So many people live in a mixed faith marriage. Perhaps you have never believed the same thing as your partner or maybe over time one of you has lost the faith you both used to share. How can you practically make these relationships work? Atheist turned Christian Jim Thring shares his thoughts.
Jim became a Christian as a young adult. He subsequently lost his faith and spent nearly ten years as a committed atheist. He has since come back to faith through intellectual and personal reasons. You can hear more of Jim’s story here, as well as on our Unbelievable? Christmas special.
What did your deconversion mean in terms of your relationships? How did it impact the people around you?
It did impact relationships. My wife and I were Christians when we met and got married. And we saw ourselves as married under a covenant of the umbrella of the God we both believed in and wanted to bring our children up in the Christian faith. So, the biggest challenge was my marriage.
Some people will think: ‘Hey, what’s the big deal? Believing in God is just like going to a chess club or having a different political opinion or something like that.’ And of course, it’s not really because these are heart matters. These are very personal, very emotive. And understandably, the big question on my wife’s mind was: ‘What does this mean? Does this mean that you don’t want to stay married? Does this mean you want to live a completely different life? How does this play out?’ So, that was something we both worked on together. I was very keen that our marriage survive this and that we find a way to keep doing family.
My wife had a very good mix of being very gentle, but at the same time she was very clear she still believed. She was also very clear that she still wanted to take our kids to church. And I didn’t resist that. I think, rather arrogantly, I thought: ‘I’ll get them some way. You can take them to church, but I’ll find a way to get my views across more surreptitiously.’
I was also very keen – probably a little selfishly – to make sure my Christian wife, family and friends didn’t perceive the step I made as ‘now I’ve decided to do life my own way, that means there’s no bar to anything, no limits, no boundaries’. I certainly didn’t want to be the one to blame for a family breakdown. So, I was very keen to make sure that we kind of rode this challenging period that we had.
What advice would you have for people in mixed faith marriages? How do you make it work?
This is only based on my experience, everyone’s experience is different, people’s characters and relationships are different. I think, speaking from my own experience, it’s probably a case of trying your best to discern where the other person is at. My wife knew, especially early on, that I wasn’t really prepared to have a conversation about faith. And the Christians at church were very careful not to push too hard and not to box me into a corner. But they just continued to stay connected and continued to love me and respect the position I’d taken. And that was really important, because it gave me breathing space.
Probably the advice I’d say is just stay connected. Because if you go too far, if you push too hard, then you lose that connection. Then you’ve just got an uphill battle to get that connection again.
I think the other thing is to respect opinion, but to stick by your convictions as well. The Christian faith is defensible and it’s right that we ask difficult questions. And I think if, as Christians, we can demonstrate that we don’t shy away from the difficult questions, we tackle them, that’s really important. Then if you feel there’s an opportunity to raise questions of your own and to demonstrate that actually, atheism has a faith element to it as well, the burden of proof isn’t just one sided, then maybe introduce those things. But I think you just have to do it really carefully.
You have to remember that the big thing here is relationship, time and breathing space. And of course, from my own experience, I can say don’t stop praying. This isn’t just about what words you speak. It’s about your prayer and support as well. Not to give up and not to assume.
I remember having this conversation with someone who said: “Well, you might change your mind. One day you might come back to faith.” As if it was a really simple thing. And I thought: ‘I can’t! How can I come back to faith? The toothpaste is out of the tube! I’ve pulled back the curtain and seen the little man like in The Wizard of Oz, there’s no way I could come back to faith.’
I guess my message to a sceptic or an atheist who’s in this position is: of course, you’re going to feel that you can never go back. But you have to be honest with yourself and think: ‘Well, why is that it?’ What are the personal reasons for the position you take? Not just the intellectual reasons.
I assume your wife and many others were very glad to see you come back to faith. I’m sure they had been praying in the background for quite some time…
Yes, there had been a lot of people praying for me. I think when I left faith, I was probably a little bit resentful of that. I knew they would be praying for me, but I thought: ‘Well, you can go ahead and pray, whatever you want to do, I’ve made my decision. I’m doing life my way.’ My wife prayed for me all throughout.
I did a mission after university with a chap called Philip, who I hadn’t spoken to for this whole period when I lost my faith, so for nearly a decade. He was doing a doctorate in New Testament studies in the States. He had a dream and I was in the dream. The dream wasn’t very specific, but afterwards he just felt a really strong sense to pray for me. And he did so every day.
I got in touch with Philip after I came back to faith and told him: “Shock horror, I actually left my faith nine years ago and I’m back, sorry to kind of bring all this to you.” And he emailed me back and said: “Actually, I knew you’d fallen away and I had been praying. But, you know, apathy sets in over time, until I had this dream. Then I prayed for you every day.” And I found out that the moment he was paying for me every day was the moment I started to consider God again. The timing of that was extraordinary!