Written by Peter Hicks.
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Divorce in itself is tragic, because it is an expression of the breakdown of what should be the most beautiful of all human relationships. Something God intended to be good and pure and creative and enriching ends up in hurt and disaster. But additionally, divorce is tragic because of its repercussions.
Literally millions of people in our society bear life-long scars of hurt arising from divorce situations, which express themselves in things like insecurity, depression, violence, low self-image, anger, inability to trust or form lasting relationships, and so on.
Though united in their commitment to marriage as a permanent, God-given relationship, Christians continue to disagree over the details of the application of the Bible’s teaching on divorce. Some would stress the unacceptability of divorce in all but the most extreme circumstances. Others would interpret the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5:32; 19:9) and Paul (1 Cor 7:10–16) as reluctantly allowing divorce in just two circumstances, where there has been adultery or where a Christian is married to a non-Christian. Others would feel that these categories might be extended to include things like violence or total breakdown of relationships. But even those who would interpret the biblical teaching very strictly for themselves need to show grace towards others who find themselves in a divorce situation, and be willing to leave the judging of the rightness or otherwise of their actions to God alone.
Helping People Avoid a Divorce
Whatever our view on divorce, our first task, when becoming aware of a situation in which divorce is being considered, is to do anything and everything we can to save the marriage. The most obvious thing is to persuade the couple to get help. Far too many couples drift towards divorce without seriously seeking help to save their marriage; and by the time they are willing to consider it, it is often too late. A statistic from the United States claims that once divorce proceedings have been started, only one in eight couples are willing to go for counselling; but of those who do, half save the marriage permanently.
Clearly, the chances of saving a marriage will be considerably increased if both partners are willing to make an effort to do so. Where only one of the partners is willing, the chances become very much slimmer. Counselling at this stage should be done by a skilled and experienced counsellor, though some more general suggestions about helping those who are having problems in their marriage can be found in the Living Leadership Resources section on Marriage.
Helping People Who Are Going Through a Divorce
For Christians, the pain of a divorce can often be made worse by the attitude of our fellow-Christians, some of whom tend to express their disapproval of divorce as disapproval of those who are going through divorce. But those who are going through divorce desperately need love and support. We must work hard not to let our feelings or our theology prevent us showing them these things, even if, to salve our conscience, we have to say, ‘I don’t agree with what you are doing, but I’m still going to love you with the love of Jesus while you do it.’
Be aware that divorce is a kind of bereavement and that a person going through it will share some of the experiences that a person going through bereavement will have. These may include shock, numbness, unbelief (‘This can’t be happening to me’), the expression of a complex range of emotions (especially anger, grief, panic, and depression), and the slow acceptance of and coming to terms with the divorce after what can be a long period of grieving. We will need to show acceptance, patience and grace, and faithful friendship and love.
The divorce process often involves making difficult decisions. Our role here must not be to make the decisions for the individuals concerned or to pressurize them in any way. Rather, we need to help them work through the issues and come to their own decision, all the time standing by them and supporting them with love and prayer. Remember that the crisis of deciding to start proceedings can often be more painful than the issuing of the actual divorce itself.
All sorts of reactions can occur during a process of divorce and in the time immediately afterwards. Watch for them and help the person through them, encouraging them to get counselling help where appropriate. Reactions can include:
- guilt: ‘I could have done more to save the marriage’
- a sense of failure
- relief, which in itself could lead to guilt
- hope that the marriage may yet be saved or restored
- anger at what they are experiencing, or at the tragic breakdown of their marriage
Special help will be needed over the feelings and issues arising from continuing contact with the partner and with children and other family members. Keep praying that in all the complexities and pain God will continue to work and in the end bring about his own gracious purposes for good. Encourage those involved to keep praying and seeking God, whatever their feelings may be.
If some people in the church find the concept of divorce difficult to cope with, make a special point of helping them to show grace and love to those involved.
Where children are involved in the divorce, ensure that their needs are being met, especially for security at a very insecure time. Don’t forget the needs of other family members, particularly the parents of those being divorced.
Be aware of possible practical issues, such as finance, accommodation, and the need to build a new circle of friends. Encourage others to help in these areas where appropriate.
It may sometimes be appropriate for a person who has gone through a divorce to be involved in a time of prayer ministry, perhaps with the elders of the church, in which all the many issues are finally brought before God for his mercy, grace, forgiveness, healing and so on. Then there could be a time of rededication, of starting this new phase of life with a wholesale recommitment to the Lord.
Remarriage After Divorce
It is a sad fact that the failure rate of second marriages is higher than that of first marriages. There are a number of reasons for this, but it does not have to be so. Second marriages can be very successful, especially where commitment is high, and mistakes and hurts of the past are used as a source of wisdom and strength for the new marriage rather than being allowed to undermine it.
On the positive side, those marrying for the second time have the advantage of maturity and experience. They have a realistic concept of marriage and are aware of many of the problems they are likely to face. Very often they will enter their new marriage with a strong determination to make it work, and to avoid the mistakes of the past.
On the negative side, their task is often made harder by the continuing presence of the hurts, guilt, anger, grief, and the like from their previous marriage, the weaknesses in their own personalities that contributed to the first break-up, and continuing pressure arising from the relationship with the previous spouse and with children.
Clearly, those who are entering a second marriage after a divorce need a lot of help and support in the major task they are undertaking. Though we may have reservations ourselves on the issue of divorce and remarriage, we should not let these prevent us from doing all that we can to help them make their new marriage a success.
What Could I Say to Those Remarrying After Divorce?
Face squarely the issues that led to the break up of your previous marriage. Accept your responsibility – in very few marriage failures is the blame wholly on one side.
If you have not already done so, bring these issues to God. Ask for his grace upon your own weaknesses and failures, however large or small, and his forgiveness and cleansing. Remember, there is nothing too hard for him to forgive and heal, provided we are willing to let him.
Talk through these issues. Discuss them with a counsellor or with the minister who is going to take the wedding service. Then talk them through with your fiancé(e), preferably with the counsellor or minister present. Work out ways of coping with them in your new marriage. Remember, even weaknesses, rightly handled, can be a means of strengthening a marriage; they don’t have to destroy it.
Work on healing your emotions. Talk through with the minister or a trusted Christian friend any feelings of hurt, anger, grief, bitterness, guilt, fear, or other strong emotion you are feeling from the break-up of your previous marriage. Seek healing for them as far as is possible at this stage, while accepting that full healing may take a long time.
Let your previous marriage go. Consciously and deliberately, as far as you can, accept that it is a thing of the past. Let it go; from now on your interest is in the future, building a new marriage and a new life that you will live to the glory of God. Your old marriage is not going to overshadow your new one, whether with its good points or its bad points. Be determined to make a really new beginning.
Follow through a programme of marriage preparation. Even though you may have gone through one before, it is essential to prepare thoroughly for this new relationship.
Be very sensitive to the needs of any children involved. This is important whether or not they are going to become part of the new family. As far as you can, talk with them and help them to understand and feel a part of what is going on. Remember, they will probably have conflicting and very strong emotions. Allow them to express their feelings; take what comes; do not respond negatively to things like anger or rejection of the new parent. Accept that these are expressions of the hurt they feel from the break-up of the previous marriage. Help them through these feelings. Show extra love and support for them. Where necessary, make it possible for them to receive counselling help.
Prepare for problem areas. Talk through and agree with your fiancé(e) basic principles for difficult issues such as finances or the relationship with a previous spouse and with children. Clearly, you can’t envisage all eventualities, but agreed principles can provide the foundation for further decisions in due course.
Tap into all the resources available. Together, commit yourselves to extra back-up resources to strengthen your marriage, such as attending marriage enrichment weekends, annual ‘check-ups’, and agreeing to see a counsellor as soon as any problems begin to arise.
Make your wedding service very special. In consultation with the minister, plan the church wedding (or service of blessing on your marriage) so that it will be personally relevant and significant for you. You may, for example, choose to include a section specifically giving the past over to God and acknowledging his grace and forgiveness. If you have children who will be part of the new family, you will wish to include them in the ceremony in a way that is meaningful for them. If they are old enough, this could involve an act of commitment by them and special prayer as they accept their place and are accepted in the new family.
What Could I Say to Those Remarrying After Bereavement?
With gratitude and love, give your previous marriage over to God, and put it behind you. This may not be an easy thing to do, but it is vital that you do not let it overshadow your new marriage. However much you will treasure the memories, God is leading you forward into a new relationship that will be different from the old one; you need to lay aside every aspect of the old so that you can be wholly committed to the new. Firmly resist the temptation to build expectations for the new marriage on the old one, or even to make comparisons. Be committed to building a marriage relationship that is tailor-made to the uniqueness of you and your new husband or wife.
Where necessary, allow yourself to continue grieving. Even though you deliberately put the old marriage behind you, you may well need to continue the process of grieving for your previous wife or husband. Even if you feel you have reached the end of the process, getting married again may well stir up memories and cause grief to return for a time. Don’t worry about this. Talk about it with your new partner, and explain that this is grieving for someone you have loved (like a son or a daughter) and not a rejecting of the new relationship in favour of the old.
Where necessary, get help in coping with your emotions. Should you find that feelings of grief or even anger and guilt become very strong, seek help from a trained counsellor. You may find this article helpful.
Be sure to go through a process of marriage preparation for your new marriage. Even if you have gone through one previously, and feel you are well experienced in all the issues, you and your fiancé(e) still need to prepare yourselves specifically for your new relationship.
Where there are children, be sure to involve them in all ways that are appropriate in the process of preparing for the new marriage. Remember they too will be grieving a parent, and that the process of being given a new parent will not always be an easy one.
In consultation with the minister, plan your wedding service very specifically for the new marriage. Resist the temptation to have a rerun of your previous wedding day. If you have children, make a point of including them in the ceremony in a way that is very meaningful for them.
Paul Engle (ed.), Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church: Three Views (Zondervan)
David Instone Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Paternoster)
Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage (Monarch)
M. Kirk, Divorce (Lion)
F. Retief, Divorce: Hope for the Hurting (Nelson Word)
S. Ridley, Finding God in Marriage Breakdown (Lion Pocketguide)
G. Forster, Healing Love’s Wounds (Marshall Pickering)
M. Williams, Stepfamilies (Lion)
This is a chapter from Peter Hicks, What Could I Say?, published by Inter-Varsity Press UK, www.ivpbooks.com, and used by kind permission of the author and publisher.
© Peter Hicks.