“Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.” (1 Peter 3:
Lee and his wife Leslie had a happy marriage. After a few years as husband and wife, they were best friends and enjoyed a fun, exciting life together. But then Leslie did something that sent their marriage into a skid: she made a commitment to Jesus.
Up to that point, Lee and Leslie had been sailing merrily along without paying much attention to God. But once Leslie committed her life to Christ and joined a church, things changed. Their relationship became strained and troubled. Lee describes what he was feeling at the time.
I was feeling hurt. That might sound like an odd reaction, but all of a sudden I felt like I was less in Leslie’s eyes. I thought I was losing her respect. She was meeting all sorts of new people through church. She seemed so impressed by their spirituality that I was feeling as if she looked down on me. If these people were to be respected because of their devotion to Christ, then what’s the flip side of that? I felt Leslie’s respect for me would dwindle because I wasn’t committed to God.
And I wondered what would happen if she insisted on raising our children as Christians. Would they think less of me, too? I was concerned that they’d grow up pitying poor old Dad because, after all, he’s just a pagan on the road to hell. Also, I didn’t want my kids feeling sorry for me. I wanted them to respect their dad.
Another emotion I felt was frustration. I was frustrated because, for the first time in our relationship, our values were at odds. For instance, we had always been in agreement on how to spend our money. But now Leslie wanted to give money to the church, and I blew my top. Money was very important to me, and I felt that she was going to waste it by giving it to a bunch of charlatans.
Leslie felt so strongly about giving to the church that she got a part-time job just so she could contribute more to help the ministry expand. I couldn’t relate to that. It grated on me because I thought of all the fun ways we could spend that extra cash, and yet, at least to my way of thinking, it was going down the drain.
And I felt afraid, too. I feared that Leslie was going to turn into a wild-eyed religious fanatic. Was she going to embarrass me in front of my friends? Was she going to shame me every time I drank too much? I wondered, was she going to reject all of our old friends? Was she getting hooked up with a cult that was going to control every aspect of her private life?
I married one Leslie, and now she was changing into something I hadn’t bargained for. That didn’t seem fair. Though I liked the new Leslie, I want the old Leslie back!
Finally, I was experiencing anger. I’m talking about serious anger. If you had asked me why I was so mad, I probably couldn’t have told you. I just knew that I was infuriated much of the time. Disagreements broke out. Arguments erupted. I couldn’t diagnose what was going on, but I knew our marriage was headed downhill —fast.
In summary, Lee felt hurt, frustrated, afraid and angry about Leslie’s newfound faith.
A Christian Wife’s Response
Meanwhile, how did Leslie feel? She was going through her own emotional turmoil. She felt much the same as Lee —hurt, frustrated, afraid and angry —but for very different reasons.
Leslie felt hurt. Especially in the first few months after Leslie became a Christian, Lee would make fun of her faith and put it down. This wounded Leslie. She felt deep love for God and prized her spiritual life, so she felt deep hurt when her husband showed so little regard for something that meant so much to her.
Leslie also felt frustrated. She couldn’t share her joy and excitement with him over new spiritual discoveries. He just didn’t get it. He didn’t want to hear about it. She’d learn a new insight or get a fresh taste of God’s love, and have no husband to share it with. She’d receive an answer to prayer but say nothing about it to Lee, because he would only scoff if she told him.
Fear and Conflicts
Leslie felt fear, too. Looking ahead, she saw more conflicts coming: disagreements about how to raise the kids, how to spend money, where to go on weekends, and other things. Her greatest fear, though, was that her husband would someday stand before God and hear the Lord say, “Lee, you chose to be separate from Me all your life, and I let you have your own way. Now you can have your way throughout eternity by being separated from Me forever.”
Mingled with her pain, frustration, and fear, Leslie also couldn’t help feeling angry at Lee. He said he was open-minded and tolerant of her new faith, but she sensed a negative attitude. The message she kept getting was, “What do you have to go to church for? What’s wrong with you that you need that kind of crutch?” It made Leslie mad that her husband could be so open-minded about most things but so negative toward Christianity.
Lee and Leslie’s once-happy marriage was in turmoil. But even though Leslie struggled with her feelings and wasn’t always sure what she ought to do, she kept on loving God, she kept on loving Lee, and she kept seeking to become a better person.
Lee felt troubled by his wife’s new faith, but he also saw that her faith was making a real, positive difference for her.
As Lee later explained:
Leslie’s conversion actually ended up sparking the most tumultuous era in our marriage. Yet, over the next couple of months, I started to sense subtle changes in Leslie’s character as the Holy Spirit began to change her. I’m not saying that she turned into Mother Teresa overnight, but there was a definite blossoming of her personality.
I detected it in the way she related to the children, and saw it in her more loving demeanor toward me and others. I watched her develop more self-confidence and patience.
Some time later Lee visited his wife’s church. What he heard there got him to thinking. He began to study the main claims of Christianity and to investigate whether they were just wishful thinking or whether there were solid reasons to believe what the Bible says about Jesus. At last Lee decided the evidence in favor of Christ was so strong that it would take more faith for him to remain an atheist than to become a Christian. Lee tells what happened next.
I walked into the kitchen, where Leslie was standing next to Allison in front of the sink. Our daughter was five years old at the time, and by standing on her toes and stretching, she was barely able to reach the kitchen faucet for the first time.
“Look, Daddy, look!” she exclaimed. “I can touch it! I can touch it!” “Honey, that’s great,” I told her as I gave her a hug. Then I said to Leslie, “You know, that’s exactly how I feel. I’ve been reaching for someone for a long time, and today I was finally able to touch Him.”
She knew what I was saying. With tears in our eyes, we embraced.
Today Lee Strobel is a committed Christian, along with his wife Leslie. In fact, Lee is a pastor-one of the best pastors around when it comes to connecting with spiritual strugglers and seekers. (The Strobels’ story is told in Lee’s book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, Chapter 9.)
Hang In There
If you and someone close to you don’t share the same faith, it can be hard. It’s troubling for a husband and wife to be in a spiritual mismatch. It’s tough when parents and children don’t have the same spiritual outlook. Even in the case of friends or coworkers, it can be awkward when one is a committed Christian and the other isn’t.
When people are close to each other, but don’t have the same relationship to God, the relationship can be troubled. This is true of many types of relationships, and it’s especially true of marriage. So let’s consider how to deal with a spiritual mismatch in marriage. Along the way, we may learn things that also help in parent-child relationships and friendships where one person has faith in Jesus and the other doesn’t.
When different viewpoints clash in a marriage, it may be tempting to split up. Conflict and turmoil aren’t fun, so it may seem best simply to move out and move on. But don’t be in a hurry to end a marriage. Learn how to cope in the situation. Something good may yet happen.
Let’s be clear:
People with different faith commitments shouldn’t get married in the first place. God warns Christians not to be yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14). God says this out of love: he wants to spare us lots of problems. So if you’re still single, commit yourself to Christ before you commit yourself to a husband or wife; and when you look for a spouse, don’t consider anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus. If, as a Christian, you marry someone who doesn’t share your faith, you’re violating God’s orders and asking for trouble.
Once you’re married, though, you can’t go back. Once you’ve made marriage promises —even though you shouldn’t have —you ought to keep those promises. You should try to build the best marriage possible under the circumstance. Some spiritual mismatches occur when someone who should know better simply goes ahead marries someone who doesn’t share their faith. Often, though, the mismatch is something that develops later in the marriage.
Perhaps the marriage started with neither person caring about Christ but later one became a Christian. Or perhaps, when you got married, both of you were churchgoers and claimed to be Christians, but one wasn’t really genuine and eventually fell away. That can be very tough on the person who remains faithful to Christ. You thought you were marrying a fellow Christian, but now you’re in a spiritual mismatch that you hadn’t bargained for.
No matter how you got into a spiritual mismatch, you need to face life the way it is now, not the way it might have been. In some cases you had no way of knowing things would turn out this way. And even if you knew better, even if you were a Christian and deliberately chose to marry someone who wasn’t following Jesus, you shouldn’t drown yourself in a sea of remorse. You may be reaping bitter fruit and finding out that a spiritual mismatch is harder to live with than you thought it would be, and you may have nobody to blame but yourself. Even so, you need to focus on what to do next, not on what’s already done.
God Meets You
God doesn’t just wait around at a point where you should have been. He comes and meets you where you are. If you knowingly disobeyed him in your choice of a marriage partner, you must confess your sin. Ask his forgiveness. Then you must also accept his forgiveness. You got yourself into this predicament, true enough, but once you’ve repented and found forgiveness through Jesus’ blood, don’t keep bashing yourself for your past sin. Instead, get on with living for the Lord now.
God’s first order in your present situation is to stay in the marriage. The Bible says, “If any Christian has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him” (1 Corinthians 7:12-13). If an unbelieving spouse insists on leaving you, it’s beyond your control; you can let the split occur as peacefully as possible (1 Corinthians 7:15). But if your spouse is at all willing for the marriage to continue, then do all you can to maintain and strengthen the relationship.
What About the Children?
You may fear that your faith will be weakened and your children will be misled if you stay with someone who doesn’t share your faith. That might be true if your faith is phony. But if you have a genuine, living commitment to Christ, the influence works the other way. The Bible says that even the unbelieving spouse of a true Christian is somehow set apart and under a holy influence.
This is also true of the children. Don’t assume your spouse’s unbelief will ruin the children. Instead, take heart in the Bible’s declaration that “your children…are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14).
Then wait and see what God may yet do in your life and in your spouse’s life. The Bible says, “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:16) There’s no promise or guarantee that a non-Christian spouse will inevitably come to faith, but there’s reason for hope.
You Aren’t in Control
You don’t determine your husband or wife’s eternal destiny, so don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Also, you don’t control their response to Christ. It is ultimately between God and your spouse. Still, though you shouldn’t weigh yourself down with a responsibility, you can be encouraged by a probability. The Bible encourages you that if, as a Christian spouse, you seek to strengthen the marriage and, at the same time, to live for the Lord, the probability is greater that the Lord will indeed touch and transform the other person’s heart.
Lee and Leslie Strobel are an encouraging case in point. They went through much turmoil when Leslie became a Christian and Lee remained an atheist. But Lee ended up coming to Christ.
Winning Without Words
What made Lee start to think Christianity might be worth considering? The transformation he saw in Leslie’s life. As Lee puts it:
“She cooperated with God as He changed her character, attitude, and outlook. She yielded herself as fully as she could as God began molding her into a more Christ-like person. I watched as she increasingly became a person of humility, integrity, love, and self-sacrifice. And, in the end, the main reason I was willing to take an open-minded look at the Christian faith was because I was astonished by how Leslie was being transformed into a better person.
It’s an old saying that actions speak louder than words, and it’s true. The best way for a Christian to win over a spouse or someone else close to you is not clever reasoning or constant nagging but a life that shines with the light of Christ.”
In the early years after Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian message spread rapidly. Many people who once believed in various gods or goddesses, or in no religion at all, came to faith in Christ. But in many cases, their spouses remained pagan. In the Bible, the apostle Peter spoke God’s Word to Christian women with non-Christian husbands: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2). The goal is not to win an argument but to win a person. The way to win a person is to live your faith, not just talk it.
This doesn’t mean that if you’re a Christian, you should never speak about your faith to your non-Christian spouse. When you first become a Christian, you should tell your spouse about your new faith and commitment to Christ. You should also try to answer any questions your spouse might ask about your beliefs. Peter says in the Bible, “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). So be ready to speak, but don’t be pushy and overbearing.
Clearly communicate your decision to follow Jesus. Gently invite your spouse to consider following Christ, too. After that, give your spouse some space. Pushing too hard will just make your spouse more stubborn. Tell them as much as they want to know, but don’t nag. Don’t talk too much when they’re not ready to listen.
If they don’t believe the word, try winning without words. Let your life do the talking. If your life doesn’t shine with the reality of God working in you, then nothing you say will have any effect. But if your life does exhibit God’s transforming power, your spouse is sure to notice the difference.
Does this mean your husband or wife will be happy about the new you? Not necessarily. Even if you’re more loving, kind, and considerate than you ever were before, your spouse may become more troubled and angry than ever. But that’s not all bad.
Lee Strobel explains from his own experience:
If you had asked me back then why I was so mad, I probably couldn’t have told you. Now, as I look back, I can pinpoint the root of my rage. Basically, as Leslie pursued a godly lifestyle more and more, her behavior increasingly accentuated the difference between that lifestyle and my own.
In other words, the more she sought after purity, integrity, honesty, tolerance, and forgiveness, the more obvious it became that my own life and relationships were corroded with cynicism, bitterness, superficiality, and self-centeredness. It was as if Leslie were unwittingly holding up a mirror and I was seeing myself for how I really was, and I didn’t like the picture. The Bible calls it being convicted of sin, and it made me angry because I didn’t want to face it.
Depend on God, Not Self
The Strobels’ experience shows that loving, godly behavior by a Christian spouse doesn’t always produce a pleasant reaction. Their experience also shows that there’s no need for a Christian to criticize an unbelieving spouse. Why should you harp on things your spouse is doing wrong? Just depend on God to make you more and more like Jesus, and the contrast between your life and your spouse’s will do more to show him his sin than any words you could say. This may stir up negative emotions that are no fun for either of you, but such turbulence may be a step in a journey that leads to Christ.
Quite a number of people who ignore God and the church have some religious background. But in many cases, they were hurt by people claiming to be Christians, or the religion of the church people they knew seemed boring and lifeless. They turned away from the church and have coasted along for years, comfortably ignoring Christ and seeing church people as hypocrites or misfits. But then a spouse turns up with a living faith, and unbelief is no longer so comfortable.
When a spouse knows Christ and is transformed in a way that is vibrant and real, it’s no longer so easy to dismiss Christianity as hypocritical or hollow. This can stir up all sorts of confusing and painful feelings that put enormous stress on a formerly comfortable relationship. It can also be the occasion for a spiritual breakthrough.
Without words an unbeliever can be convicted of sin, and without words an unbeliever can be drawn toward Christ. At some point, words may be needed to explain the basics of believing in Christ and of living for him, but the wordless witness of a Christ-like life will give those words the ring of truth.
Truth in Action
This is true in marriage, and it’s also true in relationships between parents and children and other relatives. It’s true in friendships and in relationships at work. Even in a work situation that is unpleasant and unfair, Christian workers shouldn’t care so much about personal discomfort as about winning the people they work with to Christ. The way to do this is not offer a new sermon every day but to be hardworking, cooperative, and trustworthy, says the Bible, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10).
That’s the key: at work, at home, in the everyday details of friendship and family and marriage, live in such a way that you “make the teaching of God our Savior attractive.” People close to you must see your faith before they give it a fair hearing. So don’t just try to talk people into believing; love them into believing. Let your life do most of the talking.
Not On Your Own
And remember: you don’t have to do it alone. At times you may feel spiritually lonely if you’re the only one in your home or workplace with a commitment to Christ. But you can find fellow Christians to support you and encourage you. Stay involved in a church. Stay close to a trusted Christian friend or two. Such a friend can help you grow in your faith and also listen to your frustrations, encourage you, offer guidance, and pray with you.
You’re not on your own. God’s people are with you, and, more importantly, God himself is with you. When you’re not able to talk to your spouse about God, you can still talk to God about your spouse. Pray to the Lord. Ask the Lord to make you the person he wants you to be. Ask the Lord to give you wisdom in dealing with a person who doesn’t share your faith. Also, ask the Lord to shine through you.
Ask the Lord to have mercy on that person who is so dear to you. Ask the Lord to open their mind and heart to Christ, to give the miracle of spiritual rebirth. You can’t make that happen on your own, but God can answer prayer and use your life to win someone else to him. He’s done it before, and he can do it again.
This article was featured on the web site for the ministry: Won Without a Word, which was designed to help those who are married or are engaged to those who are not Christ-believers. We’re sorry to say that we can no longer find that web site on the Internet. However, we have been able to find this particular article, which was a featured part of a broadcast on the “Back to God Hour” by David Feddes, May 21, 2000.
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Filed under: Spiritual Matters Unbelieving Spouse