On Sunday night I watched an old documentary about the marriage between Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth. Narrated by Walter Cronkite, the documentary was a fascinating look at the well known couple and their unique relationship.
Although the two clearly loved one another, they had a difficult marriage. At one point Ruth jokingly admitted that, had God asked her to marry Billy a second time, she would have said no. Although she delivered those words with a wink and a smile, one can’t help but wonder how much truth was behind them. Billy was gone so much that, upon returning from a 7 month absence, some of his children didn’t even remember him. In a very real sense, Ruth was a single mother.
I love Billy Graham and the meaning of his legacy. In many ways, his life and ministry have been an inspiration for me. I’ll never forget the day I left the Billy Graham Library sobbing uncontrollably–the story of his life had reached out and moved me.
But the marriage between Ruth and Billy is a difficult one to process. What does it mean when a man essentially leaves his family to serve the Lord?
Like every other Christian couple, Billy and Ruth had to work out God’s calling on both their lives, and figure out what it looked like for them. Practically speaking, it meant Billy was absent most of the time, while Ruth stayed at home with the children. For many families, some version of that dynamic is what works. Or at least, it’s the dynamic they settle on.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference in New York where Shauna Niequist shared about her own parents’ struggle to figure out this dynamic. Shauna’s father, Bill Hybels, is the lead pastor of one of the largest churches in the U.S, Willow Creek. His wife, Lynne, spent the majority of their kids’ childhoods at home. Lynne had dreams of her own, but for years they took a backseat to Bill’s.
The result, Shauna explained, was a spiritual and emotional withering, deep within her mother’s soul. It wasn’t until decades later, when Lynne finally began to steward her own God-given call to serve the poor, that she experienced the abundant life we are each heirs to in Christ.
These two stories highlight a struggle I’ve had in my own heart ever since my son was born. Both Ike and I are students, and I have an additional call to writing. Our different callings were easy to navigate until our son was born. Since then, I’ve been working hard to balance my calling with my commitment to be Ike’s wife and Isaac’s mom.
Blessedly, Ike supports my calling. He believes in my gifts, and, as my husband, he feels convicted to honor and steward them. He believes he will have to answer to God for how he nurtured and supported my gifts, so he makes sacrifices to that end.
As much as I appreciate Ike’s support, I have to confess that I don’t always believe him. I look at women like Ruth Graham, who stayed home to raise the children so that Billy could pursue God’s call, and I wonder if Ike secretly desires the same. Wouldn’t he be happier if I stayed home, raised Isaac, cooked meals, and set him free from helping me to pursue my own calling? Is he just trying to be the good guy, while secretly yearning for something else?
I’ve asked him this question many times, and his answer is always the same: No. What he wants, on a deep-down soul level, is for me to use the gifts God has given me for the edification of His church.
And yet, I still have trouble believing him.
But, I’m starting to.
At the same conference where I heard Shauna speak, I also heard from a panel of men who are married to women with callings of their own. Each husband has his own call to ministry, but each shared his burden to steward the gifts of his wife. Each saw beauty in his wife’s unique design, and each wanted to honor and encourage her to live out that design.
As I sat and listened to these men, a thought crept up in my heart,
“Maybe, just maybe, we’re not the only ones…”
Then yesterday I read a beautiful blog post by Jennie Allen’s husband, Zac. A man with his own call to ministry, he confessed to feeling threatened by his wife’s gifts. However, he eventually realized the importance of nourishing and shepherding her gifts, in addition to his own.
As I read his words, the reality hit me harder than ever before–Ike and I are not alone. We aren’t weird and Ike isn’t denying some God given desire to work while I stay at home. No, this is something that the Holy Spirit is really doing. Men believing in their wives’ gifts, this is a thing. There are Christian men–strong, confident, godly men–who see the mighty gifts of their wives as tools of the Kingdom of God, and these men are choosing to be their sharpeners. These men aren’t denying their callings anymore than they’re denying their wives’–instead they’re making room for both. They’re laying themselves down, choosing a different way, and doing something radical.
That’s why I’m starting to believe my husband. I hate to admit that I had to witness his self-giving spirit in other men before I could believe him. How foolish of me! But now I see how this “profound mystery” called marriage can take on many different forms to serve the Kingdom of God–some traditional and some not so traditional–but all can be equally Christ-exalting.
In the years to come, our circumstances will certainly change. There may be seasons when it only makes sense for me to stay at home more than Ike. But this I know with confidence: wherever life takes us, Ike values my role in the church. He believes in me, He believes in God in me, and He will do whatever He can to make space for the Spirit to work through me.
I cannot imagine a better gift that a husband can give his wife.