October 3, 2018

The Arduous Journey of Being Married to a Non-Believing Man

Gary Thomas — 

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.

Building Bridges

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.”

Catherine just kept focusing on the positive. “We didn’t have a family together at church,” she admits, “but we did have a family together on bicycles.”

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.

Being Realistic

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.”

Being Honest

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.

Being Patient

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.

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14 responses to The Arduous Journey of Being Married to a Non-Believing Man

  1. Theresa Bodenberg October 16, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Needed this many years ago! Been divorced now for 8 hard years and have learned a lot! Plan on getting the book.

  2. It’s arduous indeed. I met my now husband in church, we were totally unified in our faith when we married. Long story short, he fell away, we haven’t attended church in 5 years (going solo with the kids for the first time this Sunday!), but he has also completely distanced himself from me. While I am owning my mistakes and seeking counsel and trying to move toward him, he is distancing, blaming and unforgiving, throwing in the towel. He would never separate, that would be against his own personal code of conduct. I am really struggling moving forward. My sin has no hold over me, I know where my salvation lies. So I press on, toward Jesus, toward my husband, while he is reviving the sins I have repented of, blaming for the distance it has caused taking no ownership of his own offenses. I am at a loss for how to move forward, is a healthy marriage even a realistic goal? Guarding my heart from taking the weight of responsibility that was never mine is exhausting.

  3. I met this wonderful guy. But he is Catholic. What is your opinion about it

    • Anonoymous in TX October 16, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      Is he is Christ like?-We focus too much in labels, Im married to a man who was raised by 1 Christian Parent (his father was a Pastor) and his mother just followed his father’s leading, my husband doesn’t label his self to be a Christian but he acts more Christ-like than others who I know that state are believers-you will know them by their fruit, yes Im praying for Him to be on fire like I am because he needs much inner healing but he is Christ-like with out the label -He knows that some day He will get there,,,,

  4. This is really tough life circumstances, but I would suggest the more common is perhaps just as challenging, if not more so. Being married to a spouse who is a regular church attender, a “good” person, but, in the words of Kyle Idleman, is a fan, not a follower, of Christ – all while claiming to be the later. They affirm they believe the right stuff, etc. etc. but aren’t one with Christ and don’t own the duplicity, nor see a problem with it. In essence, it’s the post modern influence, and lack of real connection with God and Holy Spirit lead knowledge/application of His word. That has been my struggle for more than two decades, and it’s really rough – on so many levels. At least with the unbelieving spouse you know where they are and why. That’s my world – and I wish it for no one else. As Catherine learned, one can only aim to listen to God and respond and grow in the ways He calls you to christian maturity, and not get too overburdened with the many ways you are not able to genuinely connect with your spouse. And, like she said, it is critical that we know that some needs are God sized alone, regardless of who we are married to – so no human should be asked or expected to meet those needs.

    • I agree. How do you witness to someone who already claims to be a believer? This was my situation–I married my husband not thinking he was a believer (being a Christian shouldn’t be a secret, right?), and then when I found out he’d accepted Christ when he was in college, I knew I should be happy, but instead I thought, “oh shoot–if this is him as a believer, he’s really missing out.” And other people don’t know how to witness to him. In his mind, he said the prayer and he’s done, and he leads a “good” life and is a kind person, so no need to go any further.

  5. And they shall be one flesh. Unity is the key. As I became sanctified by my closeness to my savior and praise and honor him. I must do they same with my husband. Love your God and your neighbor. My husband is not my neighbor but my close partner and part of me so I must give him that love regardless of his faith or not( that’s Gods job who changes the heart) that love that God gives me daily. Is a hard task to die yourself everyday and share that love starting at home and into the world. It’s something I learn everyday. An as a newly born again believer I have the faith and hope that Jesus will touch my husband heart today, because today is the day of salvation!

  6. Mary Lee Morgan October 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Sometimes a husband continues to claim to be a believer, even goes to church with you, but then lives a life outside of the commandments of Christ. And for far more than twenty years. That is not the wife doing anything wrong, either. And it’s much harder. Thank you for sharing this, it still give some encouragement.

  7. I’m one of those women described at the beginning–I married a non-Christian, believing that God would change his heart. It’s been a hard 26 years, and though I can see a lot of work God’s done on me and my maturing as a Christian, there is no evidence of change in my husband’s life (yes, I realize God is still working behind the scenes, but it’s still hard). We have a pretty good marriage as far as getting along, not disagreeing much, etc, but there’s also a lack of spiritual and emotional intimacy. My fear with this article is that if a single Christian woman is involved w/a non-believer, this story may give her enough hope to continue in the relationship w/the belief that God will simply fix things in time–and they don’t realize how very long that time may be, or that it may not happen at all. I understand how hard times bring us closer to God, and for that I’m thankful–but I am well aware that I’m missing out on experiencing a marriage closer to the one that God designed.

  8. It is almost as if I am reading my story. My early prayers in our marriage were asking God to let me leave and His answer was an emphatic NO! So I changed my prayers to do His will and He has worked wonders. While my husband doesn’t yet believe (been married 17 years now) he is very supportive of christian schooling for our children and he has become a recognizable member of our church community through scouts and attending services with us. I know one day he will be with us in our faith and belief for God has put it in my heart, it’s just, as in Catherine’s story, a journey we will take together to grow us closer in Christ and all in His time. I received my copy of Loving him Well just yesterday and am so excited to start reading. Thank you Gary for all you do.

  9. Gary,
    As an author of several Christian books, a former pastor and teacher, and a grandson from a “mixed” marriage, I understand where you’re coming from. My maternal grandparents–both now with the Lord– were married more than 40 years before Grandpa surrendered to Jesus.

    Grandma’s mother was widowed when Grandma was a child, and her mom married an ungodly man. But they attended a liberal church, where Grandma found Jesus via the testimony of her believing SS teacher. So with little sound Christian example, Grandma married my grandfather, a “good” man–a hard worker, respected in the community–and he loved his two daughters, the oldest of whom became my mother. Along the way, Grandma and her girls (my mother and aunt) got involved in a gospel-preaching church. The man who gave them a ride to church each Sunday was a young farmer, a solid Christian–eventually he became my dad.

    Grandma was patient and loving with Grandpa. They went places together, and did things together, except that Grandma refused to attend the local dance hall, where Grandpa was the bouncer until I was a teen.

    Grandpa’s forays into church were only when his grandkids were involved in a church program. As a young man in Bible school I once witnessed to him, using John chapter 3. He repented before he died, and asked Grandma to thank me for my witness (I was away at college at the time). They are now the ancestors of five generators, many of whom are actively serving the Lord. Was it worth it for Grandma to stay with him? Her rewards, both in this life and in eternity say YES!
    Eric

  10. I loved this article! I am in the same position as Catherine. This was very encouraging to me and gives me hope that my husband some day will decide to give his life to Jesus.

  11. This is quite a story. In some ways, Catherine did more than love John, she chose to respect him and his desires and interests. Reminds me of Emerson and Sara Eggerich with ‘Love & Respect”

  12. This is so insightful.