Let me start by saying that until 2009, I was one of you.
I know that there are plenty of women at your church who are deeply in love with fantastic partners, and they could never comprehend the possibility of divorcing. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you found a wonderful man who supports and encourages you, who makes time for you and for the kids, and works hard to make sure your family's happy and well-cared for. Sure your husband has his faults and shortcomings, nobody’s perfect. But he’s a great guy, and you made a commitment before God that you'd live together, forsaking all others, until death do you part. And you hope that your husband lives for a very long time. You wouldn’t want anything to steal the 40+ years of happiness you signed on for. And I get that. I’m happy for you.
But for every one of those relationships, there is one who is the exact opposite. Every marriage between two Christians who love God is not like your marriage. There are couples who make that same promise to live together forever, forsaking all others, vowing to love, honor and cherish one another for as long as they both shall live. But they don’t get what you got. Not even close. These couples don’t just have bad patches. Their whole marriage is one bad patch. There aren’t ups and downs. There are days that are bad, and days that are awful. They never learned how to have a healthy relationship, and these two sinful people just keep becoming more and more toxic to one another.
Image: Ronald Repolona via Flickr
You think you know that other people don’t have a great marriage, but really..? Do you really know that there are bad situations right in front of you every Sunday? There are women in your church who are not just unhappy, but whose spirits are dying. Women who for all the world seem like perfectly normal, suburban housewives, because they can’t tell anyone what their marriage is really like. But do you see the pain in their eyes? When you ask how they're doing, do you listen? Chances are good that you do know these women, you just don't hear what they're not saying. The signs are there, you're just busy with your own life.
I know because I became that woman with the vacant expression. I was honest for a while when people asked how I was doing, and no one really heard me.
Many of these are women just like you, who waited on God to give her the man she’d been praying for her whole life. She prepared her heart, she didn’t settle for less than God’s best for her, just like she was told. But she didn’t get the fairytale. Maybe she didn’t even get the amusing dysfunctional sitcom. There are women for whom there is no partnership, no support, and no encouragement. There is only disappointment, failure, fear, and pain. She has no dreams or aspirations for herself, she pours everything she has into the children, her only source of joy. She has no hope for happiness or fulfillment in her relationship, because all she can do is survive. She promised forever, before God and everyone, and that means there is no escape.
And that's how I felt. I vowed the words "Till death do us part", and I meant them. I was already living my "happily ever after".
So much for that.
She has to keep it together for the sake of appearance. No one can know the failure she’s made of her marriage. She works so hard to serve and give and love and do, because all the books she’s read on being a Biblical wife and helpmeet tell her that if she just gives selflessly and respects her husband, he will love her. Her best just isn’t good enough, though, and she’s ashamed. The church tells her that divorce is not only sinful, it’s tantamount to law-breaking, and not an option if you’re a “real Christian”. Unfortunately, despite being made aware, the church won’t actually help her fix the problems in their marriage. The pastor and/or his wife might recommend couples therapy, but no one in the church actually wants to get their hands "dirty" providing real wisdom, support, and encouragement.
“Pick yourself up by your bootstraps and figure it out.”
Submit! That is the ultimate answer. Accept your fate, and submit to your husband. For he is the head of your household.
In desperation, this woman turns to you, a genuinely happy, married Christian woman. She risks transparency after years of silence. She bares her soul to you and gets real. She finds in you a willing listener and a present source of support. She asks for advice, and you give her practical help and encouragement. Then she goes home. She applies it and it doesn’t change anything. She continues to be abused. She continues to be disrespected, lied to, and cheated on, despite her best efforts to do better, give more, and love selflessly. She explains to her husband how heartbroken she is and how things need to change or else. She gets told by her spouse that her depression, her anxiety, her bad attitude and negativity is really the problem. That she's unlovable, and she deserves what she’s getting. That she needs to change, and then things will get better. But it's not him. He’s not the problem. He’s doing the best he can, and he can’t give any more than he’s already giving.
With nothing to work with, she gives up. She's pushed herself past the point of exhaustion, and she’s finally hit the wall. The façade has cracked, her resolve has weakened, and she just can’t continue to live without hope of things ever getting any better. Surely everything isn’t her fault and surely God won't hate her if she removes herself from the constant stream of negativity and abuse. Maybe some time apart will heal things. Or maybe she will find some perspective and some strength in the meantime. Something must change, and the only option she sees is to put her foot down and demand a separation.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Where the way you show Christian love really matters. When she comes to tell you that it’s over, what do you do? Knowing that God hates divorce and that you hate divorce, and even knowing that this is a decision you could never see yourself making, you can still choose how you're going to behave.
You can turn this into a "Jesus in the marketplace" moment, like some do, and take out all that “righteous" anger on her for her decision. You can sit in judgment and preach to her about how “real Christians” don’t just give up on their marriages. That you fix what’s broken, you don’t just throw it away. You can preach to her that if she “really loved God and her husband” she wouldn’t break that covenant, no matter what.
You know full well that she has endured abuse, neglect, betrayal, and pain from the man who vowed to love, honor, and cherish her. You know that it's not that she’s simply tired of being married to him and just not happy anymore. You can pour salt into the wound and condescend to tell her that you’ve lost respect for her, and that God will hate her and her children if she goes through with this. You can kick her while she’s down and destroy the trust she placed in you by rejecting her in her darkest hour. Those are options.
You disagree with her decision after all she’s told you and you don’t think she tried hard enough, and you can go ahead and punish her for disappointing you. Remember that Jesus loved the prostitute and the tax collector despite what they did. His heart broke for the lost and lonely. Apart from that one time in the marketplace, he never stood in judgment, making a scene…but chose words carefully and in private, with wisdom and discernment, to convict the spirits of those who were confused. Be careful with that righteousness. We are called to be imitators of God. He is just, but he's also merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love.
So instead, you could make the decision to love her. You can disagree with her decision, but you can support her, encourage her, listen to her, and be a safe place for her. You can show her compassion. You can do that because you realize that as much as you might want there to be no such thing as divorce, it happens anyway. That there but for the grace of God, that broken woman could be you. You realize that hurting people need to be ministered to, and that if you found yourself with your world turned upside down, you'd want someone to hold your hand. Jesus embraced the opportunity to show love and compassion, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.
How can the church truly love women whose marriages are falling apart? Don't invite them to confide in you and then lock them out of your heart. Don't scream in their faces and slam the door, just because their lives look different than yours. Listen to them. Hear them. Love them where they are, and they will remember your kindness forever.
In the aftermath of my separation and divorce, I found out I only knew a few "real Christians", and their support and encouragement saved my relationship with God and probably my life. The rest of the Christians I knew stayed either eerily silent, or hunted me down and screamed in my face. And I will never forget how they lived out their faith when it came to my divorce.