In the throes of legalism, we have come to “deify” the institution of marriage. We’ve taken one scripture, Malachi 2:16, where God says, “For I hate divorce…” and created whole doctrines around it. I won’t disagree at all that God hates divorce. I hate divorce as well. I’ve been through one, would not wish it on anyone. No one should have to go through that wrenching of the heart, and I believe that nearly every man or woman who has children and loves them goes through a period of personal hopelessness and self-blame for the breakup.
Nevertheless, marriages break up and divorce happens; even to Christians who love God and want to serve Him with all of their heart. WHY?
So what is the legalistic stance on marriage?
If it fails, it’s the husband’s fault. Since the husband carries the “greater responsibility” in marriage, he carries the bulk of the
blame in failure. Add that to all the other responsibilities and requirements on a Christian husband/father (house must be in
order, children must be “perfect”, etc.), you have a man who literally cannot “win” unless his wife is perfectly submissive and supportive. If you take that away, the husband cannot succeed whatsoever, for his the simple fact that his wife is not in perfect submission is his fault – for if he was the “perfect” husband, she would fall right in line.
Actually, things are better for the husband if the wife is an unbeliever. If she leaves, he has a scriptural “out” and can later remarry, but if she is a believer, there is no “out” except for “unchastity”. Even then, there are those who would throw even more “rules” around the marriage.
I remember judging men harshly for allowing their marriages to fall apart. Never mind that my marriage was a wreck. The real truth behind my judgment was this: If I have to remain miserable, so should you. After all, I had to stay married, no matter how miserable I was because God would hate me if I got a divorce, and I would never be able to minister again. Therefore I was living under this deception:
God would rather have me be married and miserable than divorced and happy because He cares more for my marriage than He does for me.
So many men and women live under that deception and are miserable because they feel trapped. They don’t have the guts to scream at God and tell Him how unfair it is, but they silently and hopelessly believe that God must hate them to keep them there in their private hell.
Eventually, these people who truly love God – if they didn’t, then why would they stay in this misery? – will question their loyalty to God. They come to the point that they finally ask the question, “Is my marriage more important than me?” They have entertained self-destructive thoughts since the only “legal” way out of their marriage is through death (remember, “until death do us part”?). However, there is even a catch there; if you are trapped in legalism, suicide is an immediate ticket to hell. So, they exist between a living hell and a dying, eternal hell.
Now what can they do? They are to the point that they realize that what they are doing and have been doing does not work. They have prayed, cried, fasted, and fought, and nothing has helped. Sure, there have been short periods of calm in the constant storm, but they feel like they are dying. They try to put on a good face for church, but the façade is failing them.
Here’s where everything finally hits. One of them realizes that what they are doing has never worked and never will work, but they don’t know what will work. They know that they have to throw off the yoke of the The Law (legalism), but they don’t have a good replacement. The only other way they know is the way of the world for dealing with marriages that are bankrupt: divorce. This is not in any way a decision that they make lightly. Everything inside them tells them that they are at fault if they are the one initiating the divorce (and their spouse will feel at fault for letting things get that far), and they are the scum of the earth for even considering it. But they see it as their only hope for a life free from The Law.
That explains the problem. What happens next?
It really depends on the people involved and even more on those around them. The person who has finally thrown off the yoke of the law I will now call the person seeking freedom. This freedom-seeker does not yet know about TRUE Freedom in Christ, so they are naturally drawn to either the world’s concept of freedom, known as lawlessness, or some milder form of legalism. The more they are judged by their friends, the easier it will be for them to totally throw off “religion” and head straight to the world. There are many good lessons to be learned “in the world”, but the dangers to the freedom-seeker often outweigh the benefits.
So what difference can those around the freedom-seeker make? They can do as so many did for me: Love, Pray, Accept, and Wait
The freedom-seeker feels not only unloved at this point, but so very unlovable. They may tell you that it’s their spouse’s fault, but inside they are blaming themselves. You MUST love them unconditionally. The only way they will ever fully understand that God loves them unconditionally is if His people demonstrate that to them. (It’s called “Modeling”) Sure, God hates sin. He hates lying and envying and jealousy and every other sin just as much as divorce. Please understand that the point He was making in Malachi was very pointed to the complete lack of respect His people had for marriage and it’s sanctity at that time. In other places, Father tells about other things that He hates, so divorce isn’t this particular hatred He has.
You have to pray fervently for the freedom-seeker that Father will reveal His TRUE NATURE to them and that they will see Him for who He is. When I was running from God and at my very lowest, He spoke to me so clearly that I tell people if it were any clearer it would have been audible. He told me, “I hurt for you and I hurt with you, but nothing you could ever do will stop me from loving you.” That is the message He wants the freedom-seeker to hear, understand, and ACCEPT.
You must accept the freedom-seeker as they are. Like Father, you must hate sin and what it has done to them, but understand the lesson of Romans 7 where he says that when He does the things he shouldn’t do, it’s “sin that dwells in me” that is guilty. He, because of the cross, has been made righteous. The freedom-seeker, like Paul, is righteous because of Jesus. Again, you have to model Father’s love and acceptance of them since they can’t see it from Him yet. You must not try to push them back into the marriage at any point.
Once you see them opening their heart to Father, you must not try to jump-start His process. He knows what He is doing, and sometimes it takes time. Sure, you are confident that Father wants to put the marriage back together. Good. LET HIM do it. Your job is to model freedom for them. If you try to add any conditions to that freedom, you have just re-introduced legalism to them and even if they don’t run from you, they probably should. Part of walking in freedom is letting others love God and letting God tell them what He wants them to do. You must focus on the “be” part of freedom, God will work on the “do” part.
What you will discover in this process is that once they see freedom for what it is and Father for who He is, he will move much faster than you can imagine. Once He is in His place in our heart and we know our place in His, He loves to pull out the stops and get things “right”. And we will never be disappointed with His “right”.