Dealing with Divorce

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Dealing with Divorce

The April 21, 2008 issue of Newsweek has an interesting cover story on divorce. The theme is the radical shift in attitudes toward divorce in a matter of only a few decades. I resonate with that. Having seen it up close now so many times, I have gotten used to divorce as a fact of contemporary life. But I have not changed my theology of divorce. I still see it as a terrible thing. Unavoidable in many situations—but still terrible.

These days when someone comes to talk to me about the personal pain of divorce, one that has happened or one that will soon happen, I typically tell them about the experience of a friend who went through two divorces. The first one happened when he was a member of a very conservative church. When his wife told him she was leaving him, he went to his pastor, who responded harshly by telling him that he wanted my friend—a lay leader in the congregation—either to resign his membership voluntarily or to face formal excommunication proceedings. My friend resigned and moved on to a congregation that belonged to a more mainstream denomination. Soon he remarried, but a few years later his second wife also filed for divorce. Again he informed his pastor, but this time the pastor seemed surprised that he would even bother to make an issue of it. Basically my friend was told, “No big deal.”

Soon after, he came to me to talk about his experiences. “You know what I want?” he asked, with tears streaming down his cheeks. “I want to hear two things from the church. One is that divorce is a horrible thing, that it is one of the biggest failures a human being can experience. The other is that this is not the end of my life—that God may still have good things in store for me.”

I looked him straight in the eye and repeated both of those things back to him, and through his sobs he thanked me. I continue to be grateful to him. He brought together for me in a wise combination exactly what we need to be saying about divorce. Given the realities of our culture, to say either one without the other strikes me as a serious failing, both theologically and pastorally.

7 Comments »

  1. Dear Dr. Mouw,

    Thank you for your thoughts on the very real problem on divorce, not just in the West but also, maybe more so in Asia. As a young Christian many years ago, I rarely hear of divorce amongst Christians in our church.

    Today, it has become a fairly big issue. Much like your friend, I see both extreme attitudes, except that they exist in one church, not just between conservative and mainline churches.

    One would argue that the church must stand for the sanctity of marriage (it’s holy matrimony, after all) against contemporary culture; otherwise where is our Christian witness?

    The other counters, where is grace and forgiveness if we condemn divorcees (not so much the divorce) unreservedly? Is divorce the one “unforgiveable sin”?

    I am glad to hear that in the church righteousness and mercy should be enjoined, not rendered asunder. Your story is one I would like to share often, especially with my friends who are pastors.

    Comment by Kokkee Ng — April 28, 2008 @ 7:54 pm


  2. How well you say what I have been thinking for years. In the pastorate (44+ years)I have had numerous folks undergo the nightmare of divorce. Is it wrong? Yes! Is it sometimes unavoidable? Yes! The reality is that it is bad for everyone involved–the principals, their children, their parents and siblings, their friends (who are forced to take sides), their church friends. It’s never about just the unhappy couple; we all get drawn into the storm. To top it off, many Christian people with rigid notions of Biblical truth make divorced folks feel like lepers. I once had an elder who was merciless on anyone divorced; only much later did I learn that all four of his own children were divorced. Somehow the church needs to make it plain that sinners of all kinds (ever divorcees) are welcome at our spiritual hospital. We should never do or say anything that would give any other impression to those on the outside seeking help. A longtime minister friend told me he quit ever mentioning divorce from the pulpit, for fear of hurting one of the (obviously numerous) people in the pews who have been affected by it. What is there about Christian people that makes anything related to sex a sin more heinous than any others? That is often the case. Kyrie eleison!

    Comment by John H. Roark — April 29, 2008 @ 1:10 pm


  3. Rich,

    Thank you for writing these much needed words about divorce. Your friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head. We do not do people any favors when we excommunicate them from the church because of divorce. The time of divorce is when they need to be in the church more than any other time. We also do not do people any favors when we tell them it is no big deal. I have personally felt the devastating pain of divorce, and I can tell you, it is a big deal. It is a most horrible experience. Few things in life are worse than divorce. We need to speak the truth in love, which is this: it is a horrible thing, it is a sin, but you can experience God’s love and grace in ways you can’t imagine. God loves you so much, and God will surprise you by the good things God still has in store for you.

    Comment by Clark Cowden — April 29, 2008 @ 1:57 pm


  4. AMEN!!

    Real people having real problems don’t want or need either condemnation or shrugs. I had a similar experience with the gay associate pastor of an extremely “conservative” church. He had contracted AIDS. Recognizing the physical symptoms his church defrocked him and threw him out. He came to our church saying to me very clearly, “I don’t want to be told I didn’t do anything wrong. I want to be forgiven and loved.” No one needed to tell him how he got where he was; he just wanted reassurance that we would stand there with him. Even our “little old ladies” did! And made this pastor very proud.

    Comment by Rev Dr Richard L Sheffield — April 29, 2008 @ 5:07 pm


  5. It seems that sometimes the pendulum swings back and forth. I understand why guys like Greg Boyd would lean toward the divorce side of the equation placing more emphasis on that. One time (on his discussion boards) he compared bad marriages to holding on to a dead horse, at some point that dead horse is going to infect you. Yet, I really can’t blame more conservative Christians for feeling some anxiety about the divorce rate even among their own ranks and being alarmist about it which seems to me (as an aside) to show that conservatives are not necessarily overbearing about homosexual marriage specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the divorce logs in their own eyes.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — May 1, 2008 @ 6:55 am


  6. I went through an unwanted divorce myself, and yes, God still had good things in store for me. In the end, I can say that God is who allows divorce in the life of a believer, and he uses such difficult experiences to teach his children valuable lessons.

    While divorce is one of the greatest tragedies that can happen to a person, it is certainly not the greatest sin (and there are certainly cases where one of the spouses cannot be blamed at all and nowhere does the Bible blame or asks to punish the innocent). Having studied deeply the Word, I would consider being proud and unloving as the two sin attitudes that most violate God’s commandments, and I would like pastors to extend God’s love to those who most need it: the divorced

    Comment by Konstantinos Kalpakidis — May 3, 2008 @ 6:12 am


  7. […] that growing apart is normal and that divorce is totally unacceptable or totally acceptable (see Richard Mouw’s ingisht into this).  The underlying issue is the intimacy that defines the quality of the […]

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