March 24, 2015

God Doesn’t Care About Shells

Gary Thomas — 

God Doesn't Care About Shells

One of my close friends, Dr. Mike Dittman, recently challenged me with a profound statement: “Gary,” he said, “God doesn’t care about shells; He cares about the people in the shells.”

Mike was referring to churches, but let’s apply this to marriage. Keep in mind, Mike is ardently pro-local church. His ministry is singularly focused on local churches and pastors. What he meant by his statement is that if any one particular church goes “down,” God is more concerned about the people who make up the church, not the organizational shell that crumbles. God can build up another church, perhaps even a healthier church, on that very same spot, to become a new shell for the people hurting inside.

Can anyone deny that this is true? Shells—ministry organizations, church buildings, non-profits, schools, Christian publishers—even at their best, are still shells. Some go on to glory. Some collapse into infamy. Some become agents of darkness instead of beacons of light.

God isn’t into shells—He’s into people.

Look at the nations God has torn down and lifted up. Look at the temples He commanded to be built and allowed to be destroyed. Look at the rulers He exalted and then humbled. Look at the churches that flourished and now have disappeared. Tell me—does God care about shells, or people? And shouldn’t we look at marriage the same way? Rome Forum final

That’s why I’ve recently been willing to speak up about the “shell” of marriage as it pertains to divorce. I’ve based a large part of my career and ministry on supporting hurting marriages, trying to build marriages back up. I’ve counseled couples, written books, spoken to thousands at conferences or millions on the radio or television. No one can say I haven’t tried to be faithful to the call to build up and even save marriages. The people who have told me that God used my book Sacred Marriage to “save” their marriage (their word) must number in the hundreds now.

God can and does heal and redeem broken marriages. But some individuals can and do marry evil people who resist God’s Holy Spirit but try to use God’s word as cover to keep perpetrating their evil. Marriage, like a church, to a certain extent is still a shell. If a marriage “shell” is used to allow real people to be abused and hurt, God may well take it down. Keep in mind, in the first century, Jewish women weren’t allowed to divorce their husbands. Jesus fought divorce to protect women who could be easily discarded with little prospects. His comments on divorce were to protect women, not to keep them in a harmful situation. He was caring for real people more than he was idolizing a “shell.”

Haven’t we turned this around a little? When a man preys on his wife and children, refusing to repent, almost laughing that they can’t escape his abuse because he has not been sexually unfaithful and won’t abandon them so any divorce would be “unbiblical,” and then he’s supported by well-meaning Christians who essentially say “the shell of marriage matters more than the woman and children inside the shell,” I think we’ve lost the heart of God.

God cared about Israel more than He cared about their land, their temple, even their freedom. He let plenty of shells crack in order to punish, renew, and ultimately, to rebuild His people. If God will take a throne away from a king, is it too much to think he might take a marriage away from a man, if that’s what He has to do to bring him to repentance?

One man—a serious drug addict and alcoholic—told me that the only thing that brought him to repentance was knowing for certain he would lose his wife and daughter if he slipped up one more time. He even told me, “Gary, if there was a one percent chance I could have both my addictions and my marriage, I would have held onto my addictions. It was only my certainty that my wife was done that made me be so ruthless in doing the work to get over my addictions.”

Of course, I hope any woman (or man) forced into separation or divorce will pray and work toward reconciliation. Remarriage is an entirely separate issue beyond the scope of this post. All I’m trying to say here is that the church shouldn’t enable wicked things to happen to people in the name of preserving a legalistic shell.

This might sound sketchy to some, but I believe God cares about the people in a marriage even more than He cares about preserving a marriage. If a friend or pastor becomes more concerned about preserving a shell and diminishes the people being destroyed within that shell, I believe the weight of Scripture is against that person, not with him.

I don’t want to argue about marriage or divorce in the comments section, so I won’t. I hate divorce. I wish nobody had to experience it. Biblically, it is clearly an absolute last resort when someone has persistently resisted repentance. It is not about escaping an unhappy or less than fulfilling marriage. But I’ve seen some women (and a few men) whose lives (and whose children’s lives) would have been ruined if they hadn’t gotten out. These are extreme situations so they shouldn’t be seen as the rule, but they are real situations and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Perhaps I’m wrong. But what Mike said to me rings true: “God isn’t into shells; He’s into people.”

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35 responses to God Doesn’t Care About Shells

  1. Amen and Amen! Thank you so much for this post! These are the very things God gave me in helping me to know that He did not want me to continue in my marriage with an unrepentant, abusive man any longer. Your words, “When a man preys on his wife and children, refusing to repent, almost laughing that they can’t escape his abuse….” this really hit home for me. My husband knew that I was so committed to the marriage that he could treat me as badly as he wanted to because I wouldn’t leave him. But God began to very clearly show me that He was getting me out of the marriage, and then all of the sudden my husband was all about saving the marriage and saying that I was not following God’s Word….that this was not God’s will. Well, I believe otherwise.
    It is extremely painful, though, to only hear church leaders say that God hates divorce as if that’s all God hates. I know God hates divorce, and so do I. I lived in an abusive marriage for many, many years because I knew God hated divorce, and so did I, but He also hates for people to be mistreated and abused….emotionally, mentally, verbally, etc. He also hates for people to habitually lie, deceive, keep secrets, betray, and slander others, especially when you have vowed to cherish, protect, love and care for those very people. Prov. 6:16-18
    I completely agree that God has a heart for women and children who are being mistreated, and He speaks of it in His Word. He allowed for divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts….to protect women and children. Yes, He cares more about PEOPLE than He does marriages. He cares about the PEOPLE in marriages and sometimes, sadly, that means the marriage ends.
    After many years of trying over and over to make my marriage healthy and good, God very directly and tenderly showed me it was time to move in a different direction and He never once left my side or let me down as He walked with me through the very painful and difficult road of ending my marriage. The process was extremely ugly, but God faithfully continued to answer my prayers for truth to be revealed throughout the process.
    And now the peace and joy and emotional health He has given me is such a blessing in my life.

  2. Thank you!!

  3. Speaking from the other side of the fence, I was that man who “perpetuating their evil”.
    And for a couple of years.. she is a believer, and I was not, at least not at the time.
    She finally decided to separate from me, and this has really given me the time to look at my actions and the damage I’ve caused to my family. I came to find Christ, and have been separated from my family for 2yrs. Now.. we live 700 miles apart. We talk on a daily basis, and visit each other when we can afford to.
    It has been a very difficult road, and I don’t know if we will ever be a family again.
    What I do know is, just like Gary has said, this needed to happen for me to become repentant. I’ll take it a step further and say this needed to happen for me to find God and build a relationship with him.
    I don’t pretend to know what my family’s outcome will be, but I do know that this was apart of his plan to bring me to him. That I am grateful for. The road I was on before was a very dark road, and I had no idea there was any way out.
    Gary, I don’t know if your books saved my family or not, but they were a huge part of changing my thinking and opening my eyes to that brighter road. Thank you for that .

  4. Once men (and in some cases, women) understand that the church is holding them accountable (instead of holding their spouse hostage), they may change their ways and behavior. It is often because they think they can keep their abhorrent behavior and their spouse that they wallow in both.

    Gary, I was with you except for this part above. This is a lack of understanding of a wicked person’s mindset. A person who habitually abuses their spouse is consumed by their own entitlement, and they are wicked and opposed to God in every way. (“the man who doesn’t care for his own family is worse than an unbeliever.”) Exposing their behavior in the church does not usually lead them to repentance or changing their behavior. In those situations they normally either leave the church, or lie to cover up their abuse.

    Basically, if the church understood domestic abusers better, they would realize that the answer is offense, not defense. There is no need to waffle back and forth with evil! i.e. “hey if you shape up for a while, your spouse has to take you back – and we’ll help you pressure him/her.”

    Have courage – take a stand against evil. Trust that God is capable of sustaining whatever marriage He wants to sustain.

  5. I don’t think its an either/or, but a both/and. I truly believe that God is in the business of protecting and loving His children, ALL His children, single and married, AND He is in the business of protecting, growing and nurturing marriages. Sometimes, He can do both. Sometimes the marriage has to be sacrificed for the benefit of His children. But, God can and will redeem both His children and the marriage wherever possible. I believe that is first and foremost His goal and objective. Christian marriages speak too loudly to the world of God’s covenant and His grace to have this be an either the marriage/or His children situation.

    My mother left my father just after I married – I had come back from honeymoon all glowing and happy, and she took one look at me (literally) and moved out my father’s house. And two high profile Christian leaders told her it as okay, God was on her side. Here’s the thing though: my mother wanted to leave the day she got married. All that had happened is that someone finally gave her permission to go based on their view of the Word of God. My Dad was never abusive, not addicted to anything, a bit distant because of his work and not too involved in family life but he was a good provider and father for us and these people who advised her didn’t even have the decency to talk to my Dad (in fact, it is my understanding they didn’t even know who he was). She wanted out, because she was unhappy and wanted more. More that my Dad could not possibly give her. And when she saw how happy I was after my honeymoon, she just left. Not a burden I would wish anyone to carry. It has taken me years to finally understand that my mom’s leaving was not God’s desire. If my mom had been patient, God would’ve redeemed my dad and their marriage (my Dad has since become a Christian and is heavily involved in the church – just what she always wanted). But, she didn’t wait. Now, she is married to a Jewish man, who does not share her faith, and they are battling financially and at the age of 63, she will still need to work the next 20 years to pay off their mortgage. My dad is fully retired and enjoying life at home.

    Being unhappy in a marriage is not reason enough to leave. Battling in marriage is not reason enough to leave. Having a distant husband, an overweight wife, a workaholic spouse, etc, etc, etc are not reasons to leave; they are not reasons to break a marriage covenant before God.

    However, being abused – whether spiritually, emotionally or physically – only the people IN the marriage can truly decide what to do (preferably after receiving counselling). And then know that we are absolutely the most important people to God (as we all are), because He hurts when we hurt. He weeps when we weep. He is with us, He is loving us, He is always on our side. But, whatever the situation, and whatever our circumstances, know that God is always on our side. And He loves us so deeply that I often don’t think we’ll be able to comprehend His love in this world – not completely, anyway.

    And I think that is the most important thing. Love!
    1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

  6. One thing I want to make clear to everyone: it is my belief in the high call of marriage and the horror(and sometimes sin) of divorce that led me to write this blog post. My hope is not for more divorces, but more repentance that prevents divorce. Once men (and in some cases, women) understand that the church is holding them accountable (instead of holding their spouse hostage), they may change their ways and behavior. It is often because they think they can keep their abhorrent behavior and their spouse that they wallow in both.

    We have to be honest: sometimes, seeking a divorce can be a sin. It can devastate a partner who doesn’t want a divorce, when they have done nothing to warrant being divorced. My post is focused on people who have used the protection of marriage as a cover for evil and destructive behavior. God opposes evil, and when one of his institutions is used to protect or assist it, we have turned things upside down.

    My heart breaks over the stories contained in these comments. I am not questioning the choice anyone has made as I don’t know the details of anyone’s story here. I just don’t want later readers to think I have “softened” my view that we need to persevere through difficult or lonely or frustrating marriages. I am addressing what Leslie Vernick calls “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” and would refer you to her book to see if you think you’re in one, or rather just facing the normal challenges of being married to a typical sinner (as we all are).

    • Very good point! Thanks for clarifying.

    • When I left my abusive, alcoholic husband I felt so alone and so afraid. For the past 10 years I have worked through healing of those 24 years of abuse. Always concerned that I was not a Proverbs 31 woman. When I read stories from other abused woman I am comforted. I know that sounds strange, but I just do not feel so alone.

      I have come very far in my healing and I am trusting God to bring me to wholeness.

      I do not support divorce, but I won’t support abuse. I am Free.

      Gary, I appreciate you blog, your books and the recommendations like this one, Can’t wait to get the book. I am in PA and it looks like she’ll is in the area.

      Thanks Again

    • Leslie Vernick’s Emotionally Destructive Marriage was one of the most helpful things I’ve read. It was the first thing that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t crazy. Good recommendation!

  7. Through my tears I say thank you for this post. After thirty years of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, I finally filed for a protective order. When I did that, he filed for divorce. A felony trial is still pending. The ministry position I held at the time ended when I refused to ask the DA to not prosecute as requested by two elders in my church. The healing is still in process and I wonder if I will ever find my place in ministry again…..still the LORD continues to be faithful to me and my son. The pain and sadness is often thick…weighty….hard. Though I was not the one to file for divorce, I now believe there are times when the sanctity of marriage is protected by divorce.

  8. I needed to hear this and read this today! Thank you for this encouragement.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this! I have NEEDED this and been praying for peace about my divorce. I can echo so many of the things already said in the comments. I felt that I had failed God, myself, my family, my kids – and have felt guilty for being relieved that I’m not longer in a toxic relationship. I was married to a narcissist who was emotionally and verbally abusive, not mention never faithful for more than a few months at a time. I wanted out, but didn’t feel like I had a “right” to leave. I sought guidance from priests, counselors, family, but no one wanted to tell me it was ok to get a divorce. I thought I was doing what was biblically asked of me by enduring the situation. I prayed constantly for God to help me figure out what to do. His answer, I believe now, was to remove my husband from our home. He left me and our 2 children for a woman he’d been having an affair with. I am happier now, 2 years from when he left, than I have ever been. After reading this, I feel like its ok to be happy and that my prayers were heard and answered, just not in the way I expected.

  10. So beautifully written, Gary — thank you!!! I’m positive there are many, many Christians who feel you have spoken directly to their situation, me being one of them! I believe many churches are very sincere but uninformed, especially about emotional abuse that leaves no visible scars. I call this The Second Betrayal for spouses who are being told they must endure all kinds of evil despite unrepentant abusers.

    A year after my divorce, it’s still difficult to explain to other Christians that it is actually one of the greatest BLESSINGS God has given me — an escape from years and years of emotional and verbal abuse while being constantly reminded that I did not have “the golden ticket” of affairs or bruises. What joy to experience God’s blessed release!

    One of the final pieces of healing is forgiving the body of Christ — and STAYING IN CHURCH to help others walking the same path. Satan would have us take up offense and turn away not only from church but from God — and this would be a great victory for his dark kingdom. But “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Cor 10:5

    May Jesus be lifted up — in Gary’s ministry, in our marriages, in our churches, even in our divorces! Jesus, be glorified!

  11. Thank you for this, Gary! This could not describe my situation more perfectly. Jenn, it sounds as though we could compare notes as my experience with my now estranged husband (we are in the process of getting divorced) is exactly the same as you are describing.

  12. The church is starting to speak more loudly on domestic abuse, but they still perpetuate shame on divorced Christians. I see and hear things like “you can come back to church even if you’re divorced” – they lump it in with being gay and addicted to drugs. I pray that the blockage in believer’s minds and hearts would be cleared so they could better understand who their God really is. This is such a travesty.
    Thank you for stating clearly that God loves people more than the covenant of marriage.

  13. This is the statement that the church seems to have such a hard time making/supporting:

    “When a man preys on his wife and children, refusing to repent, almost laughing that they can’t escape his abuse because he has not been sexually unfaithful and won’t abandon them so any divorce would be “unbiblical,” and then he’s supported by well-meaning Christians who essentially say “the shell of marriage matters more than the woman and children inside the shell,” I think we’ve lost the heart of God.”

    I have seen a couple instances of this up close and it is heartbreaking when someone uses God’s word to keep someone else subject to them and their on-going mistreatment. And the offense is compounded when the people in the “church” tell them that if there aren’t visible marks there isn’t really any “abuse.” Ironic, when we pass laws to prevent school children from battering one another with words but give adults living under the covenant of marriage a complete pass from the same behavior.

    I hope this article will give the sense of relief to many living under this cloud that the previous poster mentioned.

  14. Anything can be made into an idol that is put before/ahead of Christ, even the creations of Christ. I live in the extraordinary Rocky Mountains, some the Lord’s overwhelmingly gorgoues handiwork. But if I worship THEM and value them above my relationship to Christ, they have become an idol in my life. This happens in/with some marriages: the institution of marriage itself is placed ahead of the God who created it. When abusers abuse- then hide behind the walls of this institution- they have twisted marriage into something it was never intended to be. Gary is right… What the Lord cares about are the individual PEOPLE. He died on the cross for PEOPLE, not marriage. PEOPLE will be in heaven with Him ultimately. Marriage won’t. Thank you, Gary! (And I am a huge proponent of healthy, godly, biblical Christian marriage!)

  15. (Sorry, I meant *your* church leaders and friends.)

  16. I cannot tell you what this post means to me, Gary. I have counseled so many women who were shocked and surprised that God cares more about THEM then the institution of marriage. The relief on their faces has brought me to tears over and over because I, too, used to believe that God cared more about my staying in an abusive marriage then whether or not I should get to live (physically and emotionally). And, as you said, the church reiterated his viewpoint . .. I was to suffer, for the sake of marriage, even die on the inside. How can a woman desire to love and worship a God who says to her, “You have to be abused because that is how important marriage is to me. Oh! And you have to worship me. And you have to suffer. Oh! And worship me.” An abusive marriage that twists Scripture will destroy a woman’s relationship and view of God, leaving her with almost no hope. Heaven doesn’t even sound good when that happens . . .

    A woman told me last week that she never considered that she was more important to God than her marriage but, after she thought about it, it seemed silly in light of God character. These were her words, “I’ve been willing to stay, even if it meant my own destruction because I didn’t want to displease God… Looking at it now through a lens of truth and freedom is helping me to see how messed up that thought process really is!!!”

    My husband, David, and I hold marriage in high esteem. In fact, I love him so much that I have been worried I love him TOO much! 🙂 But, I understand that God loves the person more than the institution and THAT is a God to whom I can devote myself.

    • PS — David is my second husband — my most wonderful husband. 🙂 (not the abusive first husband)

    • Beautifully written! You and Gary both have caused a sudden shift in my perspective. Guilt and shame seem like a comfortable place to live after a Christian divorces, even when I know it is painfully unproductive and far from where our loving Lord Jesus wants us.
      Part of the problem is the illusive front we present for our church family on Sundays. So when a couple end their marriage or a child runs wayward, everyone is shocked. They want to point blame, or take a side instead of plopping down beside the wounded and cry right along with them for a minute….knowing that we have NO stones to throw at them due to our own untold sins.

      I love my marriage today. (It is my second..and last) Now that I know what I know, I want to be the best representation of what a God centered marriage looks like for our kids and for anyone else around.
      When a hurting couple comes to us for prayer or help, we do share God’s design for marriage… now I feel even better equipped to minister as I can share this marvelous perspective. Thank you both for adding wisdom and liberty to my soul!!

      • Thank you for your words, Skye! I hate what you went through but I rejoice that you are now experiencing the beauty of a truly godly marriage! How beautiful!

  17. PS Thankfully, our pastor said he would support me if I decided to separate. I really sympathise with you, Jenn, that church leaders and friends didn’t. I have prayed for God to bring you all the love and support you need.

  18. I’m sure you’re right here, Gary.

    I recently set a deadline for my husband to start restraining himself from emotional abuse and to start trying to get on with me, otherwise I would separate from him. I had prayed a lot about this and thought God told me it was OK to do it. This has brought a transformation in his behaviour (so far). I feel it could be a turning point. But if he hadn’t chosen to change his behaviour, I think it would have been destructive to me and to our children to stay with him.

  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was hurt by almost complete lack of support within my local church. My husband (we’re separated) has fooled many, still attends the same church, and I have almost no contact with anyone. It’s as if I was forgotten, and no one knows or wants to deal with the truth of what really happened. If a woman who faithfully attended church for decades stops coming with her husband, questions should be asked. When the woman goes to the pastors, Sunday School leaders, and friends, she should receive help and support. I didn’t. It hurts, and I don’t think they really know how to handle an unrepentant sinner when it’s brought to their attention. It’s almost as if they can’t believe it, even when presented with proof.

  20. I just want to thank you for this blog. I truly struggled with my divorce and felt God was disappointed in me for it but I also struggled with the feeling that He wouldn’t have wanted me or my children in such a bad situation. My ex wasn’t willing to change so the only way out was a divorce.
    Thank you again for pointing out that God cares about the people rather than the shell.