I sat in the high bleachers, my lower back aching. I was listening to the final keynote speaker at a conference, so far back in the nosebleed seats that I had to squint to make out the tall, tattooed pastor standing on the stage. I shifted in my seat, listless and ready to stretch, but before I could move, the pastor launched into a final benediction—a blessing-riff on the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the agnostics,” she said. “Blessed are those who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.”
I barely heard anything after that. My mind fixated on the phrase “blessed are the agnostics” because my husband doesn’t believe in God anymore, and there are moments when I don’t know what I believe, either. His deconversion happened a few years ago, throwing our marriage and family into a tailspin.
Our story is hardly an anomaly. The trend of millennials walking away from faith and/or church has been well documented. A 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center indicates that “the number of US adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing” and “the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults.” Although the rise of the so-called religious nones has been thoroughly discussed in Christian circles over the past few years, we don’t talk as purposefully about the marital complications that come with this trend. When a married millennial leaves the faith, what happens to the spouse left in his wake?
In our story, the slow drift from faith had been happening for a long time. My husband and I attended a conservative evangelical school and together embodied the Christian-college, do-gooder cliché. We met on a mission trip to Denver, where we hung out with homeless people at a shelter and ministered to kids living in motels rife with drugs and prostitution. We fell in love as we encountered God in people on the streets and breathed in the Colorado mountain air. We were just a pair of idealistic 20-year-olds with a fiery passion for Jesus, Champion of the Poor, and felt confident we could follow God together.
But then life after college happened. We met people who thought differently than us. We had new friends who didn’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, yet loved their kids and the earth around them in ways that some people inside the church just didn’t. Our buttoned-down honor code told us right from wrong in such stark, legalistic terms that we didn’t know what to do when we discovered a world with jumbled variations of gray.
While I struggled with cynicism and bristled at Christian clichés that no longer rang true, my husband questioned absolutely everything about his faith. During college, he served in urban slums overseas, and after awhile, the violence and poverty he witnessed seemed incompatible with a just, loving God. Upon entering graduate school to study plant science, he found new freedom in a scientific community that—unlike some of the insular Christian schools and churches he had attended—didn’t try to shove ambiguities into neat and tidy boxes. After all that, he divorced himself from any notion of God.
“I’m done,” he told me a few years ago over Christmas break when our daughter was just two years old. Hearing those words felt like betrayal. We had gotten married and pledged ourselves equally to God as to each other, and his turn from faith left me stranded. We had never been the couple who did nightly devotionals or even prayed together regularly, yet we had shared a conviction that following Jesus was what our life together was all about. When he started questioning everything, I assumed that he would eventually come back around and find a nuanced faith that embraced mystery. But instead, he declared himself “done” and stopped coming to church with me and my toddler.
The struggles we now face as a mixed-faith couple are myriad. When my daughter was born, we stood side-by-side at her baby dedication, but just three years later, my husband told me he was uncomfortable doing the same for our infant son. When my daughter asks questions about how animals were created—“God made them, right?”—my husband replies, “Well, some people believe that, but I don’t.” We now have to talk about mealtime prayers and whether or not to send our daughter to Vacation Bible School. One of the hardest losses has been a shared community; we are still searching for places and friendships where we both feel comfortable and accepted for our differing beliefs.
This faith-shift in our marriage has at times felt like a sucker punch to me, the one left behind. I have felt lonely and angry. I have cycled through feelings of fear, sadness, and fragile hope. The expectations I had for my life have been turned upside down by my husband’s deconversion and at times, I’ve questioned the very goodness of God in allowing this to happen. As Lauren Winner writes in her book Still: Notes from a Mid-Faith Crisis: “Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.”
Dealing with my husband’s deconversion has been a rocky detour on my already wayward faith journey, particularly as it concerns questions of salvation and damnation. It’s difficult to enjoy date night, for example, if you’re constantly angling to save your partner’s soul from hellfire. As a rule, I don’t try to convert my husband over breakfast dishes or any other time. For one, I know it would only alienate him further. I have to trust that God is still pursuing my husband and that it is the Holy Spirit’s role, not mine, to woo him back to faith.
In my own faith, I still hold to most core tenets of orthodox Christianity (though I don’t believe that mental assent to a doctrinal checklist is what makes me a Christian). Despite my own uncertainties, I still show up to church with my two little children in tow. I have found shelter in a tiny Mennonite church that values community, hospitality, and service. Unlike some evangelical churches, I never feel pressured to talk about my “personal relationship with Jesus.” Although that relationship matters, the corporate body of Christ is bigger than me, and my participation in church has become more important than always knowing the right answers. In our church, whether cynics or firebrands, we all serve as greeters and pass out bulletins. Missionaries and backsliders alike are asked to volunteer with refugee families or to bring snacks for after the service.
Not every church invites all attendees to participate in this way. One of the key reasons cited in a Barna study about those who left the church was that it “feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” My husband and I are a microcosm of these cultural trends, as some of us millennials hold on to the church (me) and others split away from it (my husband). In the midst of these fractures, we need the church to ask for and value our contributions. I need the Christian community to support me as I struggle to raise my kids in a mixed-faith home, and I need it to love my husband in the midst of his unbelief. One way my church community does that is by warmly welcoming him on the rare Sunday that he shows up, accepting him just where he is with no ulterior motives.
“Blessed are the agnostics,” the preacher said, her arms stretching over the crowd. Her words triggered an epiphany of sorts. As she spoke, I thought about my husband, a man that I have resented for leaving me alone in my struggle to believe, and I saw him with new eyes. I saw him through the lens of love, the way God cherishes and delights in him. The pastor’s words reminded me that all humans are dearly loved by God, whether they believe in a God of love or not. And although I struggle to reimagine my marriage, I find great comfort in seeing my husband—and myself—just as we are: doubters, fickle and wayward, loved, cherished, and blessed.
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