My spouse of twenty years has decided that she is no longer a Christian. As a matter of fact, she now claims to be an atheist. This has upset and changed our entire relationship. I don't understand what is going on with her or how to respond. Can you help me?
No two ways about it. You're up against the challenge of a lifetime. You're going to need all the help you can get if you're to survive the crisis and navigate this difficult passage successfully.
Before saying anything else, we want you to know that our hearts are with you. We're eager to come alongside you in any way we can. Our prayer is that the Lord will strengthen you, protect you, and fill your heart and mind with the peace that passes all understanding.
It's no wonder you're upset. For two decades you and your spouse have been involved in an intense, close-knit love triangle: husband, wife, and God. Now one member of the fellowship has broken the ring. You're reeling under the effects of her shattering decision. Whether your wife realizes it or not, she isn't just walking away from God. In an important sense, she's turning her back on you as well. We're not surprised that you feel so hurt and confused.
Your assignment at this point is to resist the temptation to react out of that hurt and confusion. Your mission is to stand in the gap. Do everything you can to preserve the circle. Keep one hand in the hand of God and the other in your wife's. Fix your eyes on the invisible third Member of the marriage triangle. He's still there whether your wife acknowledges Him or not. Remember that this relationship is about committed love. Your spouse's change of heart regarding her faith can never change that. There's no reason why you can't stay married to her and continue to love her in spite of her sudden claim to be an atheist.
To put it another way, you've been given a choice. On the one hand, you can panic. You can respond to your wife's bombshell announcement out of your own pain. That will only make a bad situation even worse. On the other hand, you can take your pain to the Lord. You can lay the situation before him in prayer. You can allow Him to heal you, comfort you, and equip you for the task of loving your spouse. You can find strength in the infinite resources of His unconditional love. The decision is entirely yours.
A word of warning. It's likely that you won't be able to make the right choice - and stick with it - by yourself. As we've already said, you need help. You need sound counsel and strong community. We recommend that you get some solid biblical guidance from a qualified Christian therapist. It's the only way you'll be able to guard your heart and stay on track as you walk through this dark valley. Then take steps to link up with two or three strong Christian brothers. They should be men in whom you can confide and who will commit themselves to make this difficult journey with you. Remember the words of Solomon: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up" (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10).
Meanwhile, there's an important thought you should keep in mind. Your wife claims that she has rejected the Christian faith, but you can be pretty sure that this is a case where "the issue is not the (real) issue." No one simply walks away from God after more than twenty years of loving and serving Him faithfully. Our guess is that her atheism is a surface symptom. The real problem is probably something much deeper and far more personal in nature. We can't be more precise. Not without additional information. But we suspect that she's struggling under a heavy load of unresolved pain and conflict. If you were to ask her exactly what she means when she says she's "no longer a Christian," and if she were to answer honestly, we have a hunch that what you'd hear would be anger and resentment toward God. She's probably bitter against Him because she thinks He has unfairly allowed her to go through some kind of hurtful experience.
You're in a better position to know what that experience is than we are. But one thing is certain. If you can find a way to empathize with her and enter into her pain, this crisis could become the gateway to a whole new phase of positive growth in your relationship. In her case, it might even turn out to be the key to discovering what it really means to trust Christ. When you feel tempted to panic, take a deep breath and focus on this mind-boggling thought. Whether she knows it or not, your wife could actually be closer to God now than she has ever been in her life. The Lord often intervenes and redeems situations like this in ways we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams.
If you feel it would be helpful to talk about this at greater length with a member of our staff, please don't hesitate to give us a call. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area who specialize in marital issues. You can contact our Counseling Department at this number.
Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage (book)
Marriage Alive - The Web site of Dave and Claudia Arp, a husband and wife team who strive to help couples build better marriages and families.
Love and Respect - This ministry offers materials, articles, and conferences designed to help those already married to enrich their relationship and for those considering marriage to prepare for the journey together.