My Boyfriend Is Spiritually Lethargic — Should I Still Marry Him?
We address a lot of dating questions on the podcast. Those can be found in the podcast archive. Today we add another to the list. The question is from a listener named Crystal, a not-yet-married woman with a question about her current boyfriend and what it means to be unequally yoked. Here’s Crystal’s email: “Dear Pastor John, thank you for your episodes. I look forward to them every week. I would like to ask about the topic of being unequally yoked. I am in a serious relationship that is headed toward marriage with a man who became a Christian. But he seems to take Christ a lot more casually than I do. I have shared with him my desire to build a Christ-centered family and have frequently tried to point him toward Christ. He agrees. But from his actions, it doesn’t appear that Christ is truly number one in his heart.
“I’m trying my best to encourage him to have greater reverence for God without coming off as judgmental. But I always have this nagging worry. Am I still obeying Christ by continuing this relationship when my boyfriend is less spiritually vibrant? Would that make us unequally yoked? In my circles, it seems like there are few single Christian men who are spiritually mature to choose from, and I suspect I’m not the only woman facing this dilemma.”
No, I suspect you’re not. Let me rehearse what I just heard because it’s pretty bleak.
- This young woman is in a relationship headed for marriage.
- She is dissatisfied with how casually her boyfriend takes Christ.
- She thinks his actions don’t show that Christ is number one in his heart.
- She wishes he had greater reverence for God.
- She sees him as not spiritually vibrant.
So, it sounds to me like she is very much aware of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:39 that Christians are only supposed to marry “in the Lord” — that is, marry other Christians — and she is trying to discern whether that clear line in the sand also implies that a serious Christian woman should not marry a lackadaisical Christian man.
Idleness in a Suitor
Now, my short answer from the little I know of her case is this: no, she shouldn’t. Now let me give some reasons for why I would be so blunt, and then back up with a slight qualification at the end. Let’s start with 2 Thessalonians 3:6:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
“Spend some serious time and see whether or not some changes come about to prove another kind of character.”
So there was this problem in Thessalonica that some of the church members, perhaps because they thought that the day of the Lord was so near, were not supporting themselves by work and were becoming busybodies and moochers in the church. And Paul didn’t jump to the conclusion that they were not Christians — not yet. But he said — and he called it a command “in the name of the Lord,” no less; he strengthened it — that the other Christians in the church should keep away from the idlers, a kind of holy ostracism, in the hope that this might shame them and bring them to repentance and obedience.
Now the analogy I’m drawing between the disobedience involved in laziness and idleness at Thessalonica, on the one hand, and the kind of apparent spiritual lethargy in Crystal’s boyfriend, on the other hand, is that there’s disobedience on both parts.
- He takes Christ and his word casually.
- Christ doesn’t seem to be number one in his heart.
- He doesn’t manifest serious reverence.
- He doesn’t have spiritual vitality.
Another word for that is disobedience.
- He’s disobeying the command of 2 Peter 3:18 to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
- He’s disobeying the command of Revelation 3:16 that we should not be lukewarm, lest Jesus spits us out of his mouth.
- He’s disobeying the command of Romans 12:11: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.”
- He’s disobeying the command to “serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2).
- He’s disobeying the command to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).
- He’s disobeying the command to love God with all his heart and all his soul and all his strength and all his mind (Luke 10:27).
And the list could go on and on. I cannot imagine Paul saying to the young women at Thessalonica, “Now I’m calling the whole church to stand clear of Christian men who walk in idleness, but it’s okay if you fall in love with one and marry him.” You need to spend some serious time and see whether or not some changes come about to prove another kind of character.
Christ, His Church, and the Couple
Then consider what marriage actually is designed by God to be. “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Something very profound is meant by the term one flesh. That bodily union in sexual intercourse is the physical expression of a much deeper union of heart and soul, pointing to the covenant relationship between Christ and the church.
Paul quotes that very text, Genesis 2:24, and then he says in Ephesians 5:32, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” There isn’t anything in human relationships comparable to the depth of the union of persons between a husband and a wife in covenant relation as they seek to reflect Christ and the church. It’s the profoundest of human relationships.
Therefore, a woman or a man contemplating marriage should take stock with the greatest seriousness: will I be able to pursue such a profound union of heart and mind and body with this other person?
And the last thing I would draw attention to is this: a woman should be asking herself whether the man she is thinking about marrying is growing into the kind of maturity and character that will make him a responsible, Christlike spiritual leader in the home. Christian women are not called in marriage to lead their poor benighted husbands. The Bible says that the husband is to be the head of his wife and their family. There is a spiritual maturity, a strength of character that precedes this leadership. That’s what she should be looking for.
Now, here’s where I said at the beginning that I would give a slight qualification to my statement that Crystal should not pursue marriage with this man. The qualification is this: it is quite possible that a man who is a newer believer may not yet have the biblical foundations or teaching that will enable him to grow into the kind of mature, responsible spiritual leader for which he’s destined. That means that a woman considering marriage to such a spiritually untried man must be very discerning concerning the kind of character traits she sees emerging in him, which may signal that he is or is not on his way to the wisdom and knowledge and strength and humility required for biblical headship in his family.
And here’s the test I would encourage her to make: Is he humbly eager and growing? Or is he halfhearted and unresponsive? Or is he resistant and defensive? I can see those three possibilities: (1) humbly eager and growing, (2) half-hearted and unresponsive, or (3) resistant and defensive. Those are the three responses that I can see a young convert having as a Christian leader, like a pastor, tries to help him; or Christian books are given to him; or his Christian girlfriend points him toward biblical maturity. I think it’s possible for a spiritually wise woman to see emerging character traits of leadership and maturity and wisdom and humility and grace and strength as she watches him respond. How does he respond to all the Christian input that he should be seeking and getting?
“Don’t doubt God’s good providence in your life if you should think it wise to put the brakes on this relationship.”
If she sees eagerness and receptivity and responsiveness and growth, she may be encouraged to keep moving forward. But if she sees unresponsiveness and laziness and lack of interest, lack of zeal — or worse, resistance and defensiveness — it seems to me she would be asking for a lifetime of frustration to move forward in that situation. So, Crystal, may the Lord give you great wisdom and courage in this relationship. Don’t doubt God’s good and wise and loving providence in your life if you should think it wise to put the brakes on this relationship. God is for you as you walk in his will.
That’s good: better to remain unmarried than to marry a nominal, spiritually lethargic man.
Yeah, absolutely I would say that. And if we are going to talk about that in any detail, I would spend a good bit of time exalting the virtues and possibilities of singleness, because I think not enough has been made in the church with regard to helping single people get a vision for their life while they’re single, and that singleness may last a lifetime.
I can point to two or three remarkable older single women at Bethlehem over the years whose lives were absolutely stunning in their exemplary usefulness at every level — in families, among children, in Bible studies and Bible teaching, and service and overseas. If a woman — or a man, for that matter — gets ahold of the calling that Paul really envisioned for his own singleness, I don’t think they would view the absence of marriage as the catastrophe that some believe it is. But I love marriage. I think marriage is God’s ordinary way forward for the human race — but not for everybody.
So yeah, the answer to that question in my mind is this: better to be a godly, fruitful, obedient, devoted single than a person who’s constantly regretting that my partner just doesn’t seem to get it spiritually, and they remain a kind of nominal spiritual dud all their lives.
Another thing to say is that if you’re married to such a person, you should be. People ask me, “How do you know if you’re married to the right person?” The answer is this: look at the name on the marriage certificate. That’s the answer. God doesn’t encourage divorce because one partner is a nonbeliever or a nominal believer. You learn to grow in grace with what God has given you.
Headship’s High Calling
And there’s an urgent call here too for men, single men, to be discipled and to be ready for marriage. And that’s a whole other topic.
Oh my, yeah, it is a whole other topic. I hope any young single man listening would not mainly feel beat up or discouraged, but rather say, “Okay, I’ve got a job description. If I am to think in terms of marriage long-term, the Bible says to think in terms of growing into the humble, Christlike, wise, strong, discerning, mature man that could lead a godly, mature, courageous, strong, articulate woman.” And that really is the way to think about life, I think, if they’re not devoted to singleness. The only kind of man a woman wants is a mature and godly man, and the only kind of woman a man wants is a mature and godly woman. And therefore, the man has to press on to be her head.
And I would just qualify one thing here. That may make some men think like, “Oh, I have to have a high IQ,” or “I have to have the same grades in class.” Well, that’s not true. That is not true. You can be a godly, initiative-taking, loving, burden-bearing, protecting, providing leader with a wife who’s a lot smarter than you are. Yes, you can. And we can talk about that forever.