I’ve just finished writing a feature article for Everyday Christian about stepfamilies, which left me pondering the vagaries of divorce and remarriage.
According to one expert, 60 percent of American children will at some point live in stepfamilies. These stepfamilies-parents and children alike-face enormous emotional and spiritual pitfalls.
Stepfamilies often are formed because of previous divorces.
Which brings me to dueling observations.
First, the Bible and Christian leaders through history have long opposed divorce, as well as remarriage after divorce, for reasons that appear wise when you consider the consequences of broken marriages and the difficulties encountered by those who remarry.
Even Jesus, who we remember for his pronouncements of love, forgiveness and mercy, implied that divorce followed by marriage to another partner amounts to adultery.
It’s important to note here, though, that Jesus said this among a series of similar pronouncements designed not to regulate our behavior so much as to demonstrate that none of is good enough to earn God’s favor by our own merits.
Jesus also said, in the same sermon, that anyone tempted toward sin should cut off his hand or pluck out his eye, and that anyone who looks at another person with sexual desire has committed adultery in his heart. We understand those warnings to be hyperbolic–no sane Christian literally pokes out his eyes; we can’t stop ourselves from feeling a twinge of lust for an attractive member of the opposite sex. Thus it’s hard to argue that Jesus meant the segment about divorce and remarriage literally, either.
Anyway. My second point. We Christians live in a society–and in families–in which divorce is common. I lead a church in which I’d estimate half the adults have been divorced. Many have subsequently married someone else.
When you look at marriages and divorces up close, the picture gets murky. I’m not speaking in generalities, but of actual human beings I know and care about.
I’ve seen people stay in bad marriages where, frankly, I think they’d be better off to go their separate ways. In some cases, one partner is a mean-spirited, self-absorbed tyrant. In others, one spouse is a hopeless addict or an incurable philanderer or a financial maniac whose irresponsibility has driven the family into poverty.
I’ve known other men and women who’ve found themselves divorced even though they tried everything to save their relationship-prayer, faith, psychiatry, long-suffering. Sometimes one spouse refused to take part in the divorce, hoping until the last document was served to preserve the union. They were divorced against their will.
It seems awfully judgmental, even cruel, to announce that these people now have to live alone the rest of their lives, because remarrying is a sin. Most people crave a marital relationship. God himself apparently created this very human desire. Even though I’m a minister who tries to follow the Bible, I can’t bring myself to tell divorced folks they can’t ever remarry-or to believe they always shouldn’t. I have a hard time believing Jesus feels that way.
At the same, I know that if these folks do wed again, they face an uphill battle. Two-thirds of them, statistically, will end up divorced a second (or third, or fourth) time. If that happens, their children, too, will suffer even more than they’ve already suffered.
I tend to look at it like this. The Bible often shows us what God’s perfect plan is for humanity. For marriage, it’s that couples remain chaste until their wedding, then stay together lovingly, faithfully and as devoted servants until they’re parted by death. That sounds wonderful.
But we live in a sinful, fallen world, and we’re sinful, fallen people. That’s not an excuse; it’s a fact. Despite our diligent efforts, we tend to fall short of God’s perfection. We rarely reach the ideal. We can try, and we should, but sometimes we’re going to fail.
If we fail in a marriage, we must accept our share of the responsibility before God, our ex-spouse, our children and our fellow Christians. We need to seek counseling, which can help us understand what flaws within our own psyches caused us to contribute to our marriage’s collapse. We should give ourselves several years to heal and forgive before we even think of entering a new marriage.
Nonetheless, we may not find ourselves willing or able to remain single forever. We may decide that attempting another marriage is preferable to all the alternatives. If we do remarry, we must do so carefully, humbly and prayerfully. And we should trust God that, even if we’re making another mistake, his unbounded grace will sustain us through this failure just as it sustained us through the first.