What God Teaches Us About Broken Vows

I was grateful to have this piece published by Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics yesterday. You can find the original post here.

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Many divorced Christians have felt they step into church wearing a scarlet “D”. Author Elisabeth Corcoran was one of these. After her marriage of almost 19 years unraveled, Corcoran grappled with pain, confusion, and shame. Those feelings compounded when she was politely asked to step down from speaking at a church women’s Christmas event soon after her divorce. Hush-hush, of course.

Following the recent release of her book Unraveling: The End of a Christian Marriage, she moderates an online Facebook group for divorcees. She has heard hundreds of similar stories. Divorcees often hear the words “God hates divorce” from others. “I know,” one woman wrote, “I’m not such a fan myself.”

While research shows that marriages between actively practicing believers fare significantly better than others, the divorce rate within the church is still alarmingly high. Sadly, rather than experiencing the church as a place of comfort and restoration, divorcees often face a guilt-tripping response.

Differences in interpretation about when the Bible allows divorce (if ever) leaves some Christians feeling our hands are tied when we long to extend them in compassion. Plus, our deeply held belief that “it takes two” to make a marriage work mistakenly translates into a belief that “it takes two” to break a marriage up. We subconsciously assign blame accordingly.

However, the truth is that it only takes one to wreck a covenant, as we can learn from God’s own relationship with the northern kingdom of Israel.

Our own understanding of marriage is modeled on the very covenant God made with his people. As David Instone-Brewer explains in Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, God was Israel’s husband (Isa. 54:5), who took her to be his own and vowed to feed, clothe, cherish, and be faithful to her (Ezek. 16). In stark contrast to God’s faithfulness and care, Israel and Judah shamelessly disregarded the covenant: neglecting, abusing and betraying him. The prophets repeatedly called their behavior out as the violation of the covenant it was: adultery (Ezek. 23:37, Jer. 5:7).

God’s marital covenant with the northern kingdom of Israel had been wrecked by her hard-hearted behavior, and in Jeremiah 3:8 we hear these words: “for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.” In Isaiah 50:1, he asks, “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away?”

God warns adulterous and apostate Judah to learn a lesson from Israel’s example. Both sister states had been unfaithful and broken their covenants with God, but while God had divorced Israel, he offered Judah a second (and third, and fourth) chance at mercy. His offer of restoration was beautifully enacted by Hosea in his marriage to unfaithful Gomer, and ultimately realized in the unbreakable marriage covenant between Christ and the church.

I had often noted God’s patient forgiveness and covenant renewal in Hosea, but God’s description of his own divorce with the northern kingdom of Israel was shocking to me. I had unquestioningly internalized the phrase “the sin of divorce.” Regardless of how I interpreted the debate about Jesus’ words on the topic, if God himself had experienced this unfaithfulness, I needed to re-think my understanding of sin and divorce.

Let me be clear: marriage covenants are meant to be permanent, and sin is always to blame when a marriage ends in divorce. We commit sin when we break our vows, and marriage requires the regular practice of confession and forgiveness for the failures and oversights between spouses. There is a difference, though, between minor, unintentional mistakes and willful violations of covenant vows. In the former, we are to forgive and “bear with one another in love.” In the latter, God allowed the victim a choice: to remain and forgive as he did with Judah, or to divorce where a covenant has been broken by “hardness of heart,” as happened with Israel.

The sin in divorce lies in the breaking of marriage vows, not necessarily in the divorce itself. God’s own divorce was entirely due to Israel’s hard-hearted sin. God was the blameless victim of divorce. When God says “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16), he says so not with the furious pointed finger of a judge, but with the broken-heartedness of One who has experienced the devastation of rejection and betrayal at the hands of his beloved.

Divorce is not God’s will or desire for us. Even where divorce is allowed, it is not commanded, and then it is still a tragedy. Divorce leaves behind devastation and victims in its wake.

That God himself is a divorcee, despite his faultless covenant faithfulness, calls us to a more nuanced understanding of marriage and divorce. In our own marriages, God calls us to follow his example of covenant faithfulness, and has demonstrated how much grace and forgiveness is needed to maintain a relationship in the face of human sinfulness. God’s example give us a framework to talk meaningfully about commitment and grace, and yet also to say that in situations of hard-hearted and deliberate covenant violation, divorce was allowed as God’s way of officially declaring a broken covenant “broken”.

We find wisdom when we view hot topics within the larger framework of Scripture. A discussion on purity should not just be about whether a person is a virgin when they marry (even if they’ve done “everything but”), but about how they steward their sexuality throughout their lives. Similarly, the litmus test for covenant faithfulness in marriage should not just be about whether or not someone got divorced (even if they did “everything but”), but about how we steward our marriages and make daily attempts to model God’s faithfulness to our spouses.

God calls us to covenant faithfulness. We need to mourn the sins we commit when we fail to keep our vows to our spouses before we lament the “sin of divorce.” Upholding and honoring marriage is not going to be accomplished by shaming and opposing divorce as much as it is by our gracious and firm commitment to upholding wedding-day vows of love, nurture, care and faithfulness. We are called to consider covenant faithfulness long before we consider divorce, and we are called to grace in the tragic event that divorce does happen.

Pick of the Clicks and a WINNER 2/8/2014

What a week! And some wonderful things online I’d like to recommend:

Loved this from Karen Swallow Prior at Her.meneutics this week: in response to the Dove beauty campaign, she writes We can’t all be beautiful. Well and wisely said.

In C.S. Lewis’ inimitable style, Kelsey did an incredible job of imitating Screwtape in his “Dear Wormwood” Letter for the unappreciated Mom. It is brilliant!

Jody Louise wrote a poignant and wonderful piece in Dear ‘Merica: a response to some of the very hateful words that were said about a Coca-Cola Superbowl ad. It is worth reading because it affirms the very best of America and Americans, and yet also truthful about areas where we all perhaps experience some blindness and double-standards in the ways we treat “them” differently to “us”. ‘Merica – please read this. (everyone – read this)

On the whole topic of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow: Kristen Howerton’s brief but brilliant article on debating sexual abuse. Hint: if someone claims to have been abused, should you be publicly holding the victim up to intense scrutiny before offering compassion? (no)

Take Deirdre Sullivan’s advice: Always Go to the Funeral. Yes, it’s inconvenient. Go anyway.

Cara Strickland, who is my current favorite blogger, wrote this sensitive and excellent piece last week: divorce optional. Read it, and while you’re there… read more of Cara’s stuff!

Then, I loved the beginning of this post from Sarah Bessey so much I actually subscribed to Today’s Christian Woman so I could read the rest. It’s about how writing helped her discover her true voice – both on and off the page  Totally worth it, and there is just so much other good stuff at TCW – I’m looking forward to reading more!

If you haven’t see this yet, do your self a favor: Reasons my child is crying. Oh. My. Word. I had tears DRIPPING from my chin I laughed so hard.

I also made embarrassing snort noises laughing at this:

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And while we’re laughing: this made me laugh out loud too: and this is why women live longer than men. I mean no disrespect by posting something with that title… but the pictures are HILARIOUS.

Finally, on my blog this week:

I shared the story of my miscarriage in Let me tell you about Mini, and was deeply moved by how many people responded with stories of their own. Thank you so much for sharing your stories, thank you for sharing mine too. I am more convinced than ever that we need to talk about miscarriage and share our stories, because there are women all around us who are hurting and feeling desperately alone.

This week I also got to introduce you to the book I had the privilege of helping launch: The Locust Effect. (A brief overview of the book is here, and my particular thoughts on its application to South Africa here). And I also got to host a book giveaway….. and so without further ado (drum roll…..)

The winners are: Liz B (USA) and Jo S (Cape Town). Your books are on their way!

Thank you to everyone who read and shared the word about the Locust Effect this week. Truly, thank you. As always, I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed reading or writing. What did you like? What’s going on on your blog? Leave a comment below 🙂

Happy clicking, everyone.

Divorced: Now Where Do I Belong? – guest post

I am honored today to welcome author/speaker Elisabeth Klein Corcoran. I met Elisabeth through the Redbud Writers Guild, and have been moved to tears more than once by her writing. Elisabeth’s new book, Unraveling: Holding on to Your Faith through the End of a Christian Marriage (Abingdon) was released on October 1.

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For almost two decades, I knew what I was and where I fit. I was a wife and I fit pretty much anywhere, because our world and the Church seem to be pervaded by a couples’ culture.

I could even go somewhere alone, because I knew that I was part of a twosome and that I would be going back home to another who was waiting for me.

But some horrible things happened and some awful things were said and some choices that I never would’ve guessed were made and I found myself shocked and ending my marriage after almost twenty years.

I wasn’t shocked because our marriage had been idyllic and this all came out of nowhere. I was shocked because I had thought, somewhere deep down, that I would always, always be married; always, always be a part of this couple.

And then I wasn’t.

And then I was alone.

And then I didn’t know what I was or where I fit anymore.

And it was lonely. And I was sad. And I felt lost.

We had spent the entirety of our fragile marriage in one church community and they walked us through our reconciliation attempt and then released me to legally separate. To say I am grateful for what my church leadership did for me, my marriage, my then-husband and our children is not even scratching the surface. They covered over us. They fought for us. And then, through all of our tears, they released me.

But then, something shifted. In them? In me? I have no idea. But I found myself sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears for the better part of six months every single time I drove into my church parking lot, now husband-less, and letting the tears fall on my way home.

I had always been a Mrs. there, someone’s other half. But I found myself feeling more divorced within the walls of my church community than I did anywhere else in my life. I knew I was divorcing, but I felt even more divorcing there. And when that other half was no longer by my side, I wanted to hide and cry and run away and not be seen.

I just couldn’t do it anymore. The place that had surrounded me and supported me no longer felt like my second home, and so, despite that I was already in the throes of grief over my marriage, I then left my other love – my church.

I wish I had answers for this. Who did this to me? Was it something someone said? Was it a look? Was it the perceived whispers and imagined shunning? Or was it one hundred percent me and my shame and my humiliation and my grieving? Or was it all of these elements swirled together and so much more that I may never fully understand? I don’t know.

But I know that I walked into a church down the street and heard the pastor say on my very first night to the entire gathering, “I don’t care what your baggage is…you are welcome here…you are welcome here…you are welcome here…{pointing to person after person after person}…you are welcome here.” And tears fell down my cheeks as my soul let out a sigh of relief, of homecoming. Of belonging.

20131020-135135.jpgElisabeth’s book Unraveling: Hanging Onto Faith Through the End of a Christian Marriage is available on Amazon. Visit her online at http://www.elisabethcorcoran.com or https://www.facebook.com/ElisabethKleinCorcoran. She is the moderator of two private Facebook groups: one for women in difficult Christian marriages, and one for Christian women who are separated or divorced. Email her at elisabethkcorcoran@gmail.com if interested in joining.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Belonging Series, and I am grateful to Elisabeth for sharing her story as part of it. For a complete list of posts, please click here.