Since Tuesday, when Desiring God published my letter to a woman married to an unbeliever, I have received many private messages from Desiring God readers. Among them questions, objections and concerns were brought up that I responded to privately. I want to address those issues here. This post will be the beginning of a few posts dealing with the most common questions I received from my article. But before I delve into sharing my thoughts on these issues, I just want to say: I am not a trained counselor, pastor or scholar. But I am a woman in awe of Christ. He’s got a hold of me. I just want to follow him.
Through my hard marriage I’ve been tested and I’ve learned a few lessons I think are important to share. My hope is that as I share what God is teaching me He will be honored and someone will be helped.
One of the responses I received went something like this:
Q: Are you saying if you divorce your spouse for a good (Biblical) reason, such as abuse or adultery, you’re sinfully “giving up”?
A: Anytime a person speaks about divorce in the Christian community serious concerns rise to the surface. What about cases of abuse? What about adultery? Isn’t there Biblical cause for divorce? All of those questions are serious and Biblical answers should be sought out. But my article wasn’t specifically aimed at those issues. My aim was to speak to women, who like me, are married to unbelievers, and feel like giving up at times because it’s just hard.
Sometimes I feel like those issues are brought up sort of like the issues of rape, incest and harm to the mother’s health are brought up when speaking about abortion. I know there are hurt women who’ve been abused and abandoned by their husbands and then found no support or help in their churches and/or from people they trusted . These women are not who I was aiming my thoughts at in my article at Desiring God. But addressing issues of adultery and abuse is very important.
My article was speaking specifically to women ready to give up on their marriages because of the everyday hard things of my being married to a man that doesn’t share your love of Jesus. I also had in mind women I know who’ve left their Christian husbands because their marriages were getting hard.
Why Most of Us Divorce
The truth is the majority of divorces, as well as the majority of abortions, are not carried out because of abuse, adultery, rape, incest or life-threatening health issues. The majority of divorces (and abortions) are carried out because of the inconvenience of dying to self and dealing with the hard things of loving a sinful person. We get tired of each others sinfulness. We get tired of being not loved well. Whether it be marriage or raising children, both require commitment to die daily to your own needs and wants, trust Christ to provide all that for you, and to get down low and engage in the mess real relationships are.
As I see it in scripture, God created marriage. And for the Christian, marriage is a ministry, not a place to find your ultimate fulfillment.
Whether you’re married to a believer or unbeliever, the example God is displaying in you as his child is one of his faithfulness and self-sacrificial love. But that faithfulness and love is not to be confused with enabling or ignoring adultery or abuse. The Christian woman is called in marriage help her husband by faithfully loving him and dealing with his sin with the grace and truth found in Christ. That includes everyday offenses, abuse, adultery and all other kinds of terrible situations one can find themselves in when they’re married to a fallen person.
We all sin. There is no escaping that. And whether it be an accumulation of passivity or aggressiveness, or negligence to cherish, or refusal to show longed-for affection… whatever daily sin-pattern you can bring up as an example, it’s going to get hard to enjoy and love the person you vowed to be faithful to until death parts you. You are going to have to suffer something to love your spouse. You are going to have to die to something to foster a loving relationship.
Don’t Mistake Mercy for Enabling Evil
When it comes to particularly egregious sins like adultery, physical or emotional abuse, theft, drug use, alcoholism, addictions, etc., God provides a way to deal with these kinds of sins with transparency, boundaries, accountability and safety. Women who find themselves in relationships with these evils will need wise council, Biblical guidance and clarity on the difference between mercy and enabling. God teaches us to expose and deal with sin in a way that hopes for restoration and reconciliation. But a cheap-grace message taught in church can lead to a misunderstanding of the gospel, the mark of Christ’s majesty in Christian submission, forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.
This confusion about how the gospel of Christ plays out in dealing with sin in our daily lives, combined with our natural tendency to either wink at sin (boys will be boys… that’s just her personality, etc.), sweep it under the rug, enable it, or condemn the person for doing it, has led many into unhealthy relationships. When we mistake mercy for enabling sin and grace for ignoring wickedness, and then condemn people for sins we personally can’t handle, we cheapen the costly blood of Christ and minimize his power to change lives.
Author Jen Wilkin summed up the heart of the problem in pointing out that the gospel is not just being declared innocent of sin in a recent tweet:
“Don’t reduce “gospel-centered” to “justification-centered”. The Good News is more than our freedom from sin’s penalty. It’s also our progressive freedom from sin’s power and ultimate freedom from sin’s presence. Justification, sanctification, and glorification are all the gospel.”
Looking back in my marriage my thinking has been clouded by a misunderstanding of grace and my self-preserving tendancy to not deal with sin like Christ teaches us to. Both the Old and New Testament show us a God who is faithful to his covenant with his people, and exposes and disciplines them for the purpose of their redemption.
Help From The Scriptures and a Warning
In the Old Testament the Lord’s people are typified as a wife to God (Read Hosea). Israel is adulterous in her relationship with God. But her unfaithfulness and betrayal is not ignored, winked at or enabled. And although Israel’s sinfulness is dealt with harshly, she is not utterly condemned because God is faithful. In the New Testament you see Christ deal with Israel’s ugly, bigoted, perverse, greedy, hypocritical and abusive behavior. And he clearly speaks to the harsh consequences adultery can have on a marriage (Matthew 5:31-32)
Much wisdom can be gleaned from looking at how God dealt with his people’s sin in the Bible. But I want to give a clear warning here to women who might misunderstand the gospel: You and I are not Christ. We cannot save our spouses. We don’t suffer to atone for their sin.
It is not your job to suffer abuse to save your husband. Christ did that.
If your husband is abusive, the kind of suffering you may be called is the loss of your marriage because you hold your husband accountable for his sin using the governmental and legal means God provides. Hand your husband over to the legal authorities, seek safety for yourself while giving your life to following Christ and interceding for your husband.
Whether it be adultery or abuse, Christ does not lead us to enable, ignore or dismiss the sin in our spouses lives. He leads us to humbly, yet boldly expose sin and follow him. We should pray for and want our husband’s to be truly saved and made new. And that is shown by our willingness to deal boldly with our husband’s sins in the light. Saving grace and mercy is not shown by enabling, ignoring or dismissing a husband’s evil behavior.
John 13 is on passage that has taught me to vulnerably expose the sin that needs to be brought into the light and then forgive.
Not say it’s ok.
But to do what the Bible teaches us to do: expect to see repentance and reparations (fruit of repentance) before reconciliation can happen.
Ignoring, enabling or dismissing your husband’s adultery, abuse, addictions, etc. is not the way Christ has called you to be a Christian wife to him.
Get Help and Follow Jesus
If you find yourself in a marriage to an abusive man seek safety and legal help. If you find yourself in a marriage wrecked by adultery, unless your spouse is repentant and willing to seek counseling and set up measures of accountability and do the hard work of establishing trust over a long period of time, send him away. Wait on God. Pray. Get counseling for yourself. And get on with following Christ.
Your truth and grace stance with your husband may be the very means by which God does a life-changing work in him.
May God bless you as you seek Christ and follow him!
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” -Ephesians 5:11-14
*** For more help, here is a list of a couple of books and resources I have found helpful in gaining sobriety and wisdom in being a Christian wife.
Boundaries In Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Healing Your Marriage When Trust is Broken by Cindy Beall
Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
Enough Is Enough by Gary Thomas
Divine Guidelines For Marriage from Grace To You