It would be sad enough if it were simply one person’s story of feeling unloved by the church during or after divorce, but it isn’t. What makes it truly sad is that I hear the same story over and over and over, and not from people at one church, but many churches. This tells me it is not a problem with a church, but the church.
Some of it is simply people believing lies. I know that in my own experience much of my hurt was my own sensitivity filling in the blanks. Also, many, many, many people treated me with the utmost respect and kindness. Most people, actually, were ridiculously fantastic. Yet, at the end of the day, when every single person I know that has gone through divorce comes to me with the same stories, it says something. It says what most of us already know, that we don’t, as a church, do a great job of loving those who have gone through divorce.
Thing is, I know it is not the intent. I know in my heart of hearts that divorce is tough. It is complicated, messy, fraught with misperception, and so scary to most that not a lot of thought is actually given to it, apart from the fact that it is scary and we hate it. Just like anything, it is very tough to love what we don’t understand. If you haven’t already, you need to take some time to ask yourself some questions about divorce, what you believe concerning it, and how you communicate that in order to achieve what you desire, to bring glory to God by loving those hurting.
Here are some ideas that I have on how to love those like me whom have gone through divorce. These are my observations. They are not scientific, nor definitive, but they come from experience, both my own, and that of many others. Hopefully you will at least be provoked to thought. So, with no further delay, here are some thoughts on how to show love to people whom have gone through divorce.
1. Don’t define them by their divorce.
Notice the wording in the title above. Notice I didn’t say “Divorced people”, or “The Divorced.” Sounds like zombies. THE DIVORCED. Dum dum dum! Why did I do that? I did so because, even though the term is grammatically correct, it is definitive. Let me give you an example of what I am meaning.
I recently visited a church. Just like pretty much every other church, this church greeted and invited all visitors to fill out an information card so that they can record your attendance and reach out to you. I filled out the card with the usual information: name, address, email, etc. At the bottom of the card was a section on marital status. They had five boxes: married, single, separated, divorced, widowed. I checked the box for divorced, but immediately found frustration in the question. I just kept thinking, “When do I get to not be defined by this? Does this thing that I did not do not want get to be my label?” I tried to reason with myself that perhaps they were wanting the information to reach out to those in need, but that didn’t make sense either. There are thousands of issues to address; yet none of them are asked. There wasn’t a box for cancer survivor, infertile, drug addict, alcoholic. There and then I decided that unless it is a legal document, I am going to be checking the single box, because while I have gone through divorce, that is not my definition. Single is.
Hear me say it again. This may sound silly to you, but the point is one everyone can understand. Words have power. Your words have power. This church meant zero ill will. You don’t have to intend to hurt someone to do so. True affection desires to be considerate of the feelings of others. It is impossible to do completely, but it is the heart that counts. There is a lot of value in trying.
The other way that we don’t let people move on is by hurting for them beyond what is appropriate. There is a season of hurt that is reasonable. Yet, after a certain point that expression of sorrow no longer comforts but constricts. I remember how much it meant to me those first few months when people would hurt with me, mourn with me. They would see me, and their hearts grieved. It showed on their faces. It let me know I was loved, that people cared enough to hurt for me.
After about nine months though, it started to get a little weird. I had healed a lot. I was ready to move forward. A smile was on my face. Contrary to popular Christian myth, divorce is not death. Life was filling with good things. I was ready to move on. Some others were not. Certain people in my life kept giving me the face of grief even after I had told them many times how happy I was, how life was good. I don’t know if they just couldn’t believe it, or what. I don’t know. I do know that it made me feel like they weren’t okay with me moving on, like they wanted me to still be sad, still defined by this awful thing. Perhaps they did. One or two people seemed downright incensed that I was not miserable “only” a year after being left. Let it go. Maybe you would be miserable for years if it happened to you, maybe not. There is no arbitrary number of appropriate grief.
When the person shows they are getting better and moving on, LET THEM. Not doing so tells them you are defining them by that occurrence. Replace it with any other hurt and it makes sense. You wouldn’t make a rape victim check a box on an attendance card, nor would you make them feel like they hadn’t hurt enough when they showed signs of healing. You’d praise God and let it be.
2. Use the word “convinced” or “believe” instead of “is”
You might think that divorce, separation, and remarriage is straightforward Biblically, especially if you’ve stayed in the same church or church denomination for most of your life. Most churches don’t come to the table with much humility. I think there is a pressure to have answers, and we start to use the word “is” when we shouldn’t. There are some things in the Bible that are abundantly clear, and there are many things that are not. Divorce is not an easy subject, no matter what you’ve been told.
Saying that is like saying the issue of God’s sovereignty and free will is simple. You can say that only with a great sense of arrogance, for it is simply not true. I am convinced of what I believe on all of the above. I am not advocating being wishy-washy, but simply being aware of my own limitations. I do not have the definitive answer on divorce, separation, and remarriage, nor God’s sovereignty vs. free will, but I am convinced in what I do believe. I also hold that belief with an open hand, meaning I am willing to be shown I am wrong.
If you don’t believe me, just go ask fifty different people what they believe is Biblical on any of those above subjects and you will likely get fifty different answers. I had no idea how complex it was until I was under the gun myself. Counseling was all around me during that time, as there should have been. One of the most vexing parts of that time was trying to decipher what God wanted, as literally everyone was telling me what was Biblical and not, and the funny thing was no one agreed completely, and everyone was even using the same verses. It was a beautiful time of honesty between God and I, where I eventually had to take in all the wisdom given to me, and take it to Him and listen.
If you want to tell someone what you believe, great. Please do so. People who are in the throws of it will likely seek much counsel. It is a tumultuous time. Tell them what you think when it is appropriate. That is good and right. Again, I challenge you. When you do this, use the words “convinced” and “believe” instead of is. They share the firmness of your belief alongside the humility of a limited being that really doesn’t know the answer 100%. Your words will be received so much more fully. Even if you are right, by lacking humility your words will likely fall on deaf ears.
3. Admit that you don’t know what is like, nor do you know what you would do.
If I had a dime… Man, this happens so much! Happened to me, and happens to every person thus far I have spoken with who shares my experience, and it hurts deeply. Because there is such a wide array on what the Bible says and doesn’t on the issue, there are going to be disagreements, and that is okay. We’re not all going to have the same belief. Many of the beliefs shared will be deeply held, and it is always personal with marriage. No one takes it lightly, nor should they. This doesn’t mean it is okay to be rude.
A friend recently told me how he was considering joining a church. Yet, he has struggled to do so, as he doesn’t feel welcome there due to the pastor’s rhetoric over divorce. This particular church has a very tiny window, almost not, of when it is acceptable to divorce and remarry. My friend married a woman who was sexually unfaithful, and abandoned him. Yet, in one sermon the preacher shared that he didn’t care, that he was tired of hearing from those who have gone through divorce and were wanting to remarry. They would come to him seeking favor and such desire, and he had no intention of giving it. “People always come to me and tell me that I don’t understand,” he said. “I tell them the same thing, ‘You married her, bro., now deal with it.”
Does that sound loving at all to you? If not, this kind of attitude is espoused regularly at churches. If he wants to believe what he does, so be it. My issue isn’t about his beliefs, it is about love, and how to express it. That is not tough love, that is rude. Truth is, he doesn’t know, and if you’ve not experienced the person you love change on you and leave you then you don’t either. It is hard to fathom, but there weren’t any warning signs. Can you imagine that? It is hard, but it isn’t like when I married Kathleen there was a sense of danger to it. She was a pastor’s daughter, and I felt one hundred percent secure in my marriage all the way up until right before she actually left. No one that knew her, no one, would have thought it even remotely possible, not in a million years. Yet, those same people all watched in horror as it unfolded, she changed. Every good, Christian marriage holds such trust, yet statistics show that trust is only well placed half the time. Think about that. Don’t be arrogant and think that everyone who has been left are idiots. If you met the people I have, your jaw would drop. Some of the Godliest, loveliest, most devoted people you will ever meet have been left.
You don’t know the pain that accompanies being abandoned by a spouse. It is not just hurt. When listening to others, I find a common expression of the feeling. It is that of violation. It is a molestation of the heart and soul. So, when you thump that Bible and tell that person that just went through that hell that they need to go hunt down, wait for, and cling to the one that left them, realize that what you are asking is asking them to want to sleep and be with the person that has violated them most deeply. Don’t make it sound easy. Heck, maybe don’t say it. We can get into thoughts on the Bible and divorce another day. For now, approach those who have gone through divorce with humility. If you want to share a belief, go for it, but do so with meekness. Do so especially if you are telling them something difficult. If you believe the person doesn’t have Biblical freedom to remarry, then you are surely free to express that, just do it in love, and really feel the weight of your words. You just speak them and walk away. For them, it is a decision that affects everything. Don’t let your dogma trump your ability to show love.