“Will you marry me?”
Blood pulsed through the veins in my neck. Anger was not the emotion I expected when my then-boyfriend, Cliff, proposed. After a two-year long-distance relationship, we’d only lived in the same country for a week. And already he wanted to marry me?
Besides, I had just gone through the arduous process of applying for a Master of Public Health (MPH) at my dream university, Johns Hopkins. A compulsive control freak, I had set my life’s schedule in order, and here he was, thwarting it.
“Please tell me it’s right for me to go overseas without him. Please tell me he can wait.” My eyes filled with tears as I pleaded with my mentors. They all sought God in prayer, then one by one told me they sensed God leading us to marry first — before I pursued further studies.
“No, you don’t understand,” I argued. “I have dreams. I want to pursue my MPH, do humanitarian work. Marriage will completely ruin that timeline.”
One of my mentors stared back at me, the edges of her lips turned upward. Her eyes were filled with empathy.
“At times, marriage might seem a limitation, but if you’re both in God’s will, your union becomes a launching pad for Him to propel you forward, further than you could ever go alone.”
I dared to believe her — and I married Cliff. Nine years later, I am writing this article in Eswatini, Africa while on a six-week deployment with UNICEF as a public health consultant. It’s not what I originally envisioned, but by God’s grace, I’m living my dream.
God’s will comes first
If someone had asked me 10 years ago for my thoughts on prioritizing a partner over their lofty life plans, I would have scoffed and said, “Don’t do it. Focus on your dreams!” But after many lessons learned, I see that following God’s will supersedes following our seemingly tidy goals and timelines, however noble they may be.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean that you should throw away your God-given calling for a boyfriend or girlfriend. Too many young women with missional calls upon their lives have come to me for counsel, tears streaming down their faces as they find themselves overly invested in a beau with no calling whatsoever to the nations. By then, emotionally “all in” and unable to walk away, they succumb and settle for what they hope will make them happy instead.
I am all for waiting on the Lord for the right life partner, especially if your calling is as unique as serving the poor in developing nations. But in pursuing God’s call through the unpredictable journey of life, can we let go of our timelines? Can we hold our well-laid plans in open hands before Him and let Him direct our paths?
Here are three thoughts to consider when making a decision about marriage in light of your career and calling:
1. Is this partner from the Lord?
This is the foundational question. It is also the answer that is hardest to discern.
Some related questions that have helped me: Have I laid this relationship before the Lord? Would being together with this person enable me to further His kingdom work? Am I inspired by him or her to love God more? Have I been open and vulnerable about this relationship with my pastors, mentors, family and community?
Discerning your future partner’s character, commitment to Christ, and passion for others isn’t easy to do, especially when you’re already giddy with infatuation. This is why having the input of wise mentors is necessary; they can see what you might be blind to, so stay open and accountable to them. Don’t isolate yourself with you partner. Instead, allow yourself and others to see your boyfriend or girlfriend react and respond to circumstances in the context of church, work and life. Do they anger easily? At a gathering, are they serving others or waiting to be served? When faced with an awkward situation, do they cave in or rise to the challenge?
This is the beauty of healthy community. It provides the environment to confirm or question your suitability for each other and whether you both are moving in a direction where together you can glorify God.
2. Do I trust that God will still grant me a fruitful life if I follow Him?
It is easy to view a “’til death do us part” relationship as a shackle — the old “ball and chain,” if you will. After all, it’s a commitment, and with marriage and children come more responsibilities.
Soon after I met Cliff, who had had a liver transplant and was immunocompromised, I felt God ask me to lay down the opportunity to be a surgeon and instead pursue public health — in part because of the risk of contracting an infectious disease and passing it to Cliff. It was excruciating to give up my dream.
But God showed me that by obeying Him, my dream of helping the needy would be fulfilled to an even greater extent. I could help many more people through public health than in an operating room.
Years later, I look back and marvel at the unique ways God has used me. Only He knew that I was made for public health, and I am convinced He sent Cliff to direct my path accordingly.
Matthew 7:11 says, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” Truly, when we press into prayer to discern our life partner rightly, God will not withhold His best from us.
As it turns out, I was awarded a prestigious scholarship because of my stint in Uganda. To the scholarship board, it was evidence of my commitment to humanity. We went to Johns Hopkins fully funded on three scholarships. God provided every cent of the $100,000 tuition. And Cliff did the unthinkable: He put a year of his life on hold to support me in accomplishing this dream. Looking back, who would have thought God would use these unexpected “detours,” triggered by choosing marriage, to propel me into my destiny, entirely debt-free?
God showed me that if I trusted Him and submitted to the man He had for me, I would still lead a fruitful life. I am proof that when we place our lives in God’s hands, His boundaries fall for us “in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6).
3. Even though we are different, can God merge our callings and allow us to complement each other in unexpected ways?
God does not call us to marry someone identical to us. In fact, our differences may bring about a beautiful synergy as we enhance each other’s strengths and shore up each other’s weaknesses.
I married Cliff precisely because he was in a different vocation, which made him all the more intriguing. While I have many doctor friends who married another doctor, I am glad that Cliff’s training in IT gives him the flexibility to work wherever we live. Together, whether at home or on the mission field, our different skillsets and personalities make us stronger. What holds us together are not our vocational identities, but our values; we both value serving the poor, wherever they may be.
Today, Cliff laughs that he never envisioned himself as a stay-at-home dad. Yet in this season, he is convinced that God is laying a foundation for a deep ministry in his life. As he receives invitations to speak and write about hands-on parenting, manhood and the true roles of fathers, Cliff is living out God’s purposes in our marriage in ways we never expected.
The possibilities are endless
Now that many years have passed, I see clearly how God used Cliff to sharpen and propel me into opportunities I never thought possible. Weeks ago, when I received a call to serve in Africa with the COVID-19 outbreak, I shuddered at the thought of leaving my family behind. Yet it was Cliff who encouraged me to offer myself for deployment. His love for Christ, the poor, and me has deepened my courage and broadened my understanding of Christ.
Over the years, our love for each other has grown. Yes, I have taken steps back career-wise to accommodate Cliff being in my life, but he too has made massive adjustments to enable me to pursue my dreams in Christ.
That is the beauty of Ephesians 5:22-27: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.”
When God leads us to someone who loves us as himself or herself, we can trust that this joyful submission will bear exceeding fruitfulness — far beyond what we could bear had we gone it alone. If you ever wonder if being in a relationship and having to accommodate another’s calling might be a constraint, consider asking yourself: Is this person God’s choice for me? If so, can I trust that the boundary lines will fall for us in pleasant places as we follow God in obedience?
Putting God first and stepping out in faith, don’t be surprised when your union becomes a launchpad from which Christ springs you both deeper, further and higher into His glorious will.
Copyright 2022 Wai Jia Tam. All rights reserved.