The biggest threat to marriage is the failure of marriage. While the divorce rate increases, the marriage rate is decreasing. Many young people are avoiding marriage completely, or delaying it indefinitely. Maybe they are disillusioned by the failure of their parents’ marriages, or maybe they regard it as irrelevant. A friend in campus ministry said college students used to be devastated when their parents would split up; now they seem to take it in stride.
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Divorce was once a serious issue among Christians; at one time few Christians would have voted for a candidate who had been divorced. The Wall Street Journal observes how this has changed and how evangelical biblical scholars have rethought scriptural teaching on divorce:
Believers claim that faith makes a difference in their lives. Why then do evangelical Christians have a divorce rate as high as the national average, and higher than that of many mainline denominations? These statistics come from a survey conducted by George Barna in 1999:
How can we explain this? As someone once said to me, “You would think that if Christianity were true it would work for somebody, somewhere.” I have been bothered by this question. On the one hand, I know many people whose faith commitment makes them better people: kinder, more generous, more loving. On the other hand, I see many failures. I look into my own life and into the lives of other believers and ask, “Why doesn’t faith, why doesn’t the transforming power of the Holy Spirit make more of a difference?”
Somebody once said, “My dad was a Christian and he argued a lot with my mom. My uncles who weren’t Christians cussed their wives, beat them, and cheated on them. My dad didn’t do that.” Maybe it’s not saying much, yet maybe an unhappy but nonviolent marriage is an improvement.
Churches and Christian leaders have tried hard to make marriage work. Over the past thirty years I’ve seen two trends that should be positive. First, churches have become much less judgmental about divorce. Many churches that once had a very strict anti-divorce policy are now offering divorce recovery workshops. Second, churches and Christian organizations are sponsoring a variety of educational, enrichment, and counseling opportunities to help strengthen marriage. What went wrong?
Could our expectations about marriage be wrong?
Could it be that the very programs designed to save marriage have created an unrealistic expectation that is actually undermining marriage? Maybe the premise of marriage-enrichment workshops is that the purpose of marriage is for our own personal enrichment.
What if God had another purpose in mind for marriage? Socrates said that he married Xanthipe to prove that a philosopher can endure all things.
Maybe the purpose of marriage is to provide an opportunity to develop the virtues of patience, forgiveness, and peacemaking. In a world where so many people are motivated by differences to hate and kill each other, maybe the purpose of marriage is to show that people who are fundamentally incompatible can live in the same house, cooperate in raising a family, manage finances together, and still avoid killing each other.
Maybe what the world needs is not fulfilled individuals, but reconciled individuals. Maybe marriage is designed to be a laboratory in reconciliation, peacemaking, and forgiveness.
It is a great improvement that we are less judgmental and more gracious to divorced people. Maybe we can learn to apply that kind of grace to others who fall short of what we understand to be God’s will.