“Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” -Luke 17:33, NIV
I write today about a paradox in Christianity that concerns holding God’s gifts with open hands. When we grasp at things–even good things–it does not end well. This is true unless we are grasping at God. All else is idolatry and is destined for the fire.
Marriage is included in that number of good things that can turn into spiritually toxic things.
Personally, I wished I had had a more open view to divorce prior to the discovery of my ex’s first emotional affair. Letting her decide between owning her poor adulterous choices or accepting the end of our marriage might have called her back off the cliff of adultery. However, I will never know.
As saying goes, hide sight is 20/20.
I write this not to say one ought to have divorce as an option going into a marriage or view it as a way to fix stressful marital problems in general.
Divorce is a nuclear option for a nuclear threat to the relationship–i.e. adultery. As I wrote the other day (see #4), infidelity–and absolutely continued infidelity–in the marriage relationship is unacceptable for followers of Christ (e.g. Jeremiah 3:8 and Hebrews 13:4). To not take serious steps in addressing such grave sins is spiritually harmful for all parties.
Some evangelicals and evangelical pastors who read my blog may disagree with my next point. However, I will say it nevertheless:
I am not of the camp that divorce ought never to be counseled by a pastor.
Sometimes it is the right choice to make in order to protect the vulnerable from the hard-hearted, sinful, adulterous choices of their spouse. I see it as akin to telling a battered wife not to go home to an unrepentant and abusive husband. Adultery is abusive. A pastor is sometimes called to protect the sheep from the wolves. An unrepentant adulterer or adulteress is a wolf. And suggesting divorce is still better and more merciful to the adulterer than the Old Testament proscription for such circumstances (see Deut. 22:22).
When I look back on my experience, a particular applicable moment comes to mind. I remember when my ex-wife told me about an “emotional affair” that she had already had. She claimed she had had it to get my attention as she was unhappy.
For those of you who missed it, this is textbook blame-shifting.
What I had been trained to do as a good evangelical Christian husband was to respond “by loving her better.” I was told the problem was that I was not loving her well enough or to use Biblical language–as Christ loved the Church (Eph 5). That unhelpful advice put me down the road, which ended in more adultery partners plus divorce.
So, I offer advice to my readers today with the open-handed principle in mind:
1. Whether it is an emotional affair or physical affair, the offending spouse needs to own their sin 100%.* If they do not own it 100%, be prepared for the affair to happen again for they are allowing circumstances to dictate to them whether or not they sin. Satan is more than happy to provide such circumstances to help them along to his kingdom. As God told Cain before he murdered Able, “‘… sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it’” (Genesis 4:7b, ESV). The adulterer/adulteress must learn to rule over the temptation to sin.
2. Take the affair seriously and make it clear from the start that divorce is a real option on the table unless the cheating spouse completely owns the adulterous choices with no blame-shifting.
3. Remember: Loving a spouse better or respecting a spouse better does not ultimately prevent adultery. Both spouses choosing not to commit adultery prevents adultery.
*Emotional affairs and divorce are a more tricky issue in Scripture. I will not say that one ought to divorce over emotional affairs as it is not clear from Scripture that this is allowed. Each must come to their own conclusions on this issue from the pertinent Scripture (e.g. I Cor 7). However, it is very clear that divorce is allowed in the case of sexual infidelity (e.g. Jeremiah 3:8; Mt. 5:32, 19:9).