Worshipping God (Not Your Spouse) by “Waiting at the Line”

This Wednesday evening, The Crossing will close out its fifth semester of DivorceCare. In the two-and-a-half years that my wife and I have been facilitating this Christ-centered separation and divorce recovery program, we have had the great privilege to meet and become friends with many people from a wide variety of backgrounds – social, cultural and theological. The one thing that binds all of us together is that each of us has lived through one of the most agonizing emotional traumas a human being can go through and are now seeking biblical truth to answer The Big Question: “Now that all of my life plans have been shipwrecked, what does it look like for me to live out my days in a way that honors God?”

By and large, the majority of folks who attend DivorceCare are – for lack of a better term – “the spouse who was left behind.” Most people (for example) do not leave their spouse, begin an adulterous relationship with someone else, and then decide to faithfully attend a 12-week program in order to discern God’s will; the light of Christ as revealed through the Bible is typically more truth than your average unrepentant adulterer cares to be exposed to. There are exceptions, of course, and God is in the business of producing miracles. But for the most part, the people we meet and interact with have been on the receiving end of tremendous amounts of pain (though by no means completely “innocent” of their own wrongdoing, either).

In the past few weeks, both within the context of facilitating DivorceCare and just the normal course of conversations with others, the question about “what it looks like” to live faithfully while someone else is acting out in sin has come up time and time again. “What am I supposed to do while he’s off sleeping with his girlfriend?” “If she’s going to be chasing after some other guy, why in the world should I restrain myself from dating other women?” “What does Jesus really call me to in this impossible situation?” What may seem like an obvious truth to someone completely removed from the situation can quickly become cloudy and confusing to the person who thought that they would be investing the rest of their lives in a relationship that has come completely undone. If, as Keith Simon likes to say, “Sin makes us stupid,” I’d like to add a corollary that says, “Intense emotional pain makes even the smallest decision seem completely overwhelming.”

Having run through the curriculum six or seven times, I’d like to share something that I have found to be both completely truthful and eminently practical. It comes from Dr. Jim Talley, an author, minister, speaker and widely-acknowledged expert on divorce recovery and marriage reconciliation. The first few times I heard him speak on the wisdom of “waiting at the line of reconciliation,” I can admit that I was somewhat skeptical about the idea. In the intervening two years, though, I have seen the truth of this idea play itself out (both positively and negatively) in the lives of many people, all of whom claimed that they wanted God’s will for their lives, but not all of whom were willing to make any sort of sacrifice to attain it.

In a nutshell, Dr. Talley contends that all marriages normally operate within what he refers to as the “limits of harmony,” i.e. spouses will draw close to each other at times, then feel somewhat distant from each other during other seasons, but the feelings of alienation do not become so great as to break those limits of marital harmony. (See Frame 1 for a graphic representation of what Talley means by “a marriage operating within the limits of harmony.”) Eventually, Talley maintains, a healthy marriage will rebound, the cycle will shift, and the spouses will meet each other back at “the line of reconciliation.” Committed to God’s grace in their marriage, past offenses will be forgiven, misunderstandings will be resolved, both partners will commit to ongoing counseling as needed, etc. (See Frame 2; both spouses “back at the line.”)

In marriages where adultery, physical and/or emotional abuse or other serious offenses have been committed, Talley would say that the offending spouse has “broken through” the limits of harmony and is now living squarely outside of the boundaries of the marriage covenant (see Frame 3). Perhaps the husband is now living with his mistress; maybe the wife has moved out of the home and refuses to speak to anyone who shows an interest in helping her rebuild her marriage. Whatever the case, the main idea here is that one of the spouses has become sinful to the point that the other spouse finds the circumstances “completely unlivable” and would, by most folks’ reckoning, be perfectly justified in seeking after a divorce. Worse, the offending spouse often becomes so intractable in their sin that it would appear to any outside observer that all hope is indeed lost.

And it is in this precise moment when it becomes most difficult to live out a life that truly glorifies God.

The majority of us, confronted with a sinful, recalcitrant spouse, are prone to feel entirely “justified before God” by invoking the adultery clause in Matthew 5:32 or the abandonment clause in 1 Corinthians 7:15 and going immediately to divorce. “My spouse is cheating on me, the Bible says I can get a divorce, and so I am getting a divorce, period.” Invariably, marital strife sends ripple effects through the entire extended family, close friends and co-workers. In our culture, there are plenty of people willing to “come to their friend’s aid” and nudge them into moving ahead quickly. Talley, for his part, recommends the exact opposite, and with good reason. This is not the time to speed things up; given the lifelong implications of the decision, this is instead a time to slow everything down to a crawl.

Talley maintains that, over time, it is highly likely that the offending spouse will return to the line of reconciliation, even if everything he or she is doing today would make that seem impossible. The affair, for example, will not yield the happiness that the offending spouse thought it would. Financial ruin causes a wandering spouse to seriously reconsider his or her faithlessness. God grants the gift of repentance after an extended season of sin. All three of these scenarios can and do play themselves out every day. People who have strayed do return. Not all of them, of course, but enough to make the trend worthy of our consideration.

However, it is also very typical that by the time the original offender comes back to the line, the other spouse has moved on – too quickly – to another relationship, thereby effectively thwarting the possibility of reconciliation.

One of Talley’s techniques for managing the spiritual lives of those going through an exceedingly rough patch in their marriage is to ask “whoever I find at the line” to commit to staying faithful to their marriage and their wandering spouse for at least six months. Then, at the end of those six months, he asks them whether or not they want to renew their commitment. The longest wait he has personally counseled has been twelve years, start to finish. Most people, of course, simply will not wait that long (or even half that long!) for their spouse to cease acting out.

What I am coming to understand, though, is that whether or not the guilty party ever returns to the line of reconciliation is almost a secondary issue; the main thing going on in all of this is to draw the other person deeper into their relationship with Christ. By committing to wait through painful circumstances, the offended party is seeking to trust God with their marriage, and that is what is of primary importance. Whether the straying spouse ever comes back or not, the individual who has given themselves over to God’s care for six months, a year, or even twelve years is better able to cope with the loss and is (coincidentally) a much stronger person…more mature, and far more capable should they decide someday to divorce and remarry.

Practically speaking, what might it look like to “wait at the line” while someone is actively sinning against us and violating their marriage covenant? Well, as they say elsewhere in the DivorceCare curriculum, “If you do it right, it will be very painful; if you do it wrong, it will be excruciating.” Living through painful seasons of life is no picnic, but when all is said and done and the smoke has cleared, I think we all want to be able to stand before the living God and feel absolutely certain that we did “everything we could” on our end of the equation.

It’s in that spirit, as someone seeking to be faithful to Christ while a spouse is causing unrelenting heartbreak, that you might want to consider these guidelines for faithful waiting (also cribbed from another Church Initiative program called Choosing Wisely: Before You Divorce):

  1. I will not consult an attorney about separation or divorce, or I will suspend such discussions if I have already been in consultation regarding separation or divorce.

  2. I will continue to live with my spouse (if not already separated or divorced).

  3. I will not date or have significant or repeated social contact with a person of the opposite sex during this period.

  4. I will refrain from being physically abusive toward my spouse.

  5. I will not make any major financial decisions, withdrawals or adjustments without the knowledge and consent of my spouse during this period.

  6. I will faithfully attend any counseling sessions that are associated with this process.

  7. I will work together with my spouse to protect our children from exposure to our marriage problems. I will be supportive and positive about my spouse when interacting with our children.

  8. Through prayer and Bible study, I will attempt to find God’s will and direction for the decision of whether to divorce or stay together.

This is a tough, no-nonsense call to faithfulness. I am fully aware of how difficult these suggestions might be to someone currently going through separation and/or divorce, but please be reassured that I am not writing this blog “from the comfy armchair of a well-studied theologian.” I personally lived through my own separation and divorce (1997-1998) and I can only wish that I had access to the wisdom contained in this program at that time. Honestly, I winced as I typed out these guidelines, thinking about my own personal history and how being faithful might have played out for me. It is helpful, though, to keep the desired end result in perspective: You are not, ultimately, seeking peace with your ex, though that too would be wonderful (whether the marriage stays intact or not); you are instead seeking to be at peace with God.

One last thing to consider. By committing to a six-month (or longer) period of waiting, a person can very effectively derail the “Do I divorce? Or do I not divorce?” cyclone that spins around inside the head throughout the day. It is by no means a cure-all, but laying this issue aside for several months “frees up brain cells” to pray, observe, and think clearly. It also short-circuits our tendency toward hastiness and allows us to turn the volume down on others who are insisting that we need to move quickly, i.e. we can confidently ignore those who come at us with something like, “Sweetheart, you really need to get on with your life.” Jesus was never in a hurry to end relationships…why are we?

James 1:2-8 (ESV)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

DivorceCare and Choosing Wisely: Before You Divorce are produced by Church Initiative, Inc. of Wake Forest, N.C. To find a DivorceCare group operating in your area, simply go to this page and type in your ZIP code. For more information on separation and divorce ministries available at The Crossing in Columbia, Mo., please visit the Separation and Divorce Ministries page on our website.

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