When I was 7 years old, my dad came into my bedroom, sat beside me on the bed, and told me that he wouldn't be living with us any longer. It was not a total surprise; he and Mom had been fighting a lot, and Dad had not been home much the past few weeks and months. But television, movies and children's books had not prepared me for stories with unhappy endings. My heart had believed that somehow, some way, it would all work out.
And so, when my dad finally told me he was moving out for good and that he and Mom were getting a divorce, I couldn't hold in the tears. I sobbed uncontrollably and buried my face in a pillow. Nothing my dad could say would be able to fix it.
And the worst part of this story with an unhappy ending was that it poisoned all the other stories for years to come. From playing sports to fixing things, from learning about girls to learning about God, growing up provides a boy without a dad no shortage of reminders. For most of my teen years, I felt unfinished — and the world seemed more broken and jagged than it should for any young kid.
As I grew older, one thing was certain: I would never let divorce happen to me. I promised myself that someday when I got married, no matter what happened — no matter how hard things got — I would not allow myself to get a divorce. But as I write this, I do so standing on the other side of my own broken marriage.
My former wife and I met at church while serving as youth ministry volunteers. We knew each other for a year before we began dating. When we decided to get married, we attended pre-marital counseling sessions with a pastor at our church. And we talked about everything that could go wrong. After the wedding, we moved so that I could attend seminary and take a job at a well-known Christian ministry. We were both committed to the Lord — or so I thought.
A few years later, after some disappointments and some dreams left unattained, my former wife announced that she no longer wanted to be married. She said she thought we'd both be better off single. I told her that I didn't believe in divorce — that it's not even an option — that no matter what was going on, we could work through it.
For months, we tried — or I should say, I tried. She had her mind made up. Nothing I could say, and nothing our pastors or counselors could say would change her decision. Finally, one Saturday, while I was drinking my morning coffee, my former wife came into the living room and revealed that she had committed adultery and was filing for a divorce.
I had tried to love her like I thought Jesus would, but she had decided not to look back. And so, though I had promised myself I would never be divorced, that Saturday morning I discovered that divorce is not always something a husband and wife must agree on together.
The Weed That Chokes a Marriage
I share this story not to proclaim my innocence. I certainly was not a perfect husband. And although I tried to love my former wife the best way I knew how, I could never do so perfectly. For whatever part was mine, I take full responsibility.
Neither do I write this to frighten young married couples or those hoping to be married someday. Divorce is a scary prospect, and the marriages around us often appear very fragile. With each year or two that passes, it seems another set of married friends I've known has called it quits.
Looking in from the outside, it might appear that divorce is inevitable for some marriages. But I don't think that's true. I believe that apart from Christ-like love, divorce is inevitable for every marriage.
I know what you're thinking: There are plenty of happy non-Christian marriages — and there are also many folks who know Christ and still get divorced — so allow me to explain:The Bible says that every single person is born a sinner, and without saving faith in Jesus Christ, our situation is desperate.
Paul's letter to the Christians at Ephesus describes our condition like this:And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV).
Now just imagine putting two people like that in a marriage — people who live out their selfish ambitions while gratifying sinful natures that can never be satiated. It's a recipe for divorce if I ever heard one. In fact, you may know some people who live this way, and they're miserable. They manipulate and fight with each other to get what they want, and each one feels wronged and unloved by the other. Selfishness is like the centrifugal force that you learned about in science class: It pulls a couple apart from the center.
In his book, The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller writes, "Marriage brings out the worst in you. It doesn't create your weaknesses (though you may blame your spouse for your blow-ups)—it reveals them" (139). Later he adds:
And there's the Great Problem of marriage. The one person in the whole world who holds your heart in her hand, whose approval and affirmation you most long for and need, is the one who is hurt more deeply by your sins than anyone else on the planet (162).
That is why I say that without the love of Jesus Christ, divorce is inevitable. But there is hope.
The Curse and the Blessing
In that same letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21), and then he tells married couples how to do this: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord" and "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (vv. 22, 25). His instructions get at the root of our sinful nature. The different commands He gives to husbands and wives reflect their different roles in marriage, but the antidote for selfishness is the same: active, pursuing love.
When a man puts his wife's needs above his own, he is loving her like Jesus. And when a woman does the same for her husband, she, too, is showing Christ-like love. This is true when a couple knows Jesus Christ, but it's also true when a couple does not know Him. When, apart from Christ, we live sacrificially for another person, we are imitating Jesus — even if we don't realize it.
In a marriage where both people are constantly taking, there will soon be nothing left. But in a marriage where both the husband and the wife are willing to give up their rights and wants for the other, love will abound. The couple's bond will only grow stronger over time, no matter what comes.
"I believe God uses marriage to expose the less desirable parts of ourselves that can easily stay hidden when single," says Christian counselor Peyton Knight. I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about divorce and the issues she sees in her practice. "The more we are able to experience and receive God's love when those less-than-desirable bits of ourselves are exposed, the more we are transformed and our ability to be selfless is increased."
This world is broken — and so is every last one of us. Marriage gives a husband and a wife front-row seats to the other's sin. No one gets to know your ugliness better than your spouse. As we've seen, that can be a tremendous curse. But it can also be a blessing. No one has the power to show you the love of Jesus better than someone who, just like Jesus, knows the intimate details of your sin and loves you anyway. That's grace and mercy lived out in every embrace, in every hard conversation, and in every kiss goodnight.
The difference between the curse and the blessing lies in how closely we're walking with and imitating Jesus. Before we say "I do" or even go out on a first date, we can take big, bold steps in the right direction by putting our relationship with Christ above all others, and by looking for a potential spouse who's doing the same.
Even with all the pain she sees in her office, Knight tells me, "I wholeheartedly believe in God's goodness through divorce and the hope of His redemption for the people who walk through it." As I write this, some years after my divorce, I am remarried. My incredible bride is sitting across from me, and my newborn son is asleep down the hall. Our Father is able to bring the most beautiful flowers up through scorched earth.
Marriage is a gift from God, part of His good creation right from the start. But divorce, like death, disease and heartache, is an invader on this planet — a symptom of the disease of sin. And we must live like citizens of another world if we're going to avoid falling into one of the most common traps of this one.