They say opposites attract. That was certainly the case for me and my husband, Gary. I was introverted and studious. He was outgoing and popular. We never ran in the same circles, so it was unusual that we met the night of our high school baccalaureate. My girlfriends thought it would be funny to leave me stranded at a local restaurant, and Gary came to my rescue, all handsome smiles and easy laughter. And so began a summer romance that ended when he headed to Marine Corps boot camp and I left for college. Over the next four years, the handwritten letters were constant. Some of them were simply a summary of our week, others were full of hopes and dreams, and all of them made me feel connected to Gary in a way that today’s social media will never achieve. I had my doubts that Gary would leave the service and settle down, but I had decided he was the guy I wanted to marry.
So, a year after college graduation when he proposed, the fairytale romance should have been complete—except that I had ignored the one thing about us that was opposite and should have overshadowed all the rest. I was a Christian and he wasn’t (2 Corinthians 6:14). I think at the time I thought I could change that. After all, he had so many other great qualities. Gary was and is an amazing protector, provider, and above all, loyal (the perfect spouse for an Enneagram six who values security, commitment, loyalty, and responsibility).
The Dark Days
Gary left the service, we married, and the first year was great. However, the next ten years would be difficult. The things Gary struggled with seemed to be magnified without the presence of the Holy Spirit. I hated confrontation, so I kept the peace. But inside, I found myself placing the blame on his spiritual condition instead of allowing God to show me my own. I longed for spiritual leadership and wanted my kids, a son and a daughter by now, to have a Christian home. But the more I expressed these desires to my husband, the more inadequate Gary felt, the more hopeless I felt, and the harder marriage got.
At the end of this difficult season, Gary told me that he hated his job, he was returning to full-time military service, and we would be moving. “Moving?!” I may not have been in a Christian marriage, but I was near Christian friends and family, I had found a church home, and my kids were in a Christian school. How could we move now?
It was at this point that God in His mercy spoke to my heart in a way that was totally clear. Despite Gary’s unbelief, I was bound to this man in a covenant that God wanted me to honor. I felt called to submit to my husband just as Christ submitted to the will of the Father and died for me, and to show Gary who Christ is by loving him unconditionally (Philippians 2:3-8). I must confess that there might have been some questioning. “God, surely you don’t want to move us away from the only Christian relationships we have? Gary’s not saved so whatever he wants to do can’t possibly be your will, right? Are you doing this because I married him even though I knew I shouldn’t?”
Wait a minute. Had I ever repented? What did repentance even look like in this situation? Repentance means turning from your sin, but I couldn’t turn away from my marriage, could I? To be clear here, no. God wanted me to confess the sin and turn to Him so that He could restore my marriage, a marriage that God fully intended for me to devote myself to, even after marrying an unsaved spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-14). But what God really wanted was for me to focus on being the wife I needed to be instead of trying to make my husband be the man I wanted.
This is where God’s blessing began. At the moment of repentance, He changed my heart instead of Gary’s and our marriage benefited. These are the things I learned during that time:
- Repent if you married your unsaved husband as a Christian. I realize that you may have married your unbelieving husband as an unbeliever yourself. Or, you may have married thinking he was a Christian. But if, as a believer like me, you fell head over heels and married knowing your husband was not saved, take time to get things right with God. Like many women who marry in disobedience, I thought I would forever be reaping what I had sowed (Isaiah 59:2). But God is a God of forgiveness and restoration (Romans 8:1). Repentance will repair your intimate relationship with Christ so that He can be your strength for what is ahead.
- Recommit to loving and serving your husband more, not less. Your husband’s spiritual condition is not an excuse to criticize or judge his actions or to assume yours are superior because you are saved. God still sees him as the head of your home, and joyfully acknowledging this opens the door for God to bless your marriage. Your husband’s lack of faith is a call to love unselfishly. It will be painful at times, but this is how he will see Christ in you (1 Corinthians 9:19). You don’t have to agree with every decision, and it is okay to express your concerns or offer counsel. But do so in a way that shows respect. And, assuming that your husband is not asking you to compromise the higher authority of Christ, defer to your husband’s judgment. For me, this meant apologizing for things I didn’t really think I had done to keep the peace, being loving and kind even if he wasn’t, and biting my tongue when I thought he was doing something he shouldn’t. When your spouse isn’t saved, you can’t be his personal Holy Spirit. It will only create a stumbling block for the gospel (1 Peter 3:1-2). Ask God daily for His strength to be this kind of wife because you won’t have it within yourself (I John 4:19).
- Reserve time for church, but be present for your husband. One of the biggest issues in our marriage was church. I needed friends and church family to pour into me spiritually since my husband was not. I also wanted my children to be in church, but Gary didn’t want to go. It is easy for resentment to take root when you are constantly ditching your husband for a church function or Christian friends. One of your husband’s primary needs is for companionship. There were times when God gave me peace about staying home in order to spend time with my husband so that he didn’t feel like he was “competing” with church. Many of those times, God showed up in a special way in my personal Bible study in order to keep me spiritually full (Psalm 63:1-4).
- Recruit Christian friends in a way that includes your husband. Often when a husband is not saved, it is natural to surround yourself with Christian girlfriends who can sympathize and offer support and prayer. After our move, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had left friends and family behind. I found a few close girlfriends who had husbands I knew Gary would have things in common with and started inviting couples over for dinner. These Christian men talked motorcycles and hunting instead of immediately trying to evangelize Gary. Before long, Gary was going to church with us in order to hang out with the guys, but the exposure to God’s Word began to do its work (Romans 10:17).
- Rely on Christ, not your husband, to meet your needs. Even in a Christian marriage, your husband will not meet all your needs, nor you his. God wants you to ultimately depend on Him above all others. Nurture your relationship with God so that He can provide you with the strength and wisdom needed to love your unsaved spouse. Lean into Christ. Stay in His Word. I will admit that this was the hardest one for me. Tell God when you are worried that He isn’t enough and ask Him to help you in your unbelief. He will show up (Matthew 7:7)!
- Release your husband to God. Ultimately, your husband’s relationship with Christ is his responsibility, not yours. You can be the perfect spouse, but your husband will not come to Christ until he is drawn by the Holy Spirit, then responds to the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). Your responsibility is to love him and pray for him. I know these are hard words to hear, but God can still use you to bring peace to your home and happiness to your marriage, despite your husband’s unbelief. God will bless your commitment to love your husband. Even though I cried many times at the thought of not seeing Gary in heaven, God did a work of restoration in my marriage. In the process, God gave me hope despite the possible outcome (1 John 3:17).
The Rest of the Story
I didn’t win my husband to Christ. A year after our move, Gary found out he would be going to Iraq. As an engineer, I thought he would be building roads and bridges. Instead, I found out three months in that he was working with a unit to find and disarm roadside bombs to clear routes for our troops. The nightly tears and prayers began. “Lord, protect him. Please let him know you!” My prayers intensified when six months in his compound was bombed while we were on a Skype call together: “Lord please, don’t take him yet. Give him another chance to know you.” Then, ten months in, his convoy truck was hit: “God, please save him!” God did save him, both physically and spiritually. There in the desert, 7,000 miles from home, Gary met Jesus. After 18 months of service, my husband came home a changed man. Not because I won him to Christ but because God in his mercy and providence was faithful. My marriage isn’t perfect now that my husband is saved, but now we have the joy and blessing of serving God together.
Love your unsaved husband—unselfishly, unconditionally, with joy, all in. Then let God work. Not you, but God (Titus 3:5).
Nicki McLeod is a pharmacist and high school science teacher currently living in the Montgomery, Alabama, area. She believes that God gives every Christian a story to tell that brings praise to Christ and hope to others. She also believes that God is calling her generation to mentor, support, and love the next generation of women, wives, and mothers for the challenge they face in a difficult culture. She and her husband Gary have been married for 26 years, and they have two married children. Nicki loves traveling, finding quaint shops and bookstores, trying new foods, and reading mystery books. Now that her kids are grown, she is exploring unusual hobbies like riding Harleys and playing disc golf in order to spend more time laughing and growing with her husband.