Single women, take note: every married Christian woman I’ve ever met who married a non-believing man has said, emphatically, they would tell every other woman not to do it. They wouldn’t wish away the children they’ve had, but as a general rule, I’ve yet to find a woman who thinks it’s worth the risk going in.
Catherine found that out the hard way, and spent over two decades gradually wooing and praying her husband into the kingdom. As we finish off our series focusing on the content from my book, Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband, we’re going to explore the “takeaway” principles Catherine found helpful in being married to an unbelieving man (men, the same principles apply if you’re married to an unbelieving wife).
I hope you’ll check out the entire book, as this chapter in particular has a very touching story behind the teaching that makes it come alive even more. These lessons follow that story and include insights from John given after he was converted.
Catherine often wondered how two people who shared so little in common could ever make it. Sometimes she even asked John, “Are we going to make it? We have so little in common. My faith is so important to me, but you don’t even share it!”
John would say, “Catherine, where our relationship is good, it’s very good. Let’s concentrate on that.” John wanted Catherine to concentrate on the good places in her marriage rather than become consumed by her disappointments.
Catherine honestly admits she endured a trying and difficult season that went on for decades. “Being unequally yoked is extremely lonely,” she says. “You’re guiding your children by yourself. You try to stave off resentment and build a good marriage— it’s just very, very difficult.”
Most women in such a situation will, like Catherine, find themselves tempted by self- pity. Philippians 2:14 gives some help here: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” The word everything includes marriage, even marriage to a nonbeliever. Resentment and bitterness will only keep us from being spiritually productive in that relationship.
Catherine realized that since she and her husband didn’t share a faith in Christ, she would have to work extra hard to find other things to share. Unfortunately, John was most excited about things in which Catherine had little or no interest— like riding bikes, for example.
“I had to make the decision,” she says. “Would I start riding bikes with him, or would I sit home by myself and let the gap between us widen?”
Catherine’s initial attempts didn’t encourage her. She says, “It was ridiculous. I was so out of shape. But you know what, a year and a half later, I loved it more than he did! We did ‘Ride the Rockies’ together— that was four hundred miles through the Rocky Mountains, a seven-day bike ride with two thousand other people. It was a blast, and we spent hundreds of hours together training for the ride.”
Some wives might be tempted to punish their non-Christian husband by becoming even less accommodating, thinking, If you won’t share my faith, I won’t share any of your interests. But such pettiness, while understandable, does nothing except widen the gap. Catherine adamantly counsels other women married to nonbelievers, “You must find out what he loves doing and learn to do it with him.”
That’s not a bad lesson for spouses in general.
Catherine warns, “Wives can be so dominated by thoughts of ‘This won’t work; we’re too different. We have different ideologies, different passions, even different ways of looking at things.’ Ultimately, we have to learn that we’ll never have some of the things we’ve yearned for, but God will give us ways to develop strengths already there—strengths we may not be recognizing. Along the way, we slowly mature and figure out that Jesus is the one we delight in. My greatest pleasure is my relationship with God.”
Catherine had to realize that God never intended John to meet all of her needs. Even if John had been a Christian for their entire marriage, some needs would still go unmet. No husband, Christian or not, is God.
How will you face disappointment with your husband? Will you allow bitterness, resentment, and anger to slowly poison your home, or will you learn to delight in what you already have? Consider this. As a Christian married to a non-Christian, you are much better off than being a non- Christian married to a Christian. You have your faith, the Holy Spirit, the hope of salvation, God’s grace, your ability to worship, and a love of Scripture to fill your soul and season your mind. Realizing how rich you are spiritually can help ease the frustration you’re enduring relationally.
Changing with John
Catherine eventually realized that, as she puts it, “this waiting period for John to become a Christian was about me too.” She wasn’t waiting just for John. “The whole process was as integral to my growth in Jesus as it was for him. God made it very clear that I was not to consider myself a spectator or a martyr or someone who was just waiting. God had lessons for me to learn too.”
Even if you’re further along than your husband, spiritually speaking, you still haven’t fully arrived. None of us have. Your own character and maturity must continue to grow. Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15, emphasis added). Perfection lies beyond us in this world, but every maturing believer should be showing some positive spiritual movement.
God used Catherine’s marriage to teach her how to better handle fear— in her case, the fear of a failed marriage— and how to be less controlling. As Catherine grew in these areas, God did something wonderful not only in her life but in her family as well.
When your husband isn’t a believer, one of the biggest spiritual traps you will face is being more concerned about his conversion than your maturity. Why is that a trap? Because your increasing spiritual maturity can help foster his conversion (1 Peter 3:1)! Whenever you find yourself obsessing over your husband’s spiritual state, say a prayer for him but then pivot into this: “And Lord, please show me where I need to grow to be the kind of person who makes faith attractive to her husband.”
Catherine found it extremely difficult to learn how to, in her words, “live two lives”: “You have two things that are passionately important to you— your relationship with God and your deep desire that your marriage be viable and strong. It’s very difficult when you can’t merge the two. You feel divided.”
Financial giving to the church presented a particularly thorny issue. Catherine wanted to give money to her church, but she didn’t work outside the home, and initially she feared what John might say. So she began saving the change from the grocery money and giving that as a contribution— something she now regrets.
“Finally, I just had to tell John how important giving was for me,” she says. “I’d tell young wives to be honest about the things that are important to you instead of hiding them.” Once Catherine explained why she wanted to give and how much it meant to her to be able to do so, he agreed that she could donate a hundred dollars a month. Catherine wishes she had been more up- front all along.
Some foolish women greatly wounded Catherine when they told her, “Your husband should have been saved long ago. What are you doing wrong?”
Yet when you talk to John, he keeps coming back to how much he appreciates Catherine’s patient spirit. If she had tried too hard, if she had kept pushing, she most likely would have moved John further away from the faith rather than closer to it.
Keep in mind that a cosmic spiritual battle rages inside your husband. Eternity is at stake. In the light of eternity, one or two decades aren’t all that long (even though twenty years can seem like forever). John remembers times when he saw Catherine and the kids getting ready for church and then pulling out of the driveway, and something inside of him would be saying, Go after them— but he didn’t know how. It took time. If Catherine had tried to force the issue, she would have made things worse, not better. Jesus tells us in Luke 8:15 that “by persevering [we] produce a crop.”
The Ultimate Surrender
Few things present more difficulty for a bride of Christ than being the wife of a man who is outside the faith. Catherine admits to feeling pulled hard in two directions. She loved her husband and wanted her marriage to work, but she also loved God and wanted to put him first. It hurt deeply when she couldn’t immediately bring the two together.
The reality is, no easy answers exist. I can’t give you an ironclad recipe that will guarantee your husband’s conversion— and anybody who tells you differently, frankly, is lying. But a gentle and quiet heart— mixed with a patient spirit and a growing, flourishing soul fixed on worship and emboldened by the Holy Spirit, resulting in a woman who keeps praying and who finds ways to connect with her husband— greatly increases the possibility that she will one day pray to the God of her dreams with the man of her dreams.
I can tell you this: The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God does not desire anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), and 1 Timothy 2:4 declares that our Savior “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” When you combine the favor of God, the guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit, and the persevering love of a believing wife, I like that man’s chances.
God bless you in this glorious task! The most important place you can ever move your husband toward is God. When you consider the eternal benefits and your husband’s spiritual health, nothing else comes close. It’s not an easy battle, nor is there a guaranteed victory— but in the end, it’s a fight worth fighting.