Caring for divorcees

Cath Finney Lamb

In this article Cath Finney Lamb outlines a dozen ways to help people stay connected to God and the church in the wake of divorce.

All of us have been touched by divorce. By the time you have reached your 20-year school reunion, there is the inevitable list of divorces within the year.

Some of us have watched parents, children or close friends undergo separation or divorce, or have been through it ourselves. Estimates based on current divorce rates suggest that 32 per cent of marriages are likely to end in divorce.

People have different opinions about what is right and wrong in situations of marriage separation. I am not addressing this issue here. Rather, I explore the matter of helping people be reconciled to God, or stay in relationship with God and His people in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown.

In the midst of situations of separation and divorce there is a unique opportunity for people to come to know Christ. The first few years after a divorce are a time of re-evaluation and reshaping of life that sets a foundation for the years ahead.

Many turn to spirituality to find strength and wisdom. Some begin to pray. Others feel urged to reconnect with childhood experiences of church in a quest to rediscover their roots as a single person.

Significantly, there can also be a search for a model of reconciliation that works, that makes sense of their experience of relationship breakdown and does not dismiss relational injury as insignificant.  We Christians have this to offer.  It takes our conversations with friends straight to the cross.

On the cross we find a broken relationship: one between a Creator God and each member of humanity. We find a God who offers forgiveness to all, but with whom there is no reconciliation unless we repent and "come back' to Him as our God.  We find the answer for feelings of guilt or anger about injustice.  We find forgiveness and the strength to forgive. We find a covenant God.

Alongside this opportunity to share Christ's love, the church faces challenges in loving their brothers and sisters well in the wake of a separation or divorce. Many church members long to be the source of spiritual and emotional encouragement and healing for their brothers and sisters in this situation, but feel inadequate in this task. They can also worry about how to best negotiate conversations with their friend about the possibility of unrepentant sin.

Christians who undergo separation generally find it is a critical time in their relationship with the church.  Some feel embraced by their church. Others find that their interactions at church are so painful, it is difficult for them to stay actively involved.

Following divorce, people can carry with them for years the pain of feeling ashamed or judged by their broader church family, and grieve deeply the distance that can creep into formerly close relationships.

There are major faith challenges as well. Most rethink their belief frameworks and assumptions about the Christian walk in the light of their experiences of marriage breakdown. During this time some harden their hearts to Christ. Paradoxically, it can also be a time of rich intimacy with God and growth in Christ: walking deeply in paths of grace and knowing afresh God's love and overwhelming faithfulness.

Divorce inevitably raises pastoral issues for all those affected. As people encounter sin that has wrapped its tentacles around every aspect of life " our beliefs, relational patterns, habits and emotions " theological questions can be raised about the nature of sin and repentance, relationship breakdown and restoration, and responses to complex ethical situations.

These opportunities and challenges call us to further develop pastoral responses.

Here, we offer suggestions about helping people stay connected to God and the church in the wake of a divorce.

1. Get to know a situation and don't assume anything.  In complex situations like divorce, every story is different.  Some leave; others are left. Some physically separate from their partner because they want to put boundaries around unacceptable and injurious behaviour and constructively rebuild the relationship; others separate in order to finish the marriage.  Some agree on where responsibility lies for the major issues between them; others disagree.  Some take responsibility for their end of the relationship; others, bitterly blame their partner.  Some choose to divorce; others have no choice.  Some have harmonious settlements; others protracted court battles. Some have experienced physical, verbal or emotional abuse, sexual infidelity or major deceit within the relationship; others have not.  Some people forgive too quickly, excusing behaviour and not allowing themselves to acknowledge the injuries they have suffered; other people struggle for years with bitterness, anger and a desire for revenge. Some reject Christ; others run to Christ for comfort and strength.

2. Stay relationally connected.  Make an effort to stay connected, even when the two parties in the marriage break-up need a lot of space.  Whilst close friends often provide most support, comfortable social connections with people in the broader Christian community are vital for maintaining a sense of belonging to the church.  Some people find that hanging out with "happy families' can help to restore hope in the possibility of stable family relationships.  Healthy, supportive friendships can help heal wounds and re-establish trust with members of the opposite sex.  Where appropriate, it is important that members of the church community stay in contact with both parties to the marriage break-up.

3. Listen well and respond to immediate need. The healing process is not something you can plan or structure. Issues surface and demand attention at different points in time. Today may be a time for feeling anger about injuries received, and to forgive; tomorrow, a time to face your own failings.  Immediately after separation, people often need to give attention to practical needs, such as housing, rather than relational issues.  It is often most helpful to listen in a matter- of-fact way, to hear what it is like for the person, and respond to the immediate issue at hand.

4.Offer alternative perspectives respectfully.  Recognise that you may not know the whole story or fully understand the relational dynamics between the two parties, even if you are close to the persons involved. Offering insights or an alternative perspective about the situation is best done with respect and in the context of long-term support.

5. Acknowledge issues of relational injury.  In situations where both people are committed to keeping a covenant, couples who have separated will need to undergo a journey of forgiveness, apology, change and trust-building in order to repair and rebuild their relationship.  Helping both parties know they are secure in God's love and grace can strengthen them for this task.

6. Provide teaching about divorce in the context of the gospel of salvation.  Teaching about divorce needs to be set in the context of the grace and hope that we have in Christ, so that those who are listening do not mistakenly take home the message that they can never be accepted by Him.

7. Take care over sermon illustrations.  When sermon illustrations use personal information without acknowledging there is permission to do so, divorcees can fear that their own private stories will not be held in confidence.  Over-simplistic stories about relationship restoration can lack credibility and be misheard by divorced people as a judgement against them.

8. Avoid negative generalisations.  Negative generalisations implicate all divorcees and can be alienating, but affirmation of the courage of people seeking to honour Christ in their situation is encouraging.  Talking of the partner who has been left only in terms of victimhood can undermine a God-given resilience to trust God, embrace their adult responsibilities and courageously walk forward.

9. Be aware of situations that can cause distress; for example, listening to sermons on divorce; being asked to share your life story in a home group; or sitting in the pews on Mothers' Day or Fathers' Day as a single parent.

10. Find ways to meet children's needs.  Children of single-parented families can feel different and find it difficult to "fit in' at church.

11. Don't automatically assume that when someone has left your church, it is an issue of faith.  The primary issue may be breakdown in relationship with other church members. Some people may not be regular in attendance because anxiety or other mental health challenges arising from their experiences can affect daily functioning.

12. Help manage community conversations. The people involved need a "public story' that explains events at an appropriate level of detail. Sometimes this task is difficult because the two parties disagree about the reasons and responsibility for the marriage breakdown. People close to them may be able to help craft such a story. This task is important, because when too much personal information is released into the public arena and "assessed', the community itself becomes embroiled in the disagreement. Anger about injustice, false accusations and misunderstandings can fuel these conversations. Christian "peacemakers' do well to affirm that the God who knows all is the judge and final arbiter over the situation, and that justice for all the wrongs done was achieved on the cross.

Surely, even in divorce, comfort is found in Christ.  We do not have a fairytale God who dismisses wrongs done as if they are inconsequential. We have one who died because of these wrongs.  Our God knows the pain of divorce.  He divorced his people, Israel because of her unfaithfulness to him but drew her back into his arms once she had repented and returned to him (Jeremiah 3:1-14).  Let this encourage us to forgive.