After suffering a panic attack in a Shenzhen municipal office, I began to ask God why he had brought me to China at all.
My husband and I had moved overseas believing we were called to work on his startup. I left a job and friends I loved to support his dream of providing solar products for the developing world. I convinced myself that it was my dream, too.
But less than a year later, our attempts to forge a shared vocational path broke down. The nonstop work of entrepreneurship, coupled with navigating my Chinese American identity in a surprisingly foreign culture, pushed me into a debilitating depression. Without community, career, or the emotional health to pursue either, I no longer had a sense of purpose. And I blamed my husband’s clarion call from God that had led us there.
In the end, we had to confront a question that many couples ask: God has called us together in marriage, but what callings does he have for each of us? How do we balance—and support—our distinct gifts and purposes?
In marriage, husband and wife offer themselves in mutual submission and sacrificial love. But one flesh doesn’t necessarily mean one calling. Instead, “each person is given something to do that shows who God is” (1 Cor. 12:7, MSG).
How we live out our “something to do” amid marriage and family can be trying when one spouse’s calling—whether in the home, the office, or the church—is all-consuming and requires significant sacrifice from the other.
It seemed like my husband and I had to take turns living with divine purpose. As long as we were in China, I suffered while my husband thrived. If we returned to the States, he would leave a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I could return to the nonprofit work and people I loved.
Too many marriages—to entrepreneurs, pastors, missionaries, executives, advocates, and other passionate professionals—buckle under this imbalance. It can lead to dissatisfaction, resentment, and infidelity. And it has consequences for our faith. Both men and women are unsettled when they lose sight of God-given purpose while watching another go after theirs. The desire to find that purpose can be overwhelming.
Theologian William Placher wrote:
If the God who has made us has figured out something we are supposed to do—something that fits how we were made, so that doing it will enable us to glorify God, serve others, and be most richly ourselves—then life stops seeming so empty: my story has meaning as part of a larger story ultimately shaped by God.
We all share an innate desire to join our story to that larger story. The desire doesn’t go away in marriage. During my dark season, I learned that God does not ask us to choose between supporting our spouse and pursuing our own calling. He desires to give us both. And, in his infinite creativity, he can.
There may be periods when couples prioritize one spouse’s vocation over the other’s. But in those seasons, we can trust that God is still gifting both husband and wife with purpose—if not at that moment, then in his perfect timing. Today we remember Elisabeth Elliot as a missionary, speaker, and author, callings that crystallized after the death of her husband in the mission field. His commitment to live out God’s purpose, despite ending in tragedy, ended up shaping her own life’s work. And as her husband pastors a church and pioneers charitable outreach in Austin, Jen Hatmaker has found a dynamic calling writing and teaching the Bible across the country.
God’s purposes for me were not to be achieved in my husband’s calling, or separate from it, but through it. God absolutely meant for me to be in China—for my own sake. As I left behind what was familiar, he cleared out clutter in my life; as I desperately sought purpose, he opened the door to writing, a vocation I hadn’t had the courage to pursue.
Even when one spouse seems to have the “shinier” vocation, the other is never sidelined. Each of us has a role in God’s story, and discovering that role can enrich our marriages as well. We can bring more vibrant versions of ourselves to the relationship—creating more chances to learn from our uniquely created spouses, and to praise the God in whose image they are wonderfully made.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. She tweets @dorcas_ct.
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