A 23-year-old Christian woman wrote to ask what I thought about her dating a non-Christian:
It’s a problem plaguing my life [she wrote]. This man treats me like a queen. I just want to talk to him all the time and blah blah gush gush so forth. The problem is that he is not a Christian, and my family … well, they are, and they don’t like this relationship of mine one little bit. As far as they’re concerned, any non-Christian man is a rapist or murderer waiting to happen. I love my family; I love my boyfriend. My question is: Is it right for me to date a non-Christian? And if I do, how do I deal with others who make clear that they think my doing so is wrong?
Dear young woman:
Let me address your second question first. There are only two kinds of people in the world who can ever condemn you or anything you do: those you care about, and those you don’t. You only care about what people in the former group think. When you’re doing something to which someone to whom you’re close takes exception, talk to that person about it. Work out your thoughts and feelings about it together. If that person loves you, of course they’ll want what’s best for you. If they don’t love you—or, as is more usual, if they love you more the more you fit their idea of who you should be–then … well, then sooner or later you’re probably going to want to rethink your whole relationship with that person.
As to whether or not it’s okay for you to date a non-Christian: of course it is. It’s just dating, which is all about what amounts to noncommittal exploration. But it doesn’t sound like you’re “just” dating this guy. It sounds like you’re in love with him. And when a 23-year-old woman is in love with a man, it usually means that at least at some level she’s considering that man as a potential husband.
Generally speaking, now—and there are always exceptions to a rule (see the atheist’s letter linked to below for an excellent exception to this rule)—it’s not the best idea to marry someone who doesn’t share your faith—which is to say, who doesn’t share your understanding of Man, God and the relationship between them.
That’ a lot not to have in common.
Marrying a person who doesn’t share your religious convictions means that the most important part of you—the part that most wholly makes you you, the spiritual core of your existence—necessarily remains outside of what amounts to your spouse’s comprehension.
It means that your spouse’s most definitional values are categorically different from yours. Which means that, in some really important ways, your spouse doesn’t really get you. It means that they don’t entirely grasp what makes you tick—what motivates you, inspires you, moves you in the deepest way anyone can be moved.
To a degree that it’s advisable to at least stop to fully appreciate, it means that you and your spouse live in different realities.
Marrying a person who doesn’t share your religious beliefs means going to bed every night with a person whom you know doesn’t, at the deepest level of yourself, know you. And you may have your own reasons for why, in fact, that works for you. But in the end it’s not terribly likely to end up working for either of you. We all need spouses who really and truly get us—who know and love the very essence of who we are. Sooner or later, anything less than that will leave us restless, angry, and looking for a way out.
The key to a truly happy marriage lies in gradually, over the years, revealing to your spouse deeper and deeper truths about who you are. Marriage creates the psychological and spiritual context for the miraculous, deeply interactive process by which, over time, you discover and reveal to your spouse everything you know and learn about yourself. Your spouse then lovingly integrates what you teach and share about yourself into their own worldview, into their own identity. And you do the same for them. That is how marriage, in a very real sense, creates one life out of two.
A Christian marrying a non-Christian is entering a relationship in which that process is not likely to unfold as … comfortably as it might. A Christian can share a good deal of themselves with someone who doesn’t share their faith—but they’re necessarily blocked from fully sharing all of themselves. And the part they can’t share is the best part of themselves. If they try to share it—if a Christian begins to try to share the real stuff about themselves with their non-believing spouse—all the spouse can do, ultimately, is shrug, and say that they just don’t really get it.
And that’s just not a winning formula for long-term happiness.
Again, there are exceptions to every rule. It’s not that two people of different faiths can’t have a happy marriage; of course they can. (And, again, for proof, see the letter below.) It’s simply that the odds, going in, are against it.
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In response to this post, an atheist friend of mine wrote the excellent Letter From an Atheist Married to a Christian.