Today I want to talk about a path that is walked by so many here, and it's a really difficult one: ‘When a Spouse Leaves the Faith’.
In our community we have many a story to tell about how we found ourselves in a SUM. In my case, for example, I was far from God when I married, then turned and changed. That's a common scenario. But there’s another story within our ranks that seems especially weighty: The situation where one spouse falls away.
It looks something like this: A husband and wife intimately share their relationship with Jesus. They pray together, dream together, and serve together. Faith is the bedrock of their shared life and they are wedded to church. Then, out of left field one loses their faith and the other has to stand by and watch. The sense of loss is profound.
In these next couple of posts I'm going to write about that. It’s not my path, so I asked several other SUMites for help with this. The following words come from their shared stories. And, as I have written it up I realize all over again what brave soldiers they are.
Why is it so hard when a spouse leaves the faith?
Most challenges in a spiritually unequal marriage are commonly experienced. For example, almost all of us battle loneliness, find it difficult to be open about faith at home, and church is complicated. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But when a spouse loses their faith there’s something extra: Grief.
These are seriously lost dreams. The spouse who leaves their faith might have been a vibrant disciple of Jesus at one time. That is perfectly possible, it happens. So, the remaining one knows what it is to be spiritually matched. And they cry tears of grief -- Tears that may well be mixed with a bitter sense of betrayal.
Then it happens: Their spouse’s character begins to change before their eyes, and this can happen quite quickly once they've decided they no longer believe. Their priorities shift and it can extend into some quite contrasting areas of behavior and opinion. They might even start to despise their prior faith.
“This isn’t the person I married”, sobs the believing spouse into their pillow at night.
The unbelieving spouse may or may not question the marriage itself. In most cases they will still love and want their spouse. And if that's so they'll just want to be loved back. “Just love me please, the way I now am.” Alternatively, they might actively despise their old life including everything the believing spouse now stands for. In that case it's more precarious. Or there’ll be some mixture of hostility and love. Either way, it’s tumultuous change.
In terms of their mindset, the unbelieving spouse might hold a strong belief that they have excellent ‘insider knowledge’ of Christianity. If that's the case, Christian apologetics arguments, or even testimony, will be especially unlikely to help. Intellectual debate is futile, and testimonies are rejected. Possibly these spouses have had testimonies of their own and now somehow those testimonies have become a distant memory. "What will it take to change their mind?" one wonders.
Well, is it their mind, or is it their heart? So much of this is about the heart.
Meanwhile, Christian friends will treat the unbelieving spouse (their friend) as a ‘fix-it’ project that they most likely can’t fix as easily as they hope. And it’s hard to stay connected to these friends because the dynamic has changed and they probably don't really understand the full story. The couple might slowly lose their friends, bit by bit. By bit.
Of course, it looks different in different couples. Some have spouses who now are active atheists after having been elders. For others, it's simply a case of the spouse having gone quietly lukewarm. That one is a more placid situation and perhaps slightly easier to handle than a full-on missionary-turned-atheist who has 'all the answers' (I know one of those myself, he lives down the road and remains married to a very strong Christian lady!)
So what would God say to us about this particular path? And what practical tips are helpful here? There is more to share so we will continue in the next post. And, again, I thank the SUMites who have helped with this post -- so much.
In the meantime, if you are walking this particular path, what is the hardest part for you?