Navigating an Unequally Yoked Marriage
I still remember a miserable canoeing trip with my husband where we just could not get our paddling act together and we kept hitting the banks of the river. We could not navigate the obstacles in our path because of our lack of collaboration. We hit rocks and trees and got stuck in the brush. We were a floating argument or at least we were until we tipped over altogether. Not one of our better moments.
Relationships, like canoes, work best when we are paddling in the same direction. Being out of sync just causes challenges. Our faith goals in marriage need to be in alignment. When one spouse is trying to establish a faith based home and the other spouse dismisses faith, conflict is bound to follow. Competing agendas around that which is fundamentally important will undermine our teamwork and collaboration, making navigation difficult. From how we will spend money and time to how we will raise our children, differing values will cause us to collide. Marriages struggle when they are being pulled in different directions.
Christians should avoid aligning their life with someone outside of the faith to spare themselves a world of heartache. 2 Corinthians 6:14 instructs, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” If the situation of being unequally yoked can be avoided, it should. It is better to break up with someone who is not interested in pursuing faith than to marry in hopes that they will change. Short-term heartache is better than long-term frustration.
Unequally yoked marriages cannot always be prevented. Sometimes the mismatched faith dynamic happens outside of the ability to plan for it. One partner falls away from faith or comes to faith after marriage vows have long since been spoken and commitments made. If you find yourself in a mismatched marriage, how will you navigate the challenges?
Pray for your spouse.
James 5 tells us that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. God hears and answers the prayers of his people. A spouse without faith may be unwilling to hear God’s word or attend a worship service, but they don’t usually mind being prayed for. It costs them nothing and can receive it as a blessing (if it's offered as a blessing). Your spouse may not want to see your faith in action, but they cannot keep you from praying for them. The earnest prayers of a spouse can be the most effective way to transform the heart of your spouse.
Complaining is not a constructive way to get what we want. If we are always whining about our spouse, it is unlikely that they will listen. If there is constant complaining about attending church or reading the Bible, it only builds more division. It is God’s job to change hearts and minds, so let the Spirit work in the life of your spouse. Let your spouse decide for themselves what level of participation with which they are willing to engage. Choose to be invitational, not confrontational.
There will be much about which you disagree, but choose to put aside differences. Decide to be unified in front of the kids and not demean the other’s position or turn children against the other spouse. Romans 12:18 instructs us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We can’t control others, but as much as it depends on you, choose to live in peace. Find the common ground and choose to let love dwell in your home.
Spiritual growth is more challenging when you don’t have a spouse to encourage your faith. Even if your spouse never engages with faith, do not give up on it yourself. Find ways to intentionally nurture your faith. Time spent in prayer, reading your Bible, or attending worship will keep you focused on God even when your household does not engage faith.
Find a mentor.
We need a community of faith to hold one another up; we were not made to be alone. Having a mentor in your corner is a huge advantage for facing challenges. We all need to have a friend in faith to be our sounding board and help us navigate the messiness of life. When our spouse is not on the same page concerning faith it helps to have a mentor to support and encourage us through challenges.
Live with grace.
Our faith will be more enticing when backed up by our actions. Demonstrating love day by day is the best witness of the gospel. Your words can be dismissed but a life of love and compassion point people to Jesus, the source of all grace. Live an example of sacrificial love so that your unbelieving spouse has the opportunity to catch a glimpse of God’s love.
Know when to quit.
Spiritually mismatched couples can having a loving relationship if they commit to being respectful to one another. As long as you can lovingly coexist, stay with the relationship. 1 Corinthians 7:13-16 offers some guidance:
“If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Broken relationships leave damage in their wake so don’t be quick to step out a relationship. If your spouse has moved from disrespecting your faith to disrespecting you, seek help. If your spouse demeans you or undermines your ability to practice faith or forbids you from engaging your children in faith, then you need some support to help you modify behaviors or develop an exit strategy. Abuse and neglect are not behaviors that God desires for our relationships. We all carry the image of God and we need to treat one another as God’s image bearers.
It is challenging not being able to have spiritual intimacy with a spouse, it will be sadness in your relationship. But even without the blessing of spiritual intimacy a healthy marriage is possible. It might not be everything that you desired your marriage to be, but it can still be a blessing. God will support and navigate you through whatever obstacles you face.
By Deb Koster