Those who find themselves the sole caretaker of a dead marriage almost always struggle to overcome feelings of guilt for even considering divorce. And should they actually follow through with divorce, they typically struggle with shame for the rest of their lives. Moreover, these feelings of guilt and self-doubt are often reinforced by family, friends, and church leaders, who sincerely share a strong aversion to the divorce decree. That’s because myth #5 is perhaps the most compelling of all.
Myth #5: A legal decree of divorce separates “what God has joined together.”
The truth is, a divorce decree doesn’t end a marriage any more than a death certificate kills a person. Unrepentant sin renders a marriage null and void. The decree is merely a formal declaration in writing of what has already occurred in life.
Consider this letter received from “Karen.” (Naturally, I have altered her name and masked any details that would identify her.)
Americans, by nature, resent governmental intrusion, especially when bureaucrats start meddling in personal relationships or religion. Because marriage involves both of these two sensitive matters, Christians especially resent the idea of a judge ruling over what they consider sacred and private. Therefore, believers feel betrayed when they discover their partner has invited government involvement in a relationship that has been sealed by God and should be governed by Him alone.
This perspective, while admirable on many levels, rests on two myths that frequently place the upright partner in danger, along with his or her children. (I invite you to reread Eva’s letter in the earlier post, “Five Court System Myths and the Truth about Justice.”)
Myth #3: Marriage is a sacred matter in which the government should not be involved.
I suspect most people would affirm this statement. It sounds reasonable, were it not for a particular misconception. The truth is, the state has no desire to involve itself in the details of anyone’s marriage, and will only become as involved in marriage as we allow.
Abandoned partners are often heard to say, “I don’t believe in divorce.” This, of course, is merely the summation of a complex system of belief. Here is what they really mean to say:
My spouse may not intend to honor our vows, but I will. If this marriage ends in divorce, I will not be the guilty party. Furthermore, this dispute doesn’t belong in court; therefore, I will not enable my spouse’s sin by participating in legal action. Besides, I command the moral high ground in this situation, so I don’t have to worry about the outcome if this eventually lands in court. Any judge will see that the truth is on my side.
Consequently, abandoned partners feel no need to contact an attorney or to respond to their mate’s legal action. Yet, eventually and without exception, they find themselves bewildered and victimized once the judge taps the gavel and signs the final decree. That’s because their entire rationale is founded upon a common myth.
(Click here to see Myth #1)
Eva's letter broke my heart. Unfortunately, her tragedy is not uncommon among Christians. I have altered her letter to protect her identity; however, her story could be one of many others who have written to us after reading Redemptive Divorce.
I am writing to you because my family and I need prayer. About four weeks ago, my husband assaulted me in front of our three children, after which I filed charges for domestic violence. The trial is still four months away and, until recently, I felt sure he would be convicted. However, he has filed a countersuit accusing me of abusing alcohol, alleging that I am mentally and emotionally unstable, and wanted the court to declare me unfit to care for our children. While none of this is true, he was able to convince the judge, who has a reputation for siding with husbands, and now he has been awarded custody of our children. The judge also declared that he can live at home, while I find somewhere else to live. And, I have to pay child support, despite the fact he makes a six-figure income and I will be lucky to make minimum wage. I was a stay-at-home mom for our entire marriage.
In his epic ode to love, Paul the apostle declared, "Love is patient, love is kind" (1 Cor. 13:4). Good words for today, when gentleness is such a rare quality in relationships. Unfortunately, our desire to be patient and kind can also lead to passivity when a loved one begins to fall into sin. While it might seem loving to step lightly and speak softly when a loved one begins a pattern of wrongdoing, nothing could be more dangerous to a relationship. Here's why:
Passivity Camouflages a Trap
Passivity allows a wayward loved one to gradually and comfortably enter Satan’s trap. An old folk legend claims that a frog dropped into a kettle of boiling water will immediately recognize the danger to his life and waste no time leaping out. However, a frog placed in a kettle at room temperature will happily continue to bask as the water is slowly heated, even to the point of boiling. The legend has become a standard illustration for the mortal danger of gradual change.
Sin is a trap that hypnotizes its victim into thinking that all is well. Convinced that the first transgression caused no harm, the wayward one rationalizes his or her decision. Meanwhile, Satan works overtime to insulate his prey from reality and to provide an opportunity to take sin a step further. Gradually, “bad” behavior seems less and less bad until the person becomes capable of astounding evil with little or no feelings of remorse. It’s not uncommon for a deluded sinner to become convinced that others are ultimately responsible for his or her sin and, in many cases, that the destructive behavior is actually good!
A wayward loved one needs, more than anything, a shocking dose of reality.
Whereas truth frustrates this gradual twisting of the mind, passivity allows Satan greater opportunity to isolate and deceive his prey. A wayward loved one needs, more than anything, a shocking dose of reality. The most loving response is to turn up the heat so that he or she will sense the danger and escape Satan's trap.
Passivity Reinforces Sinful Behavior
Passivity reinforces the false promise of sin that we can do whatever we want without suffering negative consequences.
As Eve gazed at the forbidden fruit hanging within easy reach, she saw that it was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). A serpent saw her longing gaze and moved a little closer. “You surely will not die!” (v. 4). His words contradicted her Creator’s stern warning; nevertheless, she and her husband swallowed Satan’s poisonous lie. And from that moment on, nothing would ever be the same. Within hours, the couple stood trembling as God explained how they would experience the consequences of disobedience. “Death” would not come immediately. Worse, death would painfully distort all of creation; death would come with sudden, unexpected certainty; and death would carry the soul to yet another kind of death, an eternal death too horrific to describe.
Imagine if, instead, God had remained passive and silent. At lunchtime the following day, Adam and Eve return to the forbidden tree to find the serpent lounging in its branches, wearing a contented smile. “See? What did I tell you? There you stand, quite alive! Take off that silly fig leaf underwear and have another delicious meal—on me.”
Fortunately, the Lord didn’t remain passive. Moved by love, He confronted Adam and Eve, opened their eyes to the consequences of their disobedience, and then cast them out of the Garden to make repeated sin more difficult (Gen. 3:22–24). His righteous anger reaffirmed His earlier warning that eternal life and disobedience cannot coexist. Sin leads to death. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that’s as predictable and as certain as gravity.
Remaining passive while someone balances precariously on the edge of skyscraper is not love. A wayward loved one needs intervention, not the casual affirmation of a passive response to sin.
Passivity Allows Sin to Harm Others
Passivity allows the destructive consequences of sin to devastate the innocent. Sin is a fire that destroys everything it touches. Substance abuse, rage, violence, sexual immorality, abandonment, neglect—any sin that burns out of control affects everyone, especially children. And a passive response to unrepentant sin is like standing idle while an arson sets fire to the people we love.
Passivity Undermines Respect
Passivity undermines a crucial element of any healthy relationship: respect. In his book Love Must Be Tough, Dr. James Dobson warns that nothing destroys a romantic relationship quicker than passivity and appeasement. On the other hand,
"Successful marriages usually rest on a foundation of accountability between husbands and wives. They reinforce responsible behavior in one another by a divinely inspired system of checks and balances. In its absence, one party may gravitate toward abuse, insult, accusation, and ridicule of the other, while his or her victim placidly wipes away the tears and mutters with a smile, 'Thanks, I needed that!'"1
Love That Is Tough
Unlike passivity, a proactive response to unrepentant sin reflects the character of God. He is relentlessly loving yet utterly uncompromising when it comes to behavior that undermines our relationship. Similarly, our loving response to sin must come from a place of strength, and sometimes, love must take strong, decisive, even aggressive action.
Tough love need not be harsh or mean-spirited. It can be gentle in tone or sharp with anger, whichever is needed to break through the hypnotic self-delusion that usually accompanies habitual sin. Regardless, tough love requires courage.
We may have to endure a period of time when our loved one doesn't like us very much.
Paul's ode to love declares that our selfless care for another "does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor. 13:6). That means we may have to endure a period of time when our loved one doesn't like us very much. But if we cling to the truth of God's Word, and steadfastly reject destructive behavior, and with unwavering devotion call our wayward loved one to turn from wrongdoing, we offer our loved one a compelling reason to escape the trap of sin, and a chance to experience love as God intended it: love that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:7).
Click here to learn why a passive response to a "walkaway spouse" does more harm than good.
1 James Dobson, Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Families in Crisis (Dallas: Word, 1996), 19.