“I don’t believe in divorce.”
As Diane responded to the pleas of her non-Christian friends, the waver in her voice only dignified her desperate resolve. Some might have even called it heroic. Her husband of sixteen years, however, had demonstrated all too clearly by his love of alcohol and rage that he did not share her perspective on marriage. The sacred covenant she entered as a young woman had become his license to drink and hurl insults with no accountability.
After a thousand broken promises and countless wasted hours in counseling, Diane was at the breaking point. For the sake of her children’s safety and sanity, and for the survival of her own withered soul, something had to change.
Unfortunately, her family, her church, and her own Christian conscience spoke in heartbroken, anguished accord: “I don’t believe in divorce.”
Like Diane, many conscientious believers find themselves hopelessly trapped between two intolerable options: divorce or continued misery. These weary guardians of dead or dying unions remain convinced that divorce is a sin; however, they find it increasingly difficult to ignore the conviction that tolerating the destructive behavior of a wayward mate is not the lesser evil.
Meanwhile, the implied message of well-meaning family, friends, and church is, We know you’re enduring unimaginable pain and may even be risking bodily harm, and we don’t know what you should do about it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t seek a divorce!
Not only does this fail to offer hope or provide leadership, but it also creates an incubator for sin, not only for the unrepentant partner but also the suffering spouse.
Just how bad does a marriage have to become before you would support someone’s decision to pursue divorce?
Most everyone applies an unconscious standard when judging the relative merit of someone’s decision to leave a bad marriage. In other words, we all have a “line.” And when someone crosses it, we’re emotionally willing to clear the offended partner for take-off. For some, the “line” is easily crossed. For others, the “line” exists somewhere beyond the asteroid belt. But we all have one; it’s just a matter of where we choose to draw it, either consciously or unconsciously.
“Most pastors in this study indicated that they would be more than willing to accept a marriage in which some wife abuse is present—even though it is ‘not God's perfect will’—than they would be to advise separation, which could end in divorce.”
Think about the last time you heard someone tell his or her divorce story. We've all experienced this. As the newly emancipated soul explains the events leading up to the final decision to leave, we smile politely, thinking, I don’t know. Perhaps this person gave up too easily. Then, a particular detail triggers a response. Somewhere, down in the deep recesses of intuition, a signals goes off telling us that a “line” has been crossed. Perhaps the trigger was infidelity, or substance abuse, or deviant sexual behavior. Suddenly, we’re nodding in outraged approval, wondering why he or she waited so long to divorce.
During the late 1980s, a pair of researchers, James and Phyllis Alsdurf, wanted to know where church leaders drew their lines based on their firsthand experience.
A great apology can be a powerful agent for healing, both for the person you harmed and your relationship. It's a crucial first step toward rebuilding trust. A lousy apology, on the other hand, can be like pouring acid on an open wound.
To be certain your next apology heals rather than harms, consider these ten characteristics of a great apology. Then, choose your words carefully and let your humility do the talking.
by Dr. Bryce Klabunde,
Soul Care Pastor, College Avenue Baptist Church, San Diego, CA
Many changes come naturally as we mature. Sometimes, though, negative habits form deep ruts, and it seems we can’t change, no matter how much we want to. Friends urge us to alter course and warn us of dangers ahead if we don’t. We read in Scripture about God’s path of wisdom, and His Spirit awakens our spirit to a new vision of a better life in Christ. With tears of determination, we tell ourselves, our loved ones, and our Lord that things will be different. “I’ll change, I promise.” And we really mean it. We feel a deep sense of sorrow for our sin, even disgust. However, as time passes, the pull of the rut overpowers our most sincere promises, and we fall back into old patterns.
Part of the problem may be our mistake in thinking that sorrow and confession are enough to produce change. Another part is the misunderstanding of the process of change—a process the Bible calls repentance.
Is Repentance the Same as Remorse?
According to the New Testament, there’s a difference between repentance and remorse. Judas “felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priest and elders” (Matthew 27:3). He even confessed his crime: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (v. 4). Judas had come face to face with the hideous beast of evil in his soul, and he shrank back in terror and shame. Tragically, instead of leading him to God and life, his guilt hounded him to the gates of death. Eventually, his shame turned to self-hatred, and it drove him to suicide.
The following letter from a reader illustrates a very common problem among Christians.
I am facing divorce. I want to reconcile with my wife but she is unwilling at this point. I believe as followers of Jesus that there is no room for not seeking reconciliation and so I am not wanting to even participate in divorce proceedings, mostly out of hope that she will reconsider. So I am not sure even what to do. There is no adultery or abuse or any grounds. She just wants a different life without me.
Naturally, I changed the man’s name to protect his identity; however, I didn’t alter the details of his circumstances. I didn’t have to. His situation is so tragically common, this letter could have come from any one of a thousand different men or women over the last couple of months. He finds himself abandoned, bewildered, and timidly trusting that no response is the best response.
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.