I recently had a difficult conversation with a friend. This friend was talking about the slow disintegration of a covenant relationship between two folks he knows. This couple has struggled for quite some time. Apparently one of the two has decided to file for divorce, while the other still wants to work things out. The one who wants to work things out believes that their marriage represents a commitment they made to one another and to God and it shouldn’t be tossed away. But the spouse filing for divorce, for whatever reason, no longer seems interested in or willing to salvage the relationship.
So what should be done? Should the divorce be contested? Should the one spouse simply resign to the other’s wishes? If one spouse no longer has any intention to honor the covenant and is seeking legal dissolution of the marriage, is the other bound to contest and fight this process in the courts?
One bit of counsel that was given to my friend - which I can certainly understand and agree with - is that this person needs to be able to say honestly that they have done everything they know to do to save this relationship.
I have seen the pain caused by divorce and I have seen the pain caused when a one person leaves a relationship without leaving physically. Both can be devastating.
But that wasn’t what really struck me as I thought about this situation. What I kept thinking about was God’s response to Israel. Throughout scripture, primarily in the Hebrew scriptures (or Old Testament), we are shown glimpses of God’s stance towards his chosen people. Just as the Church will later be described as the Bride of Christ, so Israel is often referred to as God’s bride.
We see a picture of a spouse who is willing to remain faithful through countless infidelities. And yet, this husband never forces his affection and relationship on his spouse. He pleads with Israel to return to him, to be restored to the husband of her youth. It is more than fair to say that God continues to fight for his covenant with humanity...but to what length?
I’ve heard it said that one of the powerful things about God, seen explicitly in Jesus, is the willingness to give people the dignity to reject him. Jesus says that his mission is to draw all people unto himself and yet he routinely gives people the opportunity NOT to follow him**.
Then today I was reading a book while waiting to see the eye doctor and I came across a passage which talks about God not being one who “forces his attention upon us.” The book, The Attentive Life, is focused on cultivating a life that is attentive to the Creator and the beauty of His creation - which the author claims is modeled by the Creator in his stance toward all creation.
The amazing thing is that the God who shows himself in Jesus does not force his attentions upon us. He knocks and waits. Jesus was described as the one who does not “wrangle or cry aloud” (Mt 12:19), and the great picture in the book of Revelation shows him knocking at the door of our heart, not battering the door down (Rev 3:21). No wonder Julian of Norwich used to call him “my courteous Lord.”
This is not to say that God gives up on us or that he’s perfectly comfortable letting us ditch him for someone/something else. No, on the contrary, the God we see depicted in Scripture (and the God our hearts long for) is the great pursuer. This God is the one who goes to unbelievable lengths to salvage relationships. This is the God who does not tire in his quest to redeem and reconcile broken and lost things.
Is there a point in a relationship where to continue fighting is to strip the one we love of their dignity to choose us? Is there a point where to continue fighting is to destroy to the very thing we are seeking to save?
It is easy to allow this conversation to become about detached theology (ie: can we construct a legal theological defense for or against contesting a divorce). But that does not do justice to the matter. This conversation is about real people in real pain and I believe that there is no easy solution.
What I do know is that this conversation has led me once again to consider the value of community and the deep need for authentic relationships. Whether between a person and God, a person and their spouse or between a group of people seeking to share life in the Body of Christ, there is no denying the pain that isolation and separation can bring.
Just a couple weeks ago Chris had a conversation with a friend who spoke of an ongoing pain resulting from separation from a bad “break up” with a church several years ago. As Chris described the conversation to me, which sadly ended in someone maneuvering to exclude another from community, it sounded very similar to a marriage breaking up - and the pain from this event several years ago, is still very fresh.
We have to take these relationships more seriously. We need to understand that there is much more than religious platitudes behind the admonition to “in humility, consider others better than yourself” (Phil 2:3). We need to realize that there is much more than check-list morality behind Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which teaches us to consider more than just our actions, but the way we think and how we look at people. How we relate to one another is of extreme importance.
We have been called to join with God in redeeming creation and creating a new and lasting Kingdom...one where the true, close and deep relationships of the Garden are restored and experienced once again.
In the meantime I hurt for the couples who are at the end of their rope and I pray (on their behalf as well as my own) the words of Psalm 70 “Hasten, O God, to save us; / O Lord, come quickly to help us.”
**For instance in Luke 9:57-62 where Jesus seems to dissuade 3 different individuals from becoming his disciples.