When a roly poly is stretched out and moving forward, he is one of the most flexible animals on God’s green earth. But when he balls up to protect himself he becomes the opposite of flexible. Stretched out, he can maneuver through dirt and grass and under rocks. Rolled up, he is incapable of mobilizing at all. He is just a hard ball of crustacean trying to protect himself.
When Jesus talks about divorce in Matthew,* it makes me think of the roly poly. Jesus says, “When you ball up to protect yourself, you default to a hard heart. And in a marriage, a hard heart can be a killer.” That “rolling up’ we do can manifest as anger, emotional withdrawal, dishonesty, manipulation or even bitterness. It is us, backing off emotionally until we feel nothing and have lost all sense of possibility.
Stretched out and moving forward, we put ourselves in line with immense possibilities. In a self-protective crouch, we are incapable of seeing the options.
In Jesus’ word about marriage and divorce, he reveals what he knows about human nature. The one who spoke us into being knows how we are made — our weaknesses, how we cope, how we tend to protect ourselves. He knows our tendency toward self-protection leads us in directions we don’t intend to go.
And in his great kindness he offers mercy even at the dying end of a marriage. Not because it is God’s best but because sometimes it is the best we can do.
Sometimes marriages will fail. I believe this is exactly the point Jesus was making in Matthew. In a fallen world, tough things happen, things that are not God’s best. Sometimes it will happen because of our own fallenness; sometimes it will happen in spite of our best efforts at restoration.
What then? We are limited but we serve a God of immense possibilities. In the middle of something that feels like a valley of dry bones, what is our right response?
Acknowledge what is. Recently I had a conversation with someone whose marriage is teetering on the brink of brokenness. The comment was made: “I have to decide whether I want to be married to this person or not.” To which I replied, “Too late. You already are.” Married is married. Vows are vows. At the very least, be honest about what is.
Remember: there are a million steps between your unhappiness and divorce. When things go wrong, we tend to default to “fight or flight” mode and neglect all the options available to us. Keep in mind that we serve the most creative Being in the Universe. Surely he can come up with a solution or a way through that we haven’t yet considered. Is counseling an option? A conversation with your pastor? What about a weekend away? Or a weekend apart (but in safe places)? Spend time listening to the Holy Spirit and writing down every option you hear. Don’t discount any of them; allow God to open up the possibilities for you. A crisis will often narrow our perspective. Allow God the chance to widen it again. Remember the roly poly and stretch yourself. You can’t move forward in a defensive crouch.
Let Jesus referee. When face-to-face communication stops working, try knee-to-knee communication. Bring Jesus into the conversation through prayer. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence. If praying aloud isn’t comfortable, sit together and pray quietly. Start somewhere.
Remember that your circumstances are not the foundation of your happiness; God is. By focusing on circumstances, we make others responsible for our joy. Others must behave in a certain way in order for us to be at peace. If, on the other hand, we’re able to focus on what Christ has done, we find ourselves rooted in something more stable. Root your emotions in your relationship with Christ, especially in times of uncertainty. This change in perspective may be the key to moving us from hard-heartedness to whole-heartedness.
Is there room for divorce within a Christian worldview? Yes. When infidelity happens, the trust that is broken may be irreparable. When there is abuse, it is both our right and responsibility to remove ourselves from the abuser (some boundaries are holy; this is one of them). When others are acting immorally or illegally it is an act of mercy and maturity to hold them responsible for that. To let a person persist unchallenged in their sin is not healthy for either of you.
We will also get divorced for reasons that aren’t so noble or clear-cut but even then, we must remember that divorce — while it is not God’s best for us — is not the unforgivable sin. We can rebuild, restore and become new people as we forgive and take responsibility. Even when we miss out on God’s best, we remember that we are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are people who sin in the hands of a merciful God.
Praise God for grace enough to cover all of it — the good, the bad and the painful.
* They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” — Matthew 19:7-9