I almost didn’t write this article. Either because it felt too scary or vulnerable or messy and I wasn’t sure I was willing to put myself out there to that extent. At times my past or the failure of my marriage has felt like a glass house that people get to look into from the outside and draw assumptions of what must have happened. You add to that a Christian culture that is clearly against divorce and where does that leave someone in the Christian faith? Am I cursed because I’m now divorced? Does God feel or think less of me because of my failed marriage? Those were certainly questions I had while walking through the stormy clouds that felt like they’d never lift.
The irony of the Christian faith is that, unfortunately, its divorce statistics aren’t much better from the world’s. The numbers are still close to fifty percent, even in the church. As fearful as I am to share my experience, it gives me some comfort knowing I’m not remotely alone in my process. I’ve learned that my experience wasn’t unique. If you’re reading this, the chances are extremely high that either yourself, a parent, a sibling, family member, or loved one you know has had a personal experience in walking through divorce.
I’ve heard very little of the church’s voice on divorce, other than it’s clearly understood God is against it. As a pastor myself, I know the scriptures, I understand the truths when scripture talks about God hating divorce. And it doesn’t take a genius to understand why. It’s two lives that have been melded together. Two lives that have grown together. Two lives that have said yes to each other. Two lives that somewhere between point A and point B missed the mark of a lifelong “I do” to one another. Two lives that somehow lost their way or the connection they once felt with one another.
When I reflect on most stories or accounts of divorce, they tend to narratively skew into something like this: “The other person was the problem. The other person didn’t love me, or pursue me, or take care of me, or protect me.” The narrative, for the sake of someone’s heart, has a hard time constructing an image of an ex with a viewpoint or perspective that paints them in any picture other than the villain. In reality, most counselors would tell you it’s never just one person’s fault. The breakdown almost always consists of two people that didn’t fully show up for each other. Two people who failed to serve, love, or forgive.
With a clear understanding of the church’s brief and simple stance, where does that leave Christians who were forced or needed to walk that out? Aside from a world culture that treats divorce as a simple and common reality we hear about often, it doesn’t necessarily bring healing or reprieve from guilt or shame. As Christians that have had to face that reality, what has that looked like for you? Was it your childhood or upbringing that was gravely affected by a broken home? Was it maybe a new reality you had to embrace of that broken home being your own? We’ve all been touched by divorce in some way or another, but as the body of Christ, how do we walk it out ourselves, and in return, how do we show grace, love, and support for others going through it?
Walking out divorce as a pastor certainly wasn’t for the fainthearted and furthermore, left me with a lot of wounds that took significant amounts of time to heal from. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s had to personally walk out divorce that wasn’t severely hurt or deeply saddened by the process. As each marriage has its own shades of fault or failure, mine is no different. I took about three years off from ministry to heal from my failed marriage. I had bitterness toward my ex-wife, God, and the church. But what walking through that has valley taught me, has remained invaluable.
You can do everything “right” to try and fix your marriage, but it still fail.
It’s so easy to come out of something as harrowing and difficult as divorce, and make the other person the villain. The hurt, the pain, the piercing words… it’s enough to drive anyone to become severely wounded. My process of walking out divorce wasn’t ideal. It started with a sadness and shame due to the failure of my marriage. It was the first time in my life I’d chosen to remain hidden. It was the first time I had chosen to stay in the shadows and not invite community into my process. You see, I walked into marriage with a sincere desire to change a common occurrence of divorce in my family. I had determined in my heart that I would take an axe to the root of it for myself in order to establish a clean, fresh, and new spiritual inheritance for my kids and my kids’ kids. I didn’t and couldn’t recognize it at the time, but what I was trying so intentionally to avoid, became the very thing I walked through myself. Did I fail at times to honor, respect, affirm, serve, or protect well? You bet. Did I fail at times to act in a loving, caring, patient, or gentle way? No doubt. I deeply regret things I said and did. I regret the way I acted at times. On top of deep arguing and hurt, pain and anger, we also had two boys together that gravely affected the situation, only four and a half and two years old at the time.
The truth of the matter was this: after three marriage conferences, three separate rounds of marriage counseling, and the intentional help of community, my marriage still fell. When the pieces fall around you and you’ve begun to process and pick them up, that’s when the hardest work begins. After eight years of marriage and nine years of being with the same person, life has a weird sort of shift to it when you’re suddenly on your own again and facing a seemingly different world. Now, each and every person who’s walked out, or is walking out divorce, has a choice in how they choose to move forward. If you were like me, it felt too shameful or embarrassing to admit my marriage was over, and it led to a dark place for me. A place that only after feeling the depression and darkness, eventually drove me back to the Lord. It took time to gain trust back with God. It took time to come to a place of forgiveness and acceptance.
Take time to heal
I was grateful counseling helped me process the aspects of my divorce. It helped me to identify what went wrong, where I was wrong, where I failed to be more present, pursue more, or hold necessary boundaries to protect my own heart or emotional well-being. Counseling also helped me to identify what I wanted, didn’t want, needed or didn’t need. The forgiveness and healing took quite a long time, but without the help of a counselor, it would likely have taken much longer. I had to start with forgiveness. I blamed my ex for things I’d lost or let go of. I stayed bitter for what I willingly allowed. I stayed mad for a vision and dream I felt had been taken away from me. So what changed? It all started with a choice. I knew that I could hold onto unforgiveness and bitterness, but as I’ve heard so often over the years, they say unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and hoping the other person is hurt by it. I knew, ultimately, neither of those things would serve me well. And whether we want to admit it or not, it wears on us. It slowly eats at us and deteriorates our hearts and spirits, and takes away from the heart posture and spirit Jesus calls us to walk in.
Mark 11:25, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.”
I had to start here, at the heart of the Father. I had to remind myself of who God is and thus, who he’s called me to be in Him. If those who have cursed Him, turned their back on him, or blamed him can still be forgiven or loved by God, so do we have a responsibility to walk in the example of our Father God.
Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
As much as it felt like I had lost connection or love or forgiveness or acceptance from God in that season, I was reminded through scripture that wasn’t true. Forgiveness didn’t feel great most times and even more often, didn’t feel like I had truly forgiven in my heart. It reminded me of Peter in Matthew 18 when he asks Jesus how many times he needed to forgive someone. In a paraphrase, Jesus essentially tells Peter if he has to count or ask how many times he needs to forgive, he’s missed the point. That understanding helped me to move on from what I was holding onto.
You’re not alone
After unforgiveness came the challenge of bitterness and hurt. 1 Peter 5 says that if we humble ourselves before God, He’ll lift us up in due time. That we can cast our anxiety on Him because he cares for us. To refresh my mind and choose to believe the truth that God was still with me, still chose me, and still loved me, things began to slowly change for the better. Along with choosing to start trusting God again came a willingness to pull others in as well. I began making the difficult but healthy and powerful decision to pull trusted community into my process. I reconnected with a mentor and others I walked with spiritually, and it accelerated not just my healing process, but provided me the strength and truth I needed to hear when I felt weak or attacked.
Don’t isolate from community
Lastly, I knew I had to work on me. However I failed to show up as a husband, however I was going to choose to be as a man, as a dad, or as a pastor, it meant I had a lot of work to do. Whether it was my heart, my relationship with God, or my connection to Christian community, it started with doing the hard work of looking at myself and how I could change. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. I wanted to leave no stone unturned in figuring out how I needed to grow, heal or fruitfully move forward. In Psalms 139 David asks God to search his heart, to test him and know his anxious thoughts. He asks God to see if there is anything offensive in him, and to lead him in God’s way. And that’s where I knew I had to start.
Divorce isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy. Even the most amenable of separations can be deeply painful. If you’ve had to walk out divorce yourself, you can attest to the level of hurt and brokenness it entails. Walking out forgiveness for yourself isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Often times, forgiveness towards the other person can be equally if not more challenging, but, is absolutely crucial to being able to walk in wholeness, freedom, and a life of true joy. You may not forget the pain or experiences throughout your marriage, but we all have a choice to lay down the offenses, hurts, attacks, or injustice you’ve experienced. It’s in this space, we relinquish justice and lay them at the foot of the cross.
John 8:7, “When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”
What do we find as Jesus’s reaction toward not only someone in sin or shame, but making a wrong choice? His reaction toward the woman was that of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and protection. You see, it’s not only for the forgiveness of our sins that Jesus died for us, but he also lived for reconciliation. He also lived to eliminate our shame, difficulties, and challenges in very real and personal ways. Forgiveness towards that ex-spouse looks like a willingness to no longer hold anything against that person – offense, pain, injustice, etc.
Don’t allow a failure to be a missed opportunity
We all understand that God detests divorce, but even when things break down and a marriage fails, it doesn’t mean our standing in God’s eyes has lessened. It doesn’t mean he removes his love from us. It doesn’t mean we lose intimacy or relationship with a forgiving and merciful God. His love remains constant, and I’d even propose that it can actually increase if we allow our circumstances to draw us closer to him. When we feel weak, and turn to him, we can begin to let his strength take over on our behalf. I know, that in more ways than one, had I not eventually let him back in to help direct and care for me, and heal me, I would be in a much different season than the one I currently find myself in. It was a willingness to trust again. A willingness to look in the mirror, do the difficult heart work, and take time to rediscover who I was as my own person. I encourage you to take the time to walk that out and become healed and restored. It’s in that space, we can look again to the future of what or whom God might have for us.