Divorce As Moral Injury


While doing my year-long residency as a chaplain at a Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center, I gained education on a relatively new area of research and work for professional chaplains and psychologists working especially with combat veterans. Most people today are familiar with the acronym PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), but I would be surprised if many are aware of this accompanying concept–i.e. moral injury. Please bear with me as I lay out the concept as I believe it has great relevance to the issues surrounding divorce for Christian faithful spouses especially.

This is how I understand the concept of a moral injury:

A moral injury is a wound to a person’s conscience. It occurs when the individual takes part either actively or passively in violating deeply held moral (or ethical) convictions.

Let me provide two fictional scenarios from the battlefield setting:

1) John is told to shoot anyone who rushes the check point regardless if that person is a woman or a child. A woman starts rushing the check point and John’s comrade is given the order to shoot. He shoots and kills a woman who was wearing a bomb.

2) Bob is in a firefight. He sees an enemy coming to flank his squad, and he shoots killing the enemy thereby protecting his comrades.

In both cases, Bob and John are under orders to kill the enemy. And both are very religious men who were taught the Ten Commandments, which includes the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13, KJV). Bob directly violated this moral (as stated) when he killed the attacking enemy. John indirectly violated this moral (as stated) by not stopping his comrade in shooting the woman. And both were under orders to violate it. They are experiencing a moral injury.

So, in essence, the moral injury occurs with incompatibility issues. On one hand you have the action/inaction, and on the other hand, you have the moral principle that is diametrically opposed to said action/inaction. How does one make sense of one’s moral universe and thereby sense of self when it has been shattered by such an event? Recovering from a moral injury is the task of addressing this discord in one way or another helping the person integrate and find peace after such a dis-integrating and disturbing experience or experiences.

Now, let’s apply this to divorce situations:

While never getting divorce is not in the Ten Commandments, it certainly is treated by Christians as such. And if you were like me, you married with lifelong fidelity as the deal. You made this your personal moral value. Divorce was not an option. “God hates divorce!” was your mantra. You burned your “divorce card.”

Then it happened.

She/he cheated blowing up that whole lifelong fidelity bit from his/her end. You divorced him/her. Or, like me, you got served and divorced by the cheater without any say.

See the parallels?

Violated moral value:

Never get divorced!

Active/Inactive Violations:

1) Actively choosing divorce in light of adultery.

2) Inactively being divorced by adulterous spouse.

This is why I suggest divorce can be an event causing a moral injury. If you hold not divorcing (or fidelity put another way) as a basic moral value, divorce is a violation of this value and can shake you to your core. I know as it shook me.

Context both for the action and the value is important in putting the pieces back together.

In the cases of John and Bob, I would point them to other translation of the Bible, which translate “kill” as “murder.” Then I would talk to them about how this is an important distinction. One is a lawful act taken on behalf of a state to protect others like your comrades whereas the other is done outside of the law. The woman had to be shot or she would have blown up other people. And the flanking enemy had to be shot or he would have shot Bob.

It is true that taking human life is not ideal. God did not design humans to kill humans. War is a result of sin entering the world along with all the death that comes with war. However, sometimes killing other humans in war is necessary to stop evil. For example, I am grateful for the Veterans who served killing others and sometimes giving their own lives in World War II to stop Hitler and the Nazis.

Even and maybe especially in morality, context matters.

When it comes to divorce, the context matters as well. True, divorce is not ideal. God designed marriage to be monogamous and lifelong. However, like war and killing in war, God wisely allows divorce to take place in dealing with evil like adultery (e.g. Jer 3:8, Mt 1:19, Mt 5:32, etc.)

A) If you chose divorce after adultery, consider yourself like one taking a stand against evil (e.g. Deut. 22:22). You have decided adultery is not to be tolerated.

B) If you were abandoned by the cheater, consider yourself set free by one who chose by their actions the Enemy’s camp (I Cor. 7:15). You are not responsible for another’s decisions or actions.

So, when you feel yourself struggling with a moral injury, consider the context of the moral and disturbing event. You may find ways to set those pieces back together.*

For those of you helping a faithful spouse dealing with a moral injury from getting divorced:

Please do not just shout out the violated moral value at the divorced! 

Doubling down on the violated value like this is about as helpful as telling a combat Veteran who killed the enemy as part of his duty that he violated the Ten Commandments. Real helpful, right?! When you reinforce the violated moral value, you merely rub salt into the wound. It’s not constructive. I bet the divorced person already knows the value is violated. They are now trying to put together the pieces from this trauma and instance of major loss.

This error of doubling down on a violated value is another reason I find certain Christian approaches to divorced faithful spouses cruel. Like the despicable treatment of Vietnam Veterans coming back from the war who were called baby killers, the pastor or Christian who shames the faithful spouse for a divorce done to stop sin–i.e. adultery–or foisted upon the faithful spouse is cruel and similarly despicable, in my opinion. It is not constructive or caring. It simply condemning.

Let’s not be condemning.

Respect the moral injury and don’t make it worse.




*Another helpful tip in this is to remember that we are more than one life event as my former mentor Chaplain Peter Lundholm would likely point out. I might do something that violates my moral values. Maybe I even do it more than once. It does not mean I do not hold those values or am doomed for the rest of my life to violate those values. I can choose this day to do otherwise in the future and/or to repent as appropriate taking responsibility and making amends if possible. This tip, though, is more aimed at adulterous spouses who have chosen poorly and not faithful spouses who have done nothing wrong in choosing divorce or being divorced by their adulterous spouse (see here).


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