom. I think we should be extremely hesitant to judge the choices of these spiritual giants whom God used so greatly. However, at times, I wonder if they really provide the best examples for us to follow in our quest to be faithful to God’s expectations for us.
I do not rule out the possibility that God may, on occasion, specifically guide someone into circumstances that might place their family at risk. He did tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, and, although He ended up providing a substitute, Abraham was obedient to God’s directive. Romans 16:3-4 says that Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for the benefit of their friend and ministry partner, Paul. On the other hand, I believe it can be argued that Lot, in spite of being a righteous man himself, undermined his family’s spiritual well-being, by choosing to raise them, apart from adequate support from the family of faith, in a place as ungodly as Sodom.
As missionaries, who are called to shine as lights in spiritually dark places, it can sometimes be hard to strike a good balance. It has been said (and I believe correctly) that “the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.” But, unless He specifically guides us otherwise, I believe the center of God’s will normally includes taking the necessary steps to care for and nurture my family, and to protect them, as best I know how, from spiritual, emotional or physical harm.
On many occasions, however, the most spiritually healthy place is not necessarily the place of the greatest comfort and ease. Indeed, some have used the supposed welfare of their family as an excuse for not doing more for the advance of the kingdom of God. Undoubtedly, some Christian parents inappropriately use spending time with their families as a pretext for not being more involved in ministry and committed to church activities.
On the other hand, though, I have personally observed some who, in their zeal for fulfilling the task they believed God had given them, have neglected the needs of their family, and suffered as a consequence. By no means, though, would I ever want to minimize my respect for those who, in obedience to God’s call, choose to raise their families in the “hard places.”
As with many other aspects of the Christian life, the key, in regard to all this, is maintaining a proper balance. Even for those who may never serve on a foreign field, these are relevant issues that all must face from time to time. For those of us who have made the decision to give our lives and raise our families in a place far from “home,” though, these are questions that have the potential to either “make us or break us.” Many times, however, struggles in this area are not necessarily the first thing we open up and share with others.
It is my hope that these thoughts will provide some helpful insights as you pray for the missionaries you know. Maybe, in some cases, they will even help give a little better understanding of how to offer support and wise counsel. Perhaps, they might even lead some to consider their own ministry, and family life, and make more biblically informed choices.
What lessons has God taught you in relation to balancing priorities of family and ministry?