Monday, September 19, 2011

First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Love

Wow, I didn't see that coming.  Turns out, I'm more conservative than Pat Robertson.  America's favorite foot-in-mouth preacher says a husband confronted with a wife who has Alzheimer's disease should divorce her so he can start a new relationship.  Watch the clip here:

Apparently, the CBN interviewer doesn't see it coming either.  She gently tries to prompt Robertson with the reminder that marriage is "for better, for worse," but he's not having it.  He says, "Well, I know, if you're respecting that vow, but ... " But no, if the husband is lonely and wants companionship, it's perfectly fine to divorce.

To his credit, Robertson shows pastoral sensitivity when he acknowledges just how hard it is for a spouse when a loved one slips into the darkness of Alzheimer's.  He is right - it is hard, it is heartbreaking, and it is lonely.  More than anything, it is a grief to watch someone you love slowly fade away like that - a grief that does not come with the benefit of sympathetic outpourings, a memorial service, or the freedom to love again.  No pastoral leader could fail to recognize the hard road traveled by the spouse (and children) of an Alzheimer's patient.

But Robertson, speaking as a Christian leader on the Christian Broadcasting Network, is (or should be) speaking about Christian marriage.  And Christian marriage is not a contract, but a covenant.  What's the difference?  A contract is an agreement two people enter into for their mutual benefit, with certain agreed conditions that must remain in effect.  If those conditions don't remain in effect, the contract is null and void.  Our society in general has come to see marriage as a contract.  My side of the bargain is, as long as you make me feel good, I will continue to love you.  If you don't make me feel good any longer, then there's something wrong with you, and I'm free to declare the contract null and void.

Here's what I tell couples I am counseling before their marriage: our society sees love as one big Cinderella story.  We think that if you find the right Prince or Princess Charming, then you will always feel like you're at the ball at a quarter to midnight.  If you don't feel like that, then - oops - Prince/Princess Charming was a fake.  But here's the deal: in marriage, when the time comes that you don't feel like it's a quarter to midnight, when things get tough and life gets heartbreaking and marriage seems to be one challenge after another - that's when you get to learn what love really is.

Because love is not a feeling.  Love is a series of decisions, and a lifetime full of actions.  Love is something you decide to do every day, no matter what you feel.  (Though sometimes, we hope, you will feel like you're at the ball at quarter to midnight!)  And in doing it, in loving your neighbor as yourself, in making the good of your spouse your highest priority, you will learn to experience love at a whole new level, far beyond mere feelings.  When it gets hard is when real love starts.  And when real love starts is when we human beings get to learn the most important lesson of our life, because there is no lesson more important than love.

Which is why God gives us the gift of marriage, which for Christians is not a contract, but a covenant.  A covenant is an unconditional promise that binds two parties together for life.  When Christ gave us the new covenant, he didn't make it conditional on good behavior - he offered himself for us as a permanent and eternal Savior.  Marriage, for Christians, is an earthly symbol of what Christ has done for his church - and Christ gave his life for his church.  It didn't feel good, but it was the ultimate act of love.

That doesn't mean that Christians don't recognize divorce on any terms - there are times when human failure and sin makes it impossible for a marriage to continue, such as abuse and addiction and unrepented infidelity, or the simple unwillingness of one spouse to stay married, in which case the other spouse has no choice.  And forgiveness is always available in Christ, even if you are divorced for not-so-good reasons.  We offer a chance at new life and new love in those cases.

But that's not what we're talking about here, in Pat Robertson's advice video.  We are talking about a terminal and debilitating disease.  Would we counsel a husband to divorce his wife who is suffering from incurable cancer?  No, we would not.

I am sorry that Pat Robertson does not understand what Christian love is all about.  But for those of us who follow Christ, we need only look at Christ to understand it - Christ, who commanded us to "Love one another as I have loved you."


  1. Well... we always knew Pat was a little crazy... !!! He just keeps proving it over and over again.

    And, yes, your response is the Christian discipline of marriage. Indeed.

    Good to see you Susan! Many blessings!

  2. Sent here by MadPriest.

    Movies always end when the couple walks down the aisle, but that's only the beginning of the challenges and rich wonder of the journey.

    As half of a legally married lesbian couple, I can attest that the fact of marriage was revelatory to me. Yes, our long term relationship was strong, and we willingly worked to keep it so (since every relationship takes work). But with marriage, that work becomes something profound and beautiful, something that lifts us up beyond ourselves so that the "we" truly becomes greater than the sum of "you" and "me", and further weaves us into the tapestry of community in a way that simply living together never could.

    As for Pat Robertson, I find it astonishing that he can voice such an opinion, yet consider married gay people like my wife and me to be the biggest threat to marriage. Seems that Pat Robertson's view is a far bigger threat. (And far more selective, given he didn't have the same opinion back in the days of the Terry Schiavo case.)

  3. Susan, your are absolutely on target with this piece. MY husband and I word in a ministry for hurting marriages, and we hear excuses all of the time about why a person doesn't want to stay in the marriage.

    Love is a decision is fundamental to a lasting marriage, and it is a decision that must be made over and over again, especially when the tough times, which are inevitable, come.

    Pat Robertson simply is once again way off base.

  4. Is anyone else suspicious that Pat wouldn't be quite so blase' if it were a wife who wanted to divorce her Alzheimers' afflicted husband?

    As I said over at Friends-of-Jake, it's one thing to UNDERSTAND a failure to meet the extremely difficult (in this case) demands of the marital covenant. It's another, under the conditions of Alzheimers, to counsel dispensing w/ the covenant altogether.