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When Happily Ever After Isn’t

Sadly, there are parents reading this who will painstakingly seek marriage with a godly spouse for their children only to watch, in time, the union disintegrate to such a point that divorce is the only remedy.

  • Susan Burns,
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They did not care who saw them. Or maybe they did not know anyone else existed in the world. They stood a little too close, facing eye to eye, fingers intertwining. Such into-you-ness can only speak of one thing: love. Eros, of course, not phileo or agape (not yet anyway). But eros isn’t bad. I am sure our First Parents felt the surge of pure, undefiled Eros wash over them the moment they met. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” Adam said. Then sin entered, rebellion against the Holy Father ensued, and well, we all know the rest of the story.

We live with its effects every day. If we want to be wise, we must balance this hard knowledge, this hard reality, with the strong desires we have that our children know the joy of being young and in love, young wives and husbands beginning that wonderful (we hope) ascent (not descent, we pray) into married life. And as we train and prepare them for that day aglow with such promises of bliss and the birth of a new generation, we must always keep in mind sin and the powers of evil that delight in destroying such holy possibilities.

The bitter truth is that some marriages will fail. Even during that time to come prophesied in Isaiah 65, some marriages will fail. Not many, thank God! What a joy to know that the scourge of my generation will pass! Sadly, there are parents reading this who will painstakingly seek marriage with a godly spouse for their children only to watch, in time, the union disintegrate to such a point that divorce is the only remedy. What pain and sorrow there will be. And tears. And questions—where did I go wrong, who is to blame? A lifetime of “what if’s” and “if only’s.” Because of sin. We are sinners; we beget sinners. Sinners behave sinfully and sometimes rebellion and hardness of heart is such that the union crumbles. No, it should not be so. But it is the wage we reap and will continue to reap as this culture dies and the Bride of Christ refuses to obey her Lord.

The First Sign of Trouble

Cracks appear in the relationship. This is the normal consequence of sinners living together. My pastor, Robert Jones of Hurricane Evangelical Free Church, says, “Don’t be surprised when your children sin; plan on it!” It is that plan of godly action that can make or break your family. What do you do? How do you counsel your child? Where do you send him? Here are some hard pills to swallow. But you must be aware of these dangers so that your loved ones can avoid falling into and being destroyed by these terrible hell-pits.

Today the probability is quite slim of the church’s being a help and offering godly counsel for you and yours during this time. I feel like a traitor for saying it, but sadly it is true. The Biblical process of reconciliation (Matt. 18) is seldom practiced in churches. Those churches (particularly Reformed and Presbyterian) who attempt to implement this process do so as the first step in “church discipline”; it is used as an administrative procedure to clear the rolls of the errant instead of reclaiming the wayward sheep. For several years I watched a denomination that prides itself on being “Reformed” and “Bible-believing” ruin lives by this administrative approach. I have watched the brokenhearted go to their pastors and sessions for help only to be caught up in the grist mill of Matthew 18 misapplied. The brokenhearted, tender and vulnerable become even more deeply wounded. It is hard for hearts so wounded ever to trust the church again. And they fight gargantuan battles against personal bitterness toward God and the church—not to mention the impact this sorry witness has on friends and relatives who watch this abuse occur.

Fortunately, there are some churches that rightly apply Matthew 18. If you or your hurting child can get to one, go. But before you do, be very careful to check out the pastor and the elders. Ask hard questions. Do not be afraid to. The life of your loved one is at stake. If at all possible, talk to church members who have had difficult situations handled by the session. It could make the difference between your child’s living alone for the rest of his life or living reconciled with his spouse. I know a woman who did this. She moved to another city to be under the care of a session who had a reputation for godliness, understanding Matthew 18, and applying it in the lives of the congregation. Unfortunately, by the time she realized there was little truth to the advertising, it was too late. So check it out. What appears to be a Titan of the Faith may in reality be a Titanic! Take special care. Your loved ones are at stake.

In addition, be aware that as kind and as tenderhearted as a session may appear, your loved one’s marital problem may be just one more thing for the session to deal with. Most pastors and elders will be busy attending session meetings, committee meetings, preparing sermons or Sunday school lessons, oiling the wheel that creaks the loudest. No one but you will care that days, weeks, months are passing while the elders try to get around to you. I often counsel my friends that if they want the session’s involvement, they need to create a crisis, such as telling them you are moving your membership. That is the one thing they will most likely respond to. It is sad that this technique works very well.

The only true motivation a session will have to expedite resolution of a sinful situation is its love for God and zeal for His honor. Without that, they move about as fast as molasses during a northeast January. Unfortunately, many elders today lack this zeal and love and appear terrified by conflict or even “potential” conflict. They refuse to gird their loins with the truth of orthodox Christianity, and prefer to sit as eunuchs in committee meetings waiting for someone to volunteer to make Jell-O for yet another potluck. It is another sad consequence of the demasculinization of the church. Hearty, intact, Calvinistic elders seek the lost sheep and chase the enemy from the fold.

Another sad reality is that ungodly sessions can be tar-babies; it can be very hard to get them off your back once they are involved. I have seen this scenario played out time after time: the unsuspecting, hurting, grieving individual goes to the pastor and elders seeking help. It becomes clear to the hurting one that the session—for whatever reason, ignorance of the Bible, lack of training, acceptance of ungodly philosophies, or plain stubbornness—is not applying and will not apply Biblical principles or teaching to the situation. The disappointed person humbly points this out to the session. Usually, the person making the truthful observation is declared stubborn and rebellious; charges are brought (“contumacy”), “adjudication” begins and the innocent person is disciplined, sometimes excommunicated—this in addition to still suffering from the problem that brought him to the session in the first place. Remember this fact: ungodly elders do not like to be told they are wrong.

So, bottom line—do not have great expectations of today’s church. I agree, it should not be this way. But that is how it is in the life of the church today. The church is a mess today. If you naively, Bambi-eyed, take your troubles to her—watch out, you may be gunned down in cold blood. What a sad and terrible statement to make today, that we not only have to protect our children from a godless secular culture, we also often must protect them from the church.

A Godly Choice

As I said, there are some good churches out there, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I can’t leave this topic without describing one. Before moving to California, I had the joyous privilege of being involved in a church whose pastor is an excellent, Biblical counselor. Talk about “if only’s!” As I sat under the ministry of Pastor Robert Jones, I kept saying, “If only he had been available when this loved one or that loved one was facing a crisis!” Not only does he counsel; he teaches his congregation to do the same—not in a formal setting, but in the day-to-day situations that they face with family and friends. Under this kind of discipleship, the church develops elders who are equipped to rightly apply the Word in the lives of the members as well as members who are trained to rightly apply the Word in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This is the way it is supposed to be: Matthew 18 is a part of church life—not the bastard child of administrative censure, but the life-giving, peacemaking Matthew 18 spoken by Christ to His disciples. This is the kind of church to which you must flee. Unfortunately, they are too few. So, I beg of you, heed my earlier warnings and precautions.

Another Godly Choice

If such a church is not available, where can you go, what can you do? Biblical counseling is another option. Still, you must look carefully and examine carefully the theology and approach which the counselor takes. I have friends who have been very disappointed to find that counselors who claim to be “nouthetic” and believers in orthodox Christianity and the Reformed Faith actually do not use the sound Biblical counseling techniques taught by these schools of counseling. The good news here is that if you involve yourself with a counselor and are disappointed, you can usually sever the relationship without fear of being excommunicated.

Fortunately, there are some fine counseling options. Once again, through my pastor, I became aware of the ministry of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. I had the privilege of attending a “Changing Lives Seminar” taught by David Powlison and Paul Tripp. I strongly recommend these seminars. Go, take your family. It will do you much more good than a trip to Disney World. This organization offers the kind of reconciliation ministry that can help you and your loved ones as they face a crisis. I hope to highlight their ministry in an upcoming Report. In the meantime, if you want more information, contact them at 1803 East Willow Grove Avenue, Glenside, PA 19083 (215) 884-7676.

An axiom of us Recons is “strong families, strong churches”; and that is true. When families are weak, tearing apart and breaking up, something has to be done to repair the breach and strengthen the wall. I believe that the methods I have learned through my pastor, David Powlison, and Paul Tripp offer the best Biblical solution we have available today. The wonderful news is that the training is available and you do not have to be an elder to take it or to use it to minister to your family and friends. By taking advantage of this training, both families and the church will be strengthened and begin to function as God desires.

The modern church and our secular culture have done a pretty complete job of destroying the foundation necessary to promote healthy, strong families. So I am very grateful for the Biblical foundation being laid by godly men line upon line and precept upon precept. I am grateful for the ministry of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. I am grateful that I have had the privilege of seeing and participating in a church that tries to honor God in difficult situations. I am grateful for the men of Chalcedon who seek to apply Biblical teaching to issues like courtship and dating and family worship, and who seek to teach others these principles. Solid teaching and training like this will begin to turn the tide in families, the church, and culture. I urge you to lay hold of it, implement the principles in your family now. An old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In our day, as we prepare our children for marriage, I think it should be said, “Five pounds of prevention is worth a lifetime of heartache.”

Nothing Works

And what if, having done all you can do, divorce still comes for you or a child—with its searing pain, embarrassment, tears, rage at injustice, the bitterness, humiliation, loneliness, sheer terror, horror of it all? What then? Well, you can continue to lie there wallowing in a pool of your own blood, or you can take the hand of your loving Savior and be lifted up, bathed in His comfort, strengthened by His Holy Word, and move on. Praise God that, even for this, there is a balm in Gilead! Christ is the balm of Gilead and He promises to comfort our hurts and sorrows. And when the question roars through your mind: WHY? WHY? WHY? Remember the truth of Romans 8:28 and be comforted that this occurred that you might be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who Himself learned from the things He suffered. Learn from your suffering and teach what you learn to your children so that the next generation can avoid the snares laid down by the Evil One.

If you have children, train them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, as He commands. Confess your sins to them. Do not be afraid to let them see the agony your divorce has caused you. Seeing burned flesh can deter a hand from going willingly into the fire. Seeing the pain of the healing process can result in more prayerful choices about their future. Do not be afraid to call sin, sin or wickedness, wickedness. And if it is sin and wickedness on the part of a rebellious parent, name it for your children. I know this is a very unpopular concept today. Today we honor the rebellious parent no matter how wicked he is. It is very common for divorce orders to incorporate language prohibiting either spouse from speaking ill of the other. Whereas there is some wisdom in this, if a parent has abandoned his family or committed adultery, the children need to be taught that this is evil and wicked. It is so evil that in God’s law, the penalty for such behavior is death.

Give your lambs the training they need through homeschooling, Christian schooling and a sound church environment. Do not fool yourselves that they are not being ill-influenced by that pig-slop preaching they pretend to ignore every Sunday. Wait a few years and you will see how deadly that poison is. Calvinistic preaching and teaching is good food that will help grow boys and girls into strong, godly men and women. By giving your children a very strong foundation, you will be paving the way for God’s blessings on them and the next generation of your family. You will be increasing their ability to make God-honoring choices. Do not despair. You may go through life without a spouse, but you still have your children and a future.

What if you have no spouse and no children? Then, like our brother Paul (divorced or widowed, we do not know) we can serve the Lord with a singleness of devotion (1 Cor. 7:32-33). We serve a King who will never leave nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). As important and primal as the covenant of marriage is in God’s economy, in heaven there will be only one Bride and one Groom (Matt. 22:30). There is still a heritage for those who have neither spouse nor children (Is. 56:1ff).


Divorce is a terrible remedy for horrible sin. That it is so common today (and often without Biblical warrant) is symptomatic of how dead our culture is. Once again, the church of our day has not responded well to the needs of families. As a result, an entire generation has been raised not knowing how to establish a Christian home or how to solve problems when they arise between husband and wife or parent and child. But by God’s grace, there are those who are pointing the way out of the desert of broken dreams.

  • Susan Burns

Susan  is the managing editor of the the Faith for All of Life magazine and the Chalcedon Report (bi-monthly newsletter). Susan has worked for Chalcedon since 1997. She lives in Virginia and is rather fond of animals, especially her many cats.

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