Heather married a Christian man who seemed zealous to serve God. He gave generous amounts of money to God’s work and even dreamed of eventually doing a reverse tithe—giving away ninety percent of his income and keeping ten percent for himself.
Today he’s still involved in missions work, still gives away a lot of money, but he sins against God in a particularly painful way every single day of his life. I don’t think he realizes it, but he does.
You see, he had an affair fifteen years ago, divorced Heather, and married the woman with whom he had the affair. Over a decade later, he and his new wife look like a model Christian couple and command a lot of respect, at least from humans. No one wants to judge them because the divorce happened so long ago.
From God’s perspective, things might look a little different.
Heather lives in a modest apartment and now must keep working well into her sixties. Understandably wary because she thought she already had married a “solid Christian man,” she has lost confidence in dating guys that seem fine on the outside because who knows what’s within?
Every day that she is alone in that apartment the sin of divorce hits her afresh. Every day she has to keep working into her sixties, the sin of divorce is renewed. Every day she tries to navigate the pain of adult children who have to “split” time between their parents—meaning she sees them about half as much as she otherwise might—the sin of divorce keeps hurting.
Heather is God’s daughter. Do you think God looks at what has happened and keeps happening to his daughter on a daily basis without anger? This is not to suggest that divorced women are helpless, weak, or unable to fend for themselves. Many do quite well for themselves and even thrive. In other instances, however, divorce can essentially create a “social widow” who becomes newly vulnerable. Her financial options are limited. Her ability to remarry may be compromised.
In the cases of these “social widows,” ex-husbands should take note: according to Scripture there are two demographic groups you don’t want to mess with or oppress, and one of those groups is widows. “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused…” (Ex. 22:22-24a)
When a divorced woman, a social widow, cries out to God, “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice” (Deut. 10:18).
Society has changed quite a bit in the past four thousand years, often for the better, so not all women feel so vulnerable in the face of divorce. But God isn’t just about his daughters surviving; he wants them to thrive and anyone who stands in the way of his plans can expect appropriate discipline and opposition.
Men, when we marry a woman when she is at her youngest, strongest, and healthiest, and then pursue a divorce because we’ve gotten bored with her or think we’ve found someone more compatible, or younger, or any frivolous reason, it’s not one sin. It’s a daily ongoing sin. Every day you leave your ex-wife in less than cherishing circumstances is a day you have reneged on your vows and newly offend not just your Heavenly Father, but your Heavenly Father in Law.
Women, the same is true for you, as you’re married to one of God’s sons. The man may have disappointed you, but he’s still God’s son. He may have earned less than you thought he would or had more baggage than you realized, but there is no unbiblical divorce that’s a single sin; it’s a daily, on-going sin. While the Bible doesn’t have the same verses about widowers as it does about widows, it does paint Christian husbands as “dearly loved” by God and therefore under His watchful eye.
I mention “unbiblical divorce” because I’m not talking about those forced into divorce to flee abuse and behavior that was slowly destroying them. In those cases, divorce is a cure, not a weapon. In my upcoming book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic Relationships my friend Megan Cox describes her divorce from an abusive and unfaithful husband as a “gift from God.” I don’t want this post to add to the hurt divorced women and men already feel when God has given them refuge. This post addresses a particular kind of divorce, when divorce is used as a weapon instead of a cure.
It’s like chemotherapy: I hate that anyone has to undergo such drastic treatment, but I thank God for the lives chemotherapy has lengthened. It would be the height of cruelty, however, to give chemotherapy to someone who didn’t have cancer and who didn’t need it. Divorce is just like that: terrible, but sometimes necessary, and outright reprehensible if used when not needed.
We live in a culture of binary thinking—when I challenge divorce, I’m going to get pushback from those who feel I’m challenging them because of their own divorce. I’m not. I’ve spoken plenty about the church standing up for women in abusive marriages, in my books and several blog posts such as Enough is Enough. But sometimes, to be honest, anti-abuse advocates are so (understandably) sensitive about defending divorced women they become angry when I mention that most divorces are still a sin, as if I’m judging them. I’m not.
What I am saying here is that unbiblical divorce isn’t just a sin—it’s an ongoing sin. It’s the difference between an unmarried couple that gives into passion one night and has sex and the couple that decides to live together. Spiritually speaking, those are two different situations. Divorce is like the latter.
So, just as I advocated for those who have needed to find refuge in divorce, let’s remember that unbiblical divorce isn’t without consequences. I hate seeing women (and some men) left lonely and aching while some other spouse has “moved on” and finds full acceptance and respect without honestly considering not just the harm they’ve done, but the harm they keep on doing.
Ann Wilson, co-author with her husband of The Vertical Marriage, mentions several conversations with people who got divorced rather young, remarried, and now, looking back, realize they could have and should have made the first marriage work. They were just frustrated and disappointed, and the second marriage convinced them that no marriage is easy. We need to find a way to gently encourage such couples to hang in there and make it work. Without shaming abused women to stay in a destructive marriage, we also have to remind couples that the marriage covenant is a serious one that is designed by God to be broken only by death. We’re in a new phase of the church where, in order to avoid appearing judgmental, we may be becoming too lax and too “tolerant” of divorce for reasons that could and should be fixed. This grieves the heart of God and makes us weaker people while creating a weaker church and hurting children who grow up in broken homes.
So what if you’re that guy or that woman, who divorced your spouse when you know you shouldn’t have? If reconciliation is possible (i.e., if remarriage hasn’t occurred), you work your way back, as much as your ex is willing. If they’re not, you wait. How long? I can’t answer that in this blog, but any responsible answer is measured in years, not months (again, I’m not talking about those who escaped abusive marriage or sexually unfaithful marriages when it might be unwise and unsafe to ever return).
Men, if remarriage isn’t possible, I believe you owe it to your ex to make sure you’re not living better than she is. If someone has a bigger house (or a house instead of an apartment), it should be her. If someone drives a newer car, it should be her. If one of you has to keep working later in life, it should be you. You made a pledge that was between you, your wife, and God. The state’s legal dissolution doesn’t negate a covenant made in the sight of God. Repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry; it involves making things right, as much as it is in your power to do so.
I still stand by my blog post “Enough is Enough,” on not shaming women to stay in abusive marriages. In rare circumstances divorce can be a cure, but far more often it is used as a weapon without considering the ongoing sin that such a divorce represents. As people who made our pledge before a God whose memory is long and whose passion for his children is fierce, let’s live our lives accordingly.