Missionary Single Issues:
Contentment and Comparison
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this happened. On his way home Bill, a single missionary, waved at Tom and
Ruth playing with their children in front of their big house. As he went
into his apartment, he realized how small it really was. It was big enough
for him, but he barely had space to turn around in his kitchen. He surely
could use more space.
Mary, another single missionary, followed Bill into the neighborhood and
waved to Tom and Ruth as well. As she went into her apartment, she
realized how lonely it was with no one else there. She would really like
someone to care for her and laugh with her like Tom did with Ruth.
Bill and Mary are not contented with things just as they are. The thing
that brought their discontent into consciousness was the sight of Tom and Ruth
at their house. Anyone can have feelings of discontent, but single
missionaries may feel it about different things than do married missionaries,
and they have no one to talk with about it.
The Bible on Contentment
Paul, a single missionary, wrote a supporting church that he had learned to
be content whatever the circumstances. He knew what it meant to have
plenty as well as to be in need, and he had learned the secret of being content
in any and every situation (Philippians 4:11-12). Note that this was
something he learned, not something that came naturally, and that ability
applied to whatever happened.
He also wrote to a young missionary pastoring a church he had planted during
a stay of several years in Ephesus. Paul wrote, “Godliness with
contentment is great gain” (1Timothy 6:6). The only other place that
word for “contentment” is used in the Bible is where Paul wrote to another
church he planted. It is the “having all you need” in the following
passage: “in all things at all times having all you need you will abound in
every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). That is contentment!
Results of Contentment
Contentment DOES NOT mean
- Bearing your “cross” of singleness
- Tolerating singleness
- Enduring singleness
- Grudgingly accepting singleness
Contentment DOES mean
- Satisfaction in serving God
- Deep joy within
- Gratitude to God
Here are some examples in the Bible.
- Rejoicing even when expectations are not
met (Habakkuk 3:17-18
- Rejoicing when persecuted (Acts 5:41)
- Singing hymns to God even when flogged
and thrown into jail (Acts 16:23-25)
- Joyfully accepting property being
confiscated (Hebrews 10:34)
- Rejoicing when suffering for Christ (1
The Bible on Comparison
Jesus, a single that never married, talked in a parable about envious
comparison destroying contentment. A landowner agreed to pay workers a
denarius (a typical day’s wage) for a day’s work, and apparently they were
satisfied with that because they went to work. Throughout the day more
workers came to work. In the evening when the workers were paid, all of
them received a denarius. Those who had agreed to work all day for a
denarius were no longer contented when they compared their wages with the others
(Matthew 20:1-16). When they objected, the landowner asked them if
they were envious because of his generosity.
Later, when Jesus told Peter about his future, Peter looked at another
disciple and said, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus told Peter that was not
any of his business; he was just to follow Jesus—not compare his future with
anyone else’s (John 21:16-22).
Results of Comparison
Jesus, in his parable about the workers in the vineyard, made it clear that a
common result of comparison is envy. Envy can never result in
gratification—no enjoyment, only endless self-torment as its appetite increases.
Envy is not merely wanting another’s goods but wanting to pull the other person
down. This leads to resentment, backbiting, spite, slander, hatred, and
even murder, as was the case with Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2-8).
The relative deprivation principle maintains that people tend to overlook the
ways in which they are relatively better off than others and to focus only on
the ways in which they think others are better off. Thus they devalue
their own gifts and blessings while overvaluing others. This only feeds
Envious people do not even really love themselves. They are not
grateful for, or happy in, what they are or what they have. This sin is
deadly because it will not let people live as themselves, grateful for the
qualities and talents that God has given them, and making the best and most
rewarding use of those gifts. Their degradation of others is a reflection
of their degradation of themselves and their gifts. These people wind up
alienated from themselves as well as others and “miss the party” like the elder
brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
Furthermore, envy may lead to coveting, the last of the Ten Commandments
(Exodus 20:17). There God gave not only a general command not to covet
what another person has, but specified several things.
As long as Bill, mentioned at the beginning, just wanted housing with more
space he was not coveting, but if and when he reached the point at which he
wanted the house where Tom and Ruth lived, he was violating the tenth
commandment. This may then lead to taking steps to get that house,
possibly causing problems within the whole team serving on that city.
As long as Mary just wanted a husband, she was not coveting. However,
if she began wanting Tom as her husband, she had begun coveting, and this may
lead to terrible results. This may lead not only to team problems, but
also to the breakup of a marriage and children suffering from the effects of
Of course, even though married individuals have a spouse, they may also begin
coveting someone else’s spouse. Not having a spouse, singles may be even
more likely to begin coveting. As soon as attraction to a married person
begins, singles must take steps to prevent it from growing. As attraction
grows, it becomes a slippery slope down which people slide and become
irrationally willing to give up everything for that other person—even if it
means breaking up families, derailing missionary careers, and living in sin.
What to Do
Few people readily admit their sin of envy. It is so filled with self,
wanting something simply because someone else has it, that it is clearly mean
and nasty. Whenever we notice differences between us and others, we are
likely to begin making comparisons, and those comparisons often lead to envy.
Since few of us escape feelings of envy, what can we do when the Spirit makes us
aware of our envy? What can we do to avoid falling into this trap?
Confess and repent. As with any other
sin, we are to confess it, and God has promised to forgive (1 John 1). If
we deny our sin, we deceive ourselves and remain in it. When we are
forgiven, we are to repent, not only to feel sorrow for the wrong we have done
but also to turn from the sin itself. Following are ways to help you turn
from envy, to avoid rather than be trapped by it.
Compare self with self. If you must make
comparisons, compare yourself with yourself. Galatians 4:6 says, “Each man
should examine his own conduct for himself; then he can measure his achievement
by comparing himself with himself and not with anyone else.” Compare your
apartment, salary, vehicle, and so forth now with what you had 10 or 20 years
ago, not with what married missionary colleagues now have.
Compare with those who have less. Rather
than comparing yourself with married missionaries who have more, compare
yourself with people you serve who have less. Compare your apartment with
the living conditions of the homeless. Compare your salary with the
unemployed and nationals you serve. Compare your vehicle with those who
have no vehicle at all. Just as comparing yourself with those who are
better off creates envy, so comparing yourself with those less well-off
increases contentment. In fact, as you “count your blessings,” you may be
motivated to share them with others who have less. Such sharing will
increase your satisfaction even more!
Accept that nothing (no thing) brings lasting
joy and contentment. No matter what you have, you will soon adapt to it
and want something “better,” whether it is housing, spouse, salary, vehicle,
position, language ability, and so forth. Research in the late 20th
century showed that relationships were most highly correlated with happiness.
Romans 12:1 urges people to offer
themselves as living sacrifices as an act of service. This is pleasing to
God and results in contentment for the person. Doing so usually involves
two parts. First, one needs to make an open-ended general surrender to God
of everything that is to come up in the future. Second, as unexpected
specific things appear after that, the person may have to update and revise that
surrender to include the attractive new things.
Although you cannot find joy, satisfaction, and contentment by pursuing these
things, contentment may find you as you are careful about comparisons, avoid
envy, and keep the Great Commandment to love God and to love others as you love
Ronald Koteskey is
Member Care Consultant