I have been reading some sections of the book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. It contains the biographies of numerous missionaries from Paul the Apostle to today. I find their stories inspiring since I’m heading for missions myself! One theme I’ve noticed is that some excellent missionaries chose celibacy to be of maximum benefit to their work.
I’ve heard advice from some Christians saying that if you have the gift of celibacy, you’ll just kind of “know” and not have desires for marriage. If you desire marriage, it’s a given God wants you married, not celibate – so the advice goes. But looking at the lives of these missionaries goes against this modern advice. Some of these single missionaries experienced a good deal of suffering being single and really wanted a spouse and – but they never received one. Two examples –
- Henry Martyn. He had turned away an illustrious career in mathematics in Britain after experiencing a spiritual renewal and return to God. He set in his mind for a “single life” for “heavenly mindedness” but soon fell in love with a woman in Britain named Lydia Grenfell. But she didn’t share his missionary passion to go across the world and reach the unreached. Martyn wrote, “I felt too plainly that I loved her too passionately. The direct opposition of this to my devotedness to God in the missionary excited… tumult in my mind.” (236). He left Lydia and all, landing at India in 1806 to minister to Hindus and Muslims. He wrote her letters for six years asking her to come to India and marry him, to no avail. He completed a translation of the New Testament into Urdu and Persian, then in 1812 attempted an overland trip to England to persuade Lydia to come to India with him in person. He died of fever on the way, his last words having nothing to do with Lydia but a desperate dying prayer, “Let me burn out for God!”
- Mabel Francis. Became a missionary with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and embarked on a boat to Japan in 1909 and focused on evangelism and church planting. She originally wanted a husband, as she wrote,
You see, when I was so discouraged and the job seemed so terribly big, I thought, ‘Well now, if I was married, I could follow on with my husband, and there would be something doing, but what could a little person like myself do?’ I was just hopeless!
And then the Lord said, ‘You are on the wrong track. I have a plan for your life and it is for you not to be married. . . . Well, you know the whole thing passed out of my life like a cloud passing away. . . marriage has meant nothing to me since that time – nothing.’ (276).
She spent her whole life in Japan. When the Great Depression in the 1930s brought the mission agency to call back their missionaries in Japan, Mabel stayed. She continued her ministry even through World War II as the Japanese arrested her and put her in an internment camp. Even after the war she happily stayed in Japan, her celibate life ending at 83.
Having a desire to be married, or a desire for anything for that matter, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be fulfilled. God’s calling on some young Christ-followers is to go do overseas missions in another culture. This isn’t exactly the most popular thing to do, so it isn’t easy for them to find husbands or wives. And missionaries can be a crazy bunch, so compatibility is another hard find. Just ask Mabel Francis.
To put it simply, if someone is both heart-set on missions and heart-set on marriage, they may very well need to sacrifice the one for the other. But will we go beyond everything to be a witness of God’s fantastic news of grace to every language, tribe, and nation – or have the comfort and earthly joy of marriage? Both are good things ordained by God. But really, one of those is a lot heftier, at least to me. Having all our desires met in this life isn’t guaranteed, as much as we so badly desire a “happily ever after” story in this world.
But by God, there is an eternal “happily ever after” at the end of all this! And a great reward is waiting for anyone who exchanges a fairy tale life for making God known among the nations. The reward is when that day comes, and you see this sight in pure, boundless, exhilarating joy knowing you were an intimate part of it: “…. A great multitude which no one could number, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and languages, stood before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.9-10 ESV).
When that day comes and Jesus Christ, your Savior, Master, God, Lover, Faithful Friend in all those hard times on the field, smiles and tells you to your face, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master (!).” (Matt. 25.23) And then reign together with our King Jesus Christ in perfect fellowship forever?
Now that is happily ever after.