No Individual can Convert—Anyone That’s God’s Job by Lee and Leslie Strobel
The passages below are taken from Lee and Leslie Strobel’s book “Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage,” published in 2002 by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave marching orders to every Christian who would live through history: spread his message as far and wide as you can. Bring neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family members into an eternity-changing relationship with him, and then watch as God transforms their lives with new purpose, new priorities, and new power. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus had opened the door to heaven; now he was mobilizing his followers to help fill it to overflowing with freshly redeemed souls. The apostle Paul picked up that challenge. “Telling the Good News is my duty—something I must do,” he said.1
And guess what? Today, in the twenty-first century, you are on the front lines of that battle. That’s right—you! While you may not envision yourself to be a noble missionary on a majestic mission from God, you actually represent one of evangelism’s single most strategic groups of people in America. Really! If you are a wife married to a non-Christian, then God has entrusted you to a role that is absolutely brimming with potential.
That is not just an opinion; it’s based on new research by Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth. One of the startling conclusions of his groundbreaking study into evangelism is this: “The wife is the most important relationship in reaching the unchurched.”2 In fact, based on the data that he and his team gathered, Rainer added, “We cannot overstate the importance of wives in bringing formerly unchurched persons to Christ and to the church.”3
Flesh-and-blood stories put faces on Rainer’s mountain of statistics. “The reason I’m in church today is because of my wife,” said a resident of Florida. “When I saw the change in her life, I decided to try it out. Now I’m a Christian and hardly ever miss church.”4
Another husband interviewed for the study not only became a Christian through his wife’s influence, but he went on to help organize a ministry in his church to equip Christian wives to reach their non-Christian husbands. “The results have been outstanding,” Rainer reported. “In the first three months of the class, four husbands became Christians.”5
All of which prompted Rainer to wonder why Christian wives are not being trained to reach out to their nonbelieving husbands. Well, that’s exactly what Leslie and I want to do in the next two chapters. We feel passionate about this issue, because it was Leslie’s godly influence in my life that prompted me to begin investigating Christianity and which quietly nurtured me during the nearly two years before I became a Christian.6
From her trial-and-error efforts, we have distilled eight insights in these next two chapters to help you effectively influence your spouse for Christ. See if they can prepare you for the opportunity to help steer your spouse toward God.
PRINCIPLE #1: Don’t Expect More from Yourself Than God Does
Repeat after us—that’s right, actually say these words out loud: “I am not responsible for my spouse’s spiritual decisions.” Let that sink in. Repeat as necessary!
We have said it before, but it’s important to emphasize it again: God would not lay upon your shoulders the eternal destiny of another human being. The weight would be crushing. The Bible stresses that no individual can convert anyone. That’s God’s job. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” said Jesus in John 6:44(NIV)
As much as you would like to make your spouse’s spiritual decisions for him, you cannot do it. He—and not you—will be held accountable by God someday for the choices he made about God during his life. Your role is simple: love God and love your spouse. Live out your faith as authentically as you can in front of him. Ask God to use your life to point your partner’s eyes toward him. In short, cooperate with the Great Evangelist.
“There is an inevitable tension in evangelism,” said Rebecca Manley Pippert in her classic evangelism book Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World. “On the one hand, we should feel an urgency about sharing the gospel. . . . At the same time we need to learn to relax. Since it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convert, that should ease some of our anxiety.”7
So don’t let misplaced guilt weigh you down. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you were just a better Christian, if you were just more aggressive about trying to get him to understand the gospel, or if you were just more articulate, then he would fall on his knees in repentance and receive Christ. Don’t let your actions be driven by an inappropriate sense of responsibility for your spouse’s spiritual state, because inevitably that will cause you to cross the bounds of pushing too hard for his conversion.
No, your responsibility is for you to live out your life, as best you can, in a Christ-honoring way. And as my friend Don Cousins likes to say, “If you honor God with your everyday life, he’ll honor you for a lifetime.”
The truth is that seldom are spouses the ones who pray with their partners to receive Christ. More likely, you’re going to be one of several influences God will use in touching your spouse’s life. Other Christians in the workplace, neighborhood, or elsewhere in his relational world are going to be in silent partnership with you. Evangelist Cliffe Knechtle put it this way:
A person’s coming to Christ is like a chain with many links. There is the first link, middle links, and a last link. There are many influences and conversations that precede a person’s decision to convert to Christ. I know the joy of being the first link at times, a middle link usually, and occasionally the last link. God has not called me to only be the last link. He has called me to be faithful and to love all people.8
So remember: you have not failed as a Christian or as a spouse if you never have the opportunity to pray with your partner to receive Christ. You may be one of many links that leads him into a relationship with God. If so, you can celebrate with all of the other people who God also used in the process. Or your partner may choose, of his own volition, to ignore Christ’s outstretched hand toward him, despite your every encouragement for him to follow God. That is beyond your control. As for you, you must do what God has told you to do: be faithful to him and live out your Christian beliefs as authentically as you can through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
PRINCIPLE #2: Showing Your Faith Is a Powerful Way of Sharing Your Faith
If Leslie had tried to debate me on the historical reliability of the New Testament right after she became a Christian, we probably would have ended up in an argument. If she had read me the Four Spiritual Laws, I would have scoffed at her naïveté. But what ultimately made me receptive to the gospel was the undeniably positive and winsome changes that I observed in her life. I saw her day in and day out, in those quiet, unguarded moments, and she couldn’t have consistently been faking it. Something—or was it Someone?—was beginning to subtly transform her. That’s what intrigued me! That’s what God used to begin opening my heart.
It is much more powerful to show your spouse your faith than merely to share it verbally. Said Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg in their book Becoming a Contagious Christian: “Before we can become highly contagious Christians, we must first live in a way that convinces people around us that we actually have the disease ourselves!”9 To quote an old adage, “your spouse probably doesn’t need a definition of Christianity as much as he needs a demonstration of it.”
As we have discussed in previous chapters, the Bible specifically says that nonbelieving husbands “may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”10
We don’t believe this means wives should never speak a single word to their spouse about God. It would seem pretty awkward for you to remain inexplicably silent if your husband asks you what happened in church that day. Besides, other verses encourage Christians to be prepared to define and defend what they believe if the right opportunity arises.11 Here’s what the apostle Paul is underscoring: it’s how we live out our faith that will ultimately have the biggest impact on our partner.
After all, talk is cheap. Jesus did more than merely say that he loved the world; he demonstrated it through his life as he served the poor, healed the sick, and eventually gave his very life as a ransom. And as Christian wives and husbands live quiet but determined lives of faith in front of their spouse, as they humbly reach out to serve their partner out of hearts genuinely renewed by Christ, and as they lovingly sacrificed to meet the needs of their mate, then their behavior becomes like salt that’s savory and like light that gently illuminates the love of Christ for them.
There are three aspects of the Christian life that I found especially winsome in Leslie: the attractiveness of authenticity, the influence of genuine conviction, and the lure of the abundant life.
The Attractiveness of Authenticity
The very minute you told your spouse that you’re now a Christian, his hypocrisy radar started to scan your life. Since then he has been searching day and night for signs of duplicity or false piety in you, because that will give him one more reason to reject your faith. And frankly he may have some justification for being skeptical. This may not be the first time you have gotten excited about something that you believed would change your life.
Hybels and Mittelberg point out that family members are “the ones who have seen you go through all kinds of phases before: earth shoes, eccentric diets, tae kwon do classes, pyramid marketing schemes, subliminal tapes you played under your pillow each night to improve your attitude, and the like. Now you’re coming along and saying, ‘I’ve found what’s been missing in my life all these years. It’s Jesus Christ!’ And they’re thinking, ‘Yeah, isn’t that what you were saying about those herbal food supplements a couple of years ago? How long is this fling going to last?’”12
I know that when Leslie told me she had become a follower of Jesus, I wondered how long this would endure. Was this going to be a brief foray into faith that was going to quickly fade away or slowly morph into a more bizarre expression of spirituality? But the more she integrated her beliefs into her everyday lifestyle, the more convinced I became that this was real.
As I scanned Leslie’s life with my hypocrisy radar, I never expected her to be perfect. That’s not realistic. I was looking for whether she would have integrity. What does that mean? Warren Wiersbe points out that the word integrity and the word integer, which means a whole number as opposed to a fraction, come from the same root. This can help us pin down what integrity really means—it suggests wholeness, completeness, or entirety. Another related word is integrated, which is when all aspects of your life are working together in harmony.13
So for a Christian, integrity means a wholeness or integration between your beliefs and your behavior. A person with integrity has consistency. What she believes is how she acts. What she says is what she does. Her faith isn’t segregated into one area but marbled throughout all aspects of her life.
Of course, every Christian falls short of perfectly expressing his or her faith. That’s where the disciplines of humility and confession come in. For example, let’s say you’re talking to your husband and you lapse into some rather cruel gossip about someone you both know. Your husband’s hypocrisy radar is going to go, Beep! Beep! Beep!
But what if you said later, “You know, I really shouldn’t have said what I did. It was wrong and I apologize. I really want to grow in my character so that I’m not hurting other people with my words. I hope you’ll forgive me.” That’s living with integrity. When we fall short, we’re humble enough to confess it to God and others. Sometimes that’s the very best way to demonstrate the change God is doing in our lives.
Please don’t inadvertently fuel any expectations in your spouse that you’re suddenly going to be changed overnight into the perfect Christian. Let your husband know that living the Christian life is a process of constant growth and development as you increasingly apply Christ’s principles to everyday situations and yield yourself more and more to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Influence of Genuine Conviction
One of the most winsome aspects of Leslie’s changed life was that despite our difference of opinion about Christianity, she was determined to live out her faith with earnest conviction. She didn’t water down her beliefs in the hope that they would somehow become more palatable to me. She was willing to take a firm stand for what she believed. I couldn’t help but admire that.
We had lived for so long in a muddy mess of make-it-up-as- you-go morality that there was something refreshing about her newfound faith, which gave her sharp distinctions between right and wrong. For instance, my philosophy was that the ends justified the means. If I had to step over the line into illegality in order to beat the competition to a news story, I was willing to do it if I felt I could get away with it. But as Leslie began to demonstrate scrupulous honesty in the small circumstances of everyday living, I couldn’t help but respect her.
She wasn’t pointing an accusing finger at me or berating me because of my character flaws, my indifference to the suffering of others, or my self-absorbed and self-destructive lifestyle. Through her life, though, she was providing a powerful counterpoint to my immoral behavior. She was modeling Christlike character and God-honoring values. When she didn’t back off, even when it meant we would disagree over something, it intrigued and impressed me.
As we mentioned in a previous chapter, Leslie didn’t major on the minors. She didn’t develop a holier-than-thou persona and get into squabbles over every little issue in our marriage. She didn’t put herself on a pedestal as the final arbiter of good and evil. Using a combination of grace and savvy, however, she made it clear that her absolute allegiance was to God and his ways.
The Lure of the Abundant Life
Jesus said in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full!.” When Christians are really living that kind of abundant life—where there’s joy, meaning, excitement, purpose, direction, forgiveness, and grace—then their spouses may very well sit up and take notice. In fact, here is an astute observation that Hybels made: as your partner is watching your life, he is doing a quiet evaluation, asking himself whether he would be a winner or a loser if he too began to follow Jesus. He is wondering: Would Christianity be an upgrade over my current situation?
“People considering Christianity want to know if they’re going to be trading up or down when it comes to the quality of their life,” said Hybels.
If you’re driving a BMW, would you trade it for a Hyundai? No. And unchurched people are asking, “If I buy into what Bill’s living, is it a trade up or a trade down?” Dallas Willard said, “It is the responsibility of every Christian to carve out a satisfying life under the loving rule of God.” Why? Because when people around you see John 10:10—a life in all its fullness—then people living lesser lives want to know more about a life like that.”
So here’s the question: are you living the kind of Christian life that your spouse would see as a trade up? He’s probably not thinking about eternity at this point. (Heaven, of course, is the ultimate upgrade!) Instead, he is focused on tomorrow, next week, and next month. If your Christian life is strangled by legalism, parched by gloom, pinched by a desire to control, smothered by somberness, or numbed by boredom, then nobody in his right mind would want that kind of life for himself.
As agnostic-turned-Christian Sheldon Vanauken said: “The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they are somber and joyless, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
We are not saying you should pretend that the Christian life is one big party. There will be sorrow, sacrifice, and strife as part of it—Jesus warned us about that.15 How you handle those moments of pain and difficulty, however, may speak the loudest to your nonbelieving spouse. The reason is that the person without God lacks hope at those times, but as a follower of Jesus you have his strength, power, direction, comfort, and promise of eternity to sustain you.
What Christian wouldn’t agree that following Jesus is the very best way to live? Christians need to embrace that sentiment fully and cooperate with the Holy Spirit as he manifests those nine gifts that are available to all Christians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.16 That’s a prescription for the kind of purpose-driven, God-enabled life that’s hard for any spouse to ignore.
So think through how you might be able to exhibit these qualities in daily life. How can you be loving when your next-door neighbor is being annoying? How can you exhibit patience when you are backed up in traffic? How can you show kindness to the single mom who is living down the block? How can you reach out with goodness to the boss who is expecting too much from you? How can you demonstrate self-control when your “wants” outstrip your family’s income?
“As Christians,” said Michele Halseide, “. . . our highest calling is to be a walking advertisement for [God’s] incredible power and attributes.” (123-131)
1. 1 Corinthians 9:16 NCV (emphasis added).
2. Thomas S. Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 83 (emphasis added).
3. Ibid., 49. Rainer’s study of 350 formerly unchurched Christians disclosed that 57 percent said relationships played a part in choosing to go to church (p. 77). The most commonly mentioned relationship was family members, cited by 42 percent (p. 82). When they were asked, “If a family member influenced you to come to church, which person was most influential,” 35 percent said wives. Other responses were 18 percent for children, 16 percent “other,” 9 percent parents, 5 percent siblings, and 2 percent parents-in-law (p. 83).
4. Ibid., 70.
6. Incidentally, Rainer found that Christian husbands were less influential in reaching their unchurched wives (p. 50).
7. Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World, 2d ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999), 123.
8. Cliffe Knechtle, Give Me an Answer(Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986), 164.
9. Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg, Becoming a Contagious Christian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 54
10. 1 Peter 3:1—2 (NIV)
11. See: 1 Peter 3:15(NIV)
12. Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg, Becoming a Contagious Christian, 89—90.
13. See: Lee Strobel, What Jesus Would Say (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 91—92.
14. Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Association Regional Contagious Evangelism Conference, Session 4, Atlanta (June 23, 2001), edited for clarity.
15. See: John 16:33b: “In this world you will have trouble.”
16. See: Galatians 5:22(NIV)