Q&A: What should you do when you realize you're married to an unbeliever?
A: It's not uncommon for me to hear a wife lamenting her husband's lack of any kind of spiritual life with something similar to this: "When we were dating he seemed so open and responsive to the things of the Lord. He came to church with me every week and we even read the Bible together and prayed. But, now that we're married, he rarely wants to attend church services and, as far as I can tell, never reads his Bible. Just recently he told me he doesn't think he believes in any kind of god, and would rather not talk about it anymore."
Sound familiar? Have you ever heard the statement "love is blind?" Well, it's most often true. The incredible rush of emotion that accompanies two people falling in love can also cause us to ignore warning signs and abandon our better judgment. We choose to believe the best about the person we want to marry, and we ignore anything that might otherwise dissuade us from what our heart wants most.
So what does a person do when you finally come to the realization that your spouse is most likely NOT a believer, and shows little or no sign of wanting to change?
I'll begin by telling you something you CAN'T do...and that's get a divorce. Having an unbelieving spouse does NOT qualify as biblical grounds for divorce, regardless of how antagonistic they may be about your faith. You married this person and committed to them before the Lord. Now it's time to make good on your promise.
But here's the question the Apostle Paul would ask. Does your spouse still want to be married to you? He writes:
"...if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. [And] if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him." (1 Cor. 7:12-13 ESV)
These comments came about because some people in Paul’s day had responded to the Gospel and trusted Christ while their spouse had not. They found themselves in a marriage that was divided on Christian grounds and they wanted to know what to do. Should they divorce their unbelieving spouse? Paul said, "No." If the unbelieving spouse had no problems remaining married, the believer was NOT to seek a divorce or a separation in that case. Paul advised remaining married and committed.
But what if the unbelieving spouse was so repulsed by their partner's faith that they no longer wanted to remain in the marriage? Paul wrote:
"But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace." (1 Cor. 7:15 ESV)
The clear teaching here is that a believing husband or wife is not bound to the marriage if their spouse desires to leave and in fact does so.
Okay, so that covers the issues of marriage and divorce. But how, then, should a believer respond to their unbelieving spouse. I mean, how does one do it successfully?
The answer to that is quite simple: WITH MUCH PRAYER.
Anyone who is married to an unbeliever will tell you that challenges abound in such a union, and that means you will need to pay close attention to the quality and consistency of your spiritual life if you want to avoid some very dangerous pitfalls along the way.
Pitfall #1: Prayerlessness - You cannot afford to stop praying. Being in a marriage that bears an unequal yoke requires you to bring your spouse daily before the throne of grace, as well as your own heart. You will personally need God’s grace and strength flowing constantly into your life to keep from falling into all the other pitfalls that I’ve listed below.
Pitfall #2: Manipulation - When a marriage partner comes to the realization that they are spiritually alone in the relationship it can cause them to do and say all kind of things in an attempt to goad their spouse into at least trying to come to church or read their Bible. But these methods rarely produce fruit and most often cause the unbeliever to withdraw even further. Believers need to resist the temptation to beg, plead or otherwise cajole their spouse into compliance with their wishes. Such manipulative actions are the opposite of trusting the Lord for your spouse’s salvation.
Pitfall #3: Marital Independence - Sometimes when a Christian husband or wife finally accepts that their partner is an unbeliever they will compensate for the spiritual vacuum in their marriage by throwing themselves into Bible studies and Christian service projects. These things take up more and more of their time, to the point that they create great distance between themselves and their spouse. This is usually a defense mechanism on their part, seeking to fill the void in their marriage with spiritual activity and busyness. Unfortunately all this usually produces is resentment by the unbelieving partner which doesn’t warm them any to the Gospel. When you’re married to an unbeliever you need to keep a careful balance between the time you spend with your spouse and the Body of Christ.
Pitfall #4: Marital disappointment - The pain of being married to a spiritually disconnected spouse can become so acute that eventually the believer will surrender to disappointment. These negative emotions that result can be leveled at their spouse, or even at God. Either way, it has a destructive and very spiritually corrosive effect.
Steering clear of these pitfalls will come as you stay firmly and consistently connected to the Body of Christ, and keep your heart fed with the Word of God. Your challenges are admittedly difficult, but the Lord will be your strength and He will encourage you along the way. Remember this: you are the believer in the family. As such, God will give you opportunities to bring the Life of Jesus into the relationship and to keep bringing your spouse before Him in prayer.