I've rehearsed this scene in my mind 10,000 times: My husband, Barry, walks through the front door and says he has a surprise for me. He asks, "What's the one thing you want most in the world?" At first I'm confused, but when I look into his eyes, I know. He doesn't have to say it, but he does anyway: "I've given my life to Christ."
But after years of praying, waiting, and hoping, so far that's still a daydream. Barry and I met and married 28 years ago. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing: he liked my red hair and green eyes; I liked his broad shoulders and sense of humor. Plus, he was easy to talk to. As unbelievers, neither of us had a clue what our future would be. We just thought a life together would be a kick. A relationship with Christ was the last thing on our minds!
Our first three years of marriage were filled with partying, softball, and the birth of our first daughter. Then, almost without warning, God drew me into a relationship with himself. After overhearing some Christians in the office where I worked talk about heaven, I began asking questions. Although I'd attended church as a child, I knew nothing about the Bible and salvation. Then one day after a long talk with Rita, one of my coworkers, I prayed a simple prayer: "Jesus save me!" That prayer forever changed my life — and my marriage as I knew it.
I wrote the handbook on how not to win your spouse to Christ. Unfortunately for Barry, right from the start I was one of those obnoxious "Jesus freaks." I didn't "share" my new faith with my husband; I pushed, forced, and shoved. I didn't speak, I preached. I didn't live out my faith quietly; I trumpeted my every minute change. I'd say, "See what God's done in my life? See how loving and humble I now am?" I prayed loudly in Barry's presence and made sure he knew he was a sinner destined for hell. I even packed gospel tracts in his lunch and added a Bible verse at the end of all my love notes to him.
To Barry's credit, he remained incredibly patient (maybe he was just tuning me out.) Most of the time he avoided my religious rampages by tinkering with our car. Sometimes, though, he'd get angry and yell, "Stop with all the Jesus stuff!" Barry told me he threw the gospel tracts away because they embarrassed him in front of his friends. Once in a while he'd get a pained look on his face and say he wanted his "old wife" back — Jesus-free.
Soon we were at odds with each other. I blamed any and all our marital problems on his unsaved status. After all, if we were both Christians, life would be "happy-ever-after." Or so I imagined. I tried even harder: blasting my Christian music and scattering opened Bibles around the house; crying and pleading with him to go to church with me. Sometimes, Barry would go. But instead of enjoying him next to me in church, I'd sit there chewing nervously on the end of my pen, praying madly that this would be The Day. Afterwards, I'd quiz him in the car, "What did you think of the sermon? Did you like the music?" "It was okay," he'd say. "Do we have any turkey at home for a sandwich?" The rest of the ride home, I'd sit and fight back either tears or angry words. Why couldn't he see his need for Christ? I'd fume. Then Barry, sensing my disappointment, would pat my shoulder and say, "Look, I believe in God, but not in the same way you do." That was not the answer I wanted to hear.
Intercessory Prayer — The Right Way
Then something unexpected happened. I'd been reading a book about intercessory prayer when I had a sudden flash of insight. I told myself, That's it! I'm going to pray for Barry for the next 80 years, if that's what it takes. And I'm going to love him. Period. That was 25 years ago — and I'm still praying and loving. But I'm no longer pining away in self-absorbed isolation waiting desperately for my husband's salvation to bring marital fulfillment. Instead, I've decided that if it takes 80 years, then I want those years to be as enjoyable as possible for the both of us, despite our spiritual differences.
When I first came to faith in Christ and Barry hadn't, I thought God had made a huge mistake. After all, two following God together made more sense than one. But I now know God never makes mistakes. Since I'd been an unbeliever when we married, I hadn't willfully disobeyed God by marrying Barry. My situation is by God's sovereign design. Reminding myself of that enables me to relax my spiritual chokehold on Barry. The way I see it, God has a plan for each life. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot transform someone else's heart. I can't coerce, sweet-talk, or plead my husband into being a Christian. In fact, when I do try, it only drives him away — sometimes literally. If I start nagging him, he'll get in his truck and drive for hours.
I decided long ago to accept that it's God's job to change hearts. That decision frees me to pursue my relationship with God without the added burden of having to bring my husband to faith. All I have to do is love and enjoy him. That's God's plan for me, and he gives me all the grace I need to accomplish it. That doesn't mean I'm not lonely at times or that I do everything right. The other day I grabbed Barry by the shirt and yelled, "Don't you see Christ in me?" Struck by the irony of the question, he laughed — and to my surprise, said yes. It helps to remember that Barry's not my enemy; he's my husband. I'm just as much a sinner as he is — maybe more so because I have the power to say no to sin and often don't.
When your loved one doesn't love God
Here are a few things I've learned over these 20-plus years:
- Live in the now. I don't pine for a "happy-ever-after someday." Instead, I accept things as they are, building on what's good (such as enjoying each other's company and planning for our future together), and praying about what's not so good. Sometimes that means going into a bar with Barry and having a good time drinking a soda — and letting him know I love him just as he is. It's what Jesus would do.*
- Live honestly. In living out my faith, I let my husband see me stumble and struggle. He knows I struggle with fear, that I can't pass a basket in a store without buying it, and that I sin regularly and often, yet desire not to. That way, he sees that a Christian's life is one of grace alone, rather than living by a set of rigid rules. Any changes in me aren't by my effort, but by Christ living in me.*
- Honor your marriage. I'm careful not to talk negatively about Barry to anyone, and when he's home, he's my priority. This often means passing up social events I dearly want to attend. I seek opportunities to enjoy my husband and build him up, convinced he's God's gift to me.
- Pray, pray, pray. Prayer is my link to God's presence, power, wisdom, and comfort. My favorite Scripture to pray is Ezekiel 36:26, that God will take Barry's heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. Another favorite is Isaiah 30:21: "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'" Although it's hard to pinpoint specific answers to prayer for Barry, I've seen his attitude toward spiritual things change drastically over the years. We often talk openly and freely about God.
- Find a support system. Surround yourself with other women who'll pray with and for you. Also, study the Bible with a friend or small group. Attend church as often as you are able.
- Never give up hope. God offers everyone the same gift of salvation and eternal life. Some choose to accept it, and others don't. But all who accept the gift do so in God's timing, not ours. God knows what he's doing.
I don't understand why God does what he does. We have two daughters who don't have the role model of a Christian husband and father. I used to worry about that. As it's turned out, each daughter gave her life to Christ as a preschooler. Alison, now married, lives out her faith with a believing husband, while Laura's going through a time of teenage rebellion — but even that's in God's hands. As evidenced throughout the Bible, God is in the habit of saving families. That gives me great hope.
Trusting God while you wait
Even so, sometimes I get discouraged. Sometimes I sit in my brown armchair and question whether God even hears my prayers. Or I sit in church and count the couples and ache because few know what my husband even looks like. Or I'll hear yet another testimony about someone else's husband coming to faith, and wonder why mine still seems oblivious to his need.
But then there are times when Barry exhibits greater faith than I do. In fact, that's a joke we share. I'm the one who says I have faith, while he's the one who seems to live it. He's always telling me, "Why do you worry about things? God always takes care of us." Barry almost always knows the right thing to do when it comes to leading our family. I believe that because God sees us as one flesh, my husband shares in my blessings. Because God has promised to lead me, he leads my husband as well. I don't have to fret. God's in control.
The truth is, I might not ever see Barry walk down a church aisle, but that's OK. I have hope that I'll see him walk through heaven. In the meantime, I live my life as a gift — one I never would have chosen, but one I've come to accept with gratitude. I know it comes from the hand of a loving God who only gives his children the best.
Get Nancy's Book: When He Doesn't Believe.