With every new year, Lisa hopes, "Maybe this is the year my husband will become a Christian." Meanwhile, she sits with her kids in church trying not to feel resentful as she watches other families—husband, wife and 2.3 children—filling the pews around her.
"I have to fight the lump in my throat," she says. "My mind races: I'm angry and worried and scared all at the same time. I try not to think about it, but what if he dies tonight? I get so tired of praying and waiting. And I'm tired of the tension at home, especially on Sunday mornings. I know it's wrong, but as I sit and count the couples, I can't help thinking, 'Why doesn't God do something!'"
In the past 20 years, I've often asked that question. The answer, of course, is that God is doing something—and he's keeping and sustaining me within my "unequal yoke."
That term comes from 2 Corinthians 6:14, where Paul admonishes Christians not to pair themselves with a "different kind." Unless a yoked team of oxen moves at the same pace and travels in the same direction, the yoke chokes one and pinches the other. The marriage of a believer to an unbeliever often hinders the believer's life with God and can cause both partners pain and discomfort.
Barry and I were unbelievers when we married, and back then a relationship with God was the last thing on our minds. Three years went by filled with partying, softball and the birth of our first daughter. Then I prayed a simple prayer that changed my life forever.
Unfortunately for Barry, I was an obnoxious "Jesus freak" right from the start. I didn't "share" my faith; I pushed and shoved. I wrote the handbook on how not to win your spouse to Christ. I trumpeted my every minute change: "See how loving and humble I am?" I prayed loudly in Barry's presence and made sure he knew he was a sinner destined for hell. I gave him every gospel tract I could find and added a Bible verse at the end of my notes to him.
Not surprisingly, we were soon at odds. I blamed our problems on his unholiness and his ungodly friends; he said I was a lunatic. One minute I'd be blasting Christian music and scattering opened Bibles around the house, the next I'd be crying and pleading with him to go to church with me.
When he wouldn't go, I'd sulk and make him sorry. He was sorry all right—sorry he married me. I wanted a Christian husband (preferably him); he wanted his old wife back, Jesus-free.
Then I read a book on prayer that challenged my whole approach. I decided, "That's it! I'll pray for Barry for the next 80 years, if that's what it takes. And I'm going to love him. Period." That was 19 years ago, and I'm still praying, but I'm no longer pining away in self-absorbed isolation waiting for his salvation to bring us fulfillment. I've decided that if it takes 80 years, then I want those years to be enjoyable for both of us—despite our spiritual differences.
God Doesn't Make Mistakes
When I came to faith in Christ and Barry didn't, I thought God had made a huge mistake. Two serving the Lord made much more sense. But I knew God never makes mistakes.
I came to realize that God "purposely positioned" me in my unequal yoke, to borrow from Jo Berry, author of Beloved Unbeliever (Zondervan). As an unbeliever, I hadn't married in disobedience. As I realized that God was the designer of my marriage, I relaxed my spiritual choke-hold on Barry.
Author and speaker Jeanne Hendricks pointed out to me that unbelieving spouses are actually in a privileged position, set apart in God's eyes because of their union with believers (1 Cor. 7:14). They share our blessings because God sees a couple as one flesh. She believes Christian spouses should see their role as a ministry given by God. Her thinking changes the whole tone of the relationship from burden to blessing.
Knowing it's an honor to be married to Barry doesn't take away the ache of not being able to share the most important part of my life with him. But it helps to remember that loneliness also happens between Christian spouses—whenever individuals seek ultimate fulfillment in each other, instead of in God.
For me, knowing that the Lord is my Husband (Isa. 54:5) takes away the sting of being alone. He can fill the needs that Barry can't. It's when I stop relying on God and start isolating myself at home, doing "spiritual" things while Barry does something "worldly" like watch a ball game, that I feed my loneliness and create division. It helps to reason that even if my husband were the most committed Christian, he still wouldn't meet all of my deepest needs.
A House Undivided
"Sometimes the sight of him just makes me want to scream!" confided a friend recently. "When I see empty beer cans on the sink and he's watching trashy TV shows, I can't help thinking of him as the enemy."
Another friend said, "I worry about my kids. If Daddy doesn't go to church, will they grow up thinking they don't have to? Every once in a while, my husband will plan something fun on a Sunday, like a trip to the arcade, and say, 'Okay, who wants to go to church with Mom and who wants to race go-karts with Dad?'"
"Expect your spouse to be unreasonable about spiritual things," writes Jo Berry. "[Your] godliness is threatening, convicting and confusing." But that doesn't make an unbeliever the enemy. In the chronicle of her own marriage, Bebe Nicholson warns that such an attitude will sabotage your relationship and ruin even the best efforts to be effective examples of Christ's love (When a Believer Marries a Nonbeliever [Priority Publishing]). Self-pity, Nicholson writes, projects the attitude, "I could've done better in the marriage department" and is a refusal to accept God's sovereignty in all matters. Self-righteousness not only hinders compassion but, if left unchecked, easily turns to contempt and hatred.
Ethics and the Unequal Yoke
Say your unbelieving spouse asks you to cheat on your income tax, uses foul language, tells off-color jokes or belittles your faith in front of the children. What do you do? Gary Oliver, executive director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at John Brown University, gives this advice:
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Think and pray things through. Consider past confrontations: what worked then? Don't confront at the moment, especially in public, and never attack.
- Communicate as an individual. Say, "This is the conviction I have." That allows you to state your beliefs without forcing your faith or "being weird for Jesus."
- Don't make a big deal of it. Especially with off-color jokes or conversation topics, just say, "I'd prefer not to hear it." Offer a joke of your own. For men, especially, humor is a way of showing affection.
- Be flexible. Tolerate things that may be distasteful, as long as it doesn't cause you to sin.
- Appeal to your spouse's sense of fair play. When it comes to issues involving the children, approach your mate on the basis of what's fair. Most unbelieving spouses are eventually fair when it comes to their kids.
- Pray, pray, pray.
Jo Berry points out, "You and your spouse are both sinners. The only difference is one of you is saved and the other one is not. But that doesn't make the unsaved any less of a person or less deserving of dignity and respect." On the contrary. Believers are called to have the same attitude Christ had when he humbled himself and lived among sinners, considering others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4).
Created to Love
"I felt helpless," said my friend Ron, talking about the time before his wife, Kerri, became a Christian. "I couldn't transform her heart." No matter how hard we try, we can't coerce, sweet-talk or plead our spouse into a relationship with God. No one comes to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). To me, that's good news. I can focus on my responsibility: to love Barry.
"God created us to be lovers," writes Nicholson. "The more we love God, the more open our hearts are to loving each other. … The strength of our love for our partner can draw [him] toward Christ and bring glory to God." Until that happens, there are some practical things believers can do to help bridge the spiritual gap and help themselves stay spiritually strong.
Live in the now.
Accept your relationship for what it is and concentrate on cultivating peace and happiness. Instead of striving to alter your circumstances, set your mind on enjoying your life. Find what's good now and build on it.
Live your faith with integrity.
Let your spouse see that genuine Christianity isn't blind allegiance to a set of rigid standards, but a process of growth and change. Ron said Kerri had seen him fail to make good on promised changes before he became a Christian. But when she saw he wasn't going back to his old ways, she became interested.
Let your actions speak.
The loudest form of evangelism is a life that's changed. Gary Oliver, executive director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at John Brown University, counsels believers to show Christ in the little things, like taking out the trash and vacuuming. Ed, a man at the local gym who's now a believer, told me his wife was always kind when he was harsh with her, and that drove him crazy. "Joanne wouldn't say a word, but I knew it was Jesus that kept her from blowing up at me."
Honor your marriage.
"I let my husband know I'm glad I'm married to him," said Margaret, "and I never talk about him without him knowing about it first." At Bible study, Julie told me she honors her unequal-yoke marriage by not filling her calendar with church events. She and the kids go to Sunday morning services, and she attends Bible study and events like MOPS during the week. But when her husband is home, he's her priority.
Jeanne Hendricks adds, "It might not be easy, but it speaks volumes when you let your spouse know, 'I like you as a person.' When wives honor their husbands by making them feel appreciated and good about themselves just as they are, it often softens their hearts to the things of God."
Find common ground and have fun together.
My friend Jodi makes a list of things she and her husband enjoy: swimming, watching Star Trek movies, vintage cars and sex.
Gary Oliver says both sexual and nonsexual touch are important and cautions (women especially) against shutting down physically. "Although it's difficult for women to remain open physically when they feel they can't share the most important part of who they are, men especially need touch. Sexual touch reaches him at his core. When a wife enjoys her husband, he feels loved, valued and appreciated."
Prayer is our link to God's presence, power, wisdom and comfort. You might pray for conviction of sin and godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Cor. 7:10); that God will take a spouse's heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26); wisdom, courage, discernment and opportunities to speak.
Cultivate your relationship with Christ.
It's crucial to maintain Christian fellowship, Bible reading and prayer. If you can, join a small group and have them pray with you for your unsaved mate.
Don't give up hope.
God knows what he's doing, and he knows those who are his (2 Tim. 2:19). Trust that he will do what's best for you and your spouse. We have this hope: "God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). That means there's hope for your spouse—and hope for mine.
Beloved Unbeliever, by Jo Berry (Zondervan). The classic Christian book on this subject—designed for personal use or use in a support group.
Lord, I Wish My Husband Would Pray with Me, by Larry Keefauver (Creation House). A book for couples who are spiritually mismatched—even if both are actually believers.
When a Believer Marries a Nonbeliever, by Bebe Nicholson (Priority). An encouraging personal story—with a happy ending.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of several books, including Honey, They're Playing Our Song (Multnomah). She and Barry live in Inverness, Florida.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.