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Divorce: When the Church Adds Insult to Injury

I was talking church with a friend over coffee, and he alluded to some difficulties in his congregation.

“Uh oh, what’s up?” I asked

He said they’d discovered that one of their elders, years before attending the church, had been divorced. He and his current wife had been members at the church for a number of years now and he was an elder in good standing, but they didn’t know if their bylaws would allow him to continue serving in that capacity. I was shocked.

I asked, “What if you had found out he had murdered someone instead?”

“Oh, then there’d be no problem.” He replied.

We both laughed, but we both knew his response was no joke.

Divorce is hard enough as it is

As most who have experienced it will tell you, divorce is a living hell. Even the ones that aren’t acrimonious are full of crippling sadness, hurt, frustration, anger, and remorse. It’s like death with no finality: death of a family, death of a dream, death of a relationship, and death of a lifestyle. It’s one of the most painful things some will ever experience.

On top of this terrible injury, the church often heaps agonizing insult:

Fault-finding—One of the first things someone going through a divorce has to deal with is the hunt for a guilty party. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Therefore, a divorce has to include infidelity for it to be legitimate. People feel absolutely comfortable prying into the painful particulars of someone’s marriage to figure out who this unfaithful person might be, or to convince you that you have no acceptable grounds for divorce.

Ostracism—For the most part, churches don’t often come right out and say, “Maybe you shouldn’t attend here anymore.” What often happens instead is people stop calling. They stop reaching out. Once people think they have fault figured out, they’ll begin to isolate and marginalize that person. If they can’t figure it out (or occasionally even if they can), they’ll disassociate themselves from both. At your most vulnerable moment, your community disappears.

Lectures—With the best of intentions, people will give you marriage books, fill you in on snippets of sermons they’ve heard, or just give you their $.02 about what you should or shouldn’t be doing—despite their limited knowledge of the particulars.

Discharge—As is the case with the story at the beginning of this post, it’s not unheard of to have responsibilities taken from you when you’re going through a divorce. It’s not always done to ease the stress of the divorcée; instead it often feels punitive. In many of those churches, you won’t get those responsibilities back—ever.

Gossip—This may be one of the most difficult things to endure. You come to church for sanctuary and you can feel that it’s no longer safe. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on and spreading stories that are mixtures of truth and fantasy. It is the most excruciating game of telephone.

Insensitivity—When you’re divorced in the church, you’re constantly privy to people talking about the divorced as second-class citizens. After Seattle won the 2014 Super Bowl, Quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife announced they were getting a divorce. Instantly, he went from Christian poster boy to Christian pariah.

Try being a divorced person in the same room where someone is talking about someone like Russell Wilson getting a divorce. Every time you hear, “Well, there goes Russell’s credibility,” you’re reminded of your status as a bad Christian.

Some of my favorites I’ve heard over the years are have been gems like:

“You’re surprisingly spiritually sensitive for someone who’s divorced.”

“I don’t judge you; I just know the value of keeping my promises.”

Can we just be reasonable?

The church values marriage. It’s not only a covenant between two individuals; it’s a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church. The church needs to build strong, healthy marriages. But there has to be a way to way to value something without resenting or hurting those who fail.

I have no question that God hates divorce. But couldn’t it be that God hates it for what it does to people? Doesn’t he hate it for the pain it causes? Couldn’t his feelings be hatred for the painfully destructive nature of a divorce and not, as we tend to assume, just indignation for people who would have the audacity to break their vows?

One thing I don’t see in Jesus is scorn for people who hurt, and people who fail. The whole reason the cross exists is because we are all, on some level, infidels and failures.

I think we can build and encourage strong marriages without heaping condemnation on people who, for whatever reason, find themselves dashed against the rocks.

This isn’t a justification for divorce

When push comes to shove, we know nothing about someone else’s marriage. I think you could go so far as say that only God understands all of the complexities that influences whether a couple succeeds: upbringing, family of origin, culture, communication styles, personalities, spiritual considerations. You can do your best to prepare a man and woman to marry, but there are innumerable ways for them to fail each other.

We need to make church a safe place to have a bad marriage. Maybe part of the problem of divorce in the church is the heights to which we idealize and standardize perfect Christian marriages. There are so many couples desperately bailing water while struggling to navigate their troubled marriages—scared to tell anyone they’re sinking.

This doesn’t make divorce acceptable by any means. It is always a tragedy. It’s ironic that many of the divorced among us are the church’s biggest advocates for the value of good marriages. They’ve seen the other side. They understand the horrors of divorce more than anyone else possibly could.

Divorce is terrible, ugly business. It’s a heart-wrenching failure.  But it’s not an irredeemable situation that falls outside the cross’ reach.

Showing the divorced compassionate empathy and tender care does not mean you condone failed marriages. 

Marriage is an important promise. Sometimes people fail. I believe we can champion the first truth while showing grace for the second.

Rescuing Theology from White European Males

Do a Google Image Search for the word “theologian,” and you’ll scroll through page after page of white men (punctuated by the occasional non-white Orthodox icon or otherwise out-of-place image). When we think of many of history’s greatest theologians they tend to be white European males. I don’t know why so many of my white male counterparts get so defensive when I bring it up, but they do. Read more

21 Signs You Might Be a Terrible Christian

I had a discussion with someone today who told smugly told me how much he loved when Mormons came to his door, so he could put them in their place. I said, “Aren’t those usually young kids just trying to fulfill their required mission?”

“Yep,” he said. “And they need to learn something about messing with a true Christian.”

It was on the way home I was thinking about this list. Read more

Radically Normal: An Interview with Josh Kelley

radically normalJosh Kelley and I have a lot in common. We both live in Washington state, we both have a background in the same denomination, we’re both pastors. One area we differ is that he’s a published author with Harvest House Publishers, and I’m not.

If I didn’t know how much we had in common before starting Radically NormalI would’ve figured it out pretty quick. The characters and experiences he describes gave me a profound sense of deja vu. My background is awash with hyper-spiritual, holier-than-thou types (many of which have since shipwrecked).

In Radically Normal, Kelley uses these stories as a jumping off point to remind us that many super Christians aren’t, and that the most profound thing we can do is live a radically normal life of simple obedience.

I talked to him about his book today: Read more

Overcoming the Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath

wrathUnless you’re dead (or a big fat liar), you get angry. Don’t worry—it’s a perfectly reasonable emotion. We don’t do wrong by getting angry; it’s just that when we’re angry, we often do wrong. Paul expresses as much in his letter to the Ephesians, “In your anger, do not sin.” (Eph. 4:26)

But when we give shelter to anger, when we nurse and indulge it, when we give it a long lead, it becomes wrath.

Where envy resents when someone else does well, wrath is hellbent on ensuring that its object suffers loss. And it isn’t always through physical violence—it can be a desire to see someone lose face and suffer humiliation. Read more

Emotional Bullying: Using Guilt to Lead Kids to God

guiltI was talking to a friend who, although raised in the church, is pretty antagonistic toward Christianity. He was talking about his childhood and how Sunday school and VBS constantly beat into his head his personal responsibility for Christ’s death.

Not in the “Christ died for your sins” vein, but more like, “It was your sins that drove the spikes into Jesus’ hands and feet.” The way his parents and church hammered (no pun intended) into him his personal responsiblity, made him feel mortifying shame.

It worked, he was a devout little kid. But he wasn’t propelled out of a sense of gratitude or wonder. No—his driving motivation for being good was humiliation.

As he got older, he walked away from the whole thing. I know so many people who have had the same experience. When they get older, their guilt turns into anger and frustration. Read more

4 Stupid Substitutes for Humility

humblebragWhen Ben Franklin turned 20, he was determined to become virtuous. He put together a list of 12 virtues (frugality, sincerity, justice, etc.), and worked out a system of regularly focusing on one virtue a week while tracking his progress as he went.

He showed his finished list of values to a minister who pointed out that Franklin was missing humility—the queen of all virtues. Ben added it to the list bringing the total to 13.

After spending many months working on the virtues, Franklin’s friend asked how he was doing with humility. Franklin responded, “I can’t boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”

If you’re acting humble, you’re not

Virtues are a lot like garments; you can put them on on without owning them. It’s tricky because we don’t just fool the people around us by playing dress up—we fool ourselves.

Humility’s much easier to manufacture than it is to internalize, and as long as we’re more focused on humility’s appearance, we’ll never experience its transformation. Read more

The Cross Isn’t a Brand—It’s a Mission Statement

duckdynastyConstantine was certain that God had come to him in a dream. The first “Christian” roman empire had looked up at the sun and witnessed a cross-like apparition along with the words, “ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” (In this, conquer).

Unsure of the meaning of this vision, Constantine went to sleep a couple nights later to be met by Christ who explained to him that he must use the sign of the cross against his enemies.

History tells us that Constantine marched into the Battle of the Milvian Bridge as a conqueror under the banner of the cross. Because obviously, when a warrior people hear they should use something against their enemies—it must be to vanquish them. Read more

Ask Jayson: Finding the Good in Terrible People

typekeysDear Jayson,

I need some insight and help regarding Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Can you describe the meaning of each word . . . ie . . . true, honorable, just . . . and how to daily put this verse to work.

This passage truly messes me up. What if someone has done many abusive things to you, or grossly lied about you, or hurt someone you love? It’s true they are a bad person. Its true they are toxic. Yet . . . what else. Noble? Praise worthy? Not sure how to correctly put this verse to work. Seeking because I want its promise.

Perplexed Read more

Overcoming the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

Pie_eating_contest_Taking gluttony seriously is more than simply wringing our hands about the Western obesity epidemic.

Although the idea of gluttony is often tied to food, it’s much, much bigger. Simply put, gluttony is the act of taking something acceptable, useful, or even necessary and indulging in it in an unhealthy manner.

With this in mind, gluttony includes, but is not limited to, things like: Read more


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