A letter from a reader revealed a situation that confronts many every day.
Dear Randy, I am married and have two grown sons. I am the only one in my family who lives as a Christian. There are so many times when I just don’t know what God would have me do, though I believe He wants me to stay in the marriage (we’ve been married 33 years). I joined the church four years ago. My husband also joined, but almost as soon as he did, he started falling away. It’s almost like Satan roped him in and will not let go. He wants me to go to a New Year’s Day party—football and fish fry. There will be drinking. I feel that I will be uncomfortable there, and I’m not sure what God wants me to do.
How are conflicts like this resolved? Can we go to the Word of God and find practical guidelines on how to live with an unbelieving spouse? I believe we can. God’s Word “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”1 We can trust it to be a source of wisdom regarding the problems we face in life.
Before we look at what God’s Word says, however, let me state that I am not a marriage counselor. Never having gone through what the letter writer describes, I wanted the pointers in this chapter to be credible and to represent the viewpoint of someone who has “been there.” So in preparing my response I consulted with a dear friend who lived in a spiritually divided marriage for many years. Her counsel is reflected in some of the tips I will share.
1. Stay in the marriage.
The writer of the letter says that she believes God wants her to stay in the marriage. The apostle Paul supports her belief.
"If a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. . . . God has called us to live in peace."2
God is not in the business of breaking up families. The letter writer was married some 29 years before joining the church—a decision she and her husband made together. One partner remained strong in the Lord; the other has drifted back into the old lifestyle. This is definitely not a case of a believer deliberately entering into the “unequally yoked” situation that Paul instructed Christians to avoid.3 But even if it were, Paul upheld the sanctity of the marriage commitment and saw the possibility of redemption for the unbelieving spouse through the spouse who is following Christ.
If you’re in this situation and your spouse is willing to remain married, do not consider divorce an option. Stay in the marriage, and show your spouse the love of God.
2. Pick your battles prayerfully.
Don’t be a martyr on every point of conflict that arises in your marriage. Pray first and then ask “What would Jesus do?” In the case of the New Year’s party, consider going with your husband--but don’t drink! You don’t have to compromise principle to make your husband happy, and both are important.
Here is where a lot of Christians get messed up in their thinking. Jesus did not associate only with the spiritual community. Wherever the need was greatest, Jesus was there. When the Pharisees and teachers of the law learned of the banquet that Levi Matthew—a tax collector—was giving in honor of Jesus, they complained to the disciples, “ ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and “sinners”?’ ” Jesus answered them, “ ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ ”4
Many Christians think that they must isolate themselves from those who are living a different lifestyle than theirs. They feel that all their friends must be Christians like themselves so they can avoid coming into contact with “sin.” But what was our Lord’s example?
Jesus sat as an honored guest at the table of the publicans, by His sympathy and social kindliness showing that He recognized the dignity of humanity; and men longed to become worthy of His confidence. Upon their thirsty hearts His words fell with blessed, life-giving power. New impulses were awakened, and the possibility of a new life opened to these outcasts of society.5
Non-Christian social gatherings may be exactly where God wants to use you to represent the Christian lifestyle.6 Your abstinence from alcohol, foul language, questionable jokes, etc., may elicit a comment or question from someone at the party, giving you an opportunity to witness for your Lord.
In the meantime, your presence at the party says to your mate, “I’m here because of you. This event is important to you, therefore it is important to me.” Your spouse already knows that you’d rather not be there. But your willingness to put his or her needs ahead of your own comfort will be appreciated. And perhaps if you do this for your spouse, your spouse will go with you to church from time to time.
Remember—the more things you can do to help strengthen the marriage, the better. Your unbelieving spouse is watching everything you—the Christian—do. It is vitally important that your spouse see that your commitment to God makes you a better wife or husband.
3. Develop a support group.
Surround yourself with Christian friends who will provide the spiritual nurture and encouragement you’re not getting at home. If your spouse doesn’t object, invite your Christian friends over and have potluck dinners in your home. Don’t force your spouse to join, but make sure he or she is welcomed in the group. This type of gathering will provide opportunities for your spouse to associate with believers and to ask questions. And the strength you derive from those who share your faith will buoy your spirits during those times when you battle loneliness.
4. Don’t nag.
Some Christians feel that the way to “save” their unbelieving spouses is to nag them into the kingdom of heaven. They’re at the church every time the door opens. They leave Christian literature around the house, preach at their spouses about their failure to come with them to church, and lay heavy guilt trips on them about their smoking, drinking, gaming, etc. This is not the way Jesus won people’s hearts.
Again, Paul said, “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil,” and “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”7 Don’t use your church attendance or prayer life as a club with which to beat your spouse. If you do, your Christianity will become loathsome to your spouse. Do your best to live at peace with your spouse, and let the Holy Spirit do the convicting. He’s better at it than you are.
5. Use common sense.
Common sense is not so common, but trust God to guide you in this situation. Certainly, if you’re in an abusive situation or you or your children are at risk because of your faith, separation may be wise. God would not frown on this. And not every unbelieving spouse will want to remain in a marriage that is divided spiritually. Paul said that you are not bound if the unbelieving partner leaves.8 The point is, don’t you be the one to chase your spouse away! “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”9
Use that principle of out-serving your spouse. Make a conscious effort to put your spouse’s needs first, and pray that God will soften your spouse’s heart as he or she reaps the benefit of your commitment to Christ.
Living in a spiritually divided marriage isn’t easy. You will have challenges to face. But it need not be an intolerable situation either. If you will follow your Master’s example, you, too, may bring to your spouse the water of life.
1. 2 Timothy 3:16. 2. 2 Corinthians 7:13, 15. 3. See 2 Corinthians 6:14. 4. Luke 5:30-32.
5. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1940), 274.
6. See Matthew 5:14. 7. Romans 14:16; 12:18. 8. See 1 Corinthians 7:15. 9. Verse 16.
This article is adapted from Randy Maxwell's book, 5 Steps to Christlike Living, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Nampa, ID, 83687, 2001, pp. 77-81. Used by the author.