Why Love Must Be Active

In his epic ode to love, Paul the apostle declared, “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:4). Good words for today, when gentleness is such a rare quality in relationships. Unfortunately, our desire to be patient and kind can also lead to passivity when a loved one begins to fall into sin. While it might seem loving to step lightly and speak softly when a loved one begins a pattern of wrongdoing, nothing could be more dangerous to a relationship. Here’s why:

Passivity Camouflages a Trap

Passivity allows a wayward loved one to gradually and comfortably enter Satan’s trap. An old folk legend claims that a frog dropped into a kettle of boiling water will immediately recognize the danger to his life and waste no time leaping out. However, a frog placed in a kettle at room temperature will happily continue to bask as the water is slowly heated, even to the point of boiling. The legend has become a standard illustration for the mortal danger of gradual change.

Sin is a trap that hypnotizes its victim into thinking that all is well. Convinced that the first transgression caused no harm, the wayward one rationalizes his or her decision. Meanwhile, Satan works overtime to insulate his prey from reality and to provide an opportunity to take sin a step further. Gradually, “bad” behavior seems less and less bad until the person becomes capable of astounding evil with little or no feelings of remorse. It’s not uncommon for a deluded sinner to become convinced that others are ultimately responsible for his or her sin and, in many cases, that the destructive behavior is actually good!

Whereas truth frustrates this gradual twisting of the mind, passivity allows Satan greater opportunity to isolate and deceive his prey. The wayward loved one needs, more than anything, a shocking dose of reality. The most loving response is to turn up the heat so that he or she will sense the danger and escape Satan’s trap.

Passivity Reinforces Sinful Behavior

Passivity reinforces the false promise of sin that we can do whatever we want without suffering negative consequences.

As Eve gazed at the forbidden fruit hanging within easy reach, she saw that it was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). A serpent saw her longing gaze and moved a little closer. “You surely will not die!” (v. 4). His words contradicted her Creator’s stern warning; nevertheless, she and her husband swallowed Satan’s poisonous lie. And from that moment on, nothing would ever be the same. Within hours, the couple stood trembling as God explained how they would experience the consequences of disobedience. “Death” would not come immediately. Worse, death would painfully distort all of creation; death would come with sudden, unexpected certainty; and death would carry the soul to yet another kind of death, an eternal death too horrific to describe.

Imagine if, instead, God had remained passive and silent. At lunchtime the following day, Adam and Eve return to the forbidden tree to find the serpent lounging in its branches, wearing a contented smile. “See? What did I tell you? There you stand, quite alive! Take off that silly fig leaf underwear and have another delicious meal—on me.”

Fortunately, the Lord didn’t remain passive. Moved by love, He confronted Adam and Eve, opened their eyes to the consequences of their disobedience, and then cast them out of the Garden to make repeated sin more difficult (Gen. 3:22–24). His righteous anger reaffirmed His earlier warning that eternal life and disobedience cannot coexist. Sin leads to death. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that’s as predictable and as certain as gravity.

Remaining passive while someone balances precariously on the edge of skyscraper is not love. A wayward loved one needs intervention, not the casual affirmation of a passive response to sin.

Passivity Allows Sin to Harm Others

Passivity allows the destructive consequences of sin to devastate the innocent. Sin is a fire that destroys everything it touches. Substance abuse, rage, violence, sexual immorality, abandonment, neglect—any sin that burns out of control affects everyone, especially children. And a passive response to unrepentant sin is like standing idle while an arson sets fire to the people we love.

Passivity Undermines Respect

Passivity undermines a crucial element of any healthy relationship: respect. In his book Love Must Be Tough, Dr. James Dobson warns that nothing destroys a romantic relationship quicker than passivity and appeasement. On the other hand,

Successful marriages usually rest on a foundation of accountability between husbands and wives. They reinforce responsible behavior in one another by a divinely inspired system of checks and balances. In its absence, one party may gravitate toward abuse, insult, accusation, and ridicule of the other, while his or her victim placidly wipes away the tears and mutters with a smile, ‘Thanks, I needed that!'”1

Love

Love That Is Tough

Unlike passivity, a proactive response to unrepentant sin reflects the character of God. He is relentlessly loving yet utterly uncompromising when it comes to behavior that undermines our relationship. Similarly, our loving response to sin must come from a place of strength, and sometimes, love must take strong, decisive, even aggressive action.

Tough love requires courage. Paul’s ode to love also declares that our selfless care for another “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). That means we may have to endure a period of time when our loved one doesn’t like us very much. But if we cling to the truth of God’s Word, and steadfastly reject destructive behavior, and with unwavering devotion call our wayward loved one to turn from wrongdoing, we offer our loved one a compelling reason to escape the trap of sin, and a chance to experience love as God intended it: love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).

1 James Dobson, Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Families in Crisis (Dallas: Word, 1996), 19.

Tough Love Must Stand Firm

The primary purpose for confronting a wayward spouse with his or her sin is to bring about genuine repentance (Matthew 18:15). Only then can a couple can begin the process of rebuilding trust and restoring intimacy. Unfortunately, the forgiving spouse may actually discourage repentance by becoming too eager for reconciliation. At the first sign of regret or remorse, he or she leaps to the rescue with forgiveness, only to suffer the pain of a repeat offense.

Feelings of regret and remorse are good and necessary; they often prompt genuine repentance. But feelings without actions do not produce the kind of change necessary for restoring broken relationships. While a sinning spouse wrestles with his or her conscience, the upright spouse must neither press harder for a decision nor relieve any tension created by the confrontation. Watching a loved one struggle with emotional pain can be heartrending; however, that is the time to remain steadfast, even if it feels like pouring sand into an open wound.

On the other hand, many wayward spouses respond to confrontation with hostility and then pursue their sinful paths with even greater determination. This, too, might weaken an upright spouse’s resolve, causing him or her to wonder, What’s the point of godly confrontation if nothing I do will change anything? A letter[1] from “Stephen” gave me an opportunity to clarify the purpose of godly confrontation and the need to stand fast, regardless of the sinning partner’s emotional response. Continue reading “Tough Love Must Stand Firm”

How Can Marital Separation Save a Marriage?

Some things in life are best described as “counter-intuitive.” For example, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Give up your life in order to live? That sounded like a lot of nonsense to His hearers until He defined His terms. “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?” (v. 25). Astute listeners recognized that Jesus wasn’t asking for ritual suicide or foolhardy martyrdom. He was describing His Father’s life-exchange program. He said, in effect, “Stop your futile pursuit of life on your own terms, which inevitably leads to eternal death; accept in exchange a brand-new kind of life from Me, which can never end.”

Sometimes, a marriage has to come to a kind of death before it can really begin living. Sometimes, a failing marriage brings a couple to a crisis point at which the Lord offers His marriage-exchange program: “Stop trying to make this marriage work on your own terms, and accept in exchange a brand-new marriage made by Me.”

Unfortunately, many couples rush to the courthouse to sign the marital death certificate (otherwise known as a “decree of divorce”) and then pull the plug while the potential for recovery still exists. Then, after they’ve had time to rest, deal with their own personal issues (hopefully, but not always), reflect on their own contributions to the breakdown of the union, and face the future, they wonder if perhaps they acted too hastily. But, by then, the pain inflicted on one another during the divorce process overshadows any hope of restoration, so they console themselves with a solemn oath to do better next time.

Divorce recovery experts will affirm that a major obstacle to moving forward is a nagging sense of doubt about the past, compulsive second-guessing, reconciling the present with the possibility that past decisions were made impulsively or under duress.

Once Charlene decided to break away from her abusive husband, she began a healing process under the guidance of her divorce recovery group. Continue reading “How Can Marital Separation Save a Marriage?”

What to Do When She’s Ready to Walk Out

02 - Walkaway Spouse 1 Cropped (iStock_000007434507Small)

After twenty-seven years of marriage, “John” suddenly found himself the sole caretaker of a dying marriage, helplessly watching his wife move toward the door, first emotionally, then literally. Her wanting out might have made sense if he had done something wrong, but she offered no insight, other than, “she has been unhappy for 20 years and now isn’t sure that she is in love with him or wants to stay in the marriage.”

John explained his difficulty in a letter asking for suggestions on how to rescue his marriage.

She has told me that there isn’t another man and I believe that this is true. I am devastated and don’t know how to proceed. She is currently getting counseling, but doesn’t want to share information with me or to discuss details of her counseling or her feelings. I have suggested that we seek counseling together and she has told me that she doesn’t want to do that yet. She has asked me to give her time to sort things out, but has been very direct in telling me that divorce is a possible and maybe likely solution.”

Because men detest the feeling of helplessness, they typically spring into action with the best of intentions, only to reap disastrous consequences. First, they chase after the woman they fear losing, which only causes her to flee farther and faster. Then, they resort to begging, which women find even more repulsive. Finally, unable to bear uncertainty for very long, anxious husbands resolve the stalemate by pushing her out the door. Fortunately, John is wiser than most men. He recognized the futility of acting on his instincts.

I am willing to be patient while my wife works through her feelings with her counselor, but I am afraid that she will make a decision to proceed with a divorce without making an attempt to resolve things together. I don’t want to be passive and just have things happen, but I also don’t want to be demanding and drive my wife further away.”

In my book, Redemptive Divorce, I discourage passivity when one’s partner destroys the marriage by stubbornly pursuing sin, but John’s wife has not yet done anything to compromise their union. She is not involved in another relationship, she has not turned to drugs or alcohol, she has not filed for divorce, and she hasn’t moved out of their home. Instead, she has expressed deep dissatisfaction with the marriage and her husband, honestly communicated her emotions, and has even sought Christian counsel. These are positive—albeit painful—responses on her part. In John’s case, a “tough-love” confrontation is not appropriate. However, he doesn’t have to remain passive. Continue reading “What to Do When She’s Ready to Walk Out”

For Enduring Relationships, Respond Rather than React

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You’ve probably seen or experienced this yourself: one person in a relationship does something dramatic to upset their harmonious balance, which prompts the other to react, which in turn triggers a reaction to the reaction. Pretty soon, a series of escalating reactions shatters the relationship into a million pieces, leaving both partners feeling helpless, misunderstood, victimized, and even bewildered. If their relationship survives and neither learns how to behave differently, they are doomed to endure lifelong drama—perpetual conflict occasionally interrupted by episodes of remorse.

Relationships survive when at least one partner understands the difference between responding and reacting. Relationships thrive when both partners learn how to take a deep breath and then respond, rather than react, to the actions of their mate.

What’s the difference between responding and reacting? Consider the following comparisons and their corresponding truths:  Continue reading “For Enduring Relationships, Respond Rather than React”

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”

Legal Myth #5

Those who find themselves the sole caretaker of a dead marriage almost always struggle to overcome feelings of guilt for even considering divorce. And should they actually follow through with divorce, they typically struggle with shame for the rest of their lives. Moreover, these feelings of guilt and self-doubt are often reinforced by family, friends, and church leaders, who sincerely share a strong aversion to the divorce decree. That’s because myth #5 is perhaps the most compelling of all.

Myth #5: A legal decree of divorce separates “what God has joined together.”

 

The truth is, a divorce decree doesn’t end a marriage any more than a death certificate kills a person. Unrepentant sin renders a marriage null and void. The decree is merely a formal declaration in writing of what has already occurred in life.

Consider this letter received from “Karen.” (Naturally, I have altered her name and masked any details that would identify her.)

A little more than two years ago, my husband left me and our two small children Luke and Joy. He moved to a family member’s house in the same town while he continues to see his mistress, who lives in a nearby state. He helps to support her but he doesn’t provide financial support for our children.

What should I do? The people in my church family say that I should be patient and let the Lord convict him of his sin. They have discouraged me from going to court. Should I file for child support? Should I file for divorce?

Please help me pray. I need the Lord’s help. My husband needs to do what is right. Please pray that his mistress will realize what she’s doing to our family. My children deserve a normal life instead of this.

Karen

In truth, Karen is divorced in every respect except in the eyes of the government. In the eyes of God, she has been abandoned and is, therefore, “not under bondage” (1 Corinthians 7:15). That is to say, she is morally free to move on with her life and to remarry if she chooses, just as a widow is no longer “bound” to her husband and “free to remarry” (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Filing for divorce does nothing more than inform the state, “This marriage is over because at least one person, by virtue of his or her actions, has decided to end it.” This document also helps to protect the upright spouse from the consequences of the wayward spouse’s immoral or illegal behavior. Furthermore, it safeguards the interests of the children, who have the least control of anyone involved.

In most cases, and by most standards, the marriage is “over” long before anyone declares it to the state. The mystical union has been treated with contempt, and the covenant has been run through the shredder. Unfortunately, we place such significance on the divorce decree that, if we are not careful, we can allow it to become an instrument of denial instead of a possible means of redemption. Imagine how absurd it would be for a community to refuse a death certificate merely because no one wanted to accept that a person is dead. Meanwhile, the family of the deceased cannot move forward, feeling guilty for “giving up,” yet left alone to care for a corpse as though it were alive. How much better it would be if the community could surround the upright spouse and affirm the reality that the marriage is over, and then commit themselves to helping their wounded brother or sister face the future.

Let us set aside the myth that a divorce degree separates what “God has joined together.” A marriage license does not make a marriage. God joins people together, not the State. Likewise, a divorce decree does not end a marriage; unrepentant sin does that.

Why do you think this myth remains so persuasive in the body of Christ? What can we do to dispel such myths? Until we do, local church bodies will remain powerless to deal with the real problems of people. Let me know what you think.