Kimberly Penrod Pelletier on Loving an Unbelieving Spouse

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Kimberly Penrod Pelletier is a spiritual director, writer, speaker, and co-host of the Ask A Spiritual Director podcast. Connect with her at The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

In the fall of 2017, not long after we’d celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, my husband and I sat down for an evening chat after getting the kids to bed. The particulars of the conversation are hazy now, but this was clear: After 30 years of being a Christian and spending almost half of that in ministry, my husband was leaving the faith. The faith that formed our marriage vows; the faith our children were baptized in; the faith we held when we buried a stillborn son; the faith our community was built around; the faith that my vocation is centered around as a spiritual director, writer, and speaker—he was leaving that faith.

I wanted initially to respect this news as his journey (even though it was mine, too), so I didn’t tell anyone. I also tried to keep the experience safe in my head so that I could think my way to answers in the newfound madness. My body, however, told a less cerebral story. I was driving home after a long day of errands when the full impact hit me: My eyes blurred with tears, and short breathes rolled through my chest. Two weeks had passed since my husband had dropped the “I don’t really believe there’s a God anymore” bomb. It took that long before I could even begin to feel the disorienting weight of his words and the betrayal, loss, and grief that came with them. This was clearly more than I could handle alone.

As I shared the news with some close friends and pastors, I felt plagued with questions: How do I tell the kids? What does this mean for their spiritual formation? How do we connect? How do I like him again? How did he get here? Why didn’t he tell me earlier? Will we still go to church together? Will we ever feel normal again?

In Letters to a Young Poet, the 19th century German poet Ranier Maria Rilke writes, “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” As the spouse of someone who has lost faith in God, I am living the questions right now in hopes of finding future answers. But not everything is a mystery. Day by day, I’m learning how to love my husband in the midst of change. Over the last two years, I’ve learned these 10 lessons in particular:

1. Trust the work of the Holy Spirit.

Early on in the process, my husband came to me and told me he wanted to share his “anti-testimony.” Though I didn’t tell him, I felt appalled and disgusted. I brought those feelings to my much wiser spiritual director. She said to me, “It is only the Spirit’s work that opens up our heart to want to be known by others. His desire to be known is a gift.” Her words have remained with me and born fruit continually over these years.

As Adam Neder writes, “Our confidence that God will reveal himself … is grounded not in our own competence, character, or powers of persuasion, but in God’s desire to be known and in the eloquent presence of the risen Christ, who makes himself known in the power of the Spirit.” Although Neder is writing about the dynamic between a teacher and a student, his wisdom applies just as well to a spousal relationship. The work of the Holy Spirit is ever-present in my husband’s life, and I can trust that reality.

2. Get clear on what keeps you spiritually growing and then do it.

When my husband parted ways with Christianity, I began to feel spiritual loneliness in the space of my very own home. In that context, I’ve had to consider what keeps me spiritually alive. For example, my connection with my spiritual director has become increasingly essential to me. I also continue to cultivate practices that form me spiritually, like spending time in silence, engaging Scripture, praying, being in nature, reading spiritual formation books, and staying connected with my Christian faith community.

As you ponder your own faith story, think about what fills you up and keeps you open to the Holy Spirit. Stay in community with others who can support your journey and your spouse’s. And cultivate the relationships and practices that leave your heart open to God.

3. Slow down your life.

Two months after my husband declared his departure from faith, I found a new job as a chaplain, something I had always wanted to do. It was a great job and a good fit, but I quit after three months. It became clear to me that I was trying to escape my pain. Leaving that job was a repentance of sorts, not because a woman shouldn’t work or leave her child with a sitter (which I had to do) but rather because I was running from myself, from my husband, and from God. I had to stop the frenzy. I had to reckon with my body and my emotions, and I needed therapy to support the process.

Since then, we’ve moved to a smaller home and slowed our pace of life considerably. Making room for his process and my own has cost both of us, but it has also born significant fruit. We have more time to talk, ponder, and attend to our inner lives. I have more time to pray.

4. Practice hospitality.

Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” never hits home closer than when that person is the one you share a bed with. In split-worldview marriages, we need hospitality for ourselves and also for the deconstructing neighbor right next to us. When we allow ourselves to come as we are, that deep, honest well within brings forth genuine prayers and a closer connection with God. It also enables us to follow Jesus when he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, emphasis mine).

Although your spouse may be uninterested in Jesus in the formal sense, they’re unlikely to refuse genuine hospitality that comes in the spirit of Christ. In my own marriage, I practice this more than I perfect it, but nonetheless it’s worth every honest, humbling moment with my husband.

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Source: Christianity Today