Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13
Each year on December 30, my wife and I celebrate the anniversary of our engagement in 1981, when I proposed marriage after dating her for six months. I was fearless in that moment, but had agonized for months leading up to that evening. I didn’t want to make a mistake. There was too much at stake.
Gail and I first met in August 1980 in the foyer of Lowrey Memorial Baptist Church in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Following an evening church service as people were chatting in the aisles, a mutual friend introduced me to her and her parents. I remember the moment: she was a short, pretty blonde girl with a dimpled smile. I immediately liked her and we became friends. Just friends. It was the beginning of our sophomore year of college and I was engaged to marry someone else – one of Gail’s friends.
By the end of that semester, the engagement was over. It was a deeply disorienting and confusing time for me. I felt that I had made an irreparable mess of two lives. In the three years since trusting Christ to forgive my sins and change me, I saw nothing but failure. Powerful emotions clouded my thoughts and colored my decisions. I didn’t trust anything about me, and I didn’t know how to depend on Him to lead me. Yet.
Gail and I began meeting and talking together following the recent breakup. I had entered Blue Mountain College believing God was calling me to be a pastor. Since she was a little girl, Gail believed she was called to be a minister’s wife. We spent hours together, laughing and enjoying a very different kind of relationship than any I had known. It was centered on Christ and a shared sense of calling. We shared scriptures with one another. We encouraged each other. We prayed together.
She already knew what was coming. She had prayed and had several confirmations from the Lord that I was going to be her husband one day. She was sure. But I wasn’t.
It was all too soon and too fast for me. I was enjoying our sharing, but I still had no clue what I was doing. I was definitely infatuated with her. I thought she was beautiful. I knew she would always love me. But did I really love her? Did I even know what true love is? I didn’t want to make the same mistakes in another relationship. So I stopped everything that was happening with Gail. I broke it off. I stopped seeing her and tried to be “single” for a while.
She was hurt. She avoided me. And I didn’t blame her. It was my fault.
My “Single” Life
During the next five months, I continued to struggle relationally. It was an emotional roller coaster. But I studied hard. And with God’s grace, I was speaking regularly in churches scattered across north Mississippi.
As summer approached, I had to choose between two ministry job opportunities: a summer intern position at a nationally-recognized megachurch, or a summer youth pastor position in a small town. At the time I sensed that this was a turning point for me. This was an important decision and I wanted to do God’s will. I prayed. I sought counsel from my parents. I discussed it with my Bible professors. I never received a direct, intuitive word from God, but I did strongly sense He was directing me to the small town assignment based on my conversations with the “counselors” He had placed in my life.
So I went to work at First Baptist Church of Fulton, Mississippi, which also happened to be Gail’s hometown. We had barely spoken since our brief “dating” relationship had ended.
I had begun to greatly distrust my feelings – especially romantic feelings. I determined that any decision I would make in the future would be rooted in an objective, unclouded choice to do the will of God. So discerning and knowing His will in major life decisions became a paralyzing experience for me. I didn’t know what I was doing much of the time, but I knew this: I wanted to pursue His wisdom in all of my relationships with others.
A New Beginning
I loved being a youth pastor and I loved the students. As they came to me with questions about life and dating relationships, I found myself driven repeatedly to the scriptures and to my knees seeking the truth. Helping them grow was helping me to grow. I began studying what the Bible says about relationships between men and women. I uncovered a range of interactions in the text: family, friendship, engagement, and marriage.
In particular, I was seeing that marriage was not ultimately founded on romantic feelings, but on a promise. When I married, I realized I would be making a promise to be there for my wife for the rest of her life. That kind of love is a choice, not a feeling… and I drank that biblical understanding into my mind and heart like a thirsty man stepping out from a dark, deadly, and dry place.
Gail spent that summer serving as a children’s ministry intern at a church four hours away from Fulton. On her way home to see her family for a couple of days, she struggled over whether to make contact with me. The Lord spoke to her: “If there were any other classmates in Fulton for the summer serving a church in your hometown you would call them.” She called me. I dropped by to visit.
Awkward at first, we sat across from each other in her parents’ living room and talked about the things we had learned in the months since our brief relationship had ended. Being “single” was a good thing we decided. Then we began to talk easily and naturally together, in much the way we had in the beginning, but I was listening and watching her with fewer “clouds” in my mind. It was a new beginning.
We lost interest in being “single” as we gained a new interest in one another. We talked on the phone regularly. We wrote letters (an ancient form of “texting” for you younger souls). I made a couple of trips to see her, leaving after work, driving four hours, talking till midnight, driving back to Fulton, and grabbing a shower before going back into the office.
As we headed back to college for our junior year, we were dating exclusively. I continued my work as a youth pastor in Fulton on weekends. She would often travel with me. I stayed with a family in the church, while she stayed in her home. I grew to love her family. She grew to love mine.
But as the relationship progressed, I had a nagging set of questions that circled incessantly around in my mind. Is she the one? How are you going to know? When are you going to know? How is God going to make this clear to you?
This went on for six months. She had given up any hope that I was going to propose marriage anytime soon.
The Angels Stood
Just before noon on December 30, 1981, I was walking out of the mall in Tupelo when some of my kids from the church youth group saw me – they also saw the jewelry story bag I was carrying. They knew what I had in there. After they begged to see the engagement ring– and I showed it to them – I knew I couldn’t take Gail with me to church on that Wednesday night. The news would travel faster than my actual marriage proposal – even without the social media channels of today!
How did I get to the point of asking her to marry me?
I had spent months denying what I wanted, afraid to trust my heart. At the same time, God was shaping my desires, drawing me to want what He wanted. In my longing to do His will, He was re‑forming and re‑building my thoughts and my emotions. I was reading His Word and seeking counsel from professors and parents, but it was the words of an older married couple that God used to help me acquire a better and biblical understanding of the desires of my heart.
What if God is making His will for you known through the very means you are not paying attention to: your desires? In Philippians 2:13, Paul says that when God is at work inside you, He is creating new desires (to will) and the ability to carry out everything He wants (to do). He knows you want to please Him, now what is in your heart to do next?
And in that truth, I found peace and freedom. In this great turning point, I did not hear His voice as a flowing collection‑of‑thoughts, as I would hear Him sometimes years later. I was not drawn to a particular Bible verse that would serve as directional anchor point in the decision process. I was not struck with a confirmation in the midst of listening to a sermon or a Bible study.
I just knew that He had created this desire inside of me for Gail. I missed her when she was away from me. Not in a silly, emotionally dependent sort of way, but in the sense that part of me was now incomplete when she was away. The part called “us” – something mysterious and wonderful and that had His fingerprints all over it. Something that was not a fantasy, but a powerful reality that would carry my devotion to her through decades.
It was Him…
to choose her!
Gail and her parents had been away for a few days. We had not exchanged Christmas gifts, so my plan was to await their arrival, speak privately to her parents, and take her out to dinner. They were late coming in… I went out to their house and waited in their driveway… and waited… and waited. After the long uncertainty, and now knowing, I was living in a new world with a new future that I had not let myself imagine. I could hardly contain my excitement.
When they finally arrived, Gail went to her room to change clothes, and I asked her Dad and Mom for permission to marry their daughter. Martha looked at George and I think she breathed under her breath something like, “It’s about time.” George smiled and quietly asked me to step outside. I still remember the first time I met George. He intimidated me. With powerful shoulders and massive hands, the ex-Marine with the chiseled face was a little scary to me, but I grew to love him as a gentle, wise man, who loved his family and his God.
When we got outside and walked in silence, I was a little anxious. Then he began asking me some practical questions about our financial readiness to do this. He seemed satisfied. After a few minutes, he uttered one of the great lines in our family lore, “Well Don, if you marry her and take her away, you can’t bring her back. You understand?” He laughed. I agreed. It was a great moment.
At a seafood restaurant operating in an old Victorian era home, we were seated at a table near a fireplace. It was raining outside. As we waited for our meal to come, I gave her the Christmas gifts I had. Then I pulled out the ring box in my pocket.
I handed it to her and leaned over whispering in her ear, “Marry me.” So technically I never asked her to marry me… but she was stunned and thrilled. She nodded her head “yes” and she could barely speak.
She told me later she had given up hope that a proposal would come that Christmas. But she kept praying and trusting God to speak to me. She had always known, almost from the first time we met.
It was the moment when the angels stood and looked down on two college students who met in a little Baptist church one evening… and the mighty ones peered over the bannisters of heaven and said, “It’s happening! The two greatest lovers who will ever live… they’re meeting for the first time.” Or something like that.
So now my 54-year old self is telling my 20-year old self that it didn’t have to be that hard. Unfortunately, my 54-year old self was not around to offer that advice to the 20-year old self!
So if you identify with the 20-year old in this story, I hope you saw some of these things:
- He was dissatisfied with the way he had been living.
- He was fearful of missing the life God had in mind for him.
- He was persistent in his human efforts to know God’s will.
- He discovered that knowing God grew out of studying His Word.
- He discovered God was ordering conversations and circumstances to bring the 20-year old closer to Him.
- He discovered God’s activity in his own soul.
- He discerned what God wanted Him to do next.
Tonight, Gail and I will go out and celebrate our proposal anniversary again. Not only does the evening mark the beginning of our walk together, but it was a turning point in my journey to hear, understand, and know the heart of God.
[Author’s Note: This post was originally published December 30, 2015 at DonPucik.com and migrated to EquippingSaints.com]