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When the Unbeliever Departs: The Aftermath

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Editors’ note: 

Two years ago, Rachel Joy Welcher wrote “When the Unbeliever Departs,” an article that tells of her experience with a husband who loses his faith and walks out on the marriage. Today, we’re publishing her follow-up in which she shares the lessons she learned through this difficult season of life.

I read my Bible on our rust-colored, thrift-store recliner every day that year; a rare season of consistency for me. God must have known I’d need it. I remember underlining a verse and starting to call out to my husband who was in the other room. But I stopped myself. This reaction, like muscle-memory, had to be retrained. I had to remind myself: he doesn’t want to hear the verse you just read. He won’t be excited that you got to share the gospel with a student during your lunch break today. I set down my pen and continued to read quietly.

My husband lost his faith over the course of that year. It was like watching my best friend starve. He stopped going to church. He wanted new friends, more privacy, and proof to replace faith. He wanted answers I could not give and the freedom to reconsider his commitment to stay married. The devotion to Christ that had united us began separating us.

I ran out of excuses for why I came to church Bible study alone. “He’s studying.” “He’s feeling tired.” At some point, I just stopped answering and shrugged. When you are married, people wonder about your other half. Mine was no longer interested in being around Christians. Our marriage changed. As he distanced himself from the church and the gospel, I entered a season of emotional and spiritual isolation. I couldn’t tell people what was going on, and every attempt I made to draw my husband back to Jesus failed.

My time married to an unbeliever was short. What ended this season was not the joy of the prodigal son returning home but the numb surrender of signing divorce papers. Some of you have been plunged into this hell. Divorce leaves half your body on the other side of a closed door. Others of you are experiencing the agony of watching the person you love slip farther and farther away from the truth. Maybe you sit in silent disbelief. Maybe you have joined them in their doubts. Maybe you are anxious to fix their faith or are trying your best to adjust to a new normal.

Danger of Isolation

I remember the first time I went to church alone. I sat in the back. The lights had been dimmed for worship, and it afforded me the privacy to weep. Although I was attending a new church where no one knew my story, I still feared that everyone must be wondering: Where is her husband? I twisted my wedding ring around and around nervously throughout the sermon and left during the closing song.

Divorce leaves half your body on the other side of a closed door. . . . I was living out the most precious parts of myself without my partner. Everything felt sad, divided, and wobbly.

When my husband started questioning his faith, it changed my relationship with the church. I tried my best to keep things surface-level with other believers because I didn’t know how to answer their questions, and I didn’t want to break down crying. My husband wasn’t ready to share what he was going through, so I didn’t feel free to share my story either. Even though I continued the spiritual disciplines of reading the Word, attending church, and serving others, I was living out the most precious parts of myself without my partner. Everything felt sad, divided, and wobbly.

Times like these threaten to separate us from the pulse of God’s people when we need them most. The church is a place where we not only share our burdens of sin, but also of sadness. I eventually opened up to the people in my small group. They prayed for me, texted me, and sat beside me during services. Over time, I learned to push farther into this covenant body. I realized that I had to do the work of letting them love me, even if it was just a few people and all I had the courage to say was, “Pray for me.”

Fighting False Guilt

But isolation was only one trial. When my husband decided he no longer believed, I felt I had failed as a Christian and a wife. Guilt hounded me. I kept thinking, If only I had better answers to his questions; if only I were more patient, less sinful; then maybe he would still believe. I shared this recently with a brother whose story, in many ways, mirrors my own. I asked him about this battle with false guilt. He said he had to finally accept that he couldn’t “play the role of the Holy Spirit” in his wife’s life:

I could not give her eyes to see Jesus for who he is. I could not get inside her heart and breathe life into it. I could not make a dead soul live. I mistook “love your wife as Christ loves the church” for “do the work only Christ can do.” And that led to a lot of conflict because I was trying to fix her soul instead of representing Jesus’s love and letting the Holy Spirit do the work.

Even if your spouse does not change or trust Christ—even if your marriage fails like mine—you can still honor the Lord your God. You can still succeed at love and faithfulness. Ultimately, I strove to “win him without a word” (1 Peter 3:2), even if doing so never won him. When your spouse begins to doubt or abandons the faith altogether, you can glorify God by continuing to show love and obedience to Christ. It’s as hard and as simple as that.

Don’t Put Your Marriage First

As you can imagine, I received advice from all ends of the spectrum. When my husband began talking about divorce but hadn’t yet filed, a couple I knew from Bible college wrote me. They encouraged me to put my marriage first. What they meant by this seemingly good advice was that I ought to put my marriage before my faith. Perhaps, they suggested, my husband would stay if I stopped emphasizing my love for Jesus through social media, my writings, and regular church attendance. To connect with him in his newfound unbelief, they encouraged me to sacrifice my relationship with God, at least temporarily.

I cannot tell you how tempting their advice was.

I cannot tell you how tempting their advice was. I had all the symptoms of a physical and emotional heart attack, and I wanted relief. I wanted my husband to choose me. The idea that I could do something to ensure that was attractive, but only for a moment. I knew, deep in my soul, that the only way to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength—and to love my husband as myself—was to continue serving God with my whole life, even if it broke my heart (Mark 8:34; 12:30–31).

Every day that I grew closer to God, I watched my husband push farther away from me. Sometimes, we are engulfed by encouragement as we follow Christ. Other times, it is a lonely walk to the place where we must lay ourselves down and pick up our cross.

Fight Fear with Fear

I had to learn to fight the fear of losing my marriage with a greater fear of God. It might sound strange, to fight fear with fear, but the more I looked to God as my mighty Sovereign, the less I worried about future outcomes. To be sure, there were many days of shaky trust, failure to love, and tormenting anxiety. But God strengthened me, and in obeying him there was overwhelming peace.

I had to fight the fear of losing my marriage with a greater fear of God.

Obedience in this kind of marriage will look different for each of us. Some will use words; others will quietly live out their faith. For those in the thick of it: you are not alone. I encourage you to love your spouse, draw near to the church, and cling to Jesus Christ. Perhaps God will use your devotion to him as the means of bringing your spouse to faith. Perhaps not. We are not called to be saviors, but light—light that exposes everyone we know, including our spouse, to the true Savior.

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