Sunday, October 16, 2016

Divorce: What I Learned From What Was "None of My Business"

I am going to cover a topic I don't usually cover today: divorce. I typically try to stay on the topic of worship and more abstract theological things with the occasional satire. Given the amount of posts I've been seeing on the topic I think I need put this out there.

Having never been through a divorce myself, it may seem like I have nothing to add to the topic, but there are things that you learn watching a loved one go through it. This is not an attempt to forge a biblical defense of either side of the topic, but just my experience with a family member's divorce, and some of the things the helped me come to terms with it. If you want a complete defense of the topic, please head to my sister's blog, Misdirected Musings.

I grew up in a very small community, and my family attended a very traditional Southern Baptist church. We dressed up in our nicest clothes every week. We sat quietly and still for fear that The Lord would be displeased with our actions. By that I mean more displeased than normal. Much of what we learned was that we are all terrible, God is never happy with us, and anything we do can only make him more displeased. At the top of the list of things that make God more angry than usual was divorce.

We were taught that marriage is forever, forever with zero exceptions. Once you take those vows, God will never love you again if you try to get out of them. Divorce was not even considered an option for any Christian. The only exception was adultery as spelled out by Jesus. We were led to believe that if you are a Christian and living the life Jesus wants for you, your marriage would never be in danger of divorce.

You can imagine my disbelief when I heard one of my friend's parents were splitting up. There was an almost tangible level of condescension and condemnation from people in the church. I was far too young to articulate it, but I knew it was there. You could feel it every time their names were mentioned. I'm sure this feeling of condemnation had to have been almost as bad as the divorce itself. Looking back, I'm not surprised that he and his mom quit attending church on a regular basis. I still hurt over this. The fact that someone from our church could get a divorce must mean that we have sinners in the church. Moreover, maybe God was punishing that family for the unconfessed sins of others in the church. Despite being shaken, I still managed to let myself rest in the comfort that my family would never be involved in the kinds of sin that his dad had been involved in. Did I ever mention that I used to be kind of a jerk? Not rude so much, just unbearably self-righteous.

When my sister got married everyone was excited. We all knew that she loved Jesus, prayed all the time, and knew more about the Bible than most people I knew. So of course there was no way that God would lead her to the wrong spouse. Over the next four years we learned a lot about how wrong we were. Not about her, but about what we thought we knew about marriage. I will not go into all of the details of her marriage, that's not the point here. I knew that she was not very happy about a lot of things, but of course so many people talk about how the first year of marriage is always hard. It's especially hard if you get pregnant and have kids right off, which they did. After my niece was born, things just continued to get worse. The worse things got, the more the family tried to cover things up. I honestly did not even know most of the things that were going on until after their divorce was final. My sister kept being pressured back into a potentially fatal situation because that seemed better to the family and community than the stigma attached to divorce.

When my sister told me she was leaving her husband, I was shocked. What went wrong? Did she not pray enough? Did God fail? Did the family not do enough to help out? What would God think of this? Would my sister be one of those people that would have to stop going to church? Was my sister really a Christian? I was willing to help her pack all of her things. Did that mean that I wasn't a Christian either? These aren't even a significant fraction of the questions that I could form. I had entered the kind of confused state that could only be failed by words. I remember wondering if things were really bad enough for her to leave. That was probably the biggest thing I had to figure out since so much had been kept hidden or played down to make it sound like my sister was just being too picky about things.

Sure there are plenty of things that should remain private between married couples, but abuse is not one of them. It is not something innocuous like arguing about preferences. It's not fighting over issues to resolve conflict. It's quite the opposite of that. So when I learned about what was really going on, my mind was eased about my decision to help her pack up her things.

While I hated that she experienced those hellish years, it opened my eyes to how myopic my worldview was. It helped me move out of places that preach culture in the name of Christ. The problem with teaching that marriage for a Christian has to last until death is that it eliminates the need to protect our marriage. When divorce is removed from the realm of possibility, literally any action or treatment is permissible and defensible as long as there is no divorce. This realization that no one is immune from the effects of a bad marriage has helped me even today. The knowledge that divorce is not some abstraction that only sinners will experience helps me remember that my marriage is not something that should just be assumed. I am not saying that there are never times that my wife and I go on autopilot for a day or week or two. That does happen. What I am saying is that I have to remember that my wife is someone that I do have to work with, and for. We do have to fight against the things that would creep in and kill what we are made for. Even in those times when we are both swamped with work or the kids are being crazy, and we are not actively working together on things; I am still responsible for my part of things, to keep those safeguards in place. Keep in mind that I'm not suggesting that we constantly wave divorce around as some kind of tool to manipulate one another into what we want. That is just another form of abuse.

While there are thousands of ways that we can think about marriage and divorce, we have to keep in mind that Jesus came to give us life. I know that may seem like an odd turn in the conversation, but hang out for a minute. God has a lot of bad things to say about divorce. He says He hates it. I agree. I hate divorce too. The adultery clause that Jesus states has been used too often to falsely defend abusive marriages. Even in cases where there was no physical adultery and only pornography addictions, too often spouses are told they have no grounds to leave. If a spouse is being abusive they have already forsaken their vows. They have begun to take both of you down a road that leads to death. Even before Jesus taught about abundant life, Jewish theologians and teachers believed that the Torah, or God's law, was given to bring life to us and show us how to live. They taught that if a life was in danger, any of the laws (with the exception of idolatry) could be suspended. While Jesus never specifically states this, we see him exercise this belief more than once in the Gospels. So whether you believe that divorce is sinful or not, we should be able to agree that God will hold us accountable for sending someone into a place that endangers their life for the sake of our own pride. If we are willing to force someone into a fatal situation for the sake of the letter of the law, we have missed the spirit of the law and the message of Christ.

I have worked hard to distance myself from churches and organizations that teach about marriage and divorce the way it was presented to me growing up. It can be really easy for me to think that there are no institutions that would still teach such a broken and incomplete view of the topics. The more I hear from people who are wrestling with the issue, and the more I read from prominent church leaders on the topic, the more I see a need for believers who have been through it to share their stories regardless of your role. It amazes me how many church leaders will insist that divorce is giving up on the redemptive power of the Gospel to restore a marriage. The other side of that is that the life in Christ begins with denying ourselves. Maybe that means giving up on a marriage that is already dead, rather than holding on for the sake of saying, "I did the 'right' thing!" If we believe that the only way Jesus can redeem our situation is by restoring our marriage, we are worshiping our marriage in the name of Jesus. We have to believe the redemptive power of the Gospel is greater than divorce. We do not get to dictate what God redeems and how He chooses to do it. If one spouse is determined to not live a life of repentance, God is not going to force them to love the other any more than God would force us to love Him. Let God be God. Save those that are in danger.

So why do I write all of this? I think it's important for those who are near someone in an abusive marriage to know what we should offer. We should make sure that person being abused knows there is a place to go. We need to let them know that we are willing to listen. They need to know that there is no shame in leaving someone who puts them in danger for their own pleasure. You are not going to hell, nor are you unfit for ministry, for telling someone they should leave a dangerous relationship. Keep in mind that we can't make the decision for that person. Bottom line is this: if you insist that someone stay in an abusive relationship because you fear the ramifications of divorce, you have condemned someone else in an attempt to save yourself. This is the antithesis of the Gospel. 

No comments: