I was 19 and in a parking lot with my husband of two months, our 1962 Volkswagen Bug between us. I was craving church. When I expressed this, he glanced at me with a look that said, What are you talking about? It was as though I spoke a foreign language. And to his unbelieving heart, I did.
When we married I was a young Christian, and I believed I was marrying a fellow Christian. He had told my childhood church he believed Christ died for his sins, and he was baptized. But soon I began to realize my new husband didn’t share my hope in Christ. This September marks 28 years since that day, and he hasn’t yet joined me in loving Jesus.
If faith is like a tiny seed that grows into a mighty tree, then my marriage is the climate in which my faith has grown. In these 28 years, God hasn’t wasted my marriage to an unbeliever.
Clarifying My Superpower
In that first year of marriage, I cried to God: I can’t do this! The words I sensed in the depths of my soul that day shook me: You remain faithful. I’ll take care of your husband. Scripture came to mind like a melody: “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). In that moment I knew I had to follow Jesus, day by day, for the long haul—no matter what.
Learning to follow Jesus in work schedules, bills, conflict, and parenthood is the call on my life. And this has been far from easy. But as I look back, I realize there was (and is) a superpower in me, stretching me to reach across our great divide. That superpower is the faithfulness of God. He who is faithful does not “grow weary” (Isa. 40:28). He “gives power to the faint” (Isa. 40:29), empowering me to be faithful too.
Even if my marriage is lost, and even if my husband never bends his knee to Jesus, the call to faithfulness will never leave me. I don’t want to bear that kind of pain, of course. But the faithfulness of God is a mountain, remaining intact even if my marriage doesn’t.
Exposing Unbelief, Growing Compassion
Anyone can tell you marriage incessantly reveals blind spots. We’re constantly being seen from the outside, someone other than ourselves. And in my marriage to an unbeliever, another level of “outsider” was added.
The faithfulness of God is a mountain, remaining intact even if my marriage doesn’t.
My husband’s pushback against what I believe as a Christian forced me to examine myself. Do I really believe Jesus is risen from the dead? Do I really believe he will use all things, even my difficult marriage, to make me more like him (Rom. 8:28–29)? Or do I believe being a Christian meant I would have a happy marriage, obedient children, and a nice place to live? Am I living for my own kingdom or for God’s?
Answering these questions helps me to lay down my marriage, look at the nail-scarred hands of my Savior, and cry, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). As my unbelief is exposed, I grow in compassion toward my husband. I know I’m no better than him. Having all the right answers didn’t save me, and it won’t save my husband. Christ is able to help my unbelief, and he’s able to help my husband believe.
Learning True Submission
Finding myself married to a man who wasn’t compelled by the Scripture to “love your [wife], as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), I employed the teachings about submission I learned as a girl. I thought my passivity and conflict avoidance were evidence of my piety.
Having all the right answers didn’t save me, and it won’t save my husband.
Because I believed I shouldn’t do or say anything that might be perceived as usurping my husband’s authority, I developed an unhealthy and un-Christlike position in my marriage. I was quiet about the sin that was destroying our relationship.
At one point my husband said, “I don’t want a submissive wife!” In a later counseling session I learned he was really saying, “I don’t want a passive wife!” My husband longed for me to engage in healthy conflict with him. He wanted me to tell him the truth and not give up on him just because he didn’t see things the way I did.
Learning to speak the truth in love to my husband has required me to stop seeing the call to submission through cultural stereotypes. Christlike submission looks like being full of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18–21), free (Gal. 5:1), humble (Eph. 4:2), honest (Eph. 4:15), and courageous (1 Pet. 3:6).
Clinging to the Right Marriage
Paul urged the Corinthian believers to “let those who have wives live as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:29). He wasn’t saying to disregard your marriage, but to not cling to it as though our greater Bridegroom isn’t coming for us, his bride.
Learning to speak the truth in love to my husband has required me to stop seeing the call to submission through cultural stereotypes.
My marriage is a broken shadow of a jaw-dropping glory. If I cling to it, I’ll hold nothing but a clenched fist, focusing on all our relationship is not. Yet when I hold my marriage open handedly, I pour out my complaints and desires to God, who bears the load and empowers me to love well. I long to win my husband to Christ, but I can never squeeze him into belief.
There is a marriage, though, worth clinging to (Rev. 19:6–9). There is a bride who will rise up in fearless and humble beauty (Rev. 21:2). Whether my marriage endures or not, Christ will come, and his church will rise. And as the Lord gives me strength to love like him, I’ll keep walking with my husband, praying he’ll rise with me on that day too.