In part one of this section entitled What to do in Case of Divorce I talked about what to do when divorce happens to someone around you; the dos and don'ts of crisis management when a divorce takes place. In this chapter I want to review the dos and don'ts when divorce is actually happening to you.
The last thing people hope for when they get married is the failure of their marriage, but it happens. We know that it occurs at a higher rate among those who are non-religious, those who are unfaithful as Christians, or those who do not practice the faith they were taught as children. But sincere believers who are faithful and active in the church also experience divorce, less often of course, but it still happens.
Again, we could talk about the issue of marriage and divorce and remarriage, who is guilty or who is innocent, who can remarry or not, but these are topics that will be covered later on in this book. This chapter is about managing the crisis of divorce, whether you like it or not and, whether you agree or not. And divorce is present, even in the church, even in the lives of sincere Christians who love the Lord. For example, your spouse leaves you and sues for divorce because she just does not want to be married to you anymore; your spouse abuses drugs, abuses you or the children, etc., and this leads to divorce; your child dies tragically and this leads to the destruction of your family; your spouse refuses to have sex with you for years, and this leads to divorce. I can continue here with many more scenarios taken from real life experiences in my years of ministry, but I think we get the point by now.
Please do not misunderstand, I am not saying that these things justify divorce, I am simply saying that divorce happens to people even when they are trying their best. Divorce is the result of some kind of failure in marriage, and failure is a form of sin. Even if we do not want to sin, as Paul says in Romans 7:19, sometimes we sin anyways.
The Do Nots and Dos of Divorce
A. Do Not Let Divorce Define Who You Are
Some people carry the "D" word on their foreheads for the rest of their lives. They allow failure in this one area to define their personalities. It is like those who have been convicted of a felony and sent to prison, even after their release they are permanently seen as ex-cons. In much the same way, divorced people continually see themselves through the prism of their divorce. Unfortunately, in the church we often reinforce this identity by creating Bible classes and social activities just for them or we subtly let it be known that divorced people will not be allowed to serve in any meaningful way because they are "damaged goods."
Defining ourselves by our failures in anything leads to low self-esteem, as well as the inability to experience joy (we think we do not deserve it). In addition to this, defining ourselves by our failures often leads to a higher susceptibility to sinfulness and worldliness because we do not quite fit in at church so we seek satisfaction and acceptance from the world. The problem with divorce is that it is a very public failure so we can never get away from it, and our failure is reinforced by others in the way they treat us, a reaction that can vary from sympathy to cold rejection.
What We Should do is See Ourselves as Christ Sees Us
We should not see ourselves through the view of our failure or other people's perception of us, but rather through the vision of the cross. If there is one good thing about divorce, it is that it will bring you to your knees before the cross of Christ in a hurry. It is impossible to feel self-righteous after you have been through a divorce, whether you are the so-called guilty or innocent party.
Paul the Apostle gives the true vision of our new identity in I Corinthians 6:9-11:
9Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Notice that he does not mention divorce here because it usually is a result of these other sins, and this is not an exhaustive list of sins anyways. Note that the sins he does mention are in many ways more shameful than divorce. But what does Paul say to these people about what they should do? He tells them not to define themselves by their old selves but rather by their new selves in Christ. This new vision sees them as:
- Cleansed/washed - Forgiven
- Holy - Special and set apart for God
- Righteous - Acceptable to God
If you see yourself in this new way and act according to this new vision, your feelings about yourself will follow. Divorce has not changed your status with God. You are still washed/holy/righteous because of the cross. You still have access to the throne of grace through prayer despite sin and failure.
7but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
- I John 1:7-10
The cross of Christ is over us, even in failure, because our failure was the reason He died on it (to pay the moral debt to God caused by our sins and failures). The big difference is that when divorce happens, we may become more aware of our need for God's grace than ever before. This is the blessing that comes in the wake of our tears.
Therefore, do not define yourself by failure, define yourself by the vision of the cross.
B. Do Not Punish Yourself
The role of judge and punisher belongs to God (Romans 12:19), even when the person is yourself. I have found that in many instances both partners punish each other following a divorce. At times the guiltier of the two tries to make amends in some way. They overindulge their kids, they reinforce their low self-esteem with criticism of themselves and, of course, they define themselves by their failure. The innocent or less guilty partners, on the other hand, punish themselves with regret and self-doubt (what did I do wrong?), they wallow in self-pity, anger and resentment long after this phase of grief should be over. They also doubt that the Lord really loves them (because if He did, this would not be happening to them, right?).
I have noticed that there are plenty of people and circumstances that will punish you for your divorce. For example: loss of income, emotional trauma, breaking-up of your home, loss of your friends, prestige, career mobility, and possible rejection from family and church. These are only a few of the negative things that will confront you as a divorced person, therefore, there is no need to add more punishment to the mix by beating yourself up.
Instead of Punishing Yourself, Help Yourself
Do those things that will minimize the damage to yourself and your family. For example:
Protect Yourself Legally
Divorce is a legal action that reverses the contract made in marriage. Some think that the legal action is the sin, but the sin comes long before the divorce papers are signed. The breaking of the covenant (adultery) between a husband and wife takes place in a number of ways as one or the other unties the knot that binds them in marriage. Jesus did not say that people could not divorce, He said they should not do this and they sin when they do (Matthew 19:6).
However, when the covenant is broken for whatever reason, it is naive to think that legal matters will resolve themselves, especially when children, a family home or a business is involved. I encourage people to minimize the financial trauma to themselves and their family by having someone else mediate the legal actions involved in divorce. This should be a person who wants to protect you and also do what is best for your family. Seek out a lawyer or mediator who is not only out to win or exact revenge, but someone who has a longer range view of how life plays out after divorce and can guide you accordingly.
Guard Your Faith
When a people of faith are going through a divorce it is important that they reach out to those in the church who can minister to them and their family at a time of crisis. They need to seek out those people who will pray with them and for them, and can give counsel as well as keep them spiritually accountable. Divorce often separates people from the body of Christ, so it is important for them to be proactive in guarding their faith.
Unfortunately, elders and ministers are not always helpful during these times because some are more concerned about the doctrinal fall-out of the divorce issue and less focused on helping folks who are suffering. For example, a patient is brought in with a gunshot wound sustained in a bar-room fight. At the moment the doctor's job is to stop the bleeding and save the patient's life, not point out that drinking alcohol is immoral, hanging out in bars is unchristian, and fighting other drunks can be dangerous, especially if they are packing guns. There will be plenty of time for scolding if the patient recovers. In the same way, we (who minister) have to remember that people who are going through divorce have sustained a serious emotional and spiritual wound, one that can ruin their lives and their faith. Our immediate task is to save the patient. If we do that, we may then have a chance to help them change the things that led to their marital failure in the first place.
C. Do Not Try to Justify Yourself
The natural tendency of our sinful human nature is to rationalize, excuse or justify our bad behavior. Don't do it!
When there is a divorce, it is the result of a failure in marriage, and when a marriage fails there is enough blame to go around. Of course people try to justify themselves in the church because we use the terms guilty or innocent party in the divorce equation. It is true that in a divorce one party may be guilty of breaking the marriage covenant or the one to actually seek to obtain a legal judgment of divorce, but this does not mean that the other party is completely innocent in the matter.
When we try to justify our behavior in the divorce process we damage ourselves in several ways without knowing it:
- Our sense of self-righteousness prevents us from learning anything from the failure of our relationship. We may be the innocent party and consequently think that we have nothing to change or learn.
- We will never be free or have a clear conscience. Most people try to justify themselves because they are too proud to admit fault or they are afraid that people in the church will reject them if ever they remarry, because for many, only the innocent party can remarry in good conscience. While justifying ourselves may work with others and our outward selves, our conscience and spirit usually suffer when we do this. The fallout from this false sense of rightness is usually a loss of faith, or we become invisible in the church (we are there but not active), or we go to the other extreme and become super-servants trying to work off our secret guilt.
In all of these scenarios the short term gain (acceptance through self-justification) is not worth the long term pain of fear, loneliness, nagging guilt and dread. And these feelings are all present because we have tried to justify ourselves when faced with the failure of our marriage.
Do Cast Yourself on the Mercy and Grace of God
When Jesus says:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
- Matthew 11:28
And when Paul says,
casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
- I Peter 5:7
What burdens, what worries and what cares do you think they are referring to? Money? Food? Illness? Yes, these basic things of course, but surely both Jesus and Peter are also talking about the burdens of sin and failure, the worry of a guilty conscience and the concern for our souls. In this context, divorce is just one more sin, one more failure in an imperfect life as flawed human beings. The only way to be free from the crushing guilt and sadness, the only way to be released from the resentment, anger and regret is to lay this burden down at the cross of Christ, not try to carry it alone through the power of self-justification. This only leads to more failure. The only solution is to throw yourself upon the grace and mercy of Jesus.
For those who are not Christians, the good news is that all sins and failures are washed away in the blood of Christ as you are baptized in His name (Acts 22:16). This means that when you repent (not justify) of your sins and confess your faith in Christ, you leave your sins and their eternal consequences buried in the waters of baptism (Acts 2:38).
And for Christians, the Good News continues to be good because the stain of sin and failure in their lives is continually cleansed if they acknowledge their sins and cling to the cross through faith in order to maintain their righteousness (I John 1:6-8), and not try to establish their righteousness by claiming innocence through manipulation of the Law or God's word. This was the error of the Pharisees who thought they were righteous because they provided a legal document to divorce their wives but were guilty of the greater sins of lust and disloyalty which were the real reasons for the putting away of their spouses. Or the modern day legalists who think they do not need God's mercy because they did not initiate legal proceedings in the divorce but if the truth were known, are guilty of 1000 acts of neglect that ultimately led to the death of their marriage.
When it comes to divorce, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). There may be one party more guilty than the other, but I submit to you that for the healing process to begin, both parties need to seek out God's mercy and grace.
Please do not think that I am an advocate for easy divorce. I am not. It is a serious sin, denounced by God (He hates divorce - Malachi 2:16). Except for extreme cases involving abuse, abandonment or sexual infidelity, divorce does not solve problems, it actually creates more problems. In addition to this, divorce leaves a permanent scar on your soul that is felt for a lifetime. Therefore, I do not advocate divorce. I hate it and see it for what it is: a sin, a failure, a victory for evil and a destructive power.
However, I am also a realist and recognize that human beings sin and will do so until the end of time when Christ will come and equip us with sinless bodies. Until that time, as a minister of the gospel who deals with all kinds of sin including the sin of divorce, I offer the only solution God has provided for sin: the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the solution to divorce, not self-pity, not self-punishment, not self-justification, but forgiveness and mercy through the cross of Christ for every sinner who comes to Him in faith and repentance, and that includes those who sin through divorce. This is why the gospel is called the Good News, because for the one who has failed at marriage, knowing there is forgiveness and the offer of renewal is very good news indeed!