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Till Death Do You Part: When Your Marriage is in Trouble, What Do You Do?

March 31, 2016 No Comment

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by David Faerber

Just over two decades ago I resigned from the pastoral ministry. Why? I ended up getting divorced. Some suggested I might be a better pastor for the experience—better able to speak to the challenges of others in similar situations. That may have been true. But I personally did not feel, on the basis of Scripture, that I should continue as a pastor.

As I have seen for myself, as well as in the lives of others, to lead a truly Christian life—not a perfect life, which is impossible—requires a willingness to be humble and repent of your sins every day. As Lutherans we correctly believe that each morning we should again drown our old Adam in the promise given to us in our Baptism. That, along with Luther’s Morning and Evening prayers and the grace of God, have gotten me through to face each day even all these years later.

Since my divorce I have been given countless opportunities to share in the burdens of many men and women. St. Paul says we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). These men and women have sought me out looking for both understanding and wisdom. Over the years the guilt that the “innocent” parties—and I use this term loosely—have felt is deeply burdening to their souls. It plagues their waking hours. Some have shared how their spouse no longer wears their ring. Other individuals have shared how they sleep alone, either in the matrimonial bed or in another room weeping, like King David describes in Psalm 6:6. I, too, have understood the depths of such sorrow. It is deeply frustrating and difficult to face such sin in this world and nevertheless attempt to remain faithful.

Where do I start?

Recently an acquaintance asked me for marriage advice. As always, I advised the person that they should talk to their pastor—and that’s the advice I offer here too. But my acquaintance wanted my personal advice too, so I listened and shared with them what wisdom I could. I use plural pronouns here to protect this person’s identity: they are aware I am using their story, in broad-terms, as an example in the hopes it might possibly help someone else’s marriage.

I listened intently as my acquaintance explained how frustrating and challenging things had become in their marriage, only asking clarification when needed and letting other things pass by. Once they had explained everything, I proceeded the only way I could: using sin and grace as my guide. When it comes to addressing a marriage in trouble, the first step begins with approaching your spouse with a humble and repentant heart, apologizing for whatever known or unknown sins you have committed that have brought things to this point and asking for forgiveness—however humbling it may be. This is the way it should be in all relationships, whether with a spouse, a friend, a family member, or even God Himself.

When it comes to addressing a marriage in trouble, the first step begins with approaching your spouse with a humble and repentant heart.

In the case of my acquaintance, such humble repentance had been offered and was rejected; the spouse said no wrongs had been committed against them which needed forgiveness. That response means one of two things: the first is that the one seeking forgiveness truly hasn’t done anything grievously wrong in the spouse’s eyes to create marital discord. The alternate possibility is that the spouse has become hard-hearted and simply has no desire to forgive. The latter becomes a faith issue as one spouse sins against the other. Such difficulties, if left unaddressed, can cause significant strains to the faith of both spouses.

If a failure to repent and forgive is not the source of marital difficulties, then we are left with more difficult questions. What is your family’s faith life like? Is your spouse Christian? Could they be having a crisis of faith or even be walking away from it completely? The challenges facing families with only one believing parent are well-known; it’s one of the reasons we take so seriously St. Paul’s admonition to not deliberately become “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14) with an unbeliever.

When faith falters, then confidence in God’s Word and commitment to marriage vows made before God can lose their meaning. In that kind of instance, we can begin to rationalize away our vows in favour of personal desires. Someone saying today, “I no longer feel in love,” or “I don’t want to work at it anymore” is attempting to rationalize away their commitments—to justify sin. And rationalizing away your sins before your spouse, or worse, against God, isn’t new. Our original parents Adam and Eve did it in the Garden of Eden. We have learned well what they did to each other and to God!

In this kind of situation, we might ask—as my acquaintance indeed asked—what do I do? The answer is a difficult one. In the face of a faithless spouse, we are called to humbly live as a repentant child of God, to trust in Him, and to be as faithful a spouse as God gives you the strength to be.

Most of the world would call us doormats or fools to follow this kind of advice. The whole world seems to be telling us the opposite. In movies and television, as well as in real life with celebrities, we see couples staying together only so long as they feel “in love.” Likewise, songs on the radio suggest everything but fidelity. And so it is that separation and divorce are common occurrences, not exceptions.

Of course, Satan is not one-dimensional in leading us and others into sin. Probably more effective than the media are our own Christian friends, who readily share poor, non-biblical advice on matters of marriage. Worse still, an increasing number of church bodies, whether deliberately or by inaction, seem to condone or even approve divorce for non-biblical reasons.

In the face of such messages all around us, trusting in God and His Word isn’t easy. But it is nevertheless the only right option for a Christian.

What about divorce?

While we can seek to live in humility before God ourselves, we can’t make our spouse live that way if they choose not to. So my acquaintance wanted to know—and perhaps you want to know—what happens if their spouse seeks a divorce. What will God say?

Divorce is sin. It’s an unpopular statement, but it’s true. It has been said that no legal document can undo the “one flesh” created in marriage. There is a reason we call it a “holy” institution and bless it. We have all kinds of warm, bonded, close, committed relationships in our lives: family, friends, and the like. But marriage—the union of a man and a woman—is a unique relationship that is blessed and set apart, that is the union of a man and a woman. It is the means by which God continues the human race. It is also, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, an image of Christ and the Church: Christ the second Adam and the Church His Eve, taken from His wounded side in the water and the blood.

In an ideal marriage, both partners will constantly focus on their vows. That means being patient with your spouse’s shortcomings which lead them to sin and always being ready to forgive them. It also means living humbly yourself, always being ready to repent when you sin against your spouse.

You can begin strengthening your own part in that equation by also focusing on your relationship with God. Find focus in your worship life. Try some simple things, like starting and ending your days with Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers. Read your Bible daily. Spend time in the Psalms. Just as people can make themselves sick by never eating what’s good for them, so neglecting the Word will weaken you. Satan’s goal is to get you to stop believing any way he can and he is remarkably good at his work. So spend time with God in His Word, even if it’s just for 10-20 minutes a day.

I would like to say that, for my acquaintance, everything is better now. In truth, the struggle for their marriage is still ongoing. In my experience, sometimes the commitment of one partner will be enough to spur the other into recommitting to their vows. Sadly, sometimes the other spouse walks away anyhow.

Forgiveness of sins is available to all, because Jesus Christ died for all on the cross. His sacrifice was sufficient to pay the price for everyone’s sins, once and for always—and that includes the divorced. That is good news for the suffering and comfort for the broken-hearted. It is mercy for the penitent.

Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to pay the price for everyone’s sins, once and for always—and that includes the divorced.

Repentance is not just a matter of words or feeling sad because you will be punished for your misdeeds. It is also the clean heart and right spirit that we, like King David, ask God to give us. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” It is the desire to live a new life with our whole heart each and every day—a desire that is awakened when the Holy Spirit touches our hearts through the preaching of God’s Law. Only then does the Gospel have fertile soil to work.

In the Christian marriage—whether healthy or working back from a rocky place—must begin, continue, and end looking to the cross. May God grant every Christian couple a loving marriage until death do you part.

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David Faerber is a Deacon (teacher) in Lutheran Church–Canada currently on the call list. He is a member of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Petawawa, Ontario.