We were separated by a kitchen counter no wider than two feet, but we might as well have been separated by an ocean as vast and cold as the Arctic. His words were widening the gulf between us, causing my heart to sink.
“We can’t marry unless we have the same belief system,” he said. “And I can’t believe in God without some sort of proof.”
He was telling me that unless I renounced my faith, we could never be serious. If I wanted our relationship to continue, I needed to say I didn’t believe in God.
When he saw my hesitation, he softened his tone. “Just admit you don’t know. You have an open mind. You can’t be sure God exists.”
He was a believer in reason, science, and proof. He debated openly with Christians, using intelligence and logic to effectively dismantle their arguments. He had studied different religions, attended classes in Catholicism, and read the works of Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche. He emerged from these studies more convinced than ever that he couldn’t subscribe to Christianity or any other religion.
With a heavy heart and a dismal outlook for our future together, I said I couldn’t deny my beliefs. I knew if I relented, agreed that maybe God wasn’t real, our relationship would hobble along for the short term. But no lasting relationship can blossom from a denial of who we are and what we believe.
Jesus’ words surfaced from somewhere in my memory: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my father in heaven.”
“I care about you, but this relationship is going nowhere,” he said. “If I’m serious about somebody, she has to share my belief system.”
I took a job in a different state and we went our separate ways, but that wasn’t the end of the story. We dated other people and continued seeing each other without commitments, traveling back and forth between states and reaching an unspoken agreement that religious discussion was off the table. Our relationship was great as long as we avoided this one looming difference. He didn’t ask me again to renounce my faith. Instead, one bright October day he asked me to marry him.
I said yes, and some Christians told me I was wrong. They pointed to scripture that warned against being “unequally yoked,” or in layman’s terms, marrying somebody who wasn’t a Christian. But I was young and optimistic and in love. We married six months later.
For the first few years, we agreed to disagree. I attended church while he stayed home. We compromised when we had children, agreeing after much discussion that they would attend church with me, but also be exposed to other beliefs and influences and ultimately make up their own minds. It wasn’t a perfect solution for either of us, but it was acceptable.
One interesting thing about our relationship was that I never tried to convert him. There were several reasons for this, the main one being my belief that strong marriages are built on love and acceptance, not through trying to change your partner. Change has to come from within. Attempting to mold another person into your ideal is a recipe for disaster.
Another reason I didn’t try to convert him was that I understand why faith is hard. A lot of my Christian friends say things like, “I don’t see how a person could be an atheist. I don’t know what I’d do without God in my life. There are no atheists in foxholes.”
I disagree with them. I totally get why people have a hard time believing. Every time I pray for a person who isn’t healed, see evil and atrocities monopolizing the evening news and witness rampant injustice, I understand why faith can be difficult.
How do you explain to grieving parents that God is good when their child has been murdered in a school shooting? How do you advise somebody to continue believing when they are suffering from chronic pain or tragic loss?
The dictionary definition of faith is “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of religion based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” In scripture, faith is described as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) When you tell a person about faith, you’re describing something elusive; something experienced but not seen. Faith may be as real to you as the stars in the sky, but that doesn’t make it so to the unbeliever.
Faith has never been easy. Even those who walked with Jesus shared meals with him and saw him perform miracles expressed doubts. John the Baptist, languishing in prison, wondered if Jesus was the one they were waiting for. Peter denied knowing Jesus. Thomas wanted proof.
I continued to believe but didn’t try to convince my husband, and he continued to disbelieve but didn’t try to convince me.
In every respect except for religion, our relationship was great. Contrary to what some religious people think, we can have many shared values with people who don’t share our belief system. Integrity and good character aren’t the unique provinces of Christians, and I felt my husband exhibited those characteristics to a greater degree than a lot of Christians.
I believe joy springs from within and is a fruit of my faith. This was good for our marriage because it released my husband from being the source of my joy. Depending on a spouse for happiness is too great a burden for any marriage to bear. My happiness wasn’t contingent on his belief or disbelief, so he was free to be himself.
For the first seven years of our marriage, our religious compromise was successful. It wasn’t until the birth of our third child that things began to change. It was close to Easter and I was heavily pregnant. I had bought our six-year-old and our two-year-old new Easter clothes, a ruffled dress and a little boy’s suit that hung in the closet, unworn. Even though my husband wouldn’t be attending church with us, I planned a dinner and an Easter egg hunt for later.
My plans were abandoned when I went into labor on Good Friday. The children were dropped off at a friend’s, my husband drove me to the hospital and twelve hours later we had our third child.
The new baby and I were scheduled to be released from the hospital on Easter Sunday, and my husband was to pick us up around ten in the morning. But ten o’clock came and went with no sign of him.
A nurse peeked into the room at eleven. I was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, my newborn swaddled in a receiving blanket. “I thought your husband was coming at ten,” she said.
“He should be here soon,” I replied defensively. “I tried to call but can’t reach him.”
By 11:45 I was vacillating between embarrassment and anger. How could he be so inconsiderate, not even phoning to tell me why he was late? Had he been in wreck? More likely, he and the kids had stopped somewhere for pancakes while I sat feeling sorry for myself on a hospital bed with a newborn baby who had already been through three changes of clothes. Another nurse dropped by to express surprise that I was still around.
At 12:30, I pushed open the door, peered impatiently down the hall and saw the three of them; my husband and our two other children, dressed in their Easter clothes, heading eagerly toward me and their new sibling.
“I thought if you could go through the trouble of having three kids, the least I could do was take these two to church so they could wear the outfits you got them,” my husband said.
The minister told me later that my husband had marched all the way to the front of the church, children in tow, and settled in a front row pew. “I was so surprised to see your husband that I almost fell out of the pulpit,” he joked. He was a preacher who leaned toward apologetics, defending the Christian faith through reason and evidence. My husband was surprised by a sermon based on logic and decided to attend more often.
Unbelievers might say it was coincidence that the pastor was an apologist. I believe it was divine providence. In addition to attending church, my husband began reading books by apologists like C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias and Josh McDowell.
One morning I woke early, before daylight, and he wasn’t in bed. A thin wedge of light seeping from the den told me he was there. When I pushed the door open I found him reading a thick, leather-bound Bible.
“Before I believe or disbelieve something, I need to know exactly what it is I’m believing or disbelieving,” he said.
Beginning with Genesis and reading all the way through Revelation, he completed the Bible in a year.
My husband ultimately became a believer. He considered the historical evidence, the scriptures, and the logic of apologists and decided there was enough proof for him to cast aside doubt.
He still doesn’t say things like, “God told me to do this,” or “I heard from God today.” His is a more practical faith based on reason and his belief that faith offers us the best hope for a fulfilling and happy life. His faith is more cerebral, whereas mine is more of the heart. Sometimes I feel God’s presence and experience great, indescribable joy. I believe prayers are answered and God’s hand is at work in our lives weaving a tapestry of purpose that we can only glimpse from time to time.
In the end, I don’t think it matters how we approach faith. We were created differently, and our faith reflects those differences. Not all Christians have unquestioning faith just as not all believers see eye to eye on interpretations of scripture. My husband and I agree on one thing, though. First and foremost, we are to love.