How Do I Love My Unbelieving Spouse?
One man — a husband and father — writes in to ask, “Pastor John, I am a Christian. My wife is not. When we met and married in medical school nine years ago, I held firmly to atheism and relativism. She was Buddhist. Five years ago, God opened the eyes of my heart to see, experience, and know the truth of Jesus Christ. Like Nebuchadnezzar, God brought me low, and, from those depths, I arose in awe and praise.
“However, these last several years have been challenging for my marriage. Despite sharing two young sons together, my wife and I are spiritually at odds. Despite my attempts to explain, she does not understand my faith in Jesus, nor my time spent in Bible reading and prayer. My time at church on Sundays is often viewed as a distraction from our family life. I love my wife immensely. I love our experience of each other in caring for our two sons. I believe those joys are pointers to an experience of God’s joy. She does not. I feel like there is a spiritual divorce, of sorts, that has already happened. I have no intention of a legal divorce — I want to keep alive the hope that we will one day share a Christ-exalting marriage and lead our sons in a walk of faith. But how do I persevere in love, empathy, and in a Christ-centered way amidst this great spiritual divide with my wife?”
Oh my. I want our friend, who doesn’t give us his name, to know that I have prayed not just for him in his request, but for her.
“More than anything else, we need our almighty God’s heart-directing work.”
This is a beautiful testimony. God brought me low, and, from those depths, I arose in awe and praise. That is a beautiful testimony of a beautiful, active, sovereign grace and a powerful one, and I thank God for it. It’s also beautiful because he says, I love my wife immensely. I love our experience of caring for our two sons. I believe those joys are pointers to an experience of God’s joy. That’s beautiful, and it’s beautiful because he wants help in persevering in love. All that is pure, amazing, supernatural, miraculous, divine work, and I praise God for it. I stand in awe of God’s power in this man’s life. What a great testimony.
And it’s a painful testimony. Yes, it is. She does not understand my faith in Jesus, nor my time spent in Bible reading and prayer. Sometimes she views my church involvement as a distraction from family life. I feel like there’s a spiritual divorce of sorts, but oh, how I thank God that our friend has not done what so many do; namely, equate that internal breakdown with a justification for divorce. He says, I have no intention of legal divorce. I want to keep alive the hope that we will one day share a Christ-exalting marriage and lead our sons to walk in faith. Amen, amen. God is so pleased with that resolve and Lord make it happen.
So, in answer to the question, How can I persevere? How can I endure in love and empathy in a Christ-centered way amidst this kind of spiritual divorce of heart, if not marriage? I’m going to try to answer with some passages of Scripture because the key to persevering will be hope and faith that God can overcome this divide, and this faith and hope are all built on the word of God. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), and we need God to speak to us every day. That’s what this man needs. Every day he needs God to speak to him — not just once in a while — in order to give him grace and perseverance.
The word becomes effective through divine work in our hearts in response to prayer, so I’m going to start there in 2 Thessalonians 3:5, “May the Lord direct your hearts” — I’m saying this to him, now — “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness” — the endurance — “of Christ.” This is Paul’s prayer that the Lord would direct our hearts. This is what our friend will need more than anything; namely, God, the almighty God, must do heart work on him, heart directing. I pray this often for myself. “The love of God and the steadfastness of Christ” are essential for being steadfast in marriage, but the Lord must direct our hearts to the love of God and direct our hearts to the steadfastness of Christ. This is the great foundational need: a sovereign, heart-directing work of God. So, we join Paul in praying for that day in and day out.
“Let your unbelieving spouse and children see that Jesus satisfies — even during life’s sorrows.”
O God, direct my heart to what I need in your word. Direct my heart through your word to the reality that I need for strength. And it is a wonderful encouragement that virtually all of the Bible is designed to encourage endurance and hope. Listen to Romans 15:4–6, “Whatever was written” — whatever, all of it — “in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures” — I think that means the endurance and the encouragement the Scriptures give — “we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another” — a sweet marriage verse, with no distortion of meaning — “in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, that is a beautiful passage that without any twisting can be applied to marriage. That together you may with one voice glorify God. That’s his heart’s desire for his marriage and that’s what this text is about — and it’s all about hope from Scriptures, hope based on endurance and encouragement that come from the Scriptures. And the way it does this is by acquainting us with the God of endurance and the God of encouragement — through the Scriptures. One of the hardest challenges for him will be not just to endure and persevere, but to do so with joy. We want our children and our unbelieving spouses to see that Jesus satisfies — that we don’t just gut out the life he’s given us to live, but that in it, with all of its sorrows, there is profound joy.
Here’s the way Paul prays in Colossians 1:9 and 11: “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you” — now I’m jumping to verse 11 — “[be] strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.” This is God’s great miracle work in answer to prayer. May God strengthen you according to his glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy. Nobody but God can do that in a difficult marriage. Let me just quickly give two other passages that come at it from two different ways.
Marriage is like a marathon — not a sprint — it’s a marathon. And some marathons have more hills, more heat, more obstacles than other marathons. Here’s how Jesus ran his marathon and calls on us to run the marathon of our marriage and every other marathon that we face. This is Hebrews 12:1–2: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance” — that’s what he’s asking for: perseverance — “the race that is set before us” — and here comes how — “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” So, don’t be ashamed of looking forward to the future joy to experience portions of it in the present to sustain you in your marathon of marriage.
“God designs even your difficulties and sufferings to help you persevere in your marriage with joy.”
The last text — this is one of the most crucial because it relates the suffering of such a marriage to hope and endurance — Romans 5:3–5. Even the suffering and the difficulties are meant to help us persevere. It says, “We rejoice in our sufferings” — and just add marriage, our sufferings in marriage — “knowing that suffering produces endurance” — or perseverance — “and endurance produces character” — or, a sense of approvedness — “and character produces hope. And hope won’t let you be ashamed “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
So, I end where I began with that amazing statement of the source of our daily need for renewed hope; namely, Romans 15:4, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance” — through perseverance — “and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”