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Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch (Part 1 of 2)

Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch (Part 1 of 2)

Best-selling author Lee Strobel and his wife, Leslie, discuss the struggles they experienced while he was an atheist and she was a new Christian, offering hope and practical suggestions for living out your beliefs while being faithful to an unbelieving spouse. (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date: May 24, 2004


John Fuller: Today on “Focus on the Family,” a look at a spiritual mismatched marriage as seen through the eyes of an atheist husband.


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.

End of Excerpt

John: Lee Strobel will share a message of hope to those of you who are struggling to share the Good News of the gospel with your spouse. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, over our 40 years of ministry here at Focus on the Family, we’ve heard from many husbands and wives who love the Lord Jesus Christ, but they desperately want help for a spouse who’s an unbeliever, like Lee Strobel used to be before he became a noted defender of the faith. Lee was actually a hard-cord atheist, if you remember. He was the legal affairs editor of the Chicago Tribune and as a journalist, he was taught to be skeptical of everything. He was trained to double check every fact and every source and then check it again.

John: And his story is told in a brand-new movie, The Case for Christ, which happens to open in theaters across the United States tomorrow.

Jim: Man, John, it’s exciting. I’ve had many lunches with Lee Strobel. He is a terrific human being. We’ve had him in the studio several times in the past, but this message is different. Today we’ll feature a speech he gave to Willow Creek Community Church a few years ago and then next time, his wife, Leslie will share her side of the story. That’s always fun when you get both sides. We’ll also listen in on a very practical Q&A time that they had with those who were in the audience at Willow Creek.

John: All right, well, let’s go ahead and hear Lee Strobel on today’s “Focus on the Family.”


Lee Strobel: 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 gonna 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 are married to a follower of Jesus yourself, 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 nonbeliever, that God might even use you to help save their marriage.” So, I think everybody has a stake in the topic we’re gonna 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 2 Corinthians chapter 6, verse 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 gonna be pinched or it’s gonna be choked and as a result, there are gonna be stresses. There’s gonna be turbulence in the relationship.

Well, Leslie and I found out the reasons for this command the hard way. And 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 Christian.

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, ’cause I’d 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 am I all of a sudden, chopped liver? I mean, where do I fit into this? 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 gonna be less in her eyes? Was she gonna look at me differently than she looked at me before?

In fact, I remember one Sunday morning. I was still in bed, sleeping off a hangover and 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. I wanted to say, “Hey, hello! I’m an atheist! I said, “No, I don’t think I want to go to church. I’m tired. I gotta 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 ya.” And I didn’t even know why I said yes, but I said yes. And I was mad, ’cause 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 she said, “Can I fix you breakfast?” “No, I’ll do it myself.” And you know, it was raining outside and we had to run to the car. And 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. And we’re hydroplaning through the puddles and I’m swearing at that.

And finally, Leslie started to cry. And she said, “Look, I’m not twistin’ 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, it was backfiring. The reason I said, yes, I would go [with] her is ’cause I felt like I was losing her. She was goin’ off into this Christian subculture again. I felt like I was losing her to this church. And so, I said yes to go after, even though I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in bed. And now because of my anger, I’d just made matters worse and I’d driven a deeper wedge between us.

And then I was worried; that’s another emotion I felt. I was worried about how is she gonna raise the children? Is she gonna raise the children to be Christians? They’re gonna think less of me, that they’re gonna, “Look, oh there’s poor old dad. He’s just a hell-bound pagan (Laughter), suckin’ on the beer instead of goin’ to church. (Laughter) 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 gonna spend our money? How are we gonna raise the kids? All of those things began to be sources of conflict. Can you believe this? She wanted to give money to the church. I said, “What are you, out of your mind? You’re gonna like support that? Here’s the toilet; put it in the toilet. I mean, you might as well. You’re gonna throw it away.” And so, we had conflict over all these areas of our lives and I was afraid.

I was afraid Leslie was gonna turn into some wild-eyed religious fanatic, you know, some sexually repressed prude who was gonna spend all her spare time on Skid Row, serving the poor someplace. I was afraid she was gonna be hooked up to a cult that was gonna try to control every aspect of her life. I was afraid she’d get in these prayer groups and disclose personal and private information about me and tell ’em the truth about what I was like. I didn’t want people to know the truth about me. I mean, it was a classic case of bait and switch. I married the one Leslie. I married the fun, you know, try anything once, wild living Leslie and now she’s changing into something else. This is not what I signed up for.

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 the anger?” Back then, 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, in 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; my contrast made me mad.

It was God convicting me of me 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 of 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, 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 like an adult?

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 creates stress in a marriage.

So, Leslie was full of stress; I was away at work. She 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 [Him]. And she just felt so overwhelmed that God is real, that He is present, that He is gonna carry us through this 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 and say, “Now what?” You know, “What have you been doing?” You know and I just would have just 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 and she comes out and says, “Hi Lee. How was work?” She couldn’t share with the man she loved the most, the most important thing in her life, which was her 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 road of our marriage into the future and all she saw was conflict. How are we gonna raise the kids? How are we gonna spend our money? How are we gonna 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 gonna 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, ’cause 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.

So you could see how all of these emotions in a spiritually mismatched marriage contributed 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 nonbeliever?” 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.

Program Note:

John: You’re listening to Lee Strobel on “Focus on the Family,” And you can get a copy of his book, Spiritual Mismatch: Hope for Christians Married to Someone Who Doesn’t Know God, when you contribute a gift of any amount to the ministry here. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459. Or donate at Once again, here’s Lee Strobel.

End of Program Note

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 [in] 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 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.” “Help; I need help.” And so, we have taken the word “help,” H-E-L-P and we use that as an acronym to spell out these four bits of spiritual wisdom so that you could perhaps remember them.

So, the H in “help” stands for this Biblical advice; harness the support of others; harness the support of others. Ecclesiastes chapter 4, verses 9 and 10 say, “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 him 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 would 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, ’cause 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.

[The] second thing Linda did is this; 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 [say], “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 guy’s a, you know, half-drunken atheist. 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 wouldn’t have a temper any more. He’d never blow up, you know and 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. (Laughter) 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’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 Linda did is she kept Leslie focused on God and not on the spiritually mismatched situation. She encouraged Leslie to continue to building [sic] on the common ground that I had with her.

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 for 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 wanted 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 it and “Ah, there is a God,” you know. (Laughter) It didn’t work. And, you know, if she had put Post-it notes with verses on my mirror, if she had stuffed tracts into my socks when I was packing for a trip, if she had 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 small group and the 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, now, I’m goin’ 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 could 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, that the first thing I saw when I got up in the morning, I remember I’d walk 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’d close the Bible and she’d get up and 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 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 little things, Proverbs 25, verse 24. “Better to live alone in a tumbled down shack, than to share a mansion with a nagging spouse.” That’s true. Solomon said that, friends, so he knew. (Laughter) So, she exercised 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 gonna 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 I Peter chapter 3. “If your spouses refuse to listen when you talk to them about the Lord, they will be won over.” How? “By your respectful, pure behavior.” Your godly life will speak to them better than any words.

And as a new believer Leslie knew, “I’m not prepared to get into a debate with Lee over the existence of God.” That’s probably not gonna be healthy and productive. But she knew there was something more effective than that. And what it was is, she cooperated with God as He 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 hardheaded 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 said, “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 received God’s comfort when the frustration felt like it was gonna 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.

[The] Apostle Paul wrote about this in Romans chapter 5. He said, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, 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 gonna use something in you to change you as He works on your spouse.


John: Some really helpful advice from our guest, Lee Strobel and we’re only halfway through his message. You’re gonna hear more from Lee and his wife, Leslie next time and Jim, we really have to give Lee some credit for being so honest about that anger and jealousy he was feeling when Leslie gave her life to God.

Jim: Yeah, we really do. It takes a big man to admit those kinds of feelings. 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. So, she must have been livin’ it well if you think about it. And we all owe a big thanks to Lee for that kind of honesty.

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. And when you support the work Focus on the Family’s doing to support marriages like our Hope Restored four-day intensive counseling experience with almost an 85 percent success rate, uh … we’d be happy to send you this book for a donation of any amount. Please get in touch with us today and request a copy of the book, Spiritual Mismatch for yourself or maybe a friend.

John: Just call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459 or donate online and request that book at And if you appreciated today’s program, please tell a friend to tune in or pull up the app next time, as we continue to encourage spouses in spiritually mismatched marriages and hear from Lee’s wife, Leslie.


Mrs. Leslie Strobel: And so, 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.

End of Excerpt

John: That’s next time on “Focus on the Family.” Thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, join us again next time as we help you and your family thrive.

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