Nurturing qualities of unconditional love and having an attitude of forgiveness toward our spouses are the best defenses against divorce. There must be a time of letting go and release, much as it hurts. Hindrances such as pride and selfishness keep us enslaved to anger and resentment. If we fail to forgive, dealing with an unwanted divorce is much more difficult.
We need a continual self-evaluation to keep our spiritual focus. If we truly want to follow the example of Christ, we must deal with problems as they come up in a loving and gracious way rather than with a vindictive spirit. Easy to say but difficult to do, right? How is this done when anger and resentment have gripped our hearts?
I want to begin this article by being open and honest with you about my own divorce struggle. I know if you are struggling with a troublesome divorce, advice from the sidelines can seem rather empty. But I hope the personal challenges I faced will encourage you to have the right attitude, so that your situation will be less of a burden. The following is a journal entry I wrote a year and a half after initial separation from my wife:
I had a very rough time last night. I tossed and turned all night long, staring into the darkness at the ceiling. Thoughts churned in my mind as I asked God for guidance and considered options as to what is best. On and on this went throughout the night until I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion in brief periods between 4 and 5 a.m.
It was agony to think about everything and to consider divorce from my wife. What did God want me to do? How would He deal with my wife for taking steps contrary to His Word? I thought about our marriage relationship. I thought about her salvation.
I thought and prayed about many of these matters through Monday night and through the day today. What could I say? There was really nothing I could do to change her mind if she really has decided what she’s going to do! That much is clear! So the Lord impressed upon my heart that I must continue to be faithful to Him and to my wife. I need to love her with grace, mercy, and forgiveness without expecting anything in return. I must trust Him that everything will work together for good in my life (Rom. 8:28).
I thought back to our marriage counselor‘s question to my wife and me yesterday, “What would Jesus say to you right now?” My wife thought that He might use a parable. Then I asked myself what parable God would share with me. The parable I have constantly come back to throughout this whole time has been the parable of the prodigal son. Wow! There’s just so much in that parable. It shows us how we think, and how God deals with us in meeting our needs! If I really want to be God’s man in this situation, I must reflect the nature of God to my wife and to everyone else involved in a powerful way. I must strive to see issues as God would in this situation regardless of how others act or feel!
The parable is a classic picture of unhappiness at home. The young son was fed up. He checked out (after taking a portion of an estate that was rightfully not even his yet) to live the good life. What he did was not right. After a while, he paid the price by losing everything. Then he came to his senses. The prodigal son realized that what he had at home was not as bad as he had thought after all. So he came back home. The father did not go out and rescue the son when he hit rock bottom. However, the father (unlike many of us who probably would have told him to hit the road again) was ready and eager to welcome the repentant son home. Now that’s a picture of God’s love that is so contrary to how I would have handled the situation! That’s the type of love I want to show to my wife now because of my love for God and for her personally.
Now you may be asking yourself, “What does the parable of the prodigal son have to do with me and my marriage? My spouse is not my child.” But do not miss the point here: Keep your focus on how the father deals with his family as they selfishly ignore him to seek their own happiness. All of the attitudes shown by the father are just as valid, and more than applicable, to divorce situations. This beloved parable capsulizes the essence of what we need in dealing with our anger and resentment toward our spouses. We need a release from the pressure cooker of these pent-up emotions. That release can come only through forgiveness and letting go of our spouses. Consider your own divorce situation as we look into this beautiful story from Jesus.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son: Forgiveness and Unconditional Love in Action
As we try to understand how this parable applies to our marriages, we must resist the temptation to see our spouse as the louse. Remember, our goal is not to compare him or her to the prodigal son but for us to emulate the loving attitudes of the father. Why? Because we cannot control what our spouses do. Thinking of how our spouses may have let us down only tempts us to have a martyr complex and to justify our own actions. This leads to pride and selfishness — certainly not attitudes that heal. Therefore, forget about your spouse’s actions for now. At the same time, consider how much like the younger (and older) son we are. Then we can appreciate the attitudes and actions of the father in this parable as a picture of how God relates to each of us as His own rebellious children.
This parable, appearing in Luke 15, is a lesson in dealing with broken relationships. But some readers will have great trouble with this parable; it will disturb them. Why? Because Jesus talks of doing something they absolutely do not want to do — forgive their spouses. If you feel this way, please try to remain open and let God speak to your heart. Forgiveness may seem an impossible task, but with God all things are possible (Mark 10:27).
Now, please take a moment to read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Jesus was talking with religious leaders, lawyers, and tax collectors (Luke 15:1-2). Note that He shared this parable (and the preceding stories of the lost sheep and coin) to emphasize the great worth, in God’s eyes, of relationships and of each individual. What are some principles we can use from this parable?
Relationship Busters: Pride and Selfishness
First, try to understand the analogy of the son’s request to our divorce situations. The son in this story is really divorcing himself from his father. What do you think the initial talk between the father and son was like? What did the son really want? Why did the son decide to leave the secure comforts and love of home to go out into an uncertain world? Did he want freedom from the values and judgments of his father? Could he have bailed out simply because he felt unappreciated at home? Did a challenging rush of adventure or a need to control his own life without the father’s interference tempt him out the door? Perhaps. But I suspect that the real fuel for this fire in the son’s heart was a deep pride in wanting to be independent and in being selfish. Any of us can fall to these same temptations in a failing marriage. When a relationship breaks down, it is easy to think about ourselves first.
Obviously there was deep dissatisfaction and rebellion in the son’s heart. The parable doesn’t tell us what the talk between the father and son was like. As I thought about this, I remembered the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Remember the scene where Sidney Portier, playing a young black doctor wanting to marry a white woman, argued with his father about his marriage plans? In the movie, the father was arguing with the son against the marriage. He tried to shame his son by labeling his interracial wedding plans as criminal. Then he went to great lengths to say how hard he worked to provide for his son, and how he and his wife had denied themselves a better life to do it. After quietly listening to his father for awhile, the son finally burst forth with a magnificent defense of his independence from his father. He defiantly stated that he did not owe his father anything just because his father brought him into the world. Rather, his father owed him everything that could be done, just like the son will owe his own children. It was a powerful scene!
When this film first came out, I sat in the theater eating my popcorn and saying to myself, “That’s it! Yeah! That’s how it is! That’s exactly how I feel!” I saw this as the root of my own conflict at that time with my father. So I memorized the dialogue, trotted home to my father, and blurted out all the son’s script in the first person. You will know enough about his reaction if I tell you that 40 years later, he has never forgotten that conversation!
The attitudes of both men in the movie are so typical of relationships in general. Father wants to control son. Son wants father to butt out. This same tension is found in many marriages. Like so many other tempting lies, it sounds good for someone to cry out that he has to be in control of his own life and move his own way. But too often, the dark underbelly of it all is a hotbed of manipulation and control, rebellion and selfish independence. If any relationship fails to satisfy these needs, it must either be the way we want it to be or it gets axed! Is this not how many marriages end up on the chopping block as well?
I recall a very dear friend’s account of how, as a young child, she once dealt with her mother. When told to do a chore, this little bundle of joy thrust her hands on her hips, puffed out her little chest, cocked her head, and said, “You’re not the boss of me, Mommy!” How often we do the same things with our spouses — and with God! To the contrary, God, through Solomon, tells us, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
The son acted selfishly and severed his relationship with his father. Like the rich fool in Luke 12, the son may have said to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19).
The result? The son diligently and slavishly chased after wild living and pleasures of this world. But in pursuing selfish gain and resisting his father’s authority, he sold out his relationship with one who loved him more than anyone else.
The Bitter Fruit of Terminal Relationships
The son wanted “his share” of what the father owned. He did not care about anyone or anything else. In doing so, he lost his perspective about the important treasures in life. Think about it. When selfishness like this creeps into any partnership and is left unchecked, how long can the relationship survive? What are the consequences?
Losing one relationship usually means losing more. Notice that the son did not take off for a distant country right away. He waited around for a time (v. 13). Staying at home probably worked for a while, but it was not enough; the son eventually had to get away. He decided he would be happier elsewhere. After all, if we’re going to hurt the ones who love us the most, we do not feel comfortable staying around them for very long. This is also why the hearts of some Christians grow so cold that they cannot face church fellowship. It is why spouses leave good, salvageable marriages. They must avoid the constant reminder that what they are doing may be wrong.
It is a fallacy to blame outward circumstances for inward problems. The son talked himself into believing that everyone and everything around him was the source of his own unhappiness. It was only logical that a change of scenery would naturally bring joy to his heart, right? Wrong.
Have you ever known folks who believe that where they live makes them miserable? They convince themselves that they have to get away to be happy. Sure enough, they move on and what happens? After the move, they’re even more unhappy in a new city. Why? Because the source of true happiness is not in the externals of life — it’s in the heart. This is why God encourages us to be content in most any situation (Phil. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 6:8; Heb. 13:5). It is a heart problem — not a hearth problem!
Many marriage counselors, with the best of intentions, counsel spouses to “follow your heart.” But Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is deceitful above all things to the point that no one can understand it. We can quickly rationalize and convince ourselves that everyone else has the problem. Our own unhappiness is always tied to our spouse, other people, and outward circumstances. We really believe that we know our hearts. God, of course, knows better. This fallacy can lead us down some dangerous roads.
We may convince ourselves that we are really in control of our lives. But we can be just like the housefly that lands on sticky flypaper. He struggles this way and that for a long while. But then, curiously, he hunkers down, looks slyly around as if to ward off others, and seems to shout, “My flypaper!” Do we really control our circumstances as much as we would like to think?
How God must wonder about our feeble lives and the deceptions we believe about ourselves — and yet He still loves us. That is good news!
We reap what we sow. This parable shows us what inevitably happens when a drunken, selfish spree melts into the sober light of reality (v. 14). There is famine and degeneration. It may not come quickly in every instance, but a time of reckoning comes for the decisions we make. Many choices have unavoidable consequences; the piper will be paid.
When famine came, the son began to be in need. In Hebrews 12, Paul reminds us that God disciplines those He loves. That discipline is not pleasant but painful. In the end, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness for those trained by it. Our sin follows through to its logical conclusion if repentance does not turn our hearts toward God first. Selfishness usually ends up wearing us out.
I learned this lesson as a young boy the summer I went to Athens YMCA Camp in the Georgia hills. For weeks, all new campers heard glorious stories about the famous ice cream factory on top of the mountain near the camp. “Boy, won’t it be great to go up to the ice cream factory at the end of the camp?” one camp veteran would say with the greatest anticipation. Another would chime in, “Boy howdy, I can taste that cherry chocolate chip ice cream now!” Everyone got excited about the ice cream factory. “Ice cream factory! Ice cream factory!” we would all yell after dinner in the mess hall after a few weeks of this talk. It was going to be the event of the summer.
But there was a catch: the factory owners would dish out a camper’s favorite flavor of ice cream in a weight equal to the rocks he brought up the mountain. The factory had plenty of ice cream for the little boys, and the owners received enough rocks to build an addition to the factory without paying hauling fees. Great bargain, right? Well, no one wanted to come up short at the ice cream factory. So, when the big day came, kids lined up everywhere with the biggest boulders you ever saw in your life!
Up the mountain we went. Then something strange happened. The weight of those rocks, light enough when we started, grew heavier and heavier. We felt like we were carrying the entire state of Georgia in our arms. Soon the pleasure of ice cream faded away. The stark reality was that we were hauling the Rock of Gibraltar up a steep mountain! We stopped laughing and singing our favorite hiking song, “Ice cream! Ice cream! We all scream for ice cream!” Now, more sullenly, we sang the Volga boatman song with the most tortuous “Yo-Heave-Ho!” chorus you ever heard. We began making calculations of how to pitch some rocks while keeping enough to exchange for at least some ice cream.
Something else was peculiar. All the camp veterans and counselors walking with us did not carry any rocks at all. How come? “Well,” they told us, “the factory owners give us a break because we’ve helped them out in years past.” Sounded reasonable so far. “By the way,” they warned, “you have to carry all the rocks you started with all the way to the top or you don’t get any ice cream at all!” What was this?!? We tried to bribe the counselors into allowing us to throw off some of the heavier rocks, but to no avail. So we tortuously dragged ourselves to the top of the hill and carried our rocks all the way. We didn’t care about the ice cream factory anymore. Even ice cream was losing its appeal. We just wanted to ditch those rocks!
In the end, as we looked around the hilltop, we did not see any ice cream factory. In fact, we didn’t see anything at all except… a big pile of rocks. The counselors told us to throw our rocks on the pile, and they quietly taught us a lesson I will never forget.
In our selfish drive for personal pleasure, we can compromise and carry a load of sin that will burden us down just like that load of rocks. Ultimately, it is all worthless from a material standpoint while still costing us great personal pain. Those rocks, which probably still grow in number with each new summer camp session, are a picture of our own greed and self-indulgence. Then one of the counselors read Hebrews 12:1-3:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
What a lesson! There is more to life than filling ourselves up with personal pleasure. Too many of us pursue foolish pleasures like that. We cash in marriages for the chance to hike up that mountain. We think the grass is greener on top of the hill. But what do we find on the hilltop? Just a pile of rocks. Maybe then we will think back to the price we paid for the chance. We may remember how much we hurt those who loved us. Or maybe we will just forget everything, nurse our wounds, and move on to another hill. In the end, however, we always reap what we sow.
False friends bail out when the party is over. Notice the son’s predicament while away from home (v. 15-16). If you want to know what real slavery is, try indenturing yourself to the world. It will love you as its own as long as you are attractive, smart, wealthy, or move in the right social circles. But if you lose those assets, loneliness comes in a flash. How quickly friends disappear when times get tough and you are on your own!
Unnatural Acts: Unconditional Love and Letting Go
How did the father in the parable react to the son’s leaving home? Was it wise for the father to give his son the inheritance early when he knew his son would probably blow it? The father — who is a picture of how God relates to us — gave the son what he asked for even though he neither earned it nor deserved it. This mirrors so much of the beautifully gracious nature of God, yet we stop short of using this same spirit of grace with our spouses. “God can be gracious, but don’t ask me to do that with my mate after all I’ve been through!” we murmur. Somehow we can applaud God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we want those who have hurt us to pay.
Did you also notice what the father did after his son left and then lost everything? Nothing! If the father knew where the son was, do you think he should have gone out to rescue him? It is difficult to say no to this question. After all, if your loved one ran away but was starving and suffering, would you ignore it? Yet that is just what the father did! He might have received reports about his son from merchants traveling through, but he stayed at home — no wire of emergency money, no rushing to his son’s side with credit cards in hand. He let the son stew in his own soup! This was not cruel; it is part of God’s grace. It was just what the son needed to come to his senses. He was given the freedom to make his own choices — and to face the consequences of those choices with or without the father.
When our spouses leave to go their own way, times of need may arise. If we love them, we really have to fight against rushing to their aid. They chose to leave. We cannot shield them from their own decisions; codependency strangles relationships. Protecting others from themselves does no one any good. Like the father in the parable, we have to love them from a distance for their own good.
Letting go while still loving those who leave a relationship — that is radical love. The father’s actions do not come naturally to us; they cut against the grain. But this parable illustrates how the essence of unconditional love is in still loving the sinner while hating the sin. It is not natural for us to do this. But it is a very godly action.
If we want to do what ought not to be done, God will give us over to our sinful desires (Rom. 1:21-32). He will let us go! Although it breaks His heart, God loves us enough to allow us to ignore Him and follow our own desires. But we must bear the consequences of our actions, and those can be costly indeed! Letting go is tough to do when you know that those you love the most are going to hurt themselves as they hurt you, but that is a scriptural response. If God does this with all humankind, we should not treat our spouses any differently.
Release: The Healing Power of Repentance and Forgiveness
Why is forgiveness so difficult? Because it is so unnatural for us to do. We live in a world founded on the principle of rewards and punishments. If we perform well, we are rewarded. If we fail, we are punished. Restoration requires a “payback”. After all, restitution is what the law requires. But God doesn’t always require the scales of legal justice to balance. As Dr. James Dobson so succinctly states many times on his national radio program, “Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” That isn’t natural for us — it actually bothers us — but it is the gracious way of God.
What does it really mean to forgive someone? It means to “remember no more”. It does not mean to “forgive and forget”. There is a difference. If we really could forget life events, then we would never learn from our mistakes. We would lose some precious memories as well.
The essence of responsible biblical forgiveness is threefold:
Biblical forgiveness encourages repentance from sin by offering the best incentives to restore fractured relationships. And we should desire to forgive our former spouses because God has forgiven us. That is what the parable of the unmerciful servant is all about (Matt. 18:21-35). Forgiveness is not sacrificed even though the scales are still imbalanced. Forgiveness accepts a score that may never come out even.
A little boy defined forgiveness this way: “It is like the odor that flowers give off when you step all over ’em.” I like that. Consider Jesus hanging in agony on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). He thought of those spitting and cursing accusers at the foot of the cross more than His own pain and anguish. To me, that’s incredible! If I hung on that cross, between moaning and complaining about all the pain I was in, I would find a moment to look at that crowd and yell, “Father, pulverize them for they know exactly what they’re doing!” But that is not God’s way. We should strive to see life His way, not ours.
Since forgiveness is not natural for us, some time may be needed to let it well up within us. Divorce can be very hurtful. Some describe the experience as if their spouses had murdered one of their children. So let it come from your heart when you are able to feel good about it, but let it come without delay. Do not use time as an excuse not to forgive.
Forgiveness of our spouses is for our benefit. Isn’t this a bit presumptuous, especially if a spouse who has left for good never returns? It is true that our spouses may never come back home like the prodigal son, but the attitude in our hearts is critical. Forgiveness frees us from the spiritual bondage of hatred, resentment, and a desire for revenge. We need this release to move on with our lives.
We may think forgiveness is our gracious act toward those who hurt us. We may think it is for their benefit. Not so! Forgiveness is primarily for our good. It allows us to lay down a relationship gently and move on. Otherwise, we chain ourselves into living in the past. Experiencing release of our resentments through forgiveness allows us to pick up the pieces of our lives and start over without requiring that others suffer for our satisfaction. After all, Christ already paid that price.
Our spouses also need forgiveness. Forgiveness is a two-way street. The son needed forgiveness as much as the father needed to give forgiveness (vv. 18-20). Both needed to experience release. There is no way to deal with that guilt and live joyfully without it.
There is a story in Spain of a son who ran away from his estranged father. The father searched him out for months without success. In desperation, the father placed an advertisement in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you, your father.” That Saturday, eight hundred Pacos showed up yearning for forgiveness from their fathers.
Compassion and mercy smooth out the rough road leading home. Forgiveness is an invitation, not a threat. It is a sweet aroma beckoning those who fracture a relationship to be peacefully restored.
Forgiveness accepts repentance without judging reasons. Before returning home, the son came to his senses after hitting rock bottom (v. 17). Maybe it was homesickness. He may have felt guilty about what he had done. Certainly he felt sorry for himself; maybe he also felt sorry for his father. Did he realize that he had made a stupid mistake? Was it because all his friends had abandoned him? What role did his empty wallet play in his decision? Could it have been the humiliation of being enslaved? All of these could be true. But the real reason highlighted by the story is that a very hungry young Jewish boy was fed up with fighting pigs for food! If you had been the father in this parable, would this reason be good enough for you to welcome the son home?
What was the father’s attitude and reaction when the son did return (vv. 20-24)? He could have told the son to hit the road again. He could have said, “Come in, after you’ve wiped off your dirty feet, but you’re grounded for eternity!” He could have laid a guilt trip on the son about how much he had disgraced the family, but he didn’t. In every way the father’s attitude was, “Welcome home, son. I’ve missed you so much!” Even more than that, the father ran down the road to greet the son as if he had been looking for him to come back! The father was eager, not reluctant, to forgive. It poured over into his actions. He didn’t wait for his son to explain his repentance. He just loved him unconditionally.
The point here is this: Sometimes we expect our spouses to come to repentance for rational reasons. We demand that they fully realize their part in killing our marriages. We want to hear our spouses admit that we are the saints and they are the skunks. But genuine forgiveness does not work that way. Jesus tells us, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). Now that’s tough to do! Even the apostles thought so as they said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). And that’s exactly what it takes — great faith!
As we let our spouses go, we also must leave room for repentance. But God’s way is active, not passive forgiveness toward those who have wronged us. If those who have done us wrong truly come to their senses, we should be glad they are home. After all, it is not easy coming back to say, “I’m sorry.” Checking out all the details of repentance can come later. Let their hearts speak and their actions show us the fruit of their repentance. Unconditional love accepts this response. It does not insist upon its own way. We must be ready to love them when they stand in our doorway, even if it is too late to save the marriage.
Forgiveness leads to restoration of a broken relationship. Was it wise for the father to kill the fatted calf and celebrate when his son came home? How about the ring, robe, and sandals (which symbolize restoration to sonship, honor, authority in the house, and freedom)? When the father saw the son’s repentant attitude, he made no conditions. He just gave and gave! The son who was lost and dead to the father was now found and alive — that was all that mattered to the father. The son could have died in that foreign land, separated from his father and out of relationship with him. But the son repented and came back home. The father was ready to restore the relationship because forgiveness reigned in his heart.
If your spouse comes home and wants to start over, what will you do? What conditions will you set down? Having the father’s attitude of unconditional love and forgiveness guides us toward making right decisions.
Failure to forgive distorts our vision and burns our bridges. There is more to this parable in showing us how to deal with cold hearts (vv. 25-32). Notice that both sons were away from home — in heart if not physically. Both sons had broken relationships with their father. Some have even described the older son as the real prodigal son. Ironically, the older son’s relationship with his father broke down as his brother was being restored.
The father left the house to go out to the older son. He beckoned him to come inside for the celebration of his brother’s return. There was reason for joy, but the older son wanted his brother to pay. In pride and jealousy, the older son isolated himself from the reunion so he could remain bitter and angry at feeling shortchanged. The father pleaded, “Everything is yours!” But that was not good enough for the older son. “This is totally unfair,” the older son might have replied. “It just proves that working hard and doing the right thing instead of leaving home isn’t worth it. This son of yours has gone off and blown his inheritance. Don’t expect me to forgive him for what he has done!”
How the father must have ached inside as he heard the older son bellow about his brother! Without forgiveness, bitterness was eating away at the older son’s heart. It kept him away from home.
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15). The older son was losing what his younger brother was gaining by having an unforgiving attitude. As Christian apologist Josh McDowell has so cogently remarked, “The failure to forgive burns the bridge over which you must someday travel!” How true that really is!
What is the message of this parable? How does it relate to how we treat our spouses in a divorce situation? It reminds us that we need a constant attitude of forgiveness. We need to let our spouses go, if that is what they really want. As they go, we need to release our anger, bitterness, and resentment by soothing our hearts with forgiveness. This brings closure to a failed relationship and helps us to move on to new relationships. The bottom line is this: failure is not fatal unless we fail to forgive.
A Personal Quest For a Forgiving Heart
As I wrote the journal entry excerpted at the beginning of this article, I wondered how I could specifically apply the love of the father in the parable to my situation. How could I practically convey this type of love to my wife as she was leaving me?
First, I let her go. That is what she wanted. If I had tried to stop her against her will, it would have been wrong. She would have been like a caged bird looking for the next opportunity to escape. It was her choice to leave. As much as it grieved me to see her go, I respected her freedom.
Next, I tried to show her that our relationship still meant something to me. I asked myself, “Should I wait on her to return for years to come?” After all, the Bible does have something to say about remarriage if a Christian spouse leaves. How can I let my wife know that I have forgiven her and am ready to accept her, but that I need to move on with my life too? What is reasonable?
I believe it is unhealthy to remain alone and wait forever on the return of a departed spouse. This is especially true if there are scriptural reasons for divorce. God calls us to live in peace. But in love, I wanted to make a personal commitment to my wife in addition to our marriage vows. I verbally pledged to her that I would not become romantically involved with anyone else for two years, even if the Lord allowed me to remarry. This would assure her that she had time to see if she made the right decision in leaving the marriage. In my situation, this outwardly confirmed my renewed commitment to our marriage before God for a reasonable period of time. Some would view this commitment as an unwarranted personal cost. Why give up two years of one’s life to a spouse who has broken the original marriage vows? But I believe this was one way to express unconditional love and concern to my wife without making any demands upon her to love me back. This is not a rigid rule for others to follow. It is simply one way I wanted to express love to my wife. When the time came to share this matter directly with my wife during a counseling session, my heart was racing. I felt anxious. I took a quick moment for some deep breaths and silently asked for God’s help to speak lovingly. This is what I shared:
Honey, you know I love you with all my heart. I love you more than any other person on the face of this earth. I would marry you again if I had the opportunity. That’s how much I love you.
I believe we need more time before any decisions are made about our marriage. But this is not to take away from your decision and your feelings that you want to seek a divorce now. If that is what you want, then I will accept it.
I have spent a lot of time reading Scripture on this matter and asking God for guidance. It is clear to me that seeking a divorce is wrong and not approved by God. I feel that you are breaking faith with me in our marriage. When God says, “I hate divorce,” as He does in Malachi 2, I believe that you are also breaking faith with God. I am really wrestling with all this because it is so serious. I don’t say this to make you feel guilty. I say it only because I sincerely believe it to be true. But you can read the Bible for yourself and make your own decision.
I know that you will do what you want to do. I cannot control your decisions or your life, nor do I want to. Forcing you to do anything against your will would not be good for you or me. I can only try to control my own life and seek God as best I can.
Having said all that, I want you to know that I am not in denial about our situation or your wanting a divorce. I have heard you clearly. But I want to make an additional commitment to you here and now. I want to commit to you that for two years, and regardless of whatever actions you take, I will not make a personal commitment to any other woman. Should you find that you have made a mistake or regret this decision and decide that you want to come home, the door will be open to you for this two-year period. I know that you may never come back. God only knows what will happen. But I’m willing to make this pledge to you because of my love for you and for the Lord. The only caveat to this covenant is if waiting any longer would clearly be fruitless due to the circumstances. I’m making this commitment to you now without expecting anything in return from you.
That is a day in the life of two people going through a divorce. You may disagree with what I did or said on that day. But it was my effort to try and follow the example of the father from the parable of the prodigal son. It was an attempt to put unconditional love to work in my difficult situation. You may handle your circumstances differently. But the message sent to our spouses should be that our love is complete and not conditional upon their actions — or reactions — to whatever we do.
Think about your own situation. Have you shared the same love of the father with your spouse — even if your situation is hopeless? If so, even if nothing else happens, you will find a comforting peace from God flowing into you that will really bless your life. This humility and vulnerability will open your heart to God. It will reinforce your decisions in many other areas as you deal with the problems of separation or divorce. It will allow God to speak to you about areas in your life that need to change.
Questions for Personal Reflection
Joseph Warren Kniskern is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina with more than 32 years of experience, who has been cited in Who’s Who in American Law. This article has been excerpted with permission from When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce (B&H Publishing Group, revised edition copyright @ 2008).