Category: Divorce

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.

Why aren’t there more divorced people in our churches?

Here’s an interesting thing – based on the 2016 census, there is 12% of our population who are separated or divorced. Based on the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), 6% of our church population is separated or divorced. Half! Does this mean that churches are amazing at supporting marriages? Or does it mean that people feel that our churches are not welcoming to divorced and separated people?

Is there a stigma attached to divorce? And if there is, does that come from the church congregation, or from the church leadership and culture?

My personal experience is to have felt as though I was morally tainted in some contexts, and welcomed and supported in others. In the former, I think this was brought into sharper relief by my own feeling of failure. A divorced person is highly sensitized to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. It’s hard to walk into a church as a single-again. If it’s your own church, then it’s a very public declaration that you are now on your own. Everybody knows (or at least can see the evidence of) your business.

If its a new church you’re going to, one of the first questions is always about your family situation. What do you say? Will they judge me? You become acutely aware of being a lone parent checking your kids in at kids church. You become super paranoid that people can see the paler band of skin on your finger where your wedding ring used to be.

In addition, churches are largely set up for families. 65% of the church population is married (NCLS) compared to 48% in the general population. So what is “normal” in the world, is “abnormal” in the church. You stick out.

So, if people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated person will go running for the hills.

In some ways, its understandable. Throughout all cultural changes and world movements, the church has remained steadfast. With no-fault divorce and the explosion of divorce rates subsequently, the church remained focused on the centrality of the family and marriage as the bedrock of a Christian community. That’s a good thing. Our churches cannot move with the times just “because”. We have to stay true to what we believe.

But one of the things we believe is grace.

If churches are havens of the broken, why are there not more single-agains in them? Churches should feel like a safe space for the lost. And yet they are not – or at least, not seen as being so.

There is a biblical phrase that has been bandied around very unhelpfully. “God hates divorce.”  This comes from Malachi 2:16 which is translated either as ““The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”” or as ““I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”” The context of this passage is covenant breaking on the part of the priests that Malachi is rebuking. Notwithstanding, it provides a clear indication of what God appears to think of divorce.

But here’s a thing everyone should know – all divorced people understand completely why God hates divorce. Because its terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities. We know intricately and agonisingly why God hates divorce. We know better than anyone.

When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, he relates his answer to Genesis and comments “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). When asked about this unequivocal stance when Moses allowed divorce, he says “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) Divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships are the plan – but we are human. So divorce is not a gift, but it is a gracious provision in the face of our human rubbish-ness.

Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are imperfect.

Unfortunately, church history and tradition have over-layed the “God hates divorce” thing. For the Romans, divorce was terribly functional. Like the dissolving of a business partnership that no longer worked, divorce had no moral taint attached to it. In the early church, there was a speedy move to the indissolubility of marriage except in certain circumstances (on the basis of Jesus’ teaching), but they didn’t really get involved unless one of the parties wanted to re-marry. As the church gradually took over jurisdiction of marriage, by the early Middle Ages, divorce became far more regulated and commented on. Divorce was even deemed to be criminal. That attitude pervaded until at least the 19th century and we still have hangovers of it today.

Divorce is a very public “sin”. If you are divorced, you must have done something wrong. There is a presumption of sin and sinful behavior. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you let it happen. You failed.

Here’s what Kevin deYoung said of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin?  Yes.  Is every divorce therefore sinful?  No.”

Its a helpful reminder. We can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by who. We cannot and ought not, to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent? People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. If there is no sin, then we must envelope them with the love and warmth of Christ.

Above all, we must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong.

I would gently challenge churches to consider how a single-again would feel if they turned up to your church for the first time. What is the culture? Would they feel welcomed as though they had a place there? What about if one of your parishioners marriages imploded? What support mechanisms are there? Would they feel they can talk freely and honestly?

The main thing here is to be aware of how over-sensitive single-agains can feel, and that perception may be out-weighing the reality. In which case you may have to over-compensate to change pervading attitudes and assumptions as to what the church thinks.

Also, lets think about how the world sees us. We know that we are havens for the broken. But the world often sees us as oases of homogeneity. We are either nice white middle class community centers for families with small kids, or we are stern ivory towers of judgement on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. That’s how we are seen. How do we change the perception, so that at the worst possible time in someones life, they know they can turn to the church for support and love?

I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me that we need to think about this if we are to help the lost to feel as though church is a safe space for them to come and find belonging in the arms of Jesus and find his love in action in his community.


NOTE: Many churches are starting to offer Divorce Care. This is an excellent course and you can find a group here or even find more information on how to set up a group in your church.

Dissecting emotional abuse and why it’s so easy to let it happen

Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,

This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.

It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.

Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.

Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).

Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.

It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.

“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.

At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:

  1. The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
  2. Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.

The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.

Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.

The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.

This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.

When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).

Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.

At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.

This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.

When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.

Some lessons for Mother’s Day from my great great grandmother

Mother’s Day can suck for a lot of people. For some it’s a beautiful and wonderful day with your own mum, and you as a mum. For others it’s a reminder of everything we don’t have.

As a single mum I find it a mixed blessing. It’s a day like any other because who else is going to take care of the kids? There’s no special breakfast in bed, or gifts, or lunches. It’s just the same old same old. Except with a gnawing feeling that other mums are getting something that I don’t.

Except this year. I’m determined not to feel that way this year. Here’s why.

My great-great-grandmother was born Sarah Ann Lee in Hampshire in about 1857. She married my great-great-grandfather (Henry) and they had about 6 children together. He was away at sea a lot – he was an engineer in the Royal Navy just as steam ships were starting to be introduced. Sarah Ann died of tuberculosis after the birth of their last child and Henry married the housekeeper by proxy to ensure there was someone to take care of the children (because I suppose that’s the kind of thing one did back in those days).

By all accounts the housekeeper was not very nice to the children. He was a very loving father though. He wrote a letter to each of the children individually, of which I have inherited one.

“Her children arise up and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Prov. 31:28.

A token from the father to the children.

In affectionate remembrance of a loving wife and devoted mother. She was the inspirer of all that is best in my character and I do pray her ennobling qualities may be reflected in the children. Patience and contentment with an exalted sense of truth and right pervaded her whole life which from childhood was one of complete trust in God. She always had a cheery word for those in trouble and the old folks of her acquaintance will ever remember her love for them and they with us all sadly miss her bright and happy disposition.”

It’s beautiful. As I reflect on these words, I note how many of the fruits of the spirit were in her. I don’t suppose that she was a perfect angel at all. This is Henry’s loving eulogy to their children, not an editorial comment about her every day behaviour. But there is much to admire here.

She was an inspirer of good in people around her, she was kind, patient, joyful, content, and above all had a complete trust in God. These qualities she, and Henry, prayed would be reflected in the children.

So this Mother’s Day, I’m not going to look at Facebook to see what gifts everyone is getting or what was delivered to their bedside for breakfast. I’m going to look at my children to see the many admirable qualities they already possess. I’m going to take a moment to self-reflect on the good qualities that have been passed on to me from my mum. I’m just going to take time to appreciate the beauty around me in the things that are not obvious, but are so tangible.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). I see these already in my kids. I mean they also have the gifts of being forgetful, messy and really annoying, but that’s pretty normal! And one thing I know is how proud of them I am for their kind and innocent hearts, their love of God and their wide eyed joy.

Mother’s Day might suck – but we can choose to treat it differently. Switch off Facebook. Take some time. Self-reflect. Look at those around you and see what qualities you have inspired in them, and they in you.

Look to Christ Jesus because great-great-grandma Walker’s beauty was underpinned by a complete trust in God. He is the inspirer of all that is good in us, and what he grows in me, I pray I can pass on to my children, and always see it there, and praise them for it.

Is Medieval the new modern in doing singleness?

I like the idea of Ye Olde Dayes. In my imagination it’s always a balmy English summer and there’s long flowing gowns to go meandering through the cloisters in. It’s a nice life, a calm life, a peaceful life.

In the Middle Ages, entering a convent was an option for a woman seeking safety, and seeking freedom. We tend to think of it as a punishment for wayward aristocratic daughters. In reality, a convent could be a place of retreat and learning and service to God, which many women genuinely sought.

When I separated, I wanted to hide from the world. I wanted some kind of “convent” (except for Protestants and with kids). I wanted a peaceful life where I could retreat from a world that was cruel and cold and harsh. I desperately wanted an escape to a place of safety and calm. Except I didn’t want a nunnery for any devotional reasons. It was for me, and my convenience, not for God or his glory.

But there was something in the concept that I kept returning to. Separation is a lonely business. You have to work out how to do life all over again. You have to work out how to think, how to be. And yet at the same time, be completely consistent and solid for your kids.

I’ve talked before about my decision to remain single (you can read the start of my thought process here). The question I needed to answer for myself was how am I going to be single? How am I going to live this life in direct relation to God? Me? Separated, divorced, alone, struggling in the world?

The answer came to me in my Bible reading one day. I was in the book of Ruth (I know – what a cliche!). Ruth, a foreigner and an outsider, alone in a strange world, is noticed by Boaz. When Boaz shows her kindness, she says to him “why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

And that was it. That was how I felt about God. He had showed me unbelievable kindness in that time – a clear and palpable kindness at a time when I had nothing. And I couldn’t quite believe that he would treat me with such compassion and abundance. What Ruth said to Boaz, is what my heart was saying to God.

That right there is what helped me to start working out how to do life with a God as my Boaz, my kinsman redeemer, my husband.

The first thing I did was to buy rings for my marriage finger. Nothing expensive – a symbol of what and who I was committing to. The top one represents the blood of Christ. The middle one is the wheat of the field where Ruth spoke to Boaz. The bottom one is because it was pretty (because that is also ok).

I stepped up my devotional activity. I increased my prayer times. I became more consistent with my reading of Christian history and biography. This becomes a basis for focusing outwards, being a Christian in the world, witnessing through word and deed. I’m still looking for ways to grow in this new existence, writing and reaching more people. The focus of my singleness though, and how I use my time, is not escape, it is God. I am single for him, I am married to him.

Don’t think for a minute that I am saying that I am nailing it. I still have down times, crazy times, busy times – nothing is a constant state. It is up and down, good and bad and somewhere in between (mostly in between).

But I know that God is my husband. This is how God styled himself in the Old Testament to bring comfort and confidence to his people. In Isaiah, God speaks words of comfort to his exiled people. He will bring them home, he says. He will bring them provision and safety and strength. “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your maker is your husband – the Lord almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:4-5)

Again, as with Ruth, God speaks words to outsiders who he will bring home into a familial relationship with him. And not just any familial relationship. A spouse. A spouse who protects and provides, who strengthens and encourages.

God is my Boaz, my kinsman redeemer, my Lord, my treasure. My “convent” is in the world. I can still retreat and learn and serve, but among my community. I want my community to be able to see and understand my decision. I want to talk about my relationship with God, how he saved me, how I found favour with him, how he noticed me, a foreigner.