Spiritual cul-de-sac

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How the church fails the divorced

I never expected to be a divorce statistic. I confess that I clung to a particular and private hubris: I thought that because my husband and I were ordained, we were immune to divorce. After all, didn’t I as a pastor understand the spiritual aspects of marriage better than most? Surely my faith life was such that my marriage could not fail.

Yet seven years after my wedding I found myself struggling to make sense of a lost marriage. I learned that a strong faith does not guarantee a strong marriage. I also found that divorce had an unexpected impact on my own spiritual life and my relationship with God. It was as if a firestorm had cleared away the forest, burning down the trees of my self-deception and hubris. I found myself in a landscape where it was impossible to hide from the roving eye of God. Life in this new landscape was barren at times, and yet the ashes nourished growth.

Despite the warm and loving support of family and friends, few truly understood what was happening to me. Deep spiritual questions plagued me. When I married, I believed that it was God’s will for me to be in this relationship for life. Was I wrong? Had I failed God? Could it be God’s will that a marriage end? What did God want of me now? There were few people with whom I could discuss such questions. I couldn’t share the yawning grief that would suddenly bloom when I stumbled on my husband’s handwriting scribbled in the margin of a book. I couldn’t explain the persistent questions about who I was without my spouse. And I couldn’t describe how I was wrangling with God and questioning my faith. The spiritual isolation was profound.

Over time I met and spoke with other people of faith who were divorced, and I began to wonder if there were parts of this experience that we held in common. Were any of the spiritual struggles the same? How did divorce affect their understanding of God? Was it possible to grow spiritually through divorce? My investigation into these questions led me to research and write about divorce.

I considered the role of clergy and congregations in the process of a member’s divorce. How could congregations reach out to and embrace those going through divorce? What could clergy learn from hearing the diverse voices of those who had been down this road? They receive little seminary training for the spiritual and theological questions that arise from divorce. In my case, I learned more from speaking with those involved in divorce. Their struggles, questions and stories, along with my own experience and reflections, helped me see my role as a pastor more clearly.

If and when divorce happens, it usually comes as a surprise. I have yet to meet a married couple that expects to get divorced. For most of us, the marriage vows are part of a sacred ritual surrounded by scripture, prayer and blessing. The liturgical language seals the commitment, declaring that “the two shall become one” and “those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.” Our words reflect the teaching of scripture and are spoken with reverence and awe. We light unity candles or pour sand, treasuring the symbolic gestures and visuals that mirror our words. We make vows with the utmost sincerity; we mean the words we speak.

To me, this was the most mysterious aspect of divorce. How could these words spoken before God no longer hold any truth? It’s a question that’s rarely discussed. Instead I heard unsolicited and unwanted answers to the unasked question, “Why did my marriage end?” Well-intentioned people would say, “Every marriage has its struggles,” as if my divorce came about because we couldn’t agree on the children’s bedtime. The underlying message was, “you took the easy way out,” “you’ve given up” or “you obviously didn’t try hard enough.”

These people assumed that divorce is a kind of cheating; in other words, if we had taken our marriage seriously enough, it would have worked. This assumption glosses over the fractured, damaged and sinful reality of human life. Divorce among God’s people is a fact. Even though we strive for a spiritual ideal, marriages can fail. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, divorce is not easy, and for most of us it is not entered into lightly.

Divorce is the final and painful destination of a relationship that has broken down irretrievably. How and why that breakage happens is often a mystery, but both brokenness and mystery are sometimes exacerbated by the responses of religious communities. Perhaps congregations and clergy fear that extending compassion for individuals during divorce offers a tacit support for divorce. Their reluctance to engage may reflect an unspoken fear of contagion. Whatever the reason, congregations and clergy often leave divorcing individuals alone.

My research uncovered stories of rejection by fellow Christians and a stunning lack of empathy from congregations. Participants also spoke of being ignored by clergy, judged openly and even encouraged to leave the church. This is sad but also deeply ironic. Divorce is the time when we most need our brothers and sisters in faith, the time when we crave compassionate companionship and a sense of inclusion and acceptance. This is a time when our faith may be challenged, when the providence of God seems thin and when our own guilt grows and blooms.

Divorce is the broken place. We may have experienced betrayal (our own or our spouse’s), humiliation, rage, despair and hopelessness. It’s the place where God’s presence is most needed and where a well-placed word of grace can help someone to heal.

Perhaps congregations and pastors struggle over the divorce issue because it presents an empathy dilemma. People have a better understanding of how to cope with death or a malingering illness. In these cases we know who the victims are. We can draw from cultural and theological scripts. Divorce, on the other hand, lacks a script. It can go on for years (think custody battles) and is rarely ever simple. With few exceptions both partners share the responsibility for a divorce, and that responsibility can be messy and discordant.

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