For many the Bible is laced with ambiguity. Loopholes or blind spots seem everywhere, which routinely get used to justify sticky moral behaviors. For the laypeople, certain versus and even whole chapters may leave us wondering how we should think about what was just read. Several of Jesus’s parables are no clearer to me than quantum physics. I still haven’t got my head round that one about the mustard seed.
But among the many contentious and often highly debated ‘thou shall or shall not’s’, divorce doesn’t appear to be one of those uncertainties. At least Jesus is red-letter clear about what divorce is and what it isn’t.
The Queen and I recently joined a small group comprised of spouses from other blended families. Our church’s method for doing this sort of thing most resembles speed dating. Hundreds of couples are packed into an auditorium, classified by zip code, where they navigate cheese trays, awkward conversations, and the clock hoping to find enough other couples who will like them, or pity them, to make a quorum and agree to meet religiously for the next year or so.
We didn’t go that Thursday night looking for a blended family group. We were pushed that way. As the Queen and I met other couples the conversation quickly got to the topic of kids. It would soon come out that she and I were on our second marriage with a blended family. An immediate double take and a reserved ‘Oh, really’ followed. A haze fell over their faces. We had just announced to have the plague and were now to be avoided at all costs. I can only guess this was to prevent our divorce cooties spreading onto their own fragile marriages. Feeling like the ugliest girl at the dance, upon the announcement, “blended families wanted up front’, we found others with similar symptoms. Our Wednesday nights are now booked indefinitely.
To be a divorced believer isn’t easy. While the majority of churches, usually through coercion more than choice, accept divorced members with lukewarm affection, none go anywhere close to making divorce part of the sacraments. Nor should they. Divorce is never to be celebrated or honored. And while there are vast disagreements on how much to tithe and if that should be on after-tax income or whether your gay cousin can teach Sunday school, there is a near universal consensus that to divorce is to sin and to remarry, by most measures, is to break that most inconvenient of commandments, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’
It was this in mind when during one of our first meetings I jumped into the deep end and asked our new group mates, “How do you reconcile your faith and your divorce?” I had thought on this for some time; how to resolve the underlying tension of being a believer while, as Jesus clearly stated, committing adultery? This was an anxiety I hadn’t been able to harmonize since realizing I wanted to marry the Queen; due in part to reminders at every turn, in countless sermons, and numerous Christian forums, that God despised what I had done. This hadn’t been a spur of the moment, uncontrolled, emotional act like flipping off the driver who cut me off or using a four letter word when stubbing my toe. This was a carefully thought out decision to do what I had known since Vacation Bible School was expressly wrong.
In truth, I didn’t always have this restlessness. To confess, none of it mattered for a long time after my separation. When I finally conceded to her wish for ending our marriage, I was more interested in how long it would take to find my first date and what color to paint the walls in my new home than feeling any concern at displeasing the Creator of the universe. God and faith remained on the same shelf they had been since I started college. But as often the case, time and circumstance inspired a return to the faith of my fathers and when I took God off the mantle I began asking myself questions never considered before. How would being divorced affect my faith? Would remarrying only make all of this worse?
In some respects, I believed I had an out (back to using that ambiguity to one’s advantage). One loophole in particular appeared to work in my favor; making remarriage acceptable in cases of infidelity or abandonment. But would an emotional affair count or was penetration also necessary? Should I ask my former wife if she and her trainer ‘did it’ in hopes of removing all doubt and easing my moral conscious? Yet should I make it over that hurdle there was still my future wife to consider. Perhaps worse than being an adulterer is marrying one. Then there was this verse, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances.” 1 Corinthians 7:16. Was it the technicality we needed; or did leaving only allow for physical abandonment? Would emotional withdrawal give the same moral hall pass?
The answers that night led me to believe I wasn’t the only one struggling with this dilemma. While each story was different the affects were not, we all seemed to have similar ‘thorns in the flesh’. Unsatisfied, I began wrestling with the question more. “How does one reconcile faith and a divorce when there doesn’t appear to be answers?” And as I thought more on this, with a renewed vigor and fresh motivation, something occurred to me.
As humans we are wired for harmony. We want things to be settled, figured out, and all question marks removed. We want to know we are ‘good’ with whatever or whoever is around us. We wish our lives to be more or less in a perpetual state of zen. But how many of us have lives like that? We all have tensions we can’t rid ourselves of completely; work and life balance, diet or exercise, to name a few. We never actually resolve those tensions; we only manage them. It becomes a dance between what we should do and what we want to do. But if done correctly, we can use that tension to create a fruitful and balanced life.
What if this tension of divorce and faith is like so many of those others? What if it can’t be reconciled, because it shouldn’t be reconciled? What if, like the tension between saving for the future and enjoying the moment, it’s put there for specific reasons?
Here’s what I came to, this tension I’ve been trying solve isn’t going away because it isn’t supposed to go away. It’s placed here for my benefit and, I now believe, as a blessing. It’s not a reminder of past mistakes and failures, but keeps me hungering for God’s grace and the need for humility. It’s not something to be broken free from, but is to be embraced for the profit of my new marriage and wife. This tension is to be used so I can become a better husband and father as I seek out ways to do both differently this time. Ultimately bringing God glory out of my past weakness and sin.
The more I marinated on this the more it come home for me. And my conviction was reinforced in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Like Paul discovered, God is using this tension, this thorn, to keep me dependent on His Providence and humble in my attitude. When something in my marriage goes wrong and alternatives begin to look tempting; when it seems like I have other options, that tension, like a hammer, awakens me to the memory of the dangers and what happens when doing things on my own terms instead of relying on Him.
I’m convinced this tension isn’t a curse, but instead is His Grace. It isn’t something to be reconciled and harmonized. This thorn is here for my benefit, God’s glory, and I dare not remove it. As Paul and I learned, the struggles we want most to be rid of, may be there because they’re what we need most of.
(This essay is dedicated to that small group of fellow travelers we gladly gave up our Wednesdays for – and every other divorced believer.)