How Bad is Bad Enough? Most Pastors Favor Violence over Divorce

11 - Violence (iStock_000002292405Small)Just how bad does a marriage have to become before you would support someone’s decision to pursue divorce?

Most everyone applies an unconscious standard when judging the relative merit of someone’s decision to leave a bad marriage. In other words, we all have a “line.” And when someone crosses it, we’re emotionally willing to clear the offended partner for take-off. For some, the “line” is easily crossed. For others, the “line” exists somewhere beyond the asteroid belt. But we all have one; it’s just a matter of where we choose to draw it, either consciously or unconsciously.

Think about the last time you heard someone tell his or her divorce story. We’ve all experienced this. As the newly emancipated soul explains the events leading up to the final decision to leave, we smile politely, thinking, I don’t know. Perhaps this person gave up too easily. Then, a particular detail triggers a response. Somewhere, down in the deep recesses of intuition, a signals goes off telling us that a “line” has been crossed. Perhaps the trigger was infidelity, or substance abuse, or dishonesty. Suddenly, we’re nodding in outraged approval, wondering why he or she waited so long to divorce.

During the late 1980s, a pair of researchers, James and Phyllis Alsdurf, wanted to know where church leaders drew their lines based on their firsthand experience. They sent a questionnaire to more than 5000 Protestant pastors in the United States, asking about their personal encounters with spousal abuse. One question in particular yielded opinions that some would consider disturbing. The leaders were asked, “How intense must marital violence be in order to justify a Christian woman leaving the home?” Study the results. Continue reading “How Bad is Bad Enough? Most Pastors Favor Violence over Divorce”

How to Recover from a Fall

10 - Falling Down

Let’s face it; we’ve all done it.

Fallen.

Morally, I mean.

Theologians refer to the first sin—the original sin—as “the Fall.” And it’s an appropriate image. God did not intend for humanity to crawl like beasts. Animals don’t bear His likeness. Nor did our Creator intend for us to slither like the archetype of evil. He designed our bodies to walk upright, a posture befitting our dignity as the crown of creation and bearers of the divine image. But sin makes us less than human. When we fall—morally, I mean—we are closer to the earth and further from our created purpose. Rather than ruling over the world, we become subject to it.

Fortunately, God did not leave humanity to crawl in the dust. After pronouncing curses on all of creation—the forewarned consequences of disobedience—the Triune God pronounced the gravest curse of all upon Himself. One day, the Father would send His Son to suffer the same evil that plagues all of humanity and to be “attacked” by the author of sin (Gen. 3:15).

In the person of Jesus Christ, God fulfilled His promise by becoming one of us. And, as one of us, He bore the penalty of sin. Unjustly, because He had never fallen. Voluntarily, because He loves us. Completely, because he is almighty God. He did this on behalf of all humanity and now offers complete restoration to any who would receive it. He invites us to stand upright again. No longer by our own strength, but in trusting dependence upon Him.

If you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ to save you from the penalty of your sin, you never need worry about condemnation—not from others and not from God (Romans 8:1). Therefore, sin has become a fundamentally different matter in the life of a believer. We are no longer subject to condemnation, so guilt and shame have no place in the life of a believer. Nevertheless, we remain vulnerable to temptation and prone to sin. We will stumble. We will fall.  Even as we earnestly attempt to honor God, we will inevitably harm others by the poor choices we make and the sinful acts we commit.

While we never have to fear the eternal consequences of wrongdoing, unresolved sin can complicate our lives with earthly consequences, frustrate the Lord’s desire to bless us, and cause others immeasurable heartache. Despite our secure relationship with God, sin is still a deadly serious matter. Thankfully, the Lord has given us a means by which we can clear away the clutter of wrongdoing.

If you have unresolved sin in your life, consider the following actions: Continue reading “How to Recover from a Fall”

“I’ve Accepted the Apology, So Why Can’t I Forgive?”

Reconciliation

 

Many people who have suffered because of another’s sin—especially habitual or repeated sin—assume their inability to move beyond their pain and their reluctance to embrace their offender’s repentance are due to an inability to forgive. They wonder why they can’t accept a sincere apology, forget the past, and move on, so they remain stuck in a confusing emotional cycle that heaps shame on top of suffering.

We received a letter from “Carrie,” whose experience illustrates the depth and complexity of this problem. I have her permission to share her story, although I have altered her name.

On her wedding day, Carrie gave herself completely to the man of her dreams. She had no reason to doubt her marriage would be a lifelong fairytale—yes, challenged as all relationships are, yet “happily ever after” just the same. It was a reasonable expectation. But after the birth of their first child, her fairytale turned into a nightmare. Her husband turned away from his family, losing himself in work . . . and methamphetamines. As he spiraled out of control, his wife and child were pulled in after him, losing almost everything to his addiction.

By the grace of God and the help of supportive friends and family, he broke his habit and appeared to be on the path to lifelong sobriety, “one day at a time,” as they say. Carrie appeared to have recovered her dream until her husband relapsed, which led to another destructive binge and an adulterous affair. In describing the episode, she wrote, “It almost killed me.”

The story has a happy ending. At least nearly so. After sharing the horror she endured for nearly five years, she faced yet another challenge, and she had no idea how to meet it. Here is how she explained her newest trial:

A few years have gone by and my husband has again broken his habit, this time for good, and he’s given his life to Christ. He wants to recommit to our marriage and promises to become a better father. And I believe it’s real. I really want to forgive him, but the pain is almost more than I can bear. Every wedding promise, every little girl’s dream, every expectation has been shattered along with my trust. After the lies, the infidelity, emotional abuse, and false accusations, I feel completely used up and totally worthless.

I thank God that my husband has finally repented and wants to do what is right, but I stopped caring a long time ago. As terrible as it sounds, I don’t want him near me anymore. I don’t want to feel this way and I have begged God to help me, but I don’t feel like He hears my cries. I searched myself and asked the Lord to take away any barriers to His healing. But I just don’t understand why He has allowed me to be hurt so much.

Sometimes I feel like God loves my husband more than He loves me. I was wounded so deeply, yet I must forgive while my husband gets away with causing so much harm. I know this isn’t the right way to see it, so I keep looking to Christ to help me forgive and overcome all of this.

Please continue to pray for me and my family.

Carrie

What keeps Carrie in her anguished cycle is a relatively common misunderstanding of forgiveness. She has unwittingly combined four separate issues: forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. They are interrelated, yet distinct stages of a process by which two people rebuild their relationship after an offense. The only way to escape the cycle is to address each issue in turn.

The Issue of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not a feeling. We tend to think of forgiveness as the ability to have a relationship with our offender without feeling angry, sorrowful, fearful, resentful, or any other negative emotion. In other words, we tend to confuse forgiveness with healing or the ability to trust. Forgiveness is a lot of things, but it is not a feeling. Forgiveness is a choice, something we decide to do.

Put simply, “forgiveness is agreeing to live the consequences of another person’s sin”[1] without seeking justice, or restitution, or empathy, or anything else. To forgive is to release one’s offender from any and all expectations.

Unfortunately, forgiveness is an incredibly difficult choice. It goes against our very nature, which we receive from God, a nature that craves justice. Our innate sense of fair-play rebels against the idea that the innocent should suffer the consequences of another’s guilt. Nevertheless, that is the injustice God has called us to accept. It’s a voluntary injustice He calls “mercy,” the first indispensible step in the right direction. As Neil Anderson warns:

If you don’t let offenders off your hook, you are hooked to them and the past, and that just means continued pain for you. Stop the pain; let it go. You don’t forgive someone merely for their sake; you do it for your sake so you can be free. Your need to forgive isn’t an issue between you and the offender; it’s between you and God.

Forgiveness is costly; we pay the price of the evil we forgive. Yet you’re going to live with those consequences whether you want to or not; your only choice is whether you will do so in the bitterness of unforgiveness or the freedom of forgiveness. That’s how Jesus forgave you—He took the consequences of your sin upon Himself. All true forgiveness is substitutional, because no one really forgives without bearing the penalty of the other person’s sin.[2]

The Issue of Healing

Carrie has genuinely chosen to forgive her repentant husband. She has made the difficult choice to live with the consequences of his sin without seeking revenge or requiring him to suffer as she had. Yet she still suffers the pangs of rejection and struggles to put away resentment—even toward God. Carrie doesn’t lack forgiveness; she needs healing.

Time will eventually heal Carrie’s wounds. How much time will depend upon what kind of guidance she receives and how safe she is from further injury. Like physical wounds, emotional wounds require careful attention and a protected environment if they are to heal properly. And when the wounds run deep, nothing short of physical separation will provide adequate protection. Therefore, it would be wise for Carrie to say to her husband, “I completely forgive you and I do want our relationship to be restored. In order for that to happen, I need some time and space to heal.” Then, she should arrange for that time and space.

At this point, a good counselor will guide her through the process of grief, which could include the help of a support group. This would also involve regular contact with her husband, who can contribute greatly to her healing, mostly by participating in the process of reconciliation.

The Issue of Reconciliation

Reconciliation occurs with the offender completely repents. Repentance is one’s decision to admit wrongdoing without making excuses, accept complete responsibility for his or her actions, and then seek the forgiveness of the person he or she harmed. The article by my friend and colleague, Dr. Bryce Klabunde, explains the six signs of genuine repentance. And nothing possesses the power to heal like genuine repentance.

To adequately deal with the past, Dave Carder, an experienced family counselor and best-selling author, would encourage Carrie to communicate what she needs to hear from her husband. He would also have her husband make a list of his offenses and rank them in the order of least to worst. Then, he would have Carrie’s husband begin confessing and apologizing for each offense. Furthermore, Carrie’s husband must understand the internal forces that contributed to his making the choices he did and learn how to manage them differently. Carrie, for her part, must learn how to express the depth of her sorrow in terms her husband can understand and to communicate what behavior will allow her to extend trust to her husband again. She must also discover and “own” her contribution to the breakdown of the marriage. This is sometimes a controversial notion, but it is crucial to rebuilding. Carder’s book, Torn Asunder: Recovering from Extramarital Affairs, is the best resource I know for couples healing from this kind of devastation. In fact, his principles are very helpful for couples challenged to overcome any breach in trust.

Reconciliation naturally leads to the possibility of restoration.

The Issue of Restoration

When people speak of “forgiveness,” they often mean “restoration,” the ability to enjoy intimacy with someone who has caused injury in the past. Forgiveness can lead to restoration, but that restored relationship must rest upon a solid foundation of forgiveness, healing, repentance, and reconciliation. And if any one element is missing or incomplete, the rebuilt relationship may be compromised.

Put simply, restoration is the rebuilding of trust, a key ingredient in any relationship. Carrie must learn to trust in her husband’s continued sobriety and faithfulness. His taking responsibility for his actions and his empathy with her suffering will feed her ability to trust him again. Conversely, her husband must have reasonable assurance that he has been truly forgiven, that she will not use his offense against him in the future. He must also have a reasonable hope that her sorrow—which causes him great shame—will subside as time passes.

Step-by-Step

Rebuilding a relationship that has been reduced to rubble by sin is a process. Forgiveness is an indispensible decision, but it is only the first of many steps toward restoration. Many find relief in this truth because it explains why healing, trust, intimacy, and reconciliation don’t immediately fall into place. Nevertheless, the process of restoration is not easy for anyone. The upright partner must open himself or herself to the possibility of reinjury. The repentant partner must endure the excruciating process of self-examination and reformation. The rebuilding of trust and intimacy will be fraught with danger and marked by setbacks. And, truth be told, few couples make it. Either one partner or the other is not up for the challenge.

Still, redemption is possible, not only for individuals but for couples. Given the right environment and expert guidance, God can raise a temple of extraordinary grace from the ashes of sin.


[1] Neil T. Anderson, The Bondage Breaker (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House, 1990), 195.

[2] Neil T. Anderson, The Bondage Breaker (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House, 1990), 195.

“I’ll Change, I promise” Six Signs of Genuine Repentance

by Dr. Bryce Klabunde,

Soul Care Pastor, College Avenue Baptist Church, San Diego, CA

08 - Repentance (iStock_000003690716Small)

Many changes come naturally as we mature. Sometimes, though, negative habits form deep ruts, and it seems we can’t change, no matter how much we want to. Friends urge us to alter course and warn us of dangers ahead if we don’t. We read in Scripture about God’s path of wisdom, and His Spirit awakens our spirit to a new vision of a better life in Christ. With tears of determination, we tell ourselves, our loved ones, and our Lord that things will be different. “I’ll change, I promise.” And we really mean it. We feel a deep sense of sorrow for our sin, even disgust. However, as time passes, the pull of the rut overpowers our most sincere promises, and we fall back into old patterns.

Part of the problem may be our mistake in thinking that sorrow and confession are enough to produce change. Another part is the misunderstanding of the process of change—a process the Bible calls repentance

Is Repentance the Same as Remorse?

According to the New Testament, there’s a difference between repentance and remorse. Judas “felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priest and elders” (Matthew 27:3). He even confessed his crime: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (v. 4). Judas had come face to face with the hideous beast of evil in his soul, and he shrank back in terror and shame. Tragically, instead of leading him to God and life, his guilt hounded him to the gates of death. Eventually, his shame turned to self-hatred, and it drove him to suicide.

Continue reading ““I’ll Change, I promise” Six Signs of Genuine Repentance”

God’s Tough Love

07 - Gate to Heaven (iStock_000005458789Small-Cropped)My good friend, Chris Williams (aka “Wounded Warror“), and I share a common theological heritage. We were reared in fundamentalist Christian circles, which has given us a passion for pleasing the Lord and understanding His Word. Yet, like any manmade theological system, our tradition has also skewed our perspective of God. The same is true of all theological traditions, including Calvinism, revivalism, evangelicalism, and any other “ism” you care to name. Fundamentalism just happens to be ours.

After reading “My Husband Is Having an Affair with Pornography, What Should I Do?” he challenged me with a very insightful question. Because Chris has an impressive syllabus of Bible and theology training, my response reflects both the extent of his knowledge and the depth of his thinking. I also think his question is important enough to warrant an article, rather than a simple comment-level response.

Here is his question:

Mark:

I am wondering about the separation you describe here by Cloud and Townsend. God does not separate from us in the way most of us think of separation. He says we can never be separated from his love, not the same thing you are advocating for the non-sinning spouse here. I know for me growing up severe separation was a problem, either too extreme or too lenient.

Calling someone into account based on the covenant of marriage seems to work better for me with my separationist background. I draw boundaries that are healthy, but that have nothing to do with withdrawing love or concern (you call it “loving response to sin” which is a great theme to explore, debunking the whole (if someone sins, run!) mentality.

Any helpful thoughts along these lines? Continue reading “God’s Tough Love”

Living the Good Life

The Good Life

Pleasing the Lord isn’t very complicated. It isn’t easy, but it’s relatively straightforward. He said so through the Old Testament prophet, Micah.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Unfortunately, the world will make this neither easy nor automatic; it severely punishes those who choose to please God. Moreover, our own fallen natures would have us please ourselves first. Nevertheless, the Lord has not left us to struggle on our own. Those who belong to Him have been given power that cannot be overcome by evil. Therefore, let us be aware of the challenges we face so that, through His strength, we might overcome them. Each of the Lord’s expectations—to do what is right, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him—will be met with a particular challenge.

 

The greatest challenge to doing what is right is doing what is hard.

Generally speaking, people have two important values they hope to preserve: comfort and integrity. Continue reading “Living the Good Life”

Abandoned . . . Bewildered . . . and Searching for Answers

Walkaway Spouse 1 Cropped (iStock_000007434507Small)

The following letter from a reader illustrates a very common problem among Christians.

I am facing divorce. I want to reconcile with my wife but she is unwilling at this point. I believe as followers of Jesus that there is no room for not seeking reconciliation and so I am not wanting to even participate in divorce proceedings, mostly out of hope that she will reconsider. So I am not sure even what to do. There is no adultery or abuse or any grounds. She just wants a different life without me.
 
Even if the worst happens, I want to do my best to honor the Lord, my commitment, and to offer love and forgiveness in the hope of reconciliation.

Blessings,
Steve

Naturally, I changed the man’s name to protect his identity; however, I didn’t alter the details of his circumstances. I didn’t have to. His situation is so tragically common, this letter could have come from any one of a thousand different men or women over the last couple of months. He finds himself abandoned, bewildered, and timidly trusting that no response is the best response.

Continue reading “Abandoned . . . Bewildered . . . and Searching for Answers”

The Church and the “No-Win” Marriage

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“I don’t believe in divorce.” As Diane responded to the pleas of her non-Christian friends, the waver in her voice only dignified her desperate resolve. Some might have even called it heroic. Her husband of sixteen years, however, had demonstrated all too clearly by his love of alcohol and rage that he did not share her perspective on marriage. The sacred covenant she entered as a young woman had become his license to drink and hurl insults with no accountability. And after a thousand broken promises and countless wasted hours in counseling, Diane was at the breaking point. For the sake of her children’s safety and sanity, and for the survival of her own withered soul, something had to change. Unfortunately, her family, her church, and her own Christian conscience spoke in heartbroken, anguished accord: “I don’t believe in divorce.”

Like Diane, many conscientious believers find themselves hopelessly trapped between two intolerable options: divorce or continued misery. These weary guardians of dead or dying unions remain convinced that divorce is a sin; however, they find it increasingly difficult to ignore the conviction that tolerating the destructive behavior of a wayward mate is not the lesser evil. Meanwhile, the implied message of well-meaning family, friends, and church is, We know you’re enduring unimaginable pain and may even be risking bodily harm, and we don’t know what you should do about it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t seek a divorce! Not only does this fail to offer hope or provide leadership, but it also creates an incubator for sin, not only for the unrepentant partner but also the suffering spouse.

A person can endure this no-win scenario for months, even years, but not forever. As James Dobson so eloquently put it, “The human mind cannot tolerate agitated depression and grief indefinitely. The healthy personality will act to protect itself in time, throwing off the despair and groping for stability. One method by which this is accomplished is by turning pain into anger.”[1] Given enough time, people in situations like Diane’s reach a breaking point and often make destructive or unwise choices. And the intensity of their emotional backlash can be frightening, especially against the offending spouse and anyone who had encouraged them to “remain faithful to their vows.” Feeling forsaken by friends, family, church, and even God Himself, some abandon themselves to an adulterous affair and desert their families, ironically giving their sinning spouse biblical grounds for divorce. Many others eventually decide that while God may not approve of their divorce, they cannot continue to exist in this moral limbo and then finally choose to pursue a divorce their loved ones and church friends do not support. They eventually console themselves with the quiet conviction that a lifetime of guilt is better than what they endured in marriage.

To be perfectly fair, leaders in Christian ministry face the no-win scenario on a grand scale. For them, the implications extend far beyond the suffering of just one person and his or her family. Also at stake are the institution of marriage and the authority of Scripture. 

Protecting Marriage

For many decades, Christian pastors, teachers, counselors, and sociologists have lamented the steady, undeniable erosion of marriage and feel compelled to shore it up, even if it means that some individuals must suffer. As the divorce rate climbs, church leaders elevate the institution of marriage. The more the world profanes marriage, the more sacred it becomes in the minds of those who defend it. As more people freely discard the marriage covenant at will, the response has been to proclaim the inviolable, unbreakable nature of the one-flesh bond  more fervently and more rigidly than before. This progression has escalated to the point that we now place such high value on marriage that we are willing to sacrifice almost anything to avoid divorce, including the safety and spiritual well-being of individuals. This may explain the disheartening results of a survey conducted by James and Phyllis Alsdurf. They questioned pastors to determine when they would support a battered woman’s decision to separate from her abuser.

One-third of the respondents felt that the abuse would have to be life-threatening. Almost one-fifth believed that no amount of abuse would justify a woman leaving, while one in seven felt a moderate expression of violence would be justification enough. The remainder interpreted “occasional” violence as grounds for leaving.

However, only two per cent of the pastors said they would support a divorce in situations of violence.[2]

 We must ask ourselves, was man made for marriage, or marriage made for man? (Mark 2:27). Are we becoming guilty of venerating the institution of marriage over its original design, like the Pharisees obsessed over the Sabbath? Have we lost sight of the purpose of marriage in God’s ultimate program to make us more like Christ? 

Obeying God’s Word

For Christian leaders, the debate over divorce also impacts the authority of Scripture. Jesus, when asked about divorce, stated that a husband and wife “are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6) and “Whoever divorces his wife, except for [sexual] immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).[3] The interpretation of these words is a proving ground for how one will interpret and apply Scripture in general. And it’s a particularly difficult issue because it seemingly places two of God’s primary attributes, love and righteousness, in direct contention.

Many people correctly argue that God’s love would not want to prolong Diane’s domestic torture, but their arguments typically set aside His righteousness. And the arguments against taking the words of Jesus at face value are legion.

 * “Jesus answered a specific question, so we can’t apply His statement universally.”

* “Jesus didn’t mean what we think He did.”

* “Cultures and contexts are no longer the same. That was then; this is now.”

 Some of the arguments are intriguing—even compelling at first blush—but they all accomplish the same result. They effectively render the words of Christ meaningless, which leaves many believers feeling uneasy. And rightfully so. Any solution to this moral dilemma must not ignore the words of Jesus or rob them of their meaning.

On the other hand, many Christians correctly take the words of Scripture at face value and understandably reject any attempt to avoid a straightforward interpretation. But their dogged desire to honor the righteousness of God too easily dismisses His compassion, or, at the very least, they see God as holy first and loving second. 

Looking Up

At present, much of the evangelical world has battled itself to a stalemate on the issue of divorce and, as a sad consequence, has left many suffering believers isolated and directionless. Clearly, something must be done. But what? How do we resolve the no-win scenario?

In the early 1960s, Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he coined the term “paradigm shift.”[4] When scientists can no longer make sense of their data using the established theories, someone stumbles upon a new perspective that sparks a scientific revolution. The facts don’t change; we just change our way of looking at them.

To use a word picture, think of a path leading to a wall. In the past, we may have turned left or right to go around something blocking our progress. Turning left or right always worked in the past because the obstacles were relatively small. So we’ve never needed any other way of thinking. But now we’ve come to a wall that stretches for miles in either direction. Turning left or right will no longer solve the problem. We need a new solution. We need a new dimension to our thinking: up. We must climb over the wall, something we never thought to do before.

Our present theological path has led us to an impasse. To turn left, we must either compromise righteousness or bend the Bible to sanctify our desire for mercy. To turn right, we must hold high the sanctity of marriage at the expense of compassion, forcing many thousands to choose between sin and survival. We need a new perspective. A paradigm shift. A way to view the issues in three dimensions instead of only two.

Clearly, our present solutions do not work. Marriages continue to fracture under unbearable stresses. But rather than blame the couple, or blame society, we must look to ourselves as members of Christ’s body and ask, What can we do differently to give real meaning to the words “sanctity of marriage” instead of the mere lip service we offer now.

We need an “up” kind of solution to the challenges marriages face. And that is the primary purpose for this forum.

Will you join me?


[1] James Dobson, Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Families in Crisis (Dallas: Word, 1996), 153.

[2] James and Phyllis Alsdurf, Battered into Submission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989), 158.

[3] The Greek word translated “immorality” in the New American Standard Bible is porneia, from which we get our word pornography. The term refers to sexual sin.

[4] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, rev. ed. 1996).