I met my husband at 20. Ironically I was concurrently terrified of marriage. At the time, I saw marriage and family as a gateway to an isolated, consumeristic, and vapid life. It looked to me to be severely limiting and, in contrast to the life I was leading, profoundly unfulfilling. I was a senior in undergrad, applying to grad schools, fresh out of an international internship that served orphans and widows, and my weekends and evenings were filled with volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, babysitting at a high security women’s and children’s shelter that served those escaping severe abuse, and teaching ESL to Somolian refugees. I could not fathom going from the world I occupied into such a small existence wherein I believed my greatest concern would be what color to paint a bathroom. How could I, a Christian, who had seen so clearly in Scripture that God commands his people to live lives in service to others, walk away from what I was doing?
I was not so naive as to believe that I could do both and do them well. The hours I worked didn’t allow for time for anyone else, let alone a husband and a family. I saw marriages fall apart because service or career came before spouses, and children who deeply resented mothers whom they felt had chosen service or career to their neglect. I understood biology enough to know that marriage comes with sex, and sex most often comes with children, and because I believed mothers had a God-ordained duty to their children, I could not envision myself ever choosing that. I believed what Paul said when he wrote,
I wish that all were as I myself am [unmarried] But each has his own gift from God […] those who marry will have worldly troubles (1 Corinthians 7:7; 28)
I was convinced singleness, not marriage, was my gift. Those worldly troubles that accompanied marriage seemed too ensnaring to me. I was attending a mega-church that was filled with families who were consumed with perfect homes, status-statement clothing, and idealized bodies, while their greatest hope for their kids would be that they did well in school and were “good” kids. Speaking with those women left me profoundly disillusioned, with conversations centered entirely on favorite lattes, gym routines, and anxiety over whether their kids would get the best part in the school play or make varsity. I couldn’t see the gospel there. I couldn’t differentiate those families from secular families, except perhaps that they replaced the word, “lucky” with “blessed” in their vernacular, their skirts were two inches longer, and they wrinkled their noses at evolution. If that was marriage, plagued so with worldly troubles, I wanted nothing to do with it. I kept hearing T.S. Eliot’s words of warning whispered behind every repeated conversation about clothing sales, hobbies, GPAs, and new cars,
And the wind shall say: ‘Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.
I’d hazard to say I had disdain for marriage, at least as I was seeing it majorly played out around me. So what was I to do with the young man who was pursuing me relentlessly, unwantedly occupying my thoughts, and admittedly attractive? Despite my best efforts to ignore him, somehow I spent what little free time I had with him, and slowly, with each conversation, he was unwittingly chipping away at my cynicism. Our conversations drifted toward relationship, and I was learning that marriage and family were not naturally at odds with obedience to Christ.
When he did wear me down and first breached the topic of marriage, he painted a picture unlike most I had seen: he proposed a marriage built on Christ, not just our love for each other, united with a singular vision to serve each other, future children, and the world around us together. In whatever neighborhood, culture, state, or country we occupied, our whole family would work together to invite others in to see Christ in our home. I didn’t read Sally Clarkson until a decade later, but it was the same idea she suggests,
The point of the home is to shelter the lost and weary people, draw the lonely, cover the grieved.
He might be the one pursuing a career, but in this vision, the home we made together, where I would occupy most of my effort and time, would be crucial in his survival in a gruelling medical field, and the culture we created there would be tantamount to how we would show others who we serve and where our hope lies.
As my disdain fell away I remembered the many examples of godly marriages I did have. My great aunt and uncle who served 50 years as missionaries in Venezuela with their five living children; the very family who hosted, in their own home, the refugees I helped teach, while homeschooling their four children; and my own parents who quietly served each other, discipled me and my brothers, and by proximity, a whole community of kids; inviting teenagers into their lives where many of them saw a loving family for the first time, and heard about Christ consistently and lovingly.
No, marriage and obedient faith were not exclusive, and perhaps singleness wasn’t my gift anymore.
11 months after meeting that persistent man, I married him. I ditched applying to grad schools, worked from home, and continued my volunteer work until we moved overseas for my husband to finish his secondary degree. Very quickly I felt like my world had shrunk, I had only a small writing job and too much time on my hands while my husband disappeared beneath stacks of the words of continental philosophers. I had gone from serving so many, to serving only my husband. And yet, I felt anything but comfortable as marriage peeled back uncomfortable layer upon layer of my own self-interest and sin. A mirror had been held in front of me in marriage, and I found I wasn’t quite so mature as I had once thought.
Shortly after we moved back to the States we welcomed our first child, and it felt as though my world shrank infinitesimally. I had gone from what I thought were great acts of service, to changing diapers, unsuccessfully comforting a colicky newborn, and seeing glimpses of my husband as he studied for the MCAT and worked nights. I was barely surviving, let alone serving anyone. I had unconciously bought into a strange feminist/ascetic ideology that convinced me that serving my husband and child was nothing.
Feminism is mixed up with the muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands.”
At some point I came to believe that service to God didn’t count in marriage or motherhood. And through my tiny colicky newborn, God was revealing even more sin in my heart. I came face-to-face with my outlandish pride. Serving in the capacities that I had in my singleness had fed that pride, I had found a great deal of self-accomplishment in filling my time the way that I did. But motherhood stripped away any sense of accomplishment, I realized how profoundly selfish I was. I felt like I had given up my body, and now I had to give up my time and my freedom to something that left me feeling weak and unsuccessful. Motherhood was thankless, monotonous work, with no break or marks of success. I felt like I was drowning in it; that is, until I realized wiping a snotty nose could be like washing feet, that my neighbor could be my husband, and like Amy Carmichael wrote,
Faithfulness in the little things is a very great thing.
I was slowly being taught that service to God is service only when it’s done by relying on him, with humility, and by faith in the work Christ has already done on my behalf. It wasn’t about how many lives I changed, or how far into the world my acts reached, it was about him.
And so, a decade later I’m still sowing small seeds in faith. Four small children deep, and nearing the end of my husband’s medical residency, I’m learning the vast world that is keeping a home, loving my husband, and caring for and discipling our children. I’m faced with dying to myself each morning I rise, as I deal with little hearts, and mundane tasks, and I’m still wrestling with the reality that small acts of service left unseen are better for my incredibly prideful heart, than big obvious ones. And I’m learning how very wrong I was ten years ago.
I didn’t know how much sacrifice could go into marriage, how much self-giving motherhood demanded, and how utterly self-reliant I thought I was. Marriage and motherhood forced me to depend on God, to admit my weakness, and face the pet sins buried deep within my heart. I know now why God gifted me marriage and a family, he knew how desperately I needed them to bring me to my knees before him.
I had such a narrow vision of God’s kingdom that I couldn’t see how small acts done in faith were more pleasing to him, than big acts done in pride. I had assumed service meant big, obvious things and I was proud of those big obvious things I did. But my patient God is showing me that services rendered to him in faith for his glory–not mine–is what he wants. So whether welcoming a refugee, or comforting a child homesick after a move; whether feeding a stranger or nursing a newborn; whether consoling a woman in crisis or comforting a sick toddler; whether sacrificing time to encourage a woman recovering from abuse, or encouraging my husband who is beaten down from a grueling work week in a secular world that seeks to ensnare his heart, when done in devotion to the God I serve, in humility: admitting he does the work and I am a mere tool, they are all acts that serve his kingdom. Which are the only deeds worth doing.
The temptations still linger. I’ve realized I didn’t fear marriage because I am better than those women I knew, but because I can just as easily settle into an apathetic faith that would allow me to become just like them. My heart wanders, there is always that allure to satisfy the pride I seek to kill every day. There is always the thought of constructing a house that brings me glory, children that make me look good, and a life that is centered on my own comfort. Or perhaps leaving the home and finding those acts of service and work that can feed my pride more adaquetly than the daily grind of teaching little hands to bring kindness instead of hurt, teaching little mouths to honor instead of curse, and teaching little hearts to submit to the God whom they were designed to love. There is always the ugly rear of the head of pride when I think perhaps I should spend less time encouraging my husband in his demanding and often demoralizing career, and instead pursue something that would bring me honor. There is always the whispered lie that what I do in the home does not matter, or that it is the home itself: the stuff and outward appearance that matter most.
It is only by a daily battle against my heart’s proclivity for self-praise, the putting to death my desire to be god with each new sunrise, that anything I do can be offered to the God I love as service. Thankfully, he does the battle for me. He doesn’t let me settle into peace with myself how I am, and his Word keeps combatting those insidious whispers. The work in the home, service to my husband and children matters, as G.K. Chesterton wrote,
How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function [as wife and mother] is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.
Alternatively, the comforts and glory of an outwardly impressive home that seeks only to serve the tenants, children who are moralists, and a lifestyle that centers on comfort and entertainment are nothing in light of eternity and the God who made me. Fashioning a pretty coffin while leaving my soul to decay or bolstering up my pride with outward impressions isn’t service to my family or anyone else either. Which is why I begin my days with Amy Carmichael’s prayer,
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified
Not this way went the crucified.)
From all that dims Thy calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
He’s my Deliverer, he’s the one who hung in excruciating agony to rescue me from myself, and he’s the one that keeps killing sin in me with each new day. He’s the one that knew I needed marriage and motherhood to reveal the sins hidden in my heart, and it is he who works through my meager, daily offering, turning what little I have to give into service that brings him glory.
I am so thankful he didn’t leave my 20-year-old self to my own devices and flawed thinking, and I am ever thankful that he doesn’t leave me still.