Divorced is NOT a Status

1990 census form cropped to display marital status

From 1990 United States census form

When completing a census form or a job application, we’re often asked our marital status, and given choices of Single, Married, Divorced or Widowed. An individual who experienced divorce many years ago, and has not married again, feels compelled to label themselves, “Divorced.”

Too often, within the church, we add yet another marital status, “Divorced and Remarried.”

As though it is not enough that a person has gone through the devastating experience of a failed marriage, as though it is not enough to (erroneously) tell them the divorce was their fault, that they should have prevented it, and that it is sinful, we go one more step to forever label them as “divorced.”

This stigmatic label is never removed no matter what further life accomplishments may be achieved, or how successful and enriching a later marriage may become.

What’s in a name?

From a biblical perspective, our covenant relationships define who we are.

When God made a covenant with Abram, Abram received a new name, Abraham (Genesis 17:1-5). Likewise Sarai received a new name, Sarah (Genesis 17:15). The new names signify that Abraham and Sarah are no longer the same people they were prior to the covenant. They now have a covenant partner, and that covenant relationship has redefined who they are. Their identities have been changed.

Even today, when a man and woman are married, it is customary for the woman to take her husband’s last name as her own, signifying that her identity has changed, with a new character trait defined by her new covenant relationship.

I am who I am:

In biblical language, we seldom read a sentence starting with “I am…” followed by anything temporary or transitory. “I am…” statements are almost invariably followed by a defining characteristic of that person, or by reference to a covenant relationship, such as “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35) or “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12).

In contrast, consider Jesus’ statement on the cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28 NKJV). Note that He did not say, “I am thirsty,” as would be typical today. The state of thirst was temporary and did not define who Jesus is.

My identity cannot be defined by a covenant that does not exist:

Divorce does not define who I am, as implied by a statement such as, “I am divorced.”  Divorce is an experience I have been through, not a defining characteristic of my identity.

Likewise, divorce is not a perpetual state of being. I have been through divorce; I am not in divorce.

Saying I am divorced would be like saying Jesus is dead. Jesus died, but He is not dead. Death is an experience He passed through before emerging very much alive, on the other side.

Likewise, divorce is an experience I have passed through, before emerging very much redeemed from that covenant, on the other side. I went through a divorce, but I am not divorced. Divorce is not a state in which I continue to live.

Since my covenant relationships define my identity, who I am, the moment the divorce was complete and I was no longer in covenant with Marie, that covenant ceased to exist and ceased to define who I am. I do not describe myself as divorced, nor do I refer to Marie as my ex-wife. That covenant relationship is not simply altered; it no longer exists. Therefore, it neither defines who I am, nor who Marie is.

When we define ourselves as “divorced,” we limit our potential, hanging onto old wounds and failed relationships. There are not multiple marital statuses! We are either married or single. I am either in a marriage covenant or not in a marriage covenant. Once a covenant has ended, that covenant no longer exists and ceases to define who I am.

When we refer to Christian brothers and sisters who have experienced a failed marriage as “divorced” or “divorced and remarried,” we are labeling them by what is commonly (though erroneously) believed to be sin. We are affixing a label of “sinner” and “untrustworthy” that is never removed and never lived down.

This is completely contrary to Christ, the Christian faith, and all that Christ did on the cross!  Even if sin was involved (which is not necessarily the case) why would we continue to characterize a person by their past sin?

God does not see me as “divorced,” nor as “divorced and remarried.”  He sees me as possessing the valuable life experience of having lived through a divorce, and He intends for that life experience to become a useful tool in the ministry for which He has ordained and destined me.

What valuable life experience has God used to shape your ministry?

[Note: This post includes excerpts from my book titled, So You are a Believer Who has been through Divorce: A Myth-Busting Biblical Perspective on Divorce]

[Linked to God Bumps , Scribing , WIP , Beholding Glory , Graceful , Seedlings , Wellspring ]

28 thoughts on “Divorced is NOT a Status

  1. Joe, I know these are birthed from experience and a lot of wrestling. Thank you for sharing such thoughtful posts. Your book sounds like a helpful resource. I love that you pointed out this: labeling them by what is commonly (though erroneously) believed to be sin.

    God has used a BUNCH of experiences to shape my ministry. One of the most significant in recent years was being sidelined because of surgeries and health issues. I LOVE visiting people in the hospital and sending cards to shut ins. I know firsthand how much that blesses someone who’s down physically, emotionally, and often spiritually.

    • What an amazing ministry, Susan!

      You’re so right. Just a brief visit or card can make such a difference…just knowing we are in someone’s thoughts and prayers.

      Somehow, God takes each of those painful, lonely, grief-filled experiences and uses them to shape our view of Himself and of others.

      Thank you, so much, for sharing that…and for your heart-felt ministry!

  2. Too often I define myself by things that are temporary and not by who I really am. I can only imagine how imprisoning the label of ‘divorce and remarried’ can be. Thanks for pointing this out. Blessings to you!

    • Yes, it’s a place that’s easy to get stuck, and very important to move past. Like the Israelites after leaving Egypt, we must continue on to entering God’s promises and not remain stuck in the wilderness of misplaced identity.

      Thank you, Christina!

  3. This article was timely. My divorce was finalized last May, and I am now finding myself in situations where people (or forms) ask me my martial status. I’ve been very private about my separation and divorce thus far and didn’t know how to handle the question, “Are you married?” On the last employment form I completed it asked for my martial status and I replied, “Single” but almost felt guilty ~ as if I was lying if I didn’t mark “divorced”. When people ask me if I am married, I simply respond “No”, but again feel a twinge of guilty ~ as if I am deceiving them by not telling them I am divorced. This article has wiped away ALL feelings of guilty. Thank you!

    • That’s a difficult period, right after a divorce, Anon.

      I remember my own emotional response to those sorts of questions in the months following divorce. The marriage to which you have so closely identified yourself for so long is now gone…and the new identity being thrust upon you has so many negative connotations.

      It is so important, for all of us, to cling tightly to Jesus, and the realization that our truest, deepest identity is in Him. Our identity in Christ does not change…nor do the blessings He has planned for us.

      Blessings to you, Anon! I’m praying for you, this morning, that as you traverse this difficult transition, God will give you a clearer vision of His love for you, and His plans for your life.

  4. As Susan said, I can tell you have struggled and wrestled with this. If I remember correctly, you are fairly far removed from your first marriage and have had time to work through these issues. As with the other post, I don’t know that I necessarily agree with you. I feel like this is more an argument of semantics. Society uses many terms to attempt to define and categorize people. We alone have the choice to decide what we will allow to define us. I submit that how we define ourselves should have not one thing to do with our marital status but rather focus solely on what Christ has done for us on the cross. Our identity is wholly wrapped up in who He is. That’s the only that that is certain. Everything else about me can change.

    Thanks for linking up with WIP!

    • “We alone have the choice to decide what we will allow to define us.”

      Yes, in the end, it is not how others see us that matters, but how we see ourselves. Or, more importantly, learning to recognize how God sees us, as His beloved children.

      It is much more than semantics, though.

      While in a marriage, we learn to identify ourselves with our covenant partner and as a part of that covenant relationship. With the ending of the marriage, that suddenly changes.

      It is important, for emotional healing and spiritual growth, to not get stuck in the identity of “divorced,” but to move past that to fully embrace our identity in Christ.

      In my book, I compare it to the Israelites being stuck in the wilderness for 40 years, because they had trouble letting go of identifying themselves with Pharaoh and relying on Pharaoh’s provision. They eventually learned to identify themselves with God alone and entered into His promises, but it was not an easy transition for them.

      It’s not an easy transition, today, either.

  5. What a thoughtful perspective, Joe. I really liked this:

    “Saying I am divorced would be like saying Jesus is dead. Jesus died, but He is not dead. Death is an experience He passed through before emerging very much alive, on the other side.”

    • Thank you, Jennifer!

      The Bible often uses terms and images related to death and birth in relation to entering or leaving covenants.

      Having been through divorce, I understand why. It feels a bit like mourning a death…and learning to embrace a new life…

      Blessings to you, my friend!

  6. Great article, Joe. I agree. I do not like the label of divorce. I don’t use the term to define myself. Not referring to my former spouse as ex-wife is a bit harder to avoid. Do you have any suggestions on ways to get around that? How do you speak of her to others without mentioning who she is, and thus giving her that label?

    • Good question, Dan! It has, at times, been cumbersome, but I made up my mind, years ago, not to use that label.

      Most often, I simply call her Marie, when speaking of her in conversation.

      When speaking of her in conversation with people who don’t know her, I usually say, “my children’s mother,” or “my kids’ mom.”

      Not only does this better state the nature of the relationship, but it also allows me to speak of Marie with a title of honor, rather than a title with negative connotations.

  7. Great Post, Joe. It really is about God’s grace and not our self righteousness.

    It’s when we feel invincible that we’re the biggest targets of Satan.
    He will hit us at our most vulnerable points and pull us into selfishness, bitterness, pain and distress.
    He’ll give us pleasurable addiction, then take away the pleasure until only the addiction is left.
    He’ll instill in us a pride that looks down on others…an arrogance that shames our Savior.
    Satan will make us see the good things as bad and the bad things as wonderful.
    He will leave us on the ground, gasping for air and wanting to simply die.

    It’s then, when we have no place to look but up that God’s amazing grace comes to us and lifts our hearts from our pit of despair. He forgives all transgressions and makes all things new for the contrite heart. So if Jesus Christ, the Head, forgives, the Body of Christ much do the same.

    • So very true, PJ!

      I especially like this:

      “It’s then, when we have no place to look but up, that God’s amazing grace comes to us and lifts our hearts from our pit of despair. He forgives all transgressions and makes all things new for the contrite heart. So if Jesus Christ, the Head, forgives, the Body of Christ must do the same.”

      That truly is the basis for how we should see each other…all equally helpless but for God’s grace…all equally clothed in the righteousness of Christ!

      Thank you, for the uplifting exhortation!

  8. Joe, flesh and blood did not reveal this to you. Thank you for sharing this fresh perspective on marriage and covenant relationship. I had a pastor friend who was ostracized by the church because neither his first or second marriage worked out. His first wife abandoned both him and their daughter. His 2nd wife bullied him and even parishioners, until the church voted him out because of this marital fiasco. Eventually he married a woman who was kind and gracious.

    • Another all too common example of the sort of ostracizing discussed in your recent blog post, Debra!

      For a group of people claiming to believe we were all born sinners completely dependent on the grace of God for salvation, Christians can be amazingly judgmental, can’t we?

      I am so thankful that your friend found God to be faithful, when others were not…and glad he has been blessed with a kind and gracious spouse.

      Thank you, for the excellent example of why this topic is so relevant!

  9. I’ve never thought of this, Joe, but I can imagine it is a very hurtful thing. It makes me sad to think I may have thought in these terms and I’m glad you have pointed this out.

  10. Joe, what a jolt that was to me! I’d never considered any of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. I’ve never been through a divorce, so am probably not sensitive to it for that reason. Because of your post, I will be more mindful from now on of how I word things. Thank you!

    As for your question on how life experiences have helped shape my ministry… I come from a history of abuse and that has been the most influencial thing to shape me and my ministry. In May I felt called to start a blog focused on giving a voice to all survivors. It has been an amazing experience.

    So glad I found your blog through Rachelle Gardner!

    • Yes, abuse, like divorce, has a major impact on a life…one that should help shape a ministry without defining who we are.

      Thank you, so much, for sharing, Denise!

      I LOVE how you have started a blog ministry about abuse! I just visited your site and found it to be very insightful and practical.

      May god richly bless you in this ministry for which He has anointed you!

      • Thanks, Joe. I appreciate your encouragement and feedback.
        Isn’t it great how we can support each other as we all find our our way of furthering Christ’s Good News?
        Rock on, my friend! 😉

  11. I have only recently escaped an abusive marriage and the divorce has not been finalised. It’s been tricky due to a restraining order so the no-contact has caused the process to be drawn out via electronic communications via legal council. In any case, I was just wondering about persons who find them to be single parents after the divorce. Would assigning “single” status not complicate things for the children? Especially within church & Christian community.

    • Ah…you make a good point, MsRed!

      Communication carries so many nuances, depending on frames of reference and various perceptions.

      I was a single father for several years and preferred not to be called ‘divorced’ as that label seemed to carry a stigma, especially within the church.

      However, I see your point…that as a single mother you might prefer to clarify that you were married at the time the children were conceived.

      I think whatever term you are most confortable with is what you should use. The important part, in relation to the article focus, is to not let ‘divorced’ be a defining status in the sense of limiting your potential ministry.

      Blessings to you!
      joe recently posted…Guilty StainMy Profile

  12. Thank you! Altho my divorce happened 10 years ago, I still label myself that way. No more!! 😉 I just found your site and am enjoying your writing, and have already enjoyed reading your comments on Cry for Justice for a while now.

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