When a Husband and Wife Are Going in Opposite Directions
For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? 1 Corinthians 7:16
Several years ago, when my abuse of prescription pain pills came to light – meaning my wife found out – I got sober really quick. I promised I’d never do it again and though there was some anger on her part, soon all was forgiven and we moved on with our lives. When I relapsed a couple of short years later, my wife’s tone appropriately changed. I don’t want to keep going through this. If you lie, cheat, betray my trust, and use drugs again, we’re done. Again, I promised I’d never return to drug use and after a couple of months, life went back to normal.
At the last relapse then, the proverbial wheels came off our marriage. I lost my job. My name was in the paper. My wife’s life was shattered into as many pieces as her trust in me. She was hurt, embarrassed, and she’d had enough. On my way to treatment, I thought our marriage was over. It wasn’t though. She gave me another chance and I finally turned things around. At that time, I knew I had to find recovery for myself, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also want to get sober to get her back. My wife drew appropriate boundaries of what marriage with her must look like and, at least in part due to her life choices, I was inspired to turn my life around. She helped save me from myself.
It wasn’t about addiction, but in today’s passage, Paul addressed this situation in which a husband and wife are headed in two very different directions, with one spouse a Christian and the other an unbeliever. It’s assumed that this created conflict and a sense of impropriety regarding the union. He said that the believing spouse legitimatized the marriage and he or she shouldn’t abandon it because of the differences in beliefs.
The passage is based on the reality that there is substantial conflict where there is a significant discrepancy of beliefs in marriage. For the Christian, this is a situation best avoided, meaning that in choosing a spouse, it would be far better to choose one whose beliefs align with ours. We shouldn’t marry someone as a religious mission to save him or her. Once married however, the commitment has been made and thus, religious conviction alone shouldn’t be used as reason to divorce. Paul said, “Avoid this situation, but if you find yourself in it, you’ve made the marriage commitment. Now live up to it.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons that someone should divorce. In other passages, both Jesus and Paul (Luke 16:18, Romans 7:1-3) provided adultery as justification for divorce. I don’t know that those passages revealed the only reason for leaving a spouse. I’d suggest that a woman cannot be asked to remain with an abusive husband. More personally, I’d say that in my addiction, though I may not have had an actual affair, I was unfaithful to my wife, choosing the drug over her.
I’d suggest that if anyone continually chooses to live in such a way that is contrary to the marriage vows, then that person is living outside the marriage. I can’t say that I know for certain that Paul and Christ would agree, but I doubt that they would say to a woman in an abusive relationship, “Well, your husband may be an abusive, lying, thieving, alcoholic, but he’s never slept with another woman, so you and your kids must remain in that situation.”
Still though, once we’ve married, this is a lifelong commitment that we must do what we can to honor. The passage does go on to suggest that holy living may have some positive effect on a wayward spouse. We’re not guaranteed this, however. We’re responsible only for ourselves and we cannot have faith or recover for anyone else.
In my situation, had my wife left me when I first struggled with drugs, I think maybe she would have been in the wrong. After the third time though, I personally think divorce would have been justified. Of course, I’m glad she didn’t leave. I think she is too. If you really want to know though, you’d just have to ask her.