Christian attitudes toward divorce and remarriage have been largely redefined in the past century. Historically, Christians were never permitted to remarry with the church, even in the case of a lawful divorce, even if you were the innocent party. Divorced people were expected to remain celibate. More recently, however, many Protestant denominations have abandoned this position. Guest writer Darla Meeks is one person who swims against this current, having chosen celibacy following her divorce rather than getting remarried.
I encourage you to read her reflections below with an open mind, regardless of where you stand on the topic of divorce and remarriage. There is much to learn from individuals like Darla who choose the path less traveled today.
I am a divorced Christian woman. I’ve been divorced for 10 years now, after a 17-year marriage to an unbelieving, chronically unfaithful spouse. Now in my fifties, I have a life that doesn’t include a mate, and I have no children. My parents have passed on. My brothers live in other states. The same is true of my extended family. I don’t see any of them much, except during brief out-of-town visits. I keep in touch by phone, text and social media, but that’s about it.
I’ve had two relationships since my divorce. One of those men rejected me; the other, I rejected. I didn’t have sex with either of them while I was seeing them. In fact, I haven’t had sex in a very long time.
So, my life has little or nothing to do with the traditional, nuclear family.
What say you, Christian family? Am I a sad woman? Am I alone and lonely? Is my life over? Am I depressed and on the verge of suicide?
Even worse, am I a degenerate, profligate, back-sliding individual who has lost God’s greatest blessing (marriage & family) forever?
I say to you, no to all. In fact, by the very grace of God, I am happier than I have ever been as a celibate, single person.
The Perfect Storm
I won’t tell you that my relational failures didn’t shatter me. They did. I won’t tell you that my sins didn’t cause or contribute to them. They did. Whether sinned against or sinning, I was desperate and hopeless for a time. You could say that I experienced a perfect storm of loss.
My divorce occurred during the Great Recession, so I didn’t just lose my marriage. I lost a high-paying job, all my savings, and my house. I lost that second income. I had to move in with my mother (who was still alive then), and I was unemployed or underemployed for a period of 16 months. I was forced to file bankruptcy. Like Job, I experienced a flurry of losses, all at once. Even my friends seemed to disappear, and who could blame them? I wasn’t much fun, and I was too broken to give them what they needed. I felt isolated and bereft of self-worth. I wasn’t suicidal, but again, like Job, I would have welcomed death. I was ashamed. I was so sick with my losses that I wasn’t fit to get out of bed.
I prayed for Father to take me…vehemently, and with all my spirit and soul. I got on my knees, I confessed my sins, I took my well-deserved licks. I spent some months immersed in prayer and the Scriptures. And God, so faithful and true, came to me with a better answer:
“Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. (James 4:8)”
The Lord came to me with His forgiveness, empowering me to forgive. He came to me with His tender care. He accepted my repentance, and I found healing in His wings. He blessed me with His presence in a way that I had never experienced before. I became as a helpless infant in His arms, and grace fell upon me in showers of mercy. I would have died of grief, but He showed up…oh, wow! Did He ever!
Jesus came to me and gave me a new spouse. Himself. Out of my adversity came the greatest blessing I have ever known.
A New Life: First Things First
“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. (James 4:10)”
With this restoration of much-needed bonding and intimacy with Him alone, I began a long road to recovery. Like Job, I have found that God restores everything the enemy steals away, and then some. From the Word, I learned to simply pray for all that I needed. Nothing ever taught me about the value and power of prayer like dire need!
I needed to function properly again. I needed good friendships. I needed a responsible person to take care of me, and that Person turned out to be God alone. I needed a church family. I needed a home. I needed a life of fruitful purpose. I needed an income and financial independence. I needed a dang job!
In all of these needs, God provided for this single woman. Jesus is, after all, my Husband. He is the best Husband I could ever have! He provides, gives me His affection and blesses everything I lay my hand to do. I depend on Him utterly, for everything.
He has been giving me new friends and has restored many of my old friendships, as well. These are believing friends who love me with the love of Christ, and with whom I have much in common. (I have now been blessed to meet Bridget Eileen, in fact, a true sister in the Lord!) Like Job’s friends, much of what I have now has been restored to me through caring servants of God.
I can go on and on about how the Lord, my Shepherd, has chased me down with blessings, and how He has restored my soul. And so, it is with gratitude that I announce that I am a happy and loved individual. I am a happy, loved and celibate individual. And wild horses couldn’t drag me away from the celibate life.
Paul’s Wishes and Jesus’ Commands Regarding Marriage and Divorce
St. Paul speaks of this happiness, which he experienced, going so far as to say, “It is better for a man never to touch a woman.” (1 Cor. 7:1). But even more telling is his heart’s wish:
“I wish that all were as I myself am (single/celibate).” – (1 Cor. 7:7)
When I was young, I always wondered about these passages in 1 Corinthians and why Paul was so zealous over the celibate way of life. He promoted it. Why? In my youth, it seemed a fate worse than death. I craved marriage, as most young women do.
Scholars have often posited that St. Paul was probably married at some point in his life. He was a Pharisee, and he would have been expected to make a good marriage. A marriage into a good Jewish family would have been arranged. Perhaps he was widowed, or divorced. He does seem to speak from deep experience when he says that marriage is nothing but trouble. He clearly saw the advantage of the single life, especially for the sake of the Gospel. Single people are free of so many of life’s burdens.
I have learned to feel as Paul did through what I have suffered and through the blessings I have received. My deepening commitment to God is leading me into a place of utter surrender. He loves me. He died for me. He wishes only to give me my deepest desires, and He knows better than I do what I really desire.
Jesus gave strict teachings about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, found in Matthew 19. This is the law: marriage is permanent. Two become one, and those who enter into marriage are inextricably bound in the one-flesh experience. Divorce is not allowed, except in the case of unchastity.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:31)
And so, we all know Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce. We know Paul’s teachings on this subject, as well. We know the law. No divorce, except when forced because of sexual impurity. I know that some believe that remarriage is permissible for the innocent party under these circumstances. I am no theologian, but the plain text just doesn’t support that. St. Paul’s only stated solution is this:
“To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11)
The Paradox of Grace
So, now that we know the law, now that we know the very strict rules, where does grace come in?
Paul tells us that we are not under the law. I am not here to pass any judgment on those who have divorced and remarried. I am not here to say that God never blesses second marriages or third marriages. I have watched Him do it, and like healing or gathering food on the Sabbath, we must remember that Jesus is Lord of all the law and the prophets. But consider this passage:
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Cor. 6:12)
Paul repeats himself later, in a little different way:
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.” (1 Cor. 10:23)
This is what I believe about God’s laws. They are always there for our best and highest good. They must always be interpreted in light of the Lord’s love for us. Jesus appeared to violate God’s law when He healed on the Sabbath, or when He gathered food with His disciples on the Sabbath. He said,
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind made for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
So are all of God’s laws. They are made for humankind and not the other way round. Dogged legalism can lead to incredible injustice and even acts of cruelty or indifference to human suffering. This is why Jesus clashed with the Pharisees so often. So I cannot say that every divorced person with a living former spouse is never given dispensation to marry again. That is not for me to say, and everyone’s situation is different.
I am not suggesting that we have a license to sin, or to live unchaste lives. Chastity after divorce is not just a commandment. It is God’s best for us, and an excellent choice.
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)
A Love Story of Grace After Divorce
C.S. Lewis grappled with this question with his friend Joy Davidman Gresham. She was a divorced woman with two young sons. Her former husband was an abusive alcoholic, and unfaithful. She had to leave her husband, for her own sake and that of her children. She had become friends with Lewis via correspondence, and eventually moved from the U.S. to England. Jack Lewis fell in love with Joy, and she with him, but did his best to stay uninvolved because of her status as a divorcee whose former spouse yet lived.
When Joy became ill with cancer, he married her, but in name only so that he could extend his country’s health services to her. But they were truly soul mates; and their hearts’ desire was to have the Lord bless their marriage in truth. It took some doing, as the Church of England did not allow for such marriages. But they did find a Priest who would marry them before God. They were brought together out of necessity, compassion and dearest loving commitment. I will never say that God, in His mercy and justice, did not bestow the blessings they sought. They had received remission of their sins through Christ, and I love their story as a testimony to God’s grace. You see, the law against divorce and remarriage was not for them; it was made for those who jump from spouse to spouse, discarding one person for another, sometimes endlessly.
That is not my situation at this time. I am here to tell you that celibacy is a happy way of life. The Scripture tells us much about the joy we have in Christ Jesus. Joy is our birthright. But happiness isn’t mentioned quite as often, is it?
Joy, Yes! But Happiness?
“A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. 7:39-40)
While never forbidding anyone to marry, St. Paul also discusses the encumbrance that marriage represents:
But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. (1 Cor. 7:28)
I am also here to tell you, I learned the hard way that marriage is difficult. It is way more difficult than the single, celibate life that I now lead. Am I in this state because I want to be obedient? Of course! Am I in this state because God gave me a gift and a calling? Yes! But I have also found the happiness that St. Paul talked about so much when touting the single life as preferable to marriage:
- Single, celibate people are more free to focus on eternal Kingdom matters. Paul made that clear, and logic supports this, doesn’t it? We are strangers in this strange land, and family life presents challenges that divide our attention and take up our time. I have life challenges, too, but not nearly as many.
- I am more free to do and pursue any dream, career, activity or fun hobby, as long as it’s not sin. Think about that. We know a lot about what we’re not supposed to do, but everything else is completely open to us. Now, this is true for all believers, but marriage and family calls for sacrifices I just don’t have to make.
- I don’t have the serious emotional entanglements I used to have while seeking, procuring and trying to keep a mate. This doesn’t mean I don’t experience intimacy. Far from it! I even vacation with my Christian BFF’s. But everything gets so complicated when sex, or the anticipation of sex, gets thrown into the mix.
- I’m enjoying the challenge of getting along in life as a single person. Who is going to open that jar of peanut butter for me if I don’t have a husband? (There are cool gadgets for that!) Who is going to fix things for me? (There is a video on youtube for just about anything you want to learn.)
- I’m sorry to bring this up, but I have more money, too. It’s cheaper to be single! Now I have lived with that double income, but we had twice the expenses, as well. Those who have children know how costly it is to raise even one infant to adulthood. (Two years ago, Time Magazine cited a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stating, “For a middle-income family to raise a child born in 2015 through the age of 17, the cost of rearing a child has hit $233,610.00.”)
The single, celibate life isn’t for everyone. Jesus said that, and St. Paul did, as well. Everyone has their gift and their calling. Can I say that I will never, ever remarry? No, I will take no vow, or assume anything about my future, as my times are in His hands. I can say, however, that I am happy in my life as a celibate, Christian divorcee. It’s just fine with me if I stay this way for all the rest of my days on earth.
Darla Meeks is an alumna of Asbury University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Journalism. She received her Master’s from Middlebury College, with additional studies at the University of Oxford in the UK. For the last 25 years, she has worked as a claims litigation analyst for the insurance industry.