A spiritually apathetic husband demonstrates little or no interest in his faith and the application of it. Scripture forbids spiritual apathy (Rom. 12:11; Rev. 2:4–5, 3:15–19). This is in part because the apathetic person is resisting God’s work to motivate him do His will (Phil. 2:13). In other words, the Christian must harden himself to the the Lord’s powerful work (Col. 1:29) and His will (Titus 2:14) in order to be apathetic.
Marriage to a spiritually apathetic husband is challenging and tempting. Women in this situation don’t always respond well to their spiritually dispassionate partners. And that causes even more problems. Here’s what you need to know about how women of spiritually apathetic husbands suffer, common mistakes these wives make, and practical steps you can take to help.
Challenges that wives of spiritually apathetic husbands face
Lack of contentment/coveting
Women whose husbands aren’t spiritually engaged can be tempted to be discontent about their marriages and family life. They may reason, If my husband were more involved as a spiritual leader, our kids would respect me more. Or, if he taught our kids the Bible, maybe our kids wouldn’t fight as much. Or, if he led us in prayer sometimes, maybe we wouldn’t be in this financial mess.
It’s easy to see how a wife in this situation could easily blame her husband for any problems the family has. A related temptation is to covet other women’s husbands she perceives to be spiritually engaged. This, coupled with discontentment about her own family life, can put her in a position to be tempted by someone she perceives to be the kind of godly man she needs or deserves.
Some women will be tempted to fear. Why? They know that the Bible places a strong emphasis on the role of the father in the home as it relates to a child’s spiritual development and the spiritual development of his wife. So when a husband isn’t engaged, she wonders what the effects will be on the children. Will the children follow after their father and be indifferent to their faith? Who will teach my sons how to be godly men? If his apathy extends to their marriage, she may fear whether her husband will leave her or if he is involved with another woman.
Sometimes spiritual apathy manifests itself in other areas. If a husband isn’t responsive to the Lord’s commands to be a spiritual leader in the home, then it shouldn’t be surprising if he neglects other responsibilities in the home as well. This can leave the wife of an apathetic husband with an overwhelming number of responsibilities—managing the family finances, getting the children to events, cooking, cleaning the home, providing spiritual leadership to the children—often these responsibilities are layered on top of her own job responsibilities. As a result, wives of spiritually apathetic husbands are often tired and feel overwhelmed.
When a husband is spiritually apathetic, it has a tangible effect upon his wife. Out of anger and desperation some wives resort to nagging their husbands or complaining to their friends about their spouses. Some wives speak negatively about their husbands in front of their children, or they berate their spouse in front of their children, comparing him to other men and pointing out his failures. Others fantasize about or pursue relationships with other men they are attracted to. Obviously, none of those responses are helpful. Those reactions can tempt a man to check out completely from a marriage.
Ways to help
If you know that a husband’s apathy has increased the workload and stress level of his wife, she needs to know that her labor is not in vain. It also helps to let her know that you actually realize the stress that is upon her. Remind her that she can make a significant impact on her children and that ultimately God will change her children through the power of the Holy Spirit and His Word. Another way to encourage her is to simply acknowledge the huge responsibilities she may be taking on in light of her husband’s apathy. Her husband does not control her and her children’s ultimate outcomes.
Show her better ways to respond to her husband
Responding with gentleness and respect
First Peter 3:1–6 is a great passage to help wives understand how to respond to husbands who show little or no interest in the things of God. This passage can help a wife to see how God wants her to behave in the home—with respect and high moral character, coupled with a spirit of submissiveness. It’s interesting that in this passage, Peter tells women that by being respectful, pure, and submissive, they are daughters of Sarah, who obeyed Abraham, if they do what is right and do not give way to fear (1 Pet. 3:6).
A wife in this situation needs to understand that fear (fear that a husband’s apathy will produce bad outcomes for her children; fear that she’ll never joyfully minister with her husband; fear that her husband’s apathy will lead them into a financial hole that they can’t get out of; etc.) can tempt her to disrespect her husband. While on one level this is understandable, a woman in this situation needs to be encouraged to see that God is calling her to respond in faith, trusting that His way of responding is better than nagging, complaining, or coveting someone else’s husband or family life. Helping them renew their minds about their fears and God’s faithfulness can be a huge benefit.
If a husband is apathetic, there may not be any practical issues with submission. But at a conceptual level, the wife may put off by the idea that if her apathetic husband were to suddenly get his act together, she should submit to him. If that’s the case, it may be beneficial to help her to understand that Peter’s letter was written during a time in which women had varying levels of opportunities and rights depending on where they lived. So Peter’s point is not imposing a particular form of submission, but one that is consistent with Scripture and informed by cultural expectations of the time. She may also need to be encouraged to see that submitting to her husband brings glory to God as it mirrors the way the church relates to Christ (Eph. 5:22–24). It would also be helpful to make sure that she understands what submission is and is not. Justin Taylor summarizes a message by John Piper on that subject here.
If a wife says that she is struggling with the idea of submission, it is important to understand what she envisions or fears submitting to. This will help you to clarify any misconceptions about submission that she may have. Make sure you listen to and understand her concerns. Responding to objections that she doesn’t raise helps no one. And it destroys trust and undermines your credibility. You’ll come off as insensitive, or as someone who just doesn’t get it. She may never say it, but she’ll think twice about coming to you with other issues. As Jeff Forrey explains, not listening well is one of the biggest mistakes pastors make in counseling, and it also contributes to why people don’t respond well to biblical instruction.
Responding with humility
Wives in this situation also need to be reminded of their own faults. This has to be done in a gentle way, not accusing. Perhaps asking, What are some of the things that your husband would like you to change? How much progress have you made in those areas? Exploring these areas of weakness and sin in her life—particularly the length of time that she has battled in these areas—may help her to put her husband’s weakness in perspective. It may even cause her to have more mercy on her spouse.
In most situations it would be wise to wait to use this approach until you’ve met with the woman a few times. Otherwise she may feel as if her concerns are being minimized or dismissed.
Another point to help her realize is that Christ loves an imperfect church. This is important because our love for each other is to model the love that Christ has for us. So if God loves us when we are imperfect, how much more so should we as imperfect creatures love—with great affection—those whom we find imperfect.
Responding with forgiveness
Another skill for her to develop, if she hasn’t already, is the ability to share the truth in love with her husband about his behavior. In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller describes it this way:
One of the most basic skills in marriage is the ability to tell the straight, unvarnished truth about what your spouse has done—and then, completely, unself-righteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority, without making the other person feel small. This does not mean you cannot express anger. In fact, if you never express anger, your truth-telling probably won’t sink in. But forgiving grace must always be present, and if it is, it will, like salt in meat, keep the anger from going bad. Then truth and love can live together because, beneath them both, you have forgiven your spouse as Christ forgave you.1
If a wife can learn to share her disappointment and anger and still accept her husband, it will be a powerful testimony of the gospel to him.
Calm her fears
Earlier we looked at 1 Peter, which pointed out that giving way to fear stands in the way of women responding to their husbands with respect and gentleness. One way the church can help a mom who is tempted to fear is to make her aware of how the church is willing to help her should her fears be realized. To do this, you’ll need to:
- Know what her fears are
- Identify people in your church or resources that can be used to help her address those concerns
- Explain the provisions that you’ve made for her
For example, say the wife fears that her young son won’t have anyone to teach him how to be a godly man. If that’s the case, identify a few men in the church who’d be willing to disciple her son should he need that when the time comes. Then let her know, “Andrea, there are three men in the church who are willing to work with your son whenever you think he’s ready to begin being discipled by an older man.”
If her husband’s apathy affects his willingness to work a bit extra to pay for the kids to attend a youth group retreat, find someone in the church who’d be willing to scholarship the kids. While it’s not possible for you to allay all her fears, you’ll find that there are some steps you can take to reduce her anxiety.
Talk to the husband
If an apathetic husband is a professing believer, it may be appropriate to speak with him about his lack of spiritual zeal. Following the instructions for dealing with the sin of a believer listed in Matthew 18, the wife should express her concerns to her husband first. If he is unwilling to listen to her concerns, you or other men from the church may want to get involved to assess the situation and decide whether the man needs encouragement, teaching, training, rebuke, etc.
Here are a few questions to think through before sending a group of men to meet with a man who has been accused of being spiritually apathetic:
- Are these men wise, gentle, and Spirit-filled (Gal. 6:1)?
- Have the men agreed upon what they want to communicate to the husband?
- Do the men understand why it’s better to ask probing questions of the husband, as opposed to making accusations?
- Are the men prepared to help the husband understand the consequences of his behavior?
- Do the men have concrete ideas in mind for how to help the man grow in zeal for the things of God?
- Are the men conscious of the fact that they have only the wife’s perspective on his behavior? (The possibility exists that they may not be dealing with an apathetic husband. Perhaps it is an overly demanding wife.)
- Who will take the lead in the conversation with the husband?
- Are the men prepared to explain what happens if the husband refuses to change?
- Are the men prepared to be patient with the husband, not demanding immediate repentance, but being willing to allow the man to grow in this area?
- Are the men prepared to explain the gospel to this man should they conclude that the reason for his apathy is that he is not a Christian?
There are many other practical issues to think through before a conversation like this. You’ll surely come up with a list that fits the circumstances you are dealing with. The key is having a game plan for such a conversation.
Wives of apathetic husbands need your help. Consider using some of the suggestions in this article to help women in this difficult situation.
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- Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. (New York: Dutton, 2011 Kindle edition, chap. .