Thursday, June 11, 2009

Christians and Divorce

Note: This and other posts may cause people to say that I have too much of a vested interest to be objective. The only thing I can say is that I may have a vested interest, but that doesn't make it less true. If truth is measured on a sliding scale of subjectivity, then nothing can ever be true. The fact that I have a vested interest only means that I have struggled with this issue with both my head and my heart.

Many religious people believe that for the past generation, America has been in a moral decline. Whenever conservatives describe this decline, they include the high divorce rate, along with crime and out-of-wedlock births, as prime examples. I believe they are wrong. Dennis Prager tells a story that happened to him when he used to moderate a show called “Religion on the Line.” Each week for two hours the guests were a Protestant minister, Roman Catholic priest and rabbi (different ones each week), as well as representatives of virtually every other faith. One night, the topic was divorce – “What is your religion's view on divorce?” The Protestant minister spoke against divorce and noted that, “people get divorced too quickly.” The priest then said virtually the same thing, and the rabbi agreed. After each spoke, Dennis asked the minister if he knew anyone who had divorced. “Well,” he said, “my brother is getting a divorce right now.” “And do you feel that he is getting divorced too quickly?” Dennis asked. He then explained that his brother and sister-in-law had tried counseling for many years to no avail, and that their home was a deeply troubled one. Dennis then asked the priest if he knew anyone well who had divorced. He responded that his mother had divorced many years ago. “Do you feel that she divorced too quickly?” “Not at all,” he said, adding that the divorce liberated her from a toxic relationship. Dennis then asked the rabbi if he knew anyone well who had divorced. And, sure enough, his parents had divorced many years earlier, and he was convinced that it enabled him and his mother to become happier people because the home was so depressed. This scenario is typical. Whenever people say, “People get divorced too easily,” they mean “other people.”

Of course, many divorced people should have stayed together, just as there are couples who stay together who should get divorced. But social conservatives look foolish when they say that except for adultery and spousal beating (and many reluctantly agree to this because it is not “biblical”), no one should get divorced and that the divorce rate necessarily exemplifies a society in moral decline. It is simply not true. A truly bad marriage is like life imprisonment, and innocent people do not deserve such a punishment. Second, it only takes one person to divorce. Assuming that all divorced people sought their divorce is as untrue as it is unfair. Fifty percent of marriages may end in divorce, but only fifty percent of those wanted the divorce. Third, when there are no children involved, a divorce's cost to society is minimal. Furthermore, I believe it is far better for society to have people marry and divorce than never to marry. When people marry, they tend to mature, and society desperately needs grownups! Fourth, regarding children and divorce, the effects of divorce usually depend on what happens before, during, and after a couple divorces. By far, the worst consequence of divorce is the large number of fathers who voluntarily or involuntarily (because of selfish ex-wives) leave the lives of their children. When both parents stay thoroughly involved in their children's lives, sharing physical as well as legal custody, the adverse effects of divorce can be minimized, and depending on how bad things were prior to the divorce, a child's life can actually improve. Divorce doesn’t screw kids up; screwed up parents screw kids up!

Let me be clear. I believe that most marriages should never come apart; that every good marriage has periods of alienation and anger; that people must ride these tough waves and try to improve their marriage. But I would not lump divorce statistics with crime and out-of-wedlock births as a barometer of social pathology. There are simply too many exceptions to the rule that people get divorced too easily. Like the clergy on Dennis’ show, I feel that almost every divorced person I know (including myself) deserves sympathy more than contempt. Let's vigorously promote good marriages but have no more knee-jerk condemnations of divorce. It is these condemnations, more than divorces themselves, that are made too easily.

PS: I have purposefully left out textual arguments concerning divorce. This post makes a societal point, not a textual one. However, remember my golden rule for interpreting the Bible: Scripture is supposed to make you smarter and kinder. If your understanding of the text makes you stupid and less kind, you are wrong! That principle applies especially to texts like Matthew 19. Be kind and compassionate . . . and smart.


kerrie said...

Equating divorce with moral decline and social pathology may be over the top when trying to understand this dynamic of people’s lives in religious circles. And demanding absolute black and white solutions from people in crisis when we aren’t living their lives is not rational. I too have many people within my family and friends who are divorced adn some who wished they were.

We can take any issues that involve relationships, within the circle of those that follow Jesus, and usually find at the root not moral decay or some of the other things you mentioned but taking our eyes and focus off of our first love. Maybe the symptoms are moral problems but the base cause is deeper. Our hearts wander, we become absorbed in the society we live in, and we begin accepting the world’s views and solutions. We loose sight of how temporary our lives here on earth are. We begin to buy into the beliefs that this life owes us, that we deserve ______, and that if we are to be happy we must make that happen. When I say we loose sight of our first love I mean not our spouse but our Father God. And when I use the word collectively “we” it is because most of us at some point fall into the scenario I’m describing including myself.

If we can point each other back to the Father he can restore us. He can meet the needs that we all so passionately look for. He can cease the striving in us that makes us restless. He can bring healing in our relationships because He can bring peace first to us.

I agree that it takes more than 1 to make a marriage work as it really takes 3 when you include the Lord. But it starts with one. It starts with me and being willing to look first at my own heart, motives and actions and asking God to bring me into His will.

I think rather than condemnation of anyone with issues that they are struggling with including divorce, God calls me to pull that log out of my own eye first asking Him to keep my own heart pure. We all have things we struggle with its just some, like divorce, are more public than others. We need to be in the business of pointing us all back to the Lord, rather than pointing out each others faults.

Anonymous said...

The high divorce rate may not be the disease, but it is definatly a symptom of the real disease, selfishness.

Marriages usually end because of selfish acts and additudes. Sometimes only on party is guilty of the selfishness, sometimes both parties are equally at fault.

There is a correlary relationship between divorce and the social decline. The social decline in this country is self-centered. The idea of moral relativism and the charachteristics of the "post-modern" world are centered around self... my truth, my view, my thoughts...

Ryan & Julie said...

Always remember Satan gives you his best 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Julie P.

SPAUL said...


Charles North said...

I published the above comment from "SPAUL" despite my ban on anonymous comments to illustrate what I mean when I say that scripture ought to make you smarter and kinder. This person's understanding of scripture has made them stupid and unkind, so they must be wrong! Plus, they are rude - all caps is the equivalent of shouting.

Anonymous said...

Where does SPAUL get the idea that this blog is trying to justify anything? There is a difference between dealing with the reality of the result of sin and condoning the sin. We, as Christians, have to learn how to deal with the reality and not hold a forgivable act against a person for the rest of thier lives.

Charles North said...

Thanks Mark. I get the feeling that self-righteous people will always throw that in my face. That's just a part of the struggle against "tyranny over the mind" that this blog fights against.