When Your Husband is an Unbeliever
By Carolyn Zander
Leslie and Lee Strobel seemed to have a picture perfect marriage. They had two beautiful children, a beautiful home, and what seemed to be a beautiful marriage. Leslie came to know Christ before Lee, and instead of everything in her life turning right-side-up, it seemed like their marriage turned upside-down. Lee believed that Christianity was a crutch for weak people and didn’t want Leslie getting involved. Not only did Leslie want to be “involved,” but she wanted to start seeking a marriage after the image of Christ and His church. Lee did not like the picture, because Lee not only didn’t believe, He was an Athiest.
The closer Leslie got to God, the further her marriage seemed to dissolve. Divorce seemed like a reasonable option to Lee in light of the anger, confusion, and hurt he was experiencing by Leslie’s conversion. Leslie decided to stop leaving books and verses around the house. She stopped preaching at him or pointing out what a Christian husband would do in a situation. She simply started loving Lee again as the man she fell in love with from the beginning of their marriage. She took the focus off of changing Lee and, instead, focused on changing herself.
Leslie accepted Christ in 1979 through her friendship with Linda, a woman who lived out her faith in a way that made Leslie want to know more. Linda invited her to church, and after several months, Leslie prayed with her to receive Christ. Linda became a mentor to Leslie as she wrestled with feelings of guilt and responsibility for Lee’s unbelief. Linda reminded her that all she was expected to do was live as Christ wanted her to live and to love Lee despite his hard-hearted condition. Leslie learned to draw on the things that had attracted them to each other years before.
One Friday evening after work, Lee excitedly asked how Leslie would like to go away for the weekend. She really wanted to hear the start of a new series at church on Sunday, but she felt that tug from the Spirit urging her to go away with her husband. She didn’t want to go, but God used their weekend away together to soften both of their hearts. After many invitations to join Leslie for church, Lee finally went. He heard the gospel articulated in a clear and beautiful way by Bill Hybels. Although he still wasn’t convinced, he decided to investigate the One who had so radically changed his wife.
Leslie learned to love and respect Lee as a partner and not a “project.” At first, she wanted his salvation to come on her own timing which meant immediately. While Leslie was relentlessly leaving verses around where he’d see them or leaving books conveniently opened to underlined paragraphs he would hopefully read, God was relentlessly pursuing the hearts of both Lee and Leslie.
Leslie could have easily given up all hope on Lee who was a declared atheist, but she committed to praying that God would give him a new spirit. God performed a miracle. He took a man with a heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh that acknowledged his need for a Savior. Lee is now considered one of the most widely read and influential apologists in the evangelical Christian community. In the end, it wasn’t what Lee considered sad attempts at “preaching” through the verses or books, but hearing the gospel preached along with Leslie’s loving support that led him to investigate and eventually accept Christ.
Leslie has years of experience in ministry with a heart for women no matter what their life struggles are. She currently lives in Colorado fully engaged as a wife, mom to adult children, and being “Gigi” to her grandchildren.
JBU has the pleasure of introducing you to Leslie who shares advice and encouragement for any women who have been impacted by a spiritual mismatch in marriage or who would like to learn more about what it means to be a godly wife.
JBU: How did you continue to grow in your relationship with Christ despite discouragement from your husband?
Leslie: Linda was there as a mentor, but also a shoulder to cry on, yet she never played into the sympathy game. She would not talk down Lee’s actions or beliefs, but would always remind me that God saved me, and that Lee wasn’t saved yet, so he couldn’t be held to that standard. I needed to be the one to live righteously, having now understood my place as a child of God.
JBU: How did you avoid the trap of thinking “if I just pray harder or live out my faith better, then he will surely become a Christian”?
Leslie: My part was to live according to what the Bible says a godly wife should be. I loved him when he wasn’t very lovable. I put aside my anger when he was being difficult, and by the grace of God, He’d give me the words to say and the heart to love Lee in the way he needed to be loved. When I would walk out in faith, God would melt my anger or remove my usual reaction of fighting back. This was so startling to Lee, seeing such a huge difference in my usual mode of operation, that in the end, that’s what caused him to say, there must be a God who changes lives, maybe I need to look into this!
JBU: How can a woman pray for her unbelieving husband?
Leslie: During this time I was in a Bible study where I told the women that my husband wasn’t a believer. A woman shared Ezekiel 36:26-27 with me which says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
It’s not a magic lamp that you rub and God will answer immediately the way you want. But God’s promises are there for us to claim and I did, along with this group of women in my study. The very next day after praying this as a group, and committing to praying it every day for Lee, that is when he told me he’d decided to start coming to church and investigating Christianity to see if it’s true or not.
I know God hears the prayers of believers for the non-believers in their lives, and He wants people to come to Him. However, whenever you pray for the unsaved, God is doing what is best for that unsaved person, in His timing and in His way, and we must trust that His ways are perfect, regardless of the results.
JBU: How do you build a stable marriage if your husband never becomes a Christian or through many years of waiting?
Leslie: I just kept trusting that God loved Lee more than I did, and if that were true, He was working in Lee’s heart in ways I could not see. I could rest in God’s love for me and know that I’m only called to take it a day at a time and allow God to move us in the direction He has planned for us.
JBU: How can a mismatched couple stay connected in the midst of spiritual conflict?
Leslie: As the Christian, it’s your responsibility to make the right decisions concerning how to navigate any situation that requires righteous decisions, because the non-Christian probably isn’t the one who’s going to make those!
It often meant swallowing my pride and not doing what came naturally to me, which was giving the silent treatment or getting mad and escalating the issue. Rather, I’d go back and say, “I’m sorry,” or “I don’t want to argue,” or “I was wrong.” As I said earlier, it was this type of behavior that spoke louder to Lee than my trying to explain truths from Scripture. Sadly, it’s a commentary to what a pain in the neck I was prior to my being saved! I was so much better after my conversion that only God could be the explanation!
JBU: Can you share some tips for raising children in a spiritually mismatched home?
Leslie: Lee was worried that our family would turn into me and the kids versus poor old heathen Dad. That is a legitimate fear, but kids need to know that their dad’s beliefs have nothing to do with his love for them and that God loves their dad. I think love is the most important thing for kids to understand. God loves them. God loves Dad. Mom loves Dad. It needs to be a constant reminder, because if there is tension in the house, kids get scared. If the kids are young, school aged, I wouldn’t discuss it with them. Older kids, high school age, can pray for Dad, but even then, it shouldn’t be an open discussion about Dad’s spiritual condition.
JBU: What advice would you give to single Christians who want to avoid a spiritual mismatch?
Run away from relationships that are heating up and are mismatched! You’re not to be their savior. Don’t believe you’re strong enough to convert them and then get serious! Simply make it known on the first date or conversation that you are a Christian and if the other person isn’t, that’s your cue to not have a dating relationship go any farther.
JBU: What do you recommend for marriages where there is a huge gap in spiritual maturity between husband and wife?
Leslie: Keep praying for your spouse, but periodically ask them to do something that puts them in more of a mature role. Praying for something, not in a group so as not to make them feel uncomfortable, but just the two of you or with the kids. Ask about something in the Bible that you think they could get the answer to. You need to be aware of their comfort level, but occasionally push them in the more mature direction but don’t get upset if they aren’t willing. Just keep praying for them and encouraging them when they do something that shows steps forward.
JBU: How can a wife encourage her husband to lead spiritually if she feels that is lacking in their relationship?
Leslie: As your spouse grows in their walk and seems more confidant, it might be helpful to ask if they’d like to say grace each night at dinner (for instance) so that the kids will see their Dad as a spiritual leader and how that would make you so happy or proud, or whatever you think speaks to your spouse. It could be bedtime prayers or something family oriented, but that can be an impacting thing for the kids, and it would build him up as well. Kids love leadership and to have their dad strong in this area is huge.
As for his leading in your marriage, I think it takes time and depends on his personality, but again, when you feel it’s a good time, ask him to pray for you concerning something you know he understands your concern over, or a need you both have, etc. If he feels uncomfortable, let him know you can pray, but you just want to pray with him because it unites you in a spiritual way that makes you feel closer to him and God. After hearing you pray in a simple direct way, it will help him see it’s not hard and that a short direct prayer is powerful and not complicated.
JBU: Romans 8:28 tells us that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. How do women believe this when they are going through difficult times?
Leslie: It IS hard to believe it! I was sure Lee would be, if anything, a deathbed conversion! I could not imagine his coming around to believe in Jesus and accepting him as Savior and Lord. It was those occasional glimmers of hope when he’d ask a spiritual question, or say he’d go to church this week, or any number of little hopeful scenarios that kept me going. Plus the prayers of my friends, the sense of trust I had in God’s love for me and for Lee, believing in His Word and full on grabbing it by the proverbial horns and hanging on for dear life, because I didn’t see how I’d make it 20-30-40 years down the road with him as he was!
God does not give us more than we can handle. I believed that then and I do now. Why? Because He says so. I knew He’d give me what I needed to make it through, so despite it being hard and despite my fear for my future, God would work it all out for good, because I love Him, and more importantly, He loves me.
JBU: What are some of the challenges and joys of day - to - day life now with Lee’s schedule as a busy Christian author and speaker–how do you stay connected and keep the marriage fresh and vibrant?
Leslie: We keep connected through the day because we go out for lunch nearly every day to break from his work at home and to just be together. Later afternoons we break again in nice weather, to sit outside on our deck, which is a very peaceful place overlooking a pine forest. We’ve been blessed with a great marriage, and we understand each other and our idiosyncrasies. Travel helps us keep our marriage fresh and vibrant. Being in new places and new restaurants, which we love, is always a fun way to spend time together. We love to eat!
JBU: What would be the one best piece of advice you would give to a believing spouse who has prayed and waited for many years and is ready to give up on the hope of their husband ever changing and coming to faith in the Lord?
Leslie: I know those feelings of this isn’t going to happen for me. My spouse is never going to accept Christ as his Savior. I also know that Satan delights in your feeling that way, but that’s not what Scripture tells us. The Bible says in James 1:6-7, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.”
Basically, your doubts are saying that you don’t think God is capable of changing the heart of your spouse. The truth is, God is capable of doing whatever He deems right for your spouse and you. We won’t always be able to understand God’s ways, but we can know without any doubt that God is able to do immeasurably more than what we could ever hope or imagine!
It might be today, it might be years down the road, but the journey is part of His plan, and in the end, God is Sovereign, He is good, and He will do only that which is best for you and for your spouse because He is also a loving God. So rest in that knowledge and His grace will be sufficient for you.
Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage by Lee and Leslie Strobel
Read more about Lee and Leslie' story. In their intensely personal and practical book, they reveal: surprising insights into the thinking of non-Christian spouses, steps toward making the most of your mismatched marriage, principles for reaching out to your partner with the gospel, advice for raising your children in a spiritually mismatched home, how to pray for your spouse, what to do if you’re both Christians but one lags behind spiritually, and advice for single Christians to avoid the pain of a mismatch.