Thursday, November 16, 2023

Divorce: What We Don’t Know

I’ve been thankful to see a few posts from Tom on the subject of divorce, and I’ve been encouraging him to research and write more. We, in the church, need information about this.

I’m afraid we’re not very wise on this. Time was when divorces were rare. Back then, what tended to happen is that if a person got divorced, they just left the church — end of story. Maybe one of the partners hung around … especially if he or she was presumed “innocent” in the event. But for the most part, divorce was just an uncomfortable subject, a Pandora’s Box that churches just didn’t want to open.

I think the problem was really that while the scriptures give us a pattern for God’s ideal — marriage for life — they don’t really give us as much as perhaps we’d like about what to do when the ideal just hasn’t happened.

We may have the broad outline. What we don’t have is any of the details.

To put a kind spin on it, I think we sometimes feel like we’re at sea about what to do. So we do nothing. Or else we foray ahead on our own wisdom and help make a breakdown into a complete train wreck. Either reaction is bad, but maybe the most dangerous person in a divorce situation is the one who charges in without due humility, but with the greatest sense of certainty and moral earnestness — meaning well, but doing badly.

There’s a lot we just don’t know here.

A Folly and a Shame

Back in the days when I was young, my grasp of the subtleties of divorce began and ended with who was to blame. “Divorce is allowed under condition X, but is never ideal, and is not permissible for reasons Y and Z.” That’s about as much as I knew, and about as much as I thought I was ever going to need to know.

After all, I wasn’t going to get divorced. And if that ever somehow magically happened, I felt I had sorted out what my own convictions on the matter were. And that was that. Who needed to inquire further? Indeed, what more was there to ask?

I was so arrogant. And so stupid. What did I really know?

That was before I had a number of friends — both secular and Christian — whom I witnessed undergoing a divorce. I wanted to help them. I wanted to be a support. I thought that maybe I even could. After all, I loved both parties, and I wanted to see them healed.


Man, I learned some sharp lessons.

To my knowledge, I did not make any situation worse than it was. But in a couple of cases, I was way, way over my head and up a creek without a paddle. My motives may have been noble, but I should have shut my silly trap. In retrospect, I lost friends I could have and should have kept.

Thank God I managed to keep some I might have lost.

Better Wisdom

I learn slowly. But I do learn.

Proverbs says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” That’s never more true than when somebody else’s marriage goes sideways. People on the outside — and sometimes even the people on the inside — may have no idea at all what has really gone on inside that relationship.

Has there been abuse, neglect, affairs, cutting words, financial issues, broken trust, lies, corruption, mental illness or addiction? Has one or both partners been derelict? Have extended family, friends or strangers interfered in some way? Do the involved parties have a history of being a victim of abuse prior to the relationship?

It’s much, much stickier than knowing who left whom, or what external explanation was offered for the breakup. And you can bet your eye teeth that whichever party you hear the story from, there will be things which (out of shame, loyalty or simple decency) cannot be explained to external parties.

You will not know what you do not know.

Remember that.

Judging Stupidly

And if you think you have the story, I’ll happily wager you don’t.

If she’s talking and he’s not, you may think he must be hiding something and that she’s telling the truth. Don’t the guilty hide stuff and wouldn’t we expect the innocent to protest their innocence?

Not necessarily so. It may be the case that he’s remaining silent out of shame, or kindness, or out of a hope for a reconciliation, and she’s talking a lot because she feels a perverse need to garner sympathy, maximize her advantage in the divorce settlement, defend her social territory or even to justify herself for some actual evil she’s done. You just don’t know.

Or how about if he’s the one who seems to be willing to ask for intervention from the elders, or is campaigning to get his wife into counseling. You might think he’s courageously trying to save the marriage, and when she refuses — and maybe even stops coming to church — she’s running away.

Not so, not so. It’s quite possible he’s trying to use leverage from these authorities to intimidate his wife into docility so he can continue his reign of terror. By joining your voice to his, you’re pushing his wife back under the control of a savage bully. Maybe even the counseling is not something he is intending to take seriously himself, but is rather just a stratagem to prevent her from being able to leave at all. You just don’t know.

You don’t know.

You don’t know.

Don’t judge.

Smartening Up

Like I said, I learn only slowly. With a lot of experience and a ton of time, plus the measured distance that time gives, I feel safe only in offering the following guidelines to those who are on the sidelines of a divorce situation:

  1. We outsiders don’t know why any particular divorce really happened.
  2. We don’t know who was at fault.
  3. A relationship is composed of two people, not one. When it breaks up, each party has his or her own regrets. The proportions of blame are known only to God.
  4. Even in cases in which it is clear one side has done a bad thing, we do not know that the other did not. We also don’t know the extremity of what led up to that bad thing. It might be more complicated than we can even imagine.
  5. We can’t help by inquiring further.
  6. We can’t help by taking sides.
  7. Do not oversympathize or overcriticize: if you stoke the participants’ self-pity or self-righteousness, you will only accelerate their misery.
  8. Do not say, “I understand what you are going through.” You do not. This is not your relationship. It has not happened to you. Their pain is their own. Respect that.
  9. Do not withdraw. Just stand to one side and love them both through this circumstance. Unless asked, offer practical aid, not advice. Get food. Take the kids out. Offer hospitality. Help somebody move. Listen lots. Cry when you have to. Give hugs. Watch your words.
  10. Very likely the partners know what the scriptures say. Don’t remind them. It’s not your job.
  11. Don’t push them into whatever you might think is ‘the right outcome’: the final situation is something the participants have to figure out for themselves.
  12. Affirm your sorrow for them without further comment. Assure them that you will love them and still want them when it’s all over.
  13. Check in with them, just to say, “I was thinking about you, and want you to know I love you and pray for you.”
  14. The children will be hurt — likely very badly. This will be true even if the divorce “needs to happen”. Be there for them too.
  15. And finally, go slow. Quick reactions are almost always disastrous. Time settles things.

The Aftermath

After things have settled new realities will take hold. Very often today these are not tidy reconciliation realities, but awkward, best-of-a-bad-deal types of realities. Everyone’s hurt, everything’s upset, and the rules for going forward are not clear.

The scriptures tell us how to get things right in the first place. They don’t always tell us what happens after things are already messed up. Never is this more obvious than in the post-divorce mess. Where do we go from here?

Okay, here’s a few patterns likely to appear in the settling process:

  • As a friend, you will get ‘parceled out’ in the process of whatever final equilibrium the partners reach. You will lose any deep friendship with one person, and be left with the other. Sometimes you lose both. But they must also decide this.
  • The same will happen with their whole social group and the local church. Again, the partners must decide for themselves how this will play out.
  • The partners will struggle with guilt and self-recrimination. They have to work this out too: it’s really between them and God. Let them. Yes, they will be hurting, but don’t interfere. They have to work it through.
  • Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. There is a road back from any sin but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and there must be a road back from divorce, even if there’s no saving the marriage.
  • Some time after the divorce, after the grieving period and after practical matters are settled, you’ll need to reach out and pull the wounded back into your friendship and into the church family. It’s likely the former partners will feel too uncertain to do so, so you will need to put in some real effort to show them your sincere welcome back. Do it.

One More Thing

Loving someone through a divorce is one of the hardest things you will ever do. But for that reason it’s very good work. In fact, to patch up the wounded after such a situation is pretty much “pure religion” in the eyes of God.

The Lord came and got you when you were sinful, wounded and hopeless, had messed everything up and had no chance of making it on your own. He came to you, suffered with you, and redeemed you to God. Now he walks with you, as your friend and present help.

If you’ve got a better pattern and example for dealing with any sin — yes, even the sin of divorce, I’d like to know what it is.

Repeat the pattern.

1 comment :

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I very much enjoyed your experienced thoughts.

    Perhaps a post for another time: What to do in marriage situations after both parties have become Christians? (i.e. a homosexual couple with children)

    Thanks again,