My husband is a Jehovah’s Witness
How do you cope when your family life becomes a spiritual battleground? Lisa Phillips meets a woman desperate to save her family
Denise is an unlikely warrior. Small and bubbly, and oozing with newfound faith, she is facing a spiritual battle in her own home that most of us couldn’t begin to imagine. Five years ago, her husband Richard became a Jehovah’s Witness and has since become firmly entrenched in the cult. His decision prompted Denise to return to God and the Church that she had abandoned as a teen.
“The same day that Rich started going to the JW Hall, I went to church,” says Denise. “I didn’t really know a lot about the JW’s, but it set off alarm bells. I knew I was in danger. I literally cried out for help. I phoned the Premier Radio helpline and before I knew it things were happening. A prayer group was set up through my church and the Reachout Trust (a Christian organisation with specialist knowledge of cults and the occult) put me in touch with a couple who I had to meet in secret. I quickly had lots of networks that I could call or text for help.”
At the time, Richard and Denise had just come through a time of counselling, and had resolved a number of issues that were putting strain on their marriage. But now, says Denise, there was fundamental division in the family. “I was all over the place. I like to be in control and I’m quite organised. I lost control and I lost my security because Richard was my security. My whole family structure just broke down.” Their sons: Josh, now 10, and George, seven, began to go with their father to the JW Hall one Sunday, and with Denise to church, the next. The situation felt desperate.
Denise says that in the early days, it almost felt like her husband was having an affair. “I was jealous of the JW’s in the beginning because they had something that I didn’t have. They were getting the best of my hubby. He’s such a social person, and they were always doing social things. I hated it. They would have Barbecues, and Richard and the two boys would go along.”
When Denise had the boys on Sundays, they would ask why their father didn’t come along with them, and Richard, it turns out, was getting the same questions on his Sundays. “I found it really hard to be at church on my own,” says Denise. “If we were a family that didn’t do everything together, it would have been easier.”
When Denise went to meet the couple from the Reachout Trust, she hoped they would give her a book or a leaflet with a list of instructions. “I like order and organisation,” she explains. “I thought I’d be able to read something and say ‘that’s what I’m going to do’. What I’ve learned is that I can’t do it my way. I’ve got to let God do it his way and for his purpose and glory. They simply told me to be a Christian wife, and a Christian mother. What was one of those? Every time I asked a question, they gave me a Scripture. So that leaflet I was expecting turned out to be the Bible. My answers were in there.”
The advice given to Denise was this. Love him. Do everything that you’ve always done. Compromise. Be submissive. “I said, ‘But I want to punch his lights out!’ They said that he probably wanted to do that to me. What I was going through was probably no different to what Richard was going through. He thought his religion was right. I thought mine was right. So we could have this constant battle, and who would be right in the middle of it? Good old Satan, stirring up trouble.”
So began a journey for Denise that would strip away all her old securities and force her to rely wholly on God. As well as the instruction to live out her faith as a Christian wife and mother, God taught her to live day by day, without looking too far into the future. Instead, she was to trust God for the bigger picture.
“Every day, I have to make sure that God is at the centre of my life,” says Denise. “And my prayer life has really changed. I pray walking down the street. I pray walking round the house . . . For the first time, I feel that I don’t have to be in control anymore. I have to completely trust in God to take control of the whole situation. When bad things happen, you find that God works in you as an individual and sorts out all your flaws. This journey has so far been all about me.”
Denise and Richard were childhood sweethearts and in their earliest years, before Denise went away from God, Richard was showing an interest in Christianity. The guilt of this is something that Denise has had to deal with. “I don’t feel guilty about that anymore. It was a decision I made, and I have repented of that. But because I went away from God, we’re having to go the long way round.”
Paradoxically, there are real blessings that have come out of Richard’s conversion to the JW faith. “We were people of the world, Rich and I,” says Denise. “We’ve come away from that. Richard’s always been a real family man, so we’ve got closer as husband and wife. Communication is brilliant for us now.
“The biggest thing is that Richard has become the head of the house. In my upbringing, dad was always head of the house, and so was Richard’s, but the mums were quite controlling and I could see me going the same way. Letting Richard make the ultimate decisions has been really nice. Obviously Scripture is being poured into our home now. It’s nice that I can talk about God, and it’s nice that the Bible stories are in our home. Lovely Christian foundations are being put in place, but they’re a bit wishy-washy – like water – because there are clear differences in our beliefs.”
Richard and Denise have had to agree to tone down their differences for fear of turning their boys away from God completely, but at times it’s been a real challenge. The whole issue of celebrating Christmas and birthdays has been a case in point. The JW’s don’t celebrate either, but Denise wasn’t willing to drop these important celebrations from the family calendar.
She continued to buy gifts for Richard and the boys, even wrapping Richard’s gift in non-Christmassy paper in an attempt to draw him in. For the most part, he refused to open them on the day. At first, the JW stance on the holidays brought division into the wider family, who couldn’t understand the changes in Richard, but Denise worked hard to remain calm and compromise, eventually instituting a family celebration on the 27th or 28th December that satisfied the needs of both parties.
Watching the boys get drawn into their father’s faith has been heart-breaking for Denise, but again, she has had to hand the whole situation over to God. “Josh is definitely enjoying being at the JW events,” she says. “I didn’t know why at first, but I’m learning more about it. As soon as the boys get near them, they smother them with love. They come into the home and support the home. They’re trained to do it.
“I’m reading a book about being a slave to the Watchtower, and it’s helping me to understand what is happening. I can see it, and it won’t be long before the boys can see that it’s actually false.” While she waits, Denise keeps praying, and living life out as a Christian mother in the hopes that her faith will rub off on them.
Her trust in God and her quiet approach are paying off. There are signs that Richard is grappling with his faith, and it’s causing ripples in the JW camp, where questions are not welcomed.
“Only very recently, my husband said to me, ‘What do you want from me? To kneel down and ask the Holy Spirit to come into my life?’ And I said, ‘I would’. So he did that prayer asking Jesus into his life. I just left that one with God. Ever since, there’s been a difference in Richard. He’s waking up in the night, and he goes downstairs and gets my Bible, and his bible, comparing them. He’s looking at websites. So something’s going on. I don’t know what it is, but it’s rippling into the JW leadership. I just have to pray for his protection.”
Richard was asked to preach on love at a JW service, but lost the instructions that were given to him. So he focused on John 3:16, a Scripture that is not recognised in the JW bible. “I read the script,” says Denise, “and I prayed about it, but there was nothing in it that made me feel uncomfortable.” She’s heard Richard whistling Christian songs, and has found the car radio tuned into Premier after he’s driven it. All these signs are giving Denise hope and adding fuel to her prayers.
She continues to hold on the advice that has been given to her. To be a Christian wife and mother. To make sure God is always at the centre of her life. To lean on the support network around her. To learn everything she can about the JW’s. To love and submit to her husband, and to find things to do that they can enjoy as a couple and a family without bringing religion into it. And she continues to hope. “Does this sound really tacky? I just want God’s purpose and glory for our home. I have my dreams. I don’t know what he’s got planned for me and Rich. But wouldn’t it be lovely if he went into full-time ministry . . . in the right religion?”
If you’re facing a similar challenge
Every year, the Reachout Trust receives around 200 calls from people who are anxious about family members who are involved in cults or the occult.
For Christian wives concerned about the beliefs and practices of their husbands, director Doug Harris offers real hope of maintaining a good, strong marriage. “It is possible, but it’s important that each party respects the other, even if they do not agree with them,” he says.
“In any marriage, each party has time to themselves, and there is no reason why this cannot extend to belief providing there are not demands made on one another that are against their belief. Communicate and agree in normal circumstances how each party can live out their faith. Be ready, where necessary, to put the partner first, and understand that the Christian life is about relationship not religion. If you miss a meeting now and again, that is not going to affect your relationship with Christ.”
The Trust offers this advice:
* Talk openly about the situation and see if an agreement can be reached where the wife can continue in her faith with the approval of her husband.
* Do not continue to nag about ‘being saved’. Scripture clearly shows that the life the wife lives is as important as any words, and often it is the life and not the words that will win the husband.
* Seek to understand the faith/belief of the husband, and regularly pray for them.
* Seek God to fulfil the marriage vows in the best possible way.
* See if the husband is willing to talk with someone else concerning his belief.
For further information and support from the Reachout Trust:
Tel: 0845 241 2158
Tel: 0845 241 2160 (Jehovah’s Witness helpline, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm)
Tel: 0845 241 2161 (Mormon helpline, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm)