Focus on the Family Broadcast

Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch (Part 1 of 2)

Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch (Part 1 of 2)

Are you in a spiritually mismatched marriage? Lee Strobel describes the struggles he and his wife, Leslie, experienced when he was an atheist and she was a new Christian. In part two, Leslie joins Lee on stage to offer hope and practical suggestions for living out your faith while staying committed to an unbelieving spouse. The Strobels encourage listeners to reach out for H.E.L.P.: 1) Harness the support of others; 2) Exercise restraint; 3) Live out your faith; and 4) Pray. (Part 1 of 2)
Original Air Date: May 24, 2004

Pastor Lee Strobel: And as I watched Leslie, over time, become more and more a person of humility, a person of self-sacrifice, a person of love, a person of integrity, in the end, I realized this is winsome. This is attractive, and I was blown away by how God was turning her into undeniably a better human being.

John Fuller: That’s Lee Strobel, and he shares a message of hope for couples who are in a spiritually-mismatched marriage. And, uh, thanks for joining us. This is Focus on the Family, with Focus President and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, during our 45 years of ministry here at Focus on the Family, we’ve heard from a lot of husbands and wives who love the Lord Jesus Christ but desperately want help for a spouse who is an unbeliever, like Lee Strobel used to be. As many of you know, before he became a noted defender of the faith, Lee was actually a hardcore atheist. And you can imagine how difficult Lee’s mindset would be for his wife when she became a new believer. And we’ll hear more about that in a minute.

Uh, we’ve had Lee in the studio several times in the past, but this message is a bit different. Today we’ll feature a speech he gave to Willow Creek Community Church several years ago, and the next time, his wife, Leslie, will share her side of the story. And we’ll also listen in on a very practical question and answer session with those who were in the audience there.

John: Here now is Lee Strobel, on Focus on the Family.

Lee: Well, someone came between me and Leslie and very nearly destroyed our marriage. It wasn’t an old flame. It was Jesus Christ. You see, Leslie had become a Christian, and I was still an atheist. And now Jesus was the new man in her life, and I was pretty sure we were going to end up in divorce court as a result.

We want to talk today about what happens when one spouse is a follower of Jesus Christ and the other one isn’t. The other one is disinterested in spiritual matters, or the other person is even hostile to spiritual matters. This affects a lot of people. As many as 23 percent of Christian women are married to men who are not followers of Jesus Christ.

And if you’re single, this will be relevant to you as well, as you consider who you should be building relationships with, who you should be dating. Or if you’re married and you, uh, are married to a follower of Jesus, yourself, then … and you’re a follower of Christ, then I hope that this message will encourage you by saying, you know, there is a role that you could possibly play in the life of someone who is married to a non-believer, that God might even use you to help save their marriage.

So, I think everybody has a stake in the topic we’re going to talk about today. So, I want to start by looking for where I always go these days for wisdom, and that’s the Bible. And take a look at this very straightforward spiritual command found in 2nd Corinthians 6:14. It says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.”

The Bible is using this imagery of a wooden yoke. It was a wooden yoke that had metal loops on it, and this yoke would be fitted over the necks of two animals so that they could plow together, they could pull the plow together. And if the animals were of the same type, if they, for instance, were both oxen, and they were about the same size, and they were going in the same direction, then they were very efficient, and the plowing would continue as, you know, very efficiently.

But if one of them was a horse and the other one was an oxen, and they wanted to kind of go at a different pace, they were different sizes, they had different agendas, wanted to go in different directions, then this yoke around their necks would pinch one animal and it would choke the other. And so, what the Bible is warning through this imagery is that if a Christian is married to someone who is not a follower of Jesus Christ, his or her spiritual life is going to be pinched or it’s going to be choked, and as a result, they’re going to be stresses. There’s going to be turbulence in the relationship.

Well, Leslie and I found out the reasons for this command the hard way. And when- when we started out our marriage, neither of us were followers of Christ. I was an atheist. She was agnostic. We had no belief in God. And we had a pretty happy marriage, initially, until 1979. And that’s when Leslie came up to me after a period of time of spiritual searching and she gave me the big news. She said, “Lee, I’ve decided to become a follower of Jesus Christ.” And I thought this was the worst possible news that could ever come into our relationship.

And sure enough, it did usher into our marriage a terrible era of turbulence and emotional problems, where we were buffeted by deep-seated feelings and emotions. In fact, I want to explain to you some of these emotions that we went through, because you’ll begin to see why God commands followers of Christ not to marry those who aren’t Christians.

For example, first of all, in terms of my own emotions during this time period, I felt jealousy. I know it sounds a little bit weird, but I was jealous of Jesus, because I’ve always been the man in Leslie’s life and all of a sudden, there’s somebody new in her life, and it’s this Jesus person. And all of a sudden, she is committed to following him. Well, what- what am I all of a sudden? Chopped liver? I mean, where do I fit into this?

And Jesus has a lot of advantages, in terms of this relationship, and I felt like I was being jealous of her. And all of a sudden, I felt like I was less in Leslie’s eyes. I felt like I was losing her respect, because all of a sudden, the people she looked up to, the people she started to emulate, were people who had an authentic and a vibrant and a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Well, I didn’t.

So, what did that say about me? Was I going to be less in her eyes? Was she going to look at me differently than she looked at me before? In fact, I remember one Sunday morning, uh, Leslie … I was still in bed, sleeping off a hangover, and, uh, Leslie was getting ready to go to church. And she said to me very sweetly, “Well, do you want to come?” She was gonna come to Willow Creek. And you know, I didn’t want to come on and say, “Hey, hello, I’m an atheist.”

I do … “No, I don’t think I want to go to church. I’m tired. I’ve got a hangover. You want 10 other reasons why I don’t want to go to church?” But I didn’t say that. You know what I said to her? “Yeah, okay. I’ll go with you.” And I didn’t even know why I said yes, but I said yes, and I was mad, because I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in that bed.

And so, I got out of bed, and I’m storming around the house, and I’m slamming things, and … said, “Can I fix you break- …” “No, I’ll do it myself,” and, you know, it was raining outside. We had to run to the car. We got all wet, and I’m swearing, and we get in the car, and we’re driving down the road at a high rate of speed. We’re hydroplaning through the puddles, and it’s ra- … I’m swearing at that, and finally, Leslie started to cry.

And she said, “Look, I’m not twisting your arm. If you don’t want to go with me, then don’t go. Just let me go in peace.” And I realized, you know, I was … here I … it was backfiring. The reason I said yes, I would go to her is because I felt like I was losing her. She was going off into this Christian subculture. Again, I felt like I was losing her to this church. And so, I- I said yes to go after, even though I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go. I want to stay in bed.

And now, because of my anger, I just made matters worse and I’d driven a deeper wedge between us. And then, I was worried. It’s another emotion I felt. I was worried about how she’s going to raise the children. She going to raise the children to be Christians? They’re going to think less of me? That they’re going to look, “Oh, there’s poor old dad. He’s just the hell-bound pagan.”

Audience: (laughing)

Lee: “Sucking on the beer instead of going to church.”

Audience: (laughing)

Lee: “Doesn’t know any better.” You know, I mean, I didn’t want my kids feeling sorry for me. I wanted them to look up to me. And then, I felt frustrated. I felt frustrated ’cause our values, for the first time in our life, were at odds. How are we going to spend our money? How are we going to raise the kids? All of those things began to be sources of conflict. He- he- I couldn’t believe it. She wanted to give money to the church. I said, “What, are you out of your mind? You’re gonna pour it do- … Here’s the toilet. Put it in a toilet.” I mean, you might as well. If you’re gonna throw it away.

And so, we had conflict over all these areas of our lives. And I was afraid. In fact, I remember being angry so much during one argument that we had. I just reared back and I kicked a hole in our living room wall, right in front of our daughter and my wife, just out of raw anger. If you asked me, “What is making you so mad? What is the source of anger?”

Back then, I was … I don’t know. I’m just mad. But you know what it was now that I look back? I know what it was. It was the fact that as Leslie became a follower of Jesus Christ, and as she endeavored, by now, the power of the Holy Spirit to live a more Godly lifestyle, and her character and her values and her integrity began to reflect the values of Jesus Christ, I would look at that, as her husband, and I would just naturally compare it to my life, and how my relationships were corroded with cynicism, and with distrust, and self-interest, and immorality, and just her living a more Godly lifestyle, she didn’t have to say anything. It just … my contrast made me mad. It was God convicting me of my sin.

I didn’t want to face the fact that my life was not what I pretended it to be. I would rather pretend everything was fine, but I couldn’t, in contrast to her increasingly-Godly lifestyle, and it made me mad. It was like she was holding up a mirror and exposing my true self, and I didn’t want to face it. So, I had all these emotions churning inside of me, but you know what, Leslie had similar emotions for different reasons churning around inside her.

First of all, she felt hurt and she felt angry, because I would belittle her faith. I mean, I walked around with such a self-righteous attitude. My attitude is, well, you know, what do you have to have church for? Why do you need a crutch like that in your life? Can’t you stand on your own two feet? You have to put your faith in a book of legend and make-believe and mythology? Can’t you stand on your own two feet and face life like an adult?

I made her angry. I could be so open-minded about so many things, but when it came to spiritual matters, my attitude was, don’t confuse me with the facts, because my mind’s made up. And then, she felt frustrated. She felt frustrated because she would discover new things about God that were extremely important to her but she couldn’t share them with the guy who she was married to. And that was very frustrating.

One afternoon, for instance, I found out years later, didn’t know it at the time, but our finances were a mess because we weren’t following Biblical principles. We were in debt up to our eyebrows. We were spending money, you know, we didn’t have, and it would create stress in a marriage. So, Leslie was full of stress. I was away at work. She’d gotten … went in the bedroom, laid down across the bed, and opened the Bible, looking for some Biblical principles on handling our money.

But you know what happened? God just kept bringing her, time after time, to verses that reminded her how much God loves her, that she is a treasured child to her [him]. And she just felt so overwhelmed that God is real, that He is present, that He is going to carry us through the situation, and she was so overwhelmed by the love and the grace and the mercy and the compassion of God, she began to weep, just out of joy and out of wonder at the love of God.

But then, she heard me come in the front door, and she knew, if I caught her with a Bible in her hand and tears in her eyes, I’d throw down my briefcase, say, “Now what? You know, what have you been doing?” You know, and I just would’ve got into an argument. So, quickly, she wipes the tears away, and she puts the Bible under the bed, and she pastes on a phony smile, she comes out says, “Hi, Lee, what … how was work?” She couldn’t share with the man she loved the most the most important thing in her life, which was a growing relationship with Jesus.

And the more she discovered about God, the more this frustration crept into her life. And so, we began to drift further and further apart because of that. Then she felt fear. She felt fear about the future, ’cause she looked down the- the road of our marriage into the future, and all she saw was conflict. How are we going to raise the kids? How are we going to spend our money? How are we going to spend our time? In every area of life, God speaks on it, and if there’s a conflict over God, there’s gonna be conflict over that area.

And she was afraid what was going to happen at the end of my life, when I died, and I stood before a holy God and He said, “Lee, you knew about My love and My grace and My mercy, and you chose to walk the other way. You chose to live separately from Me your whole life, and I gave you that privilege, because that was your choice. But now I’m sealing that decision that you made to reject Me, and now, for all of eternity, you will live apart from Me and from My people.”

Leslie was fearful for my soul. She knew that the Bible tells us, very plainly, that those who don’t follow Christ, who make that decision, that decision is sealed when they die, and for eternity, they’re separated from any influence of God, and friends. We can’t even imagine the horror of what that’s like. She didn’t want that for me, because she loved me.

So, you could see how all of these emotions, in a spiritually-mismatched marriage, contributed to- to turmoil and to conflict. And so, can you see now why the Bible says to Christians, “Hey, do not become unequally yoked to a non-believer”? It’s to save us from that kind of turmoil and problem and friction and conflict in a relationship. It’s because of His love for us, He wants to protect us.

John: Hmm. You’re listening to Lee Strobel today on Focus on the Family and we have a copy of a great book that he’s written, along with his wife, Leslie. It’s called Spiritual Mismatch: Hope for Christians Married to Someone Who Doesn’t Know God. We’ll send that to you for gift of any amount to the ministry today. Uh, make that donation online or give us a call. We’ll also include a free audio download of the entire two-day broadcast, uh, when you request that.

So, please donate, request those resources at Or call for details, 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459.

Let’s return now to more from Lee Strobel.

Lee: And so, if you’re single today, God is saying to you, “I love you so much. I don’t want you to go through what Lee and Leslie went through. I want you to have Jesus Christ in common,” because any relationship, the depth of that relationship is dependent on what you hold in common. And if you hold Jesus Christ in common, whether it’s your spouse or a friend, you have the potential to go extremely deep in your relationship.

And God says I want that kind of intimate, spiritually-vibrant, and alive relationship in your marriage. Do not become unequally-yoked with someone who can’t share that with you. But some of you are already in the situation of being unequally-yoked. What do you do? What do you do? Well, God’s not gonna abandon you in the midst of the struggle that you’re going through.

In fact, He offers wisdom on how it is that you can survive, and that’s what I want to talk about in these next few minutes. I want to talk about four bits of Biblical wisdom that Leslie learned, sort of the hard way, as we were spiritually-mismatched in our marriage. In fact, the word that Leslie would cry out most to God was the word, “Help.” (laughs) Help. I need help.

And so, we’ve taken the word help, H-E-L-P, and you use that as an acronym to spell out these four bits of spiritual wisdom so that you could perhaps remember that.

So, the H in help stands for this Biblical advice, “Harness the support of others. Harness the support of others.” Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10 says, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up, but pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”

And Leslie realized she can’t get through this alone. And fortunately, she built a very close relationship with a woman by the name of Linda. In fact, that happened to be the woman who led her to Jesus Christ. And Linda, and this is important, was a mature Christian. And so, Linda was able to help Leslie in two areas. First, she helped Leslie grow in her faith, because I wasn’t there to help her. I wasn’t there to encourage her. I wasn’t there to cheer her on. I was discouraging her in her spiritual growth. But Linda was there to cheer her on and encourage her. So, she became a spiritual mentor.

Second thing Linda did is she offered Godly advice and consistent prayers, and she offered a shoulder to cry on when things got tough in our marriage. And listen to this, she also made sure that Leslie didn’t get mired in self-pity and fall into the trap of being judgmental and negative toward her husband. In other words, it would have been very easy for Leslie to come to … “Oh, you know what Lee has done again? He’s done this and this and he won’t do this and this. I’m so frustrated and angry at him.”

It would have been easy for Linda to say, “Yeah, that jerk. What a jerk he is,” and all of a sudden, it becomes Linda and Leslie and God versus Lee. And that probably would have destroyed our marriage. But Linda wouldn’t let Leslie go there. Linda would say, “Yeah, you know what? Lee’s acting like a jerk. And you know what? What do you expect? The guys an, you know, half drunken atheist. What (laughs) … What do you expect? And you know what? There are some things that we can do that don’t play into that and create more problems in the marriage. But where you can, react in such a way to that situation that would bring a positive situation out of it.

She made sure Leslie didn’t blame every little thing in our marriage on the fact that I wasn’t a Christian. That’s so easy to do. So, it’d be so easy for Leslie to have said, “You know, if Lee would just become a Christian, then he would certainly diaper the kids without complaining, and he would take the trash out without complaining, and he- he wouldn’t have a temper anymore. He’d never blow up, you know, and he would … he’d mow the lawn without me having to bug him about it and all this stuff.”

Well, you know what? That’s not reality, as Leslie ultimately found out.

Audience: (laughing)

Lee: Um, and it’s important for Linda to say, “You know what? Don’t idealize Christian marriages. Christian marriages still have challenges. They still have turbulence. They- they’re not perfect,” and to remind Leslie that my spiritual condition wasn’t to blame for all the shortcomings in our relationship. And then, what Leslie … what Linda did is she kept Leslie focused on God and not on the spiritually-mismatched situation.

She encouraged Leslie to continue to building on the common ground that I had with her, and she would say, “Well, you married this guy for a reason, didn’t you?” “Well, yeah.” “Well, what do you love about him? What do you love doing together? Build on that common ground, so you come together instead of being split apart by this spiritually-mismatched situation.”

Next, the E in help stands the words exercise restraint. Exercise restraint. And this is the main reason why our relationship didn’t blow apart. Leslie didn’t water down who she was, but she was sensitive to the turmoil that religion created in our home, and she respected me enough to give me some space. And even though there were some times when she wanted to hit me over the head with the Bible, she want to drag me across this parking lot by my hair, she exercised restraint.

Now, she did do a few annoying things. She would leave Christian books out all highlighted, you know, on the coffee room table, like I was supposed to see that and read, and “Uh, there is a God.” You know?

Audience: (laughing)

Lee: Didn’t work. And you know, if she had put post-it notes with verses on my mirror, if she had stuffed stock, uh, tracks into my socks when I was packing for a trip, if she put crosses around the house everywhere, you know, there would have been a real problem in our marriage, even more so than there was. But Leslie restrained herself.

She restrained herself, for instance, from involvement in the church when it would hurt our relationship. It was okay with me, generally, if she went to Willow Creek on the weekends. I was generally okay with that, not always, but, generally, I was. But if she had been out several nights for a small group and a women’s ministry thing, and this and that and the other, it would have caused a real problem in our marriage.

And so, Leslie went to church with Linda on Sunday morning, and if I wanted to go out of town that weekend, Leslie didn’t draw a line in the sand and say, “Oh, no, I’m gonna … I’m going to church and you can just, you know, lump it.” No, she didn’t say that. She learned to compromise on things that were not moral issues, but she learned to compromise in these little things that can bring some smoothness to the turbulence in our relationship.

She relied on Linda to help her study the Bible when I wasn’t home. And she would always get up early to do her quiet time with God, to study the Bible and to pray before I got up. So, the- the first thing I saw when I got up in the morning, I remember I’d walked down our hallway, I’d look into the kitchen, and every morning, there was Leslie at the kitchen table with the Bible, and she would see I was up, and she closed the Bible, and she’d get up, say, “Hey, how was your night?”

As if to say, “You know what? I just had a wonderful experience with God here, but I’m closing the Bible right now, and let’s not let that get between us today.” So, she held her ground on important matters, but in the little things, she didn’t, um, you know, draw lines that didn’t really matter. And look at what Proverbs says, what happens if you do the other way and make a big thing out of a little things. Proverbs 25:24, “Better to live alone in a tumble-down shack than the share a mansion with a nagging spouse.” (laughs)

That’s true. Solomon said that, friends, so he knew.

Audience: (laughing)

Lee: I don’t know if he knew, but he had enough wisdom to know. (laughs) So, exercise restraint.

The L in help stands for this, live out your faith, don’t just talk it. Live out your faith, don’t just talk it. In other words, the integrity of your everyday life as a Christian is going to speak more powerfully to your spouse about the reality of God than any debate that you can possibly get into.

Look at what the Bible says to Christians in 1st Peter 3. “If your spouse has refused to listen when you talk to them about the Lord, they will be won over how? By your respectful pure behavior. Your Godly lives will speak to them better than any words”. And as a new believer, and Leslie knew, I’m not prepared to get into a debate with Lee over the existence of God. That’s probably not going to be healthy and productive.

But she knew there was something more effective than that. And what it was is she cooperated with God, and she changed her character as He changed her value and attitude and outlook, and as I watched Leslie, over time, become more and more a person of humility, a person of self-sacrifice, a person of love, a person of integrity, in the end, I realized this is winsome. This is attractive. And I was blown away by how God was turning her into undeniably a better human being.

And then, the P in help stands for this, pray, pray, pray. James says, “The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.” Besides, when you’re feeling frustrated, when you’re feeling angry, when you’re feeling at your wit’s end because of a situation in your marriage, what else can you do? Where else can you go, but to God, and express your heart? In fact, I was so hard-hearted, I was so hard-headed as an atheist, that Leslie said, “I don’t have any hope for you.”

And she mentioned that to some women here at the church, and they pointed out a verse, and this is the verse that she would pray every day before I saw her in the morning, this is the prayer that she would pray. Ezekiel 36:26, that says, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” And that became the verse that Leslie clung to, because she’d say, “God, Lee’s heart is like granite. I don’t have any hope for this guy. I can’t crack open his heart, but God, through you, all things are possible.”

And so, she learned to rely on God, and she sought His wisdom on what to say and what not to say. When to push and when to back off. She receives God’s comfort when the frustration felt like it was going to boil over. She asked God for the patience and the ability to love me, even when I wasn’t very lovable. And you know what happened? Something extraordinary happened in the midst of that, and it was this. God used this very difficult time in our marriage to mold Leslie into someone she never could have possibly become had she not gone through the pain of a spiritually-mismatched marriage.

In other words, it was in the depths of this marriage, in the trials, in the tribulations that Leslie learned how to pour herself out to God in prayer in an authentic way. It’s when she learned to be 100 percent fully dependent on Him. It’s when she learned to wait on His timing Instead of taking things into her own hand. It’s when she learned forgiveness and grace and patience and love and sacrifice. And I want to tell you something, she is a different person today.

A person of deep prayer, a person of dependence on God, a person of spiritual courage. Why? Because God took her through that valley of pain in our marriage. And friends, I want to tell you something. If you are a Christian married to someone who’s not a Christian, this is not a wasted time in your life. Yes, it’s difficult, but God can and He will use this experience to mold you into someone, to shape your character and values and outlooks and attitude in such a way that He never could have done, had you not gone through this pain.

Apostle Paul wrote about this in Romans 5. He said, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom He has given us.”

Friends, there’s hope. There’s hope. And if you’re in a spiritually-mismatched situation, God has not abandoned you at all. And you can learn from what the Bible teaches us. H-E-L-P. Harness the support of others, exercise restraint, live your faith, don’t just talk it, and pray, pray, pray, and as you do that, God is going to use something in you to change you as He works on your spouse.

John: Really helpful advice from our guest, Lee Strobel, on today’s episode of Focus on the Family, and we’re only halfway through the message. So, uh, we’ll hear more next time from Lee and his wife, Leslie.

Jim, we really have to give Lee a lot of credit for being so honest about those negative feelings he experienced when Leslie gave her life to Christ.

Jim: We do, John. It takes a big man to admit something like that. Uh, early on in this message, Lee said he was jealous of Jesus, and he admits to being very angry about Leslie’s new relationship with the Lord. And we all owe Lee a big thanks for his honesty.

Uh, you know, today we just heard the highlights from Lee and Leslie’s book called Spiritual Mismatch: Hope for Christians Married to Someone Who Doesn’t Know God.

Uh, you can get a copy from us here at Focus on the Family and support our efforts to help and heal marriages. We’d be happy to send that out to you when you make a monthly pledge of any amount. That’s the best way to help us help others.

And if you can’t make a monthly commitment right now, we understand. Uh, we’ll send the book to you for a one-time donation of any amount. So, please get in touch with us today. Be part of the ministry, and request a copy of the book, Spiritual Mismatch, for yourself or for a friend.

John: And you can reach us when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY or donate online and request your copy of the book at

And this reminder, if you’re struggling in your marriage, please contact us and request a consultation with one of our counselors or learn more about our Hope Restored marriage intensives. Uh, we really, uh, count it an honor to help you, uh, rebuild and see God restore your marriage.

Now, next time, Leslie Strobel shares her side of the story.

Leslie Strobel: The hope that I had was God loved Lee more than I do, and I had to trust that He had a plan for Lee.

John: On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.



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Spiritual Mismatch: Hope for Christians Married to Someone Who Doesn't Know God

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