Standing Up for Marriage

This week's posting is loosely based on the teaching I heard last Sunday week at a local church in Sunnyvale, California while staying with our son James and his family. Babysitting two little boys doesn't give a lot of time for theological reflection but I figure I can paraphrase Pastor C's sermon, and make a few personal comments along the way. I like the sermons at this church, which I visit once or twice a year, because they are meaty, but probably 50 - 60 minutes would be too heavy a meal if I was getting that every week!

The current series is called Helping the Hurting, and seems to be a very sensitive way to handle some tricky issues - doubt, debt, divorce and depression - by seeing them as concerns that occur in our wider community, while acknowledging they will affect some of us personally. Such an arms-length discussion softens the effect of addressing what could be quite a thorny topic, especially in the case of this week's theme - Divorce.

I have only preached directly on the subject of divorce once in forty years of sermons. On that occasion, about ten years ago, I was doing a lectionary series on the Corinthian correspondence, and felt called to wrestle with the issues of marriage and divorce that arise in Chapter Seven. But I was at that stage five years into a parish ministry which included a significant component of pastoral counselling, and was acutely aware of the painful situations of a number of divorced women, and at least one man, who would be listening to me that Sunday. So I focussed on the ancient context of male-initiated divorce, on the Scripture's silence on domestic violence and emotional abuse, and on aspects of personal healing and restoration. I also attempted to explain the Pauline privilege (where the apostle considers a believer may choose to leave a pagan spouse) and the Petrine one (whereby the church of the day is empowered to determine what is or is not included in Jesus' words "except for fornication" in Matthew 19.)

What I did not do was refer to the words of God in the mouth of the prophet Malachi, who says "'I hate divorce,' says the Lord." That would have been too 'in your face' for my counselees back in 1999. This week, however, Pastor C, did use this passage as his springboard for a message on When Divorce Hurts a Friend. He did so because he wanted to underline the paramount truth that God is on the side of marriage, that it was always his idea and that his intention is for it to be a lifelong covenant. He did not go down the track I have seen some contemporary ethical commentators take, of pointing out that people today live much longer, and experience much more radical life changes, than the people to whom Malachi or Jesus were talking, and that today we can fit three first-century marriages into one lifetime. But neither did he suggest friends of those who are hurting should take a dogmatic or harsh approach. He simply counselled us to listen - surely the first calling of a friend - and, where appropriate, to stand up for the marriage.

The context in the US today, said Pastor C, is found in the latest Barna research, which shows that Americans have grown comfortable with divorce as a natural part of life. Among adults who have been married, the study discovered that one-third (33%) have experienced at least one divorce. "There no longer seems to be much of a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage," said the author and researcher George Barna. Interviewers found young adults want their initial marriage to last, but are not particularly optimistic about that possibility.....many are embracing the idea of serial marriage, in which a person gets married two or three times, seeking a different partner for each phase of their adult life." The research shows that the divorce rate for a group Barna defines as "Born again Christians" - people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Saviour, that is still important in their life today - is 33%, virtually identical to the rate amongst atheists. That may be, of course, because fewer atheists get round to marriage, so a larger number of failed cohabitation relationships do not show up. Nevertheless, it is cause for thought that the US which has the highest rate of church-going in the world, also has the one of highest worldwide rates of divorce.

So Pastor C's three point sermon began by enjoining his congregation to find ways to stand up for marriage, not with quick judgments or insensitive counsel, but with compassion, prayer and hope. He acknowledged the deep hurt and lasting damage that can occur in divorce, and in a toxic marriage too. The recent findings about the powerful negative affect of contempt in marriage came to mind. Paul's advice in Ephesians 4:31f helps all of us refuse to recycle hostility or withhold forgiveness: Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

This week I came across the testimony of Michele Weiner-Davis, author and relationship expert whose Divorce-Busting approach to couple counselling has gained a number of awards. Although she does not mention a faith dimension to her programmes, it seemed to me that faith and hope are exactly what she describes as having a life changing power with couples in crisis. After finding that her Family of Origin psychotherapy training did not achieve much with client couples, she spent several years noticing which of her interventions did ratchet up energy and willingness to keep trying. Ultimately, she developed Divorce Busting, a solution-based approach based not on advising people to stay married or pontificating about the impact of divorce, but on teaching couple skills that combat hopelessness. There is hope, she says, even when only one spouse agrees to come to therapy, when one has already filed for divorce, when people seem more intent on being right than on being happy, and when infidelity has driven out trust. The capacity of people to reopen their hearts to each other never fails to move her.

Pastor C told us some positive marriage stories from his pastoral ministry. They inspired and moved me, and reminded me that in that former congregation with all its hurting divorced and separated folk, there were also a number of couples who had been through tough times - financial disaster, emotional abuse, and marital infidelity - and yet who are still together today. Somehow, with the support of faith and friends, they had found the compassion and the hope that brought healing. Others, though, may have experienced what Barna described in an earlier project on divorce: "Many feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing...they find it difficult to continue attending services in the same congregation, ..and they drop out or change churches."

Behind me at Sunday's service was a man whose responses to Pastor C's message were clearly audible. I found it heart-wrenching to hear his murmurs of affirmation and his soft groans. In answer to the pastor's statement, "it can take years for the pain of divorce to heal," I heard him say, "yeah, nineteen long years." During the offering, when all go forward to make their gift, and some choose to stay on the altar steps for prayer, I sneaked a quick look, but he had stayed in his seat. Silently I brought his heart to God in prayer and wondered if I should offer an listening ear. But all sorts of boundary issues screamed at me, and I decided he was in the right place for the Spirit to minister, even if he didn't go forward for prayer. Then in the last two songs I could hear him singing joyfully behind me, and realised his tortuous emotional journey of the last hour had come full circle. Or perhaps the deep compassion I felt had indeed been used to bring new healing and hope.

To Chew Over: How have you responded to friends going through a painful separation or divorce? Have you been able to balance the need to be supportive, with a commitment to supporting the notion of lifelong marriage?