Whether the Bible provides acceptable moral grounds or not, the sad truth is that divorce is an overwhelming reality. Over one million Americans were divorced in 1992 alone. Society as a whole is doing little to slow the victims' emotional bleeding, much less the pace of marital breakups; yet, what can the church do for its own wounded?
"We need to understand that these are hurting people. That some of these people sinned and some of these people are the victims of sin. Do we differentiate? What is our goal here? Is it the redemption of sinners? Hopefully so. Is it to help hurting people to heal? Hopefully so. Are we going to respond? If so, how?" muses Steve Grissom, with DivorceCare, a recovery organization in Raleigh, NC.
"Unfortunately, it is a growing problem even in churches and most churches find it really a struggle to deal with these issues," Grissom says. He explains that recovery from separation and divorce requires a huge amount of care and attention over a long period of time. "Many don't understand that an emotional recovery from something this traumatic can take two years, five years, maybe more. It's human nature in us to want to help somebody who has a problem, to help them wrap it up and clean it up, so they can get on with their life."
In too many instances Grissom says he has witnessed well-intentioned persons minister with a divorced person for a short time and then try to hasten them out of the recovery phase into a new relationship. "Every expert I've talked to says that is a disaster," Grissom recalls. "Seventy-five percent of all second marriages fail for that very reason. They are entered into far too early. So what we see in terms of effective divorce ministry is, not exclusively, but typically by people who have been through it themselves and who have experienced great healing in their life."
Citing 1 Corinthians 1:7, Grissom said the scriptural concept of comforting others with the comfort we have received really works. "That's the way the Lord designed it," he adds. Yet there can be no true recovery without Christ, Grissom insists. "You can't heal from something that is as painful as divorce without Christ in your life."
Divorced persons need the guidance and comfort that only the Lord can provide, agrees Tim Cleary, single adult ministry specialist at the Baptist Sunday School Board. "They've reached the end of their rope. They are open for help. Right or wrong, folks are more likely to hear the Gospel as good news when they have a great need."
Coming face-to-face with the specter of divorce means you'll need to depend upon God like never before, writes Joseph Warren Kniskern in When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce.
"As we watch the events coming at us, we may feel overwhelmed and hard pressed on every side. But who rides upon the storm? God calls us to look beyond our daily trials of faith and be confident with concentrated faith in His deliverance — no matter what," says Kniskern, a Miami, FL, attorney who writes firsthand of the trauma of a failed marriage.
God is the One who can grant a respite from the pain, Kniskern says. "If we seek comfort in this life through relationships, material wealth or physical pleasures, the irony is that we move away from God. Through meeting our need for love and fulfillment, we appreciate God when circumstances are good in life, but all the more when we lose those joys."
Kniskern stresses the inestimable value of getting alone with God: "Prayer is the ultimate heart tenderizer. It helps quiet our own inner voice and personal demands while opening our heart to receive godly counsel."
As one moves out of a broken relationship, it is most healthy to focus on Jesus, Kniskern says. "We can look back to 'how things were,' yearn for the 'good old days;' or we can move forward in faith as God leads us. Looking to Jesus gives our lives meaning, a spiritual focus and direction, bringing order to everything else."
Divorce recovery programs are an excellent means for reaching out to a hurting world, especially the unchurched, BSSB's Cleary says. "Often folks who were coming to church now feel unworthy of church. They may drop out of church. If you can catch those persons with a divorce recovery ministry, you are not only reaching the unchurched, but you're reclaiming a lot of your own membership."
"More and more now churches are seeing people show up at the door saying: 'You're a church. I know somewhere in this place is help for me,' or at least they are hoping there is," Grissom says. "And what does a church do then?"
Clergy Divorce Rate
All Protestant denominations: 20%
Southern Baptists: 4%
Based on a Hartford (CT) Seminary survey. Overall, Southern Baptists seldom permit divorced ministers to fill senior pastoral positions.