I can feel the pain and sadness without even hearing their voices. I can read it every Monday when questions are sent in; every week when emails come to the inbox; even face to face in the lives of people I love.
“I’m growing, but he’s not,” they whisper. “What do I do?”
Today I want to share some advice as a wife who walked with my husband – a newish believer when we married – into the spiritual maturity and leadership he displays today. There are nuances to this conversation I have not seen addressed, questions that go unanswered, and I know all too well the struggle when one spouse is growing and the other doesn’t seem interested in that growth (or pace of growth, as we’ll discuss here).
Before I begin, I want to be very clear: I am not a marriage counselor and I’m not pretending to be. I’m addressing this topic from personal experience and with my knowledge as a Bible teacher. I can’t speak to every situation and I most certainly am not advocating for women to remain with nominal/unbelieving husbands who use that unbelief to abuse. Rather, I’m speaking to the plethora of wives married to men who express little interest in spiritual growth or whose growth doesn’t look the way they might expect. With posts like this, the best way to read them is with a “pick and choose” mentality. Some of what I say might apply to you, some might not. Don’t see it as a formula; don’t write it all off.
Is Your Husband Actually Saved?
I’m starting with this question because I believe a lot of women who THINK their husbands are believers are married to men who actually are not. This changes our mentality toward their behavior and can tremendously shift how we minister and lead a nominal husband spiritually. (Yes, I said a wife can spiritually lead her husband! If you’ve been taught otherwise, read this post).
The book of 1 John speaks over and over again about the evidence of true faith. Let’s look at what John says must be evident in order to call someone a Christian:
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
In other words: if we claim to be a Christian, yet persistently walk in unrepentant laziness and sin, we lie to ourselves and to others.
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him:Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1 John 2:3-6)
John is not issuing a new thought here; he is quoting Jesus in John 14:15 who said: “If you love me you will obey my commands.”
And this is his command: to believein the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:23-24)
The seal of salvation is the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. How do we know someone has the Holy Spirit? They evidence the fruit of the Spirit and a desire to abide in Christ. John 15-17 talk about the fruit of the Spirit in believers; a desire to continue growing in knowledge and love for the Lord. Galatians 5-6 talk about the behavioral evidence for the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.
Faith in Jesus is not just a vague mental belief in his existence. If your husband was taught this, he may indeed have “said a prayer” when he was younger (I talk about why we don’t use the “ask Jesus into your heart” model in this post) but this does not always mean he surrendered his life to Christ’s kingship and leading. A true believer may not always FEEL like following Jesus and will have ups and downs of sanctified obedience, but his or her nature is transformed. His desires are aligned to Christ’s, and he is aware of his need to change and grow. If this desire is missing from your husband’s life, your husband might not actually be a Christian – and here’s why this matters.
Wives of Unbelieving Husbands
In two places the New Testament apostles speak expressly to spouses “unequally yoked” in marriage. This was actually very common in the early church – especially cases in which the wife was a believer and the husband was not. To become a Christian in the first century was in many cases career suicide. Roman religion was woven into the fabric of government and social obligation, so to worship another God (or rather, to reject the Roman gods) made you untrustworthy in the eyes of Roman people. Christian women married to influential men were frequently on a lonely road of spiritual inequality, which is why both Paul and Peter speak to the issue.
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. (1 Cor. 7:13-17)
Paul is saying here that the believing spouse sanctifies the other spouse. This applies to a believing husband or a believing wife. Remember where, in Ephesians 5, Paul says the husband acts like Christ to “sanctify” the church (his wife)? Here he uses the same language to indicate that a WIFE – through her faith – sanctifies her husband, home and children. This is a great example of how believing spouses of either gender spiritually lead the other toward Christ.
Peter writes to the church on a similar topic:
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1 Peter 3:1-2)
We often get hung up on the word “submit” and miss the point of this command (see this episode/post on submission in marriage). Peter, like Paul, encourages wives to minister and disciple their husbands by their behavior in the home. This doesn’t mean they can’t speak the truth or direct them toward Scripture, but that the greatest witness is “the purity and reverence” of their lives.
Peter is addressing wives whose husbands “do not believe the word”. This may be husbands who are unsaved, as I articulated above, or husbands who claim to “follow” Christ but are not making discipleship a priority. Either way, the advice is the same: witness to your husband with your life. This confirms Paul’s directive to “sanctify your spouse”.
Discipling Your Husband
It is a sad thing that the hyper-complementarian parts of Christianity have so reacted to feminism they have missed the power of a Christian wife. While saying a Christian wife has great influence in the home, they have effectively undercut her witness by claiming she cannot disciple, spiritually advise, lead, or sanctify her husband. I believe both Paul and Peter expected wives to disciple their weaker or unbelieving husbands. If men and women are both called to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20, when Jesus commands people to preach the gospel to the whole world “as they are going/living”) that commission starts within their own walls. It starts with your husband and children. If only men can “spiritually lead”, this leaves many wives wondering what to do about discipling their kids. Does she do nothing? What about helping her husband grow? Is she allowed to do that?
Jesus’ goal is for all to come to know and believe the love He has (1 John 4). If a wife is fulfilling the Great Commission toward her husband in a respectful and loving way – as Ephesians 5 and Galatians 5 and Matthew 5-7 all teach us to do – she is not in violation of any other biblical command. She is doing the greatest work she could possibly do.
The question arises: How, practically, do I disciple my husband? Here are some things I learned in the early years of marriage when my husband was newer to faith than me.
- Do not expect his growth to look exactly like yours. Spiritual growth is not defined by wanting to consume theology books. It is not defined by only listening to Christian music or being super expressive in a church service or immediately knowing how to pray out loud. Your husband’s personality will be enjoined with his spiritual growth and that means it will not look exactly like your growth or faith. Give grace for those differences!
- Do not add requirements to faith that Jesus does not add. If you define “maturity” as “leads devotions with me” or “initiates family worship at meals every time” or “asks me to pray with him”, you’ll probably be disappointed and you might even discourage your husband’s growth through resentment and unmet expectations. True spiritual growth is a change of HEART. The habits come along the way. And if this is new to him (and he didn’t have any good example, as many men don’t) he will need affirmation and encouragement that he is doing well in the little things, not comments of how he is failing. Look for a heart that desires to grow in knowledge of Jesus. A heart that desires to learn. That’s the posture of a growing believer, even if he doesn’t have all the habits yet.
- Be okay with initiating faith practices. It is not wrong, sinful, or “unsubmissive” to initiate the practices of prayer, bible study, family worship or church attendance with your family. If no one is leading in this area, your leadership may be the very thing that sets your family on the path to Christian growth! Be okay with being the initiator. Let go of resentment for him “not thinking of it” and celebrate his willingness to join in!
- Win without a word. I think Peter mentioned this specifically for me. How often do I want to explain, lecture, educate and inform? All the time! But what encouraged my husband toward growth the MOST was self restraint with my words, asking God for wisdom when to speak and discuss spiritual things/where I needed him to grow, and PRAYER.
- Sometimes you have to leave a void. Occasionally – not always – husbands don’t “step up” because they feel like their wife “has it handled” or they aren’t needed. While you actively disciple your family, keep the communication open with your husband. Invite him in. Tell him how much you would love to do this WITH him. Make it clear that he is not just welcome to lead beside you, he is wanted. This might mean you have to leave a “void” – give opportunities for him to take an active role. This is a dance between directly asking for his help and quietly waiting, while also rejecting resentment. You will have to be actively walking with the Lord and letting him lead your heart attitude.
- Pray for your husband more than ANYTHING else. I started this habit very early on. When I felt anxious or urgent about speaking to Josh, I would use it as a reminder to pray. Often times I did sit down with him and explain how much it would mean for him to prioritize his Bible study, to seek out other godly men, and to initiate spiritual things at home. But before I did, I prayed. I prayed diligently and specifically over his growth and also over his community. I prayed for godly men to come into his life. I prayed for community. I prayed for a love for the Word. I prayed WAY more than I spoke (not my nature) and I watched the Spirit do the work I could not do. We’ve been married for almost eight years at the writing of this post and Josh is now an active member of multiple communities with godly men, has been an elder at church, pursues the Lord personally in the Word, and leads our children well. God can do amazing things with a willing heart!
I should add that all of these things apply to husbands with weaker or unbelieving wives, as well.
If I could give you practical next steps, these would be it:
- Cultivate your own spiritual growth no matter what.
- Surround yourself with strong, godly wives who uplift their husbands and families.
- Prioritize prayer and make a habit of praying over your husband’s faith.
- Attach yourself to a local church community, even if it’s inconvenient and you take your kids alone.
- Open the conversation with your husband about spiritual things. Be gentle and kind, not pushy or condescending.
- Be okay with initiating spiritual practices. It might be a bible study you go over together and discuss, even if you are the one leading the questions. Celebrate any willingness or participation.
- If your husband resists participating, pray before discussing with him – discussion may be necessary, but keep in mind Peter’s admonition that they can be “won without a word”.
A Word to Singles
Paul admonishes those who are unmarried in 1 Cor. 7 not to be unequally yoked. This whole post deals with couples who are, but this does NOT mean I am advising single people to “salvation date” or actively seek someone weaker than them. I married Josh because I could tell he desired the Lord and was already actively growing – even though he knew less than me. Under no circumstances do I recommend pursuing a relationship with someone who lacks that desire or only pursues Jesus because you do. In fact, I would recommend remaining single rather than dating that person, or breaking up with them until they show evidence of personal pursuit of God. It is not worth the risk or the pain.