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October 2009

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The Problem with Divorce


Consider the stern warning provided to our times by the Lord Himself:

For whoso cometh not unto me is under the bondage of sin.And whoso receiveth not my voice is not acquainted with my voice, and is not of me.And by this you may know the righteous from the wicked, and that the whole world groaneth under sin and darkness even now.And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.For shall the children of the kingdom pollute my holy land? Verily, I say unto you, Nay. (D&C 84: 51-59, emphasis added)

Other covenants treated lightly

In the last few years I have had experiences that cause me to wonder whether we are also under condemnation for taking lightly another covenant—temple covenants in general and temple marriage in particular.Several times I have heard people express a variant of the following: “Our marriage has been so hard. I have tried everything to improve it. I have prayed and fasted and begged God in the temple. After an extended period, I have felt that the Lord released me from my covenants. I feel free to divorce my spouse.”

First, let me say that there are legitimate reasons for divorce. But, after making temple covenants, they are extreme and unusual. Abuse is the clear-cut case. When a spouse endangers life and limb or entirely removes agency, then divorce may be necessary.

Jesus Himself stated the case very bluntly: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” (Matthew 19:8-9).

I suspect that when we take divorce lightly, we have hearts as hard as the ancient Jews. I think that the residents of Heaven weep when we wear and shed our covenants lightly. We thwart God’s redemptive and refining purposes in our lives when we fail to take covenants seriously.

Imposing our answers on God

Another part of the ritual drama troubles me. When a person prays for months or years to get heavenly permission to leave covenants, I am reminded of Martin Harris and his insistence on taking the 116 pages of Book of Mormon translation. He simply was not willing to accept the Lord’s counsel. When we beg and beg to get our preferred answer, we may be thwarting God’s purposes. We may be imposing our will on our lives to our eternal detriment. We are much better in God’s hands.God’s answers usually have a character all their own. They tend to be simple and challenging. They tend to ask us to honor covenants and keep an eternal perspective. They usually ask us to be more of what He is.

For example, I suspect that a revelation from God is NOT likely to sound like: “Yes. I know what you mean. That husband of yours is a pain! You have borne more than enough. You are free to move on.” I think it is more likely that He will say something like: “Yes. Covenants challenge you. And those challenges are designed to make you more like me: patient, long-suffering, gentle, meek, and loving. It is hard. Yet, as you resolve to do what is required, I will strengthen you, sustain you, and give you peace.”

God’s process is surprisingly predictable. He asks us to move from questions like: “Why aren’t I getting what I need and deserve?” to questions like “How can I draw on the power of Heaven to better honor my covenants?” God’s process almost always requires us to set aside our agenda and accept His. He asks that we be humble rather than demanding. He asks us to be faith-filled rather than despairing. He asks us to repent ourselves rather than our partners. He asks that we call on Him for merciful sustaining rather than storybook lives. We cannot have great relationships without great reliance on the One who creates and sustains healthy relationships.

God honors those who honor covenants

There are some who face garden-variety complaints within their marriages. Instead of blaming their spouses, issuing demands for change, and day-dreaming of life with a better partner, if they pull the weeds in their own souls their marriages can flourish.

But what of those who have made sincere attempts to be loving and supportive and continue to face an emotionally distant or argumentative spouse?

I have a beloved friend who once called me and asked how much he should bear as his wife detested him, attacked him, and even  flirted with another man. I told him that I thought he should do all that he was able to do so that, when he faced God, he could attest that he had made every effort possible. My friend stayed and acted nobly. In the end, his wife divorced him. But he did all that he could. And he did it cheerfully and lovingly. I honor this good man. I believe God honors him as well.

Would God desire for us to hold onto a loveless or emotionally draining marriage? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Only God can speak for God. But I can speak for a principle. God asked Jesus to hold onto us even as it shredded His mortal body. Jesus held onto us even when the price was incalculable and pain intolerable. Are we capable of holding on in the face of a marriage filled with painful difficulties and disappointments? Probably not—at least,not on our own. But if we call upon the mercy, strength, and healing of Jesus, we can bear things in partnership with the Savior that no human alone can bear. And if we call upon the sustaining power of the atonement, we can face our marital trials with hope and serenity.

His sternness is sweet

I fear that a secular doctrine has crept into the world and the Church and infected us. If something is hard, I shouldn’t have to do it. Challenges should be minor. Pain should be no more than a hiccup. We want pain relievers. We certainly don’t want gut-wrenching and soul-stretching challenges.So does God intend for us to bail out of soul-stretching challenges to achieve an easier path?

“Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; … it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice because he seeks to do his will, he does know, most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not, nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life” (Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith [1985], 69).

In its own way, God’s sternness in insisting upon sacrifice is sweet. He does not want to redeem us while we are flawed, irresolute and drenched in sin. He wants to remove the sin and make us like Him. This will require some high-pressure washing.We should not expect nor ask for a life devoid of sacrifice. And yet we can find hope in the assurance that we will not seek His face in vain. The Savior bore all our pains so that He knows how to succor His people. To those who groan under the weight of a marriage seemingly defined by loneliness, ill will, or disagreements, there is hope that the Savior knows your pain and stands ready to sustain you. During our times of desperation, He is anxious to be called in. Our extremity is His opportunity.

Jesus lamented several times that He was as a hen yearning to gather vulnerable chicks, but they would not be rescued, He is speaking to us as well. He invites us to be lifted by His power. If we conclude that we have done all we feel capable of to deal with a suffering marriage and as a result there is no longer any hope, we forego our opportunity to be sustained and ultimately healed by Him. The bracing reality is that we cannot be saved and our marriages cannot be saved without the merits, mercy and grace of the Holy One. There is no other way.

In writing this, it is not my intent to judge, condemn or pile guilt upon anyone. I do feel called to invite us saints to use the power of Christ to honor the seemingly impossible demands of our covenants. And temple marriage is the highest covenant. I believe that the greatest blessings will come to us as we bring to the altar of our covenants all that we have and all that we are. It is not easy. But we should not expect that making us godly will happen without real stretching. I believe that all of us should be anxiously engaged in strengthening our covenants in every way we can.

May God help us honor our sacred covenants.

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Thanks to Barbara Keil for her astute observations and helpful additions to this article.

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Or you may be interested in getting a copy of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, the gospel-centered marriage book by Brother Goddard.

Also, Brother Goddard has a new 2-talk set out: “The Heart of a Healthy Marriage and a Happy Family.”