Over the past couple of months I’ve received maybe seven or eight emails from readers – some on the blog and others not – about marriage (two in the past 24 hours). Not about what the New Testament says about marriage, but about what these emailers should do with *their* marriage. Each of these was married to someone who was a faithful, committed, religiously conservative Christian of one kind or another (evangelical, Catholic, Mormon), but the emailer had, a while back, moved away from their earlier faith commitments, and now considered themselves agnostic or atheist or both, and weren’t sure how to handle it the marriage situation.
In some cases the question was: should I tell my spouse? In others it was: how can this work? In others it was: how can I convince them that their views are full of problems and help them see the truth?
I am not a marriage counsellor, as some of you may have noticed. But I do have a lot of experience with questions like this, and have pretty firm and clear opinions about them. Since I’ve gotten inquiries like this for some years now, not just recently, I thought I may as well say what my views are publicly. These views, by the way, apply, mutatis mutantis, to other close relationships: obviously partners at all sorts of levels, but also parents, children, long-time friends, etc.
My own personal view is that everyone is welcome to have their own personal views. Even if they are someone close to me and I think they are completely wrong. So what? They think *I’m” completely wrong, so we’re on even playing ground here. “Yeah, but I’m right and *she’s* wrong!!!” OK, that’s where we start getting into trouble.
Good relationships are built on love, trust, and respect. If you don’t love a person deeply at numerous levels, trust that they have your best interests in mind just as you have theirs, and respect their views, their beliefs, their decisions, their commitments, their sincerity, and so forth – if you don’t love, trust, and respect the other, the relationship is not going to work. Of course you can’t make them other person love, trust, and respect you, but more often than not if you act that way toward them they will be more inclined to act that way toward you. Someone usually has to put down the barriers, and if you yourself are not inclined to do so, the other will put up even more barriers, taller ones, thicker ones.
People are naturally disinclined to be completely open and honest with others, since it leads to the possibility of being raked over the coals. Oh boy do most of us understand that one. But without openness and honesty, the relationship ain’t gonna work anyway, or at least it will work only superficially, with no depth. Granted, that’s where most relationships are, but it’s not really the ultimate goal.
So to stress: relationships are NOT about who is right and who is wrong and who can prove it to the other and everyone else they know. That’s a televised debate in front of a national audience. It’s not a personal relationship. Or at least one that is loving, satisfying, and long lasting.
My view is that if you do not agree about religious issues, you really need to be open about the differences, be willing to talk about them, and be completely sympathetic with the other person’s point of view – to the point of entering into conversation with them about things they are thinking about in respect to their point of view, not simply to accept that the view is there. That is, you need not simply to agree that he’ll go to church and you won’t, but to be willing to talk to him about the sermon that day if he wants to, or discuss a crisis of faith he is having – not in order to convert him to your view but to help him work out as well as he can the view that he himself is most comfortable with given what he knows and things and believes.
People want to feel respected for their views, and they want partners, family members, and friends to show their respect, not grudgingly but actively and eagerly.
What if the other person doesn’t actually *know* your views, and you are highly reluctant to tell them what you really think? THAT is the most difficult situation, since usually the reluctance is related to other things, such as children (what would we do *then*??) or other family members or social circles (we’ll lose all our friends!) or even employment and career (I’m a pastor and I’m losing my faith).
And that is where my very strong general advice (be completely loving, trusting, and respectful) is not completely helpful in every case. To be sure it is still applicable in many, many cases. If the situation is that you’re afraid of losing a girlfriend or boyfriend, for example, or that your wife or husband will no longer love you, then MOST of the time (not *every* time) the reality is that you do not have a relationship of trust. You cannot both know another and be known by them while hiding away an important aspect of your life, keeping it secret from someone you’re trying to be close to. Sorry, it doesn’t work. The only way to be truly close is to be open, and secrets about things ongoing in your life (as opposed, theoretically and sometimes, to things in your past – I’m not speaking of those kinds of things here) make it impossible to be open. That means it is impossible to be completely close. More or less by definition.
I’m NOT saying that therefore it is necessary in every case to spill the beans. It is possible that you, like many others I have known, would prefer to be in a less than completely honest relationship because the goods outweigh the bads. It happens and no one can make the decision for you. One other thing to consider, though (as many people do), is that your decision to keep a secret like that is a violation of trust and it means your partner/friend/family member is in relationship under false pretenses, that you have intentionally imposed. That can’t be good. But maybe you think it is better than otherwise.
In any event, YOUR case is different from every other that has ever existed. And so I am decidedly not telling you what to do. If there were a one-size-fits-all equation for these things, we could just plug our personal data into a computer and be told what to do. But I will say that if two people truly love one another they will figure out enough common grounds to make it work, if it’s possible. Sometimes, lots of times, it’s not possible. A whole bunch of us have been there.
Well, these are just a few of my thoughts. Two final things. First, in response to comments that may come in on this post, I will not be willing to talk about the specifics of my own marriage, which is a private matter, as are your relationships Second, I will not be able to pretend I *am* a marriage counsellor and get involved with your personal situation. My reflections here are general, not any kind of advice specific to one person or another. And I’m not qualified to hang out a shingle. Still, lots and lots of people are. There is nothing better for a good marriage — let alone a not-so-good one — than a good marriage counsellor!
I am, however, happy to respond to general comments and questions, as always, before getting directly back to what I *am* qualified to deal with: the New Testament and the history of early Christianity!