Carrie Oliver's pager buzzed again, and I smiled inwardly. For me, the vibration was the most beautiful sound imaginable.
Carrie and her husband, Dr. Gary Oliver, were extremely important to my wife, Erin, and me. Gary served as a groomsmen in our wedding. He was my mentor and boss at John Brown University. The two of them had helped Erin and me through our hard, early years of marriage. Erin and Carrie had even written a book together: Grown-Up Girlfriends. In 2007, we were all still together — working together, worshiping together, sharing our lives together.
And when Carrie's pancreatic cancer was diagnosed, we worried and grieved and prayed together.
Faith in prayer
We weren't the only ones praying. Carrie's pager was part of a ministry that took prayer to the next level. The ministry donated pagers to critically ill believers. Instead of just telling people, "I'm praying for you," friends, family and well-wishers could punch in the number of the patient's pager when they were praying for him or her. "I'm praying for you" became more than well-meaning words. Through the buzz of the pager they became felt action.
For months on end Carrie's pager would buzz almost constantly during the difficult days. And even though I knew that pancreatic cancer had a grim prognosis, the pager gave me absolute confidence that God would heal her. He'd have to. I knew what the Jesus said about prayer: "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:14). "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours," the Bible says in Mark 11:24. Verse after verse seems to promise that our prayers, sincerely and persistently offered, will be answered and answered well.
And then came the call from Gary late one night, telling me that his sweet Carrie was with her heavenly Father.
What? I thought. She died? Impossible! I had personally heard months of unceasing prayer for Carrie's healing. How could she be gone?
It wasn't just Carrie who died that night. A little bit of my faith did, too.
Carrie's death rocked me. I went into a real spiritual funk — especially around the issue of prayer. Those Bible verses seemed pretty straightforward to me. There's no ambiguity to them. The Bible doesn't say "maybe" or "possibly." It says, "It will be yours."
And yet the healing I had prayed for — what thousands of people had persistently prayed for — hadn't come to pass.
I became a cynic. I started to view prayer as a spiritual slot machine: Put your prayer quarter in the slot, pull the lever, say amen and wait to see if this particular prayer would hit the jackpot. That's what it felt like to me. I would hear of other miraculous healings. Why not Carrie?
My relationship with the Lord was affected. My marriage was damaged, too. Erin and I had always prayed together. It was an important part of our relationship. But I'd grown so pessimistic about prayer that I stopped praying with my wife. It just felt hollow. Fake.
Supporting your spouse during a faith crisis
Our fallen world can do a number on even the strongest faith. So how do you support your spouse during a faith crisis? Here are four tips:
Don't try to change your spouse. I so appreciate that Erin never rushed me. She didn't try to talk me out of my feelings or confusion. She listened to me. She was patient. She let me question God without trying to provide the answers. I know she was hurt when I didn't want to pray or go to church with her, but she gave me the space to work through it.
First Peter 3:1-2 tells a woman to respect her husband and let him see her inner beauty so that he may desire to follow Christ. Loving actions can speak louder than words. The Holy Spirit has to have room to move and affect hearts. Let Him do His job while you are a continuous conduit of love to your spouse.
Model a vibrant faith. Throughout my spiritual funk, Erin continued to attend church and lead our family in prayer. First Corinthians 16:13-14 says, "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love."
Even when your spouse's faith seems to falter, stand firm in yours. It's your responsibility to grow more like Christ. First and foremost, "stand firm in the faith."
To "let all that you do be done in love" means that your deepening faith allows God to love your spouse through you — through your open and well-cared-for heart. And God's love is always patient, kind, grateful, humble, polite, sacrificial, gentle, forgiving, protecting, trusting, hopeful and committed (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Pray for your spouse. I know this answer sounds cliché. I know that, given my cynicism a decade ago about prayer, this exhortation may seem strange. But prayer is truly powerful — not just for the person being prayed for, but the person who is praying. I love how Stormie Omartian explains that dynamic in The Power of a Praying Wife:
Something amazing happens to our hearts when we pray for another person. The hardness melts. We become able to get beyond the hurts, and forgive. We even end up loving the person we're praying for. It's miraculous! It happens because when we pray we enter into the presence of God and He fills us with His Spirit of love. … I've seen women with no feelings of love for their husbands find that as they prayed, over time, those feelings came. Sometimes they felt differently even after the first heartfelt prayer.
Get community support. When your spouse is going through a faith crisis, you need support from your Christian brothers and sisters. Remember what Hebrews 10:24-25 says: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
Through Erin's support and prayers, I had an amazing encounter with God one day. I was working out by running steps. Suddenly, I sat on the steps and started praying. I finally broke and accepted that I didn't have to know why Carrie died despite our prayers. I decided that it didn't matter. I trusted God and believed in prayer — even though I didn't always understand how it worked.
Later that day, Carrie's husband, Gary, sent me a text out of the blue, quoting Romans 8:26-27: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." These verses touched me. I realized that I don't always know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit does and He knows God's will. And He is always interceding on my behalf.
I'll end with a quote from Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby and Claude King:
The crisis of belief is a turning point … that demands that you make a decision. You must decide what you believe about God. How you respond when you reach this turning point will determine whether you go on to be involved with God in something God-sized that only He can do, or whether you will continue to go your own way and miss what God has purposed for your life.Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of several books.
Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about the Focus on the Family Hope Restored marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.