June is a month of promise. Tulips are blooming, the sun is shining, and joyful newly-weds grace church steps with proud friends and family looking on.
Unfortunately, the promises that will be spoken at these June ceremonies too often will be broken; and not only those promises spoken by people outside the church. Even Christians now divorce in large numbers. That’s not only a tragedy; it should also cause us profound shame.
Of course, we don’t need to apologize for all divorces. Our churches are filled with wounded people who have endured infidelity, abuse, alcoholism or abandonment, and who need our support. But I do not believe that such stories account for all—or even most—of our divorces. The sad fact is that we are divorcing at the same rate as non-Christians, and in some parts of the country, at even higher rates. Nationally, 24% of people have divorced, compared with 27% of people who report being born again.
The break up of these marriages can wreak havoc for all involved. The children are more likely to drop out of school, run away, commit suicide, cohabit, use drugs, and, if they’re female, get pregnant as a teen. And the adults who divorce will earn less money, be less healthy, and die earlier.
With all these drawbacks, why are Christian divorces so common? I’m afraid one reason is that people don’t always feel safe in church. We can’t talk about our marriage problems, or our struggle with pornography, or our bitterness towards our spouses, because we don’t want to be judged.
Another issue, I think, is that there’s been a shift in the last few decades away from holiness and to an emphasis on a personal relationship with God. Such a relationship is certainly crucial, but in the rush to escape legalism have we abandoned the need for obedience?
When we stop emphasizing holiness, the only part of God that we’re left with is a watered down version of love. Love may be central to Christianity, but it is not the whole picture, nor is it sufficient for our marriages.
When I walked down the aisle eleven years ago, I knew I loved Keith and that he loved me. But love alone would not have seen us through these eleven years, through miscarriages and sleepless nights, through baby stresses and our son’s death. If love is what keeps us together, then when we stop feeling all gushy towards each other we wonder if the relationship can last. Commitment is just as important as love, and perhaps even more so. If you’re not truly committed to each other, you can’t discuss problems. Whenever you do, the whole relationship may be at stake. But when you are committed to each other, you can hash something out until you get it right, because you know that person isn’t going anywhere.
During our first year of marriage, I was ready to kill my husband many times over, or at least bean him on the head with a frying pan. He understood nothing about my feelings, while I, of course, understood everything about his. What allowed us to get through that time was not that we loved each other—there were times we both doubted it—but that we knew we were in this for the long haul. We had promised God, and we had promised each other, and we did not make those promises lightly. And if you’re in it for the long haul, then you may as well work it out, because the longer you wait, the more miserable you’re going to be.
The good news is that new research is showing that sticking it out will bring happiness. According to a study by the Institute of American Values, two-thirds of unhappily married people who remained married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. And those who divorced? Most were still unhappy.
If we can remember the benefits marriage brings, and take seriously what God says about commitment, maybe more of our marriages will endure. It will require a change in our church culture, but let’s not give up. We owe it to our kids, and to ourselves, to remember those June promises of years gone by.