Recently I posted some quotes from a sermon on the subject of divorce delivered by Reverend Julia Hollister at First Congregational Church in Sheboygan. In it she takes the stance that the best way for churches to deal with the influx of divorcees in contemporary culture is to accept them with open arms without judgment and letting them know that regardless of what happens they are important to God and to the local “faith community.” She cautions pastors against telling divorcees that their past actions were wrong. She believes that this will allow a church to be a place “where everyone who comes through our doors feels safe enough to let down their defenses, and to open themselves up to the healing love of God.”
While the argument against “judgment” may seem appealing at first, I believe that it is misguided and dangerous, not least of all to the very people that it is supposed to help. No one can be cured from their sins and mistakes if they are not willing to face them, and no pastor who truly wants to help them should act like their sins do not matter. God is indeed a God of love who cares deeply for every person who has ever seen their marriage go up in smoke. But the “healing love of God” requires obedience. You must take God’s prescription in order for your soul to be healed, and this means that you must accept God’s diagnosis of your problem. God is the only doctor who can fix the disease that’s in your soul. He alone can give you the complete cure for the guilt and the anger you feel as a result of your divorce. Through the Bible God allows you to identify the sins you have committed that may have contributed to your problems. He does not do this because He hates you, but rather because He loves you and He wants you to be freed from your slavery to your sins(Romans 6:6,12). He wants to release you from selfishness and deceit so that you can start a new life of holiness and purity that honors Him.
A loving church will guide you through this process. Their concern for you will not permit them to ignore your problems. If you are hijacking your own life with your selfishness and carelessness, they must be open with you about it. They must not let their desire to attract you as a church member or their lust for your tithe-money to keep them from being honest with you. They have a responsibility before God to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), using the authority of scripture to identify sin, and referencing their personal experience to show that God can forgive anyone. True Christians are repentant sinners. These people have been where you are, and wish to show you how God can change you. It is in your best interest to listen to what they have to say, testing it against scripture to see whether they are right or not. Do not make the mistake of storming off in anger before you have had time to ponder what they are saying. What other way is there to fix your problems? The hope that is offered in true, unhypocritical, Christianity is the only true cure that exists.
If you want Christ’s help in your divorce situation you must first surrender your entire life to God. This will require you to become a Christian if you are not one already. Some people attempt to surrender their marriage situation to God, while keeping the rest of their life under their own authority. They might do this to test God, thinking, perhaps, that if He solves this one problem for them they will give the rest of their life over to Him later. But God does not help people in this way. He does not save people in pieces. You must put God first above everything else. Jesus said: “whoever of you does not forsake all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Your problems stem from the fact that you are a selfish person in rebellion against God who is constantly trying to do things your own way. The problem is inside you. Jesus said “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). If you do not think this verse accurately describes the condition of your heart, then you are not being honest. This description is true of all people, rich or poor, young or old, happily married or divorced. Everyone who comes to God must admit that their problem begins with themselves, and that there is no cure from it apart from Christ. In order to become a Christian you must repent of your sins and believe that Jesus died on the cross for them (Luke 24:47, Acts 3:38, 10:43, 13:38-39, 16:31). Only then will the Holy Spirit regenerate your wicked soul (Romans 8:9-11, Titus 3:5-7), and God will empower you to properly address the problems caused by your divorce.
After you have become a Christian it is time for you to begin straightening out your life immediately with the new power that God has given you. You must spend time in prayer and reading the Bible, asking God to help you identify individual sins in your life, so that you can repent of them specifically and change your way of life (Psalm 139:23-24). You must ask yourself: “what did I do to hijack this marriage? Was I too selfish with money? Was I too critical of my wife’s appearance? Did I fail to give my husband the respect that he deserved? Did I give in to my lusts for other women? Did I chase after other men with more money or a more desireable personality?” This is a painful process, but it is necessary for healing. God promises us that when we examine ourselves and admit our sins, that He will forgive us for them (I John 1:9, Psalm 32:5). They will be washed away by the blood that Jesus shed on the cross (Romans 5:8-9). You don’t have to face them anymore, they are gone forever. Only God Himself has the authority to do that, and He promises you that He will, if you repent and believe in Him.
That’s how to deal with the guilt problem. But how do you deal with the hate? If you are like most divorcees, many of the problems that led to your divorce were not your own fault. They were caused by your spouse who treated you with contempt and even hatred at times. It is no good to gloss over your spouse’s sins and pretend that they weren’t so bad. Popular culture tells us that when “love dies” it is best for two people to get out of their marriage and respectfully allow their former spouse to pursue someone that is more “compatible” with him/her. But it is hard to “respect” someone who has lied to you, cheated on you, stolen from you, and maybe even abused you. These sins were not accidents. They were done deliberately, and they are purely evil, no matter what justification was given for them later.
So how do you stop hating someone who has done these things to you? The answer is to look to Christ for an example. When Jesus came to this world He was abused, slandered, and eventually killed by people who hated him even though He had done nothing wrong (Isaiah 53:7). He did not respond by sending them immediately to hell and judgment, even though He could have. Instead, while he was suffering and dying on the cross, He prayed that famous prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). You too, can pray this same prayer for a former spouse who has sinned against you but continues to stubbornly deny that he/she did anything wrong. You must constantly pray to God to open their eyes to see the truth of the gospel so that they do not have to go to hell. You must never, NEVER, allow yourself to wish that they will die in their sins and suffer God’s judgment. You must wish upon them the same mercy that you yourself also received, knowing that God Himself loved you even before you repented and while you still hated Him (Romans 5:7-8). Your actions towards them must be guided by love. You must not look for an opportunity to get revenge or to humiliate them. Instead, you should act like Christ did, telling them openly that they must repent, but out of love, not anger. His meekness and humility must be the example by which you live your new life (Phillipians 2:1-11).
If you are a Christian that has been through a nasty divorce, you must never lose hope for your former spouse. You must never do anything that might impede a future reconciliation. Such a reconciliation is never guaranteed, but it is always possible. Most of us who are true Christians have been witnesses to many such reconciliations. In some cases two former spouses who have accepted Christ as their Savior and have repented of their sins are able to get back together and remarry. In many other cases, however, remarriage is no longer possible. But there can still be reconciliation. I have seen several cases myself where former spouses who share a saving faith in Christ are able to confess their sins to each other and forgive each other, even while moving ahead in their current marriages. This often requires at least one of them to admit that their divorce and remarriage to someone else was wrong. Nevertheless, they are still able to maintain their commitment to their present spouse even while admitting that they should have never left their initial spouse in the first place. Popular culture tells us that this is not possible. The world thinks that if someone admits that their divorce and remarriage was wrong, that they are betraying their current spouse. But this is not true if they are doing it out of pure motives. Indeed, their current spouse should be happy to see them reconcile, since this signals the fact that they have finally realized what love in marriage is supposed to look like. No one will benefit from this change of heart more than their current spouse! Now that they have learned from their mistakes and repented from their sins they will be able to give their current partner the kind of love that one can only get from a true Christian. Everybody benefits when this happens. Therefore, this kind of reconcilation, the genuine confessing of sins and forgiveness, needs to be our prayer for everyone who has been through a divorce.
So that is why I disagree with Julia Hollister’s sermon. Her approach to divorce does little to facilitate this kind of reconciliation. While she might possibly commend divorced couples who reconcile on their own, she would not plead with them to repent on her own initiative. She would not use the power of the church as commanded in I Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18:15-17 to stand up for the victims in a divorce situation and discipline the unrepentant spouse who is destroying their family. Instead, she would prefer to conduct the “Order for Recognition of the end of a Marriage,” in which the participants essentially declare that no one really did anything wrong in bringing an end to the marriage, and that repentance and confession of sins is not necessary. This does not facilitate healing! This only casts confusion on the heart of a spouse who has been sinned against, and encourages the guilty to go and sin again. This is not the loving thing to do. This is easy, but it is not right. A church leader should not be aloof from a divorce situation. They should talk to the separating couple, pray with them and for them, and rebuke them if necessary. They should show their love by carefully getting involved and providing counsel and direction from God’s word. By doing so, they will give them another chance to ward off a catastrophe that otherwise might destroy their lives.