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When He Doesn't Believe

Secrets to loving your unsaved spouse

Coming home was no picnic.

"What's for lunch?" my husband, Steve, mumbled, barely looking up from the couch. He sat unshaven, still in his bathrobe, watching a ball game on TV. He looked just as disheveled as he had two hours earlier when four-year-old Lauren and I had left for church, only now he was hungry. Out to the kitchen I went, and with a loud banging of pots and pans, slapped together a colorless meal.

Without a doubt, we were miserable! Steve had no interest in my new faith in Christ; in fact, he reacted as though I'd taken a lover. As he retreated into a hostile, quiet shell, I grew increasingly hurt and resentful, casting disapproving glances at everything he did.

We sat down, and I said a stiff prayer over dinner. When Steve looked up, he asked, "How was church?"

"It was wonderful," I returned flatly. "You might have liked it if you'd been there." Another disapproving glance.

"I don't think so. I don't fit in there," he answered thoughtfully, and after a long pause he added, "You know, if I were you, I'd feel pretty guilty."

"Guilty? Guilty?!" I exploded, bringing my fist down hard on the table. Lauren darted out of the room. "Why should I feel guilty? You're the one who's rejected Christ! You're the one who refuses to believe! How can you have the nerve to say that?"

With the softest words I ever heard, Steve delivered a blow from which I'd never recover: "Because, Virelle, I'm a pagan, and I'm behaving exactly as a pagan should. But you're a Christian, and you're not loving." Silence. For once, I had no words.

Later, on my knees in our bedroom, I cried out to God, Steve can't possibly be right, can he? You know how hard I've tried to grow as a Christian. You don't think I'm unloving, too, do you? Silence again. In my heart, I knew God agreed with Steve.

I'd been a pain to live with. I'd watch my Christian friends' husbands sit with an arm around them in church, or hear them pray aloud in a group, and brim with jealousy and self-pity. I justified my growing coldness toward Steve by viewing him as incapable of being the husband I now wanted. The fact that I no longer was the wife he needed had never occurred to me. How could I possibly please God when I claimed to be spiritual, yet showed neither love, gentleness, nor grace to my husband?

The turning point came while still on my knees that miserable Sunday. I knew I had to change, and radically at that. God challenged me to love Steve as if he were already the man I prayed he would become, whether it happened now, in 30 years, or sometime after my death. If faith really was "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1), I had to believe God would answer my deepest prayers for Steve in his own way, in his own time. Tough terms—but I wasn't exactly in a bargaining position. I agreed.

It's funny how God works. To this day, I've never heard of him changing your mate first. He always begins with you, or in this case, with me. I realized that although I couldn't change Steve's hostility toward my faith, I could learn better ways of handling it. When he'd occasionally grumble about Lauren and me attending church, I'd offer to stay home. A few times he even tested my sincerity by taking me up on it. On those days, I needed a serious attitude adjustment in a hurry, but God didn't let me down.

"Attitude verses," such as Philippians 2:1-3, 5, seemed to jump off my Bible's pages: "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love … then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. … Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus."

That's a tall order. So I enlisted a few friends to pray daily for my attitude to become more Christ-like at home.

Having focused on my own feelings so long, I also had to relearn what made Steve feel loved. I was ashamed to admit I'd forgotten. Showing little kindnesses had become so rare, Steve didn't trust me at first when I'd bring him a cold drink or prepare a special meal. He thought it was a ploy to get my own way, but in time, we both began to relax and enjoy being together again.

But frankly, words were my biggest problem. I had far too many of them. It was a rude awakening for me when I realized God didn't need to use my mouth to teach Steve anything. In fact, he did much better without me. Many times when tempted to retaliate with a sharp or critical word, I'd remember Proverbs 12:18: "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." I began loving Steve without preaching at him or registering my disapproval at every little "mistake" he made.

I desperately needed to spend time daily drinking up God's Word, allowing God to fill my hungry spirit with his thoughts. My friend Connie calls it "hugging the Word." Then, through some miracle, when I most need it, he releases words that build and mend and heal out of the same mouth that once caused hurt and offense. What an amazement!

But words alone can't rebuild a marriage; they need actions to prove them true. My Christian friends urged me to do more than just give up being Steve's chief critic; they urged me to get on his team, learn to put his plans and interests ahead of my own, to look for every opportunity to help him shine. I watched how they did it. They listened more to their husband's challenges and joys at work. They looked for things to laugh about and created beauty in the little things that make up life. And they prayed hard for every detail that touched his life.

As I imitated their example, I found that praying for Steve daily did more to change him than a thousand words from me. I asked God to guide Steve all day long, to give him wisdom and protection, to open the right doors in his life and close the rest. Then, I had to believe that God was doing it, even if Steve wasn't yet the spiritual leader for whom I longed. John 9:31 holds a powerful promise for praying wives: "He listens to the godly woman (my paraphrase) who does his will." I found he not only listens, he knocks her socks off with answers!

When our car, for example, suddenly gave up the ghost, Steve's stress meter went off the scale. I prayed like mad for a miracle. Within a few days a car dealer from my church offered us a free loaner car while we shopped for another. He soon found us one of the most beautiful cars we've ever owned and sold it to us at a price even we could afford on a squeaky budget. Steve was amazed—and I secretly leapt for joy.

But in order to pray effectively, I had to rid myself of every ugly attitude in the way. Resentments choke the healthy growth of relational change; I needed to remove them deliberately, one by one, through daily prayer.

I also realized a great teammate doesn't have to call every play. During the eighth month of my third pregnancy, Steve announced a sudden job change to the Boston area from my cozy Christian setting in Baltimore. I had a choice: either cooperate with God's apparent leading, or dig in my heels and make us both miserable again. I chose to cooperate and the path to Boston was strewn with miracles: a brand-new home purchased without a penny saved for a down payment, an "instant band" of new playmates for our lonely five year old, and two older women to mentor me as a struggling Christian mom.

Within a few months of that painful lunch when Steve wondered about my Christian attitudes, big changes began to occur in our home. Hilarity and romance returned, attendants to a marriage better than the one before. No longer did I experience the "you make me happy and I'll make you happy" kind of love, but a stronger, richer love that reached for new words to say, "You're the best gift God ever gave me. My deepest joy is loving and serving you."

Yet it all took time, and the process carried with it times of intense loneliness. When silent tears rolled onto my pillow at night, God comforted me with a tender promise from Psalm 126:5: "Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy." He not only understood my pain, but also sent someone who showed me how to carry it.

When I met Elizabeth, I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever met. Silver-haired and 60ish, Elizabeth radiated an unflappable acceptance of others. Her husband, Fred, was a quiet man, not much for socializing. Whenever he came to church, they often held hands. I'd think, That's the kind of marriage I wish Steve and I could have.

It wasn't long before Elizabeth included me as a helper in her weekly ministry to neighborhood children. Her lovely voice made Bible stories come alive each week for a room full of squirmy kids, including my own preschooler. One day I confided in her the terrible longing I felt for Steve to share my faith.

When she confided that Fred also was an unbeliever, I blurted out in amazement: "What? How have you lasted this long?" My heart secretly sank at the prospect of a 40-year wait looming ahead of me.

"I learned one day that God called me to love Fred, to make his life as content as I possibly can," Elizabeth said. "He never asked me to change him. Only someone as big and powerful as God can change a husband! In spite of Fred not sharing my faith, we've found a happy life together, and God has done wonderful things in my children's lives. They're all strong believers and pray every day for their dad. I have no doubt God will honor those prayers." And he did. I learned many years later that Fred received Christ as Savior shortly before his death.

Women such as Elizabeth helped me see my mate was given for me to love, honor, and enjoy, but not necessarily to meet all my emotional needs. God re-serves that place for himself. He wants to meet the deepest hunger of my soul, to be filled with himself—the only true source of unlimited love. Elizabeth's beauty, I learned, came from spending time regularly with the Source.

Like any great father, God loves to surprise his children. Six months after that milestone Sunday, Steve returned home one evening from an overnight trip. My pastor dropped by to talk to me about church membership, but instead spent the entire evening talking with Steve.

While I fixed snacks in the kitchen, Steve began to unearth his last remaining doubts about the Christian faith. I can't believe this is happening! I thought. If I go in there I might spoil everything! As Steve bowed his head and quietly accepted Christ, I sniffled a big thank-you to God in a little corner of the kitchen. Strangely, it was the same corner I'd often ducked into for my "panic prayers" for help. My song of joy had finally come.

It's been more than 28 years since then. I've learned that in God's household, love is the power that transforms. Now I marvel at the awesome Christian man Steve's become. Our shared joy is found in building up other marriages and families through small groups, teaching, speaking, and writing together.

This year marks our 46th anniversary. Has it all been smooth sailing? Certainly not, but it's been an exciting journey learning to love each other and move forward as a team. Will we ever "arrive" at a perfect marriage? It's doubtful, since I'm one of the partners! But we're having fun working on it. I'm thankful God gave me a second chance at loving.

Virelle Kidder, author of Loving, Launching, and Letting Go (Broadman & Holman), lives with her husband in New York.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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