Over the last few decades, the picture of family life has undergone dramatic changes. The pervasiveness and normalization of divorce are just two of these changes.
Taking as their starting point the Bible’s unequivocal words, Christians have always affirmed the permanence of marriage that has no other limit than our own non-permanence: “Till death do us part”. In the past, divorce was rare and it seemed natural to talk about it as a failure of character. A hard-to-erase stigma hovered over those who were divorced. Those with stable families were, in contrast, praised and allowed to say anything about those who had missed the target. This black and white judgemental thinking, however, would soon show its limitations.
Nowadays, even in communities of practicing Christians, it’s hard to find someone who has not been affected by divorce, either as their own experience or that of a relative or friend who is separated. This ubiquitous reality—condemned in the past by conservative Christian communities, in a detached and hard-line manner—inevitably changes our destiny. The question is: do we have the maturity to correctly understand the meaning of these changes?
The revealed meaning of marriage
First we need to examine more closely the meaning of marriage. If we see divorce as almost unavoidable, we dilute the meaning of the commitment and admit, even at the moment of the marriage vows, that, should things not go well, divorce is a viable option. The hope that this casual approach will diminish the practical and emotional damage of the break-up does not spare the respective people of long-lasting suffering.
At a time when the fragility of the marriage relationship and the losses caused by its breakdown are ever clearer, we need to strengthen the meaning of marriage in the context of our views on life and God. The theist and Trinitarian pattern of marriage becomes a response to the relativisation of marriage. God exists in a relationship and this is why He also created us to be in relationship with each other. “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness….God created mankind in his own image” (Genesis 1:26-27). Man and woman thus created by God were united by Him in marriage and blessed.
Therefore, we answer the calling to marriage not just because of a natural feeling, or for personal aspiration, but also as a commitment to reflecting the likeness of this relational God.
The understanding and development of our likeness with Him not only excludes isolation, separation, infidelity or divorce, but also helps us to value the support God offers us to constantly move towards this ideal.
Although the experiences of married life include countless aspects related to our biological, psychological and social nature, it is our spiritual nature which ultimately decides how and why we behave as we do. The highest goal does not relate to us, but to God. Our wellbeing is accompanied by a right relationship with God: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:11-12).
Fatigue, habit, the exaggerated preoccupation with one’s own satisfaction, and countless others emotional faults and theological errors, can divert us from this ever-ascending path. Even when we are wrong and we suffer losses, we have the opportunity to correct our experience so that it reflects God’s image in the marital relationship.
The miracle we (do not) hope for
Many years ago I tried to help the family of friends who were having a hard time in their marriage. The young wife had discovered to her astonishment that her feelings for her husband had grown cold. She no longer knew what what to do, so she left him. She agreed to come back for a talk and I visited them. The husband kept a noble and constructive attitude in order to repair the relationship. We spent several hours together and talked about the natural fluctuation of romantic love and about the unconditional love God wants to place in our hearts if we are willing to surrender control. I got the impression that our talk had not achieved anything. In time, however, the miracle happened and the family was reunited. Not long after, a tragic accident led to the wife’s death. After the funeral I stayed back with the husband, now a widower, who made a confession of immeasurable value to me: “How we loved each other in the beginning was nothing compared to the love we experienced after that crisis and the rebuilding of the relationship.”
When we decide to end a relationship because it no longer satisfies us—as well as when we remain in a relationship, but stop believing and investing in it—we cannot imagine the miraculous, truly happy experiences we give up. For centuries, literature and then movies have idealized and idolized romantic, passionate, fiery love. This love, however, usually lacks the resources to transition into a long-lasting, constructive, mature love. The true and usually untold love stories are different. They belong to those who wished to move from the best love human nature can generate, to the love inspired by the likeness with God.
Beyond the best plan
It’s very hard to talk about both marriage and divorce at the same time. When forced to say what He believes about divorce, Jesus Christ insisted on talking about the permanence of marriage. “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate'”(Matthew 19:4-6).
Like in any area of existence, however, God’s initial plan was thwarted. As husbands and wives, we sometime come to hurt each other and, sinking deeper into hostility and disbelief, pride and ambition cause us to make catastrophic choices.
Even in the midst of this disaster, it is important to look to God and know He does not change. Even when it seems like the pot we broke cannot be repaired, we must rebuild our spiritual attitude and continue to be governed by the divine model: to receive God’s forgiveness and extend our forgiveness, to act for the other person’s wellbeing, as much as we are able to, to respectfully protect God’s image in those with whom we have built a family. “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer. …Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:6-8, 10).
Biblical reason and spirit
Read without faith, even God’s words are made to mean what He did not intend. Consequently, a legal approach to the issue of divorce has always been sought over time. One of the two, often the one with a privileged social status, invokes the “biblical reason” for the separation (adultery) and considers himself entitled not only to divorce, but also to remarry.
However, one must be careful, because such an attitude hides a lethal pitfall. The “biblical reason” cannot be contrary to the biblical spirit, and the biblical spirit is the spirit revealed by God through Jesus Christ. And what do we see when looking at God? That He takes advantage of our mistakes to abandon us, without giving it a second thought? Had it been so, who would be able to stand before Him? God had justice and power on His side, but He chose to use just His love in His relationship with us.
The biblical spirit means patience, humility, forgiveness, hope. Talking about that part of the chosen people that was always prone to disobedience and idolatry, God reveals, in astounding words, His thoughts, feelings and intentions: “‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).
“There comes a time when we can no longer elude the consequences of our theories, when all we thought requires living, when all our ideas and chimeras turn into experiences – and then the game ends and the suffering begins.” (Emil Cioran, Notebooks)
The Bible offers much hope when it comes to sin: God is prepared to forgive any sin and to hurl it into oblivion. I don’t believe divorce is an exception to this rule. But, when we seek to be self-righteous, when the illusion that we are right leads to arrogance and contempt, when judgement overpowers mercy, I am afraid we deprive our own souls from the touch of forgiveness and salvation.
If we can learn anything from Scripture, it is the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing in our lives, can function properly when governed by the laws of our human nature. Even if a thing seems simple and natural, we need to look to God and understand what He is after.
Is marriage still a step in the future for you? Let’s thank God for the youth, for the beauty, the attraction, the emotions, for all that makes the life of a young person beautiful. But let’s not count on them! “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). We will renounce the usual way of looking at marriage as a bet that we must win, aiming at the most beautiful, and the most promising person, which will make us know happiness. “But as for me, it is good to be near God” (Psalm 73:28).
Are we in the period when we can’t wait to have children and everything is going well, the mother is healthy and the pregnancy a pleasure? Very well. But let’s not consider ourselves masters of the target. God has often made the life of His best friends hard in this respect, in order for them to think through what it means to bring children into this world and to know that these children will in fact be God’s property and that He alone has a right over them. Hannah, Samuel’s future mother, after many tears and prayers, after much unhappiness, reached the point where she said: “I give up. You, Lord are more important for me than having children. Still, if You decide I should get pregnant, in order for it to be clear that I have made my peace with this and I want nothing for myself, I shall not keep him but I will give him to You and let him live in the sanctuary.” It was only then that the child came. In any kind of situation we have to choose between the natural and the spiritual. Usually, this means the longer, harder, narrower path.
And if, at the other end of human experience, I conclude that I have committed serious mistakes, ruined my family, pushed away those who loved me, I will surrender to God who knows how to deliver those who place their hope in Him.
My nature will want to impose itself, some friends will urge me to fight, and lawyers will make promises. But I know that the good choice is different: “But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light. Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the Lord’s wrath, until he pleads my case and upholds my cause. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness” (Micah 7:7-9).
People, churches even, have tried to write precise rules to be followed, imitating judicial procedures. It’s very hard. Not only is each case unique, but procedures cannot generate the appropriate spirit. On the contrary, they discourage it. Only when we understand how God treats us, only then we will make His attitude our own. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of pretending we are Christians? We have no other option than to assess what we know of God and humbly ask Him to help us act accordingly.