“I’m leaving her; I’m getting a divorce.”
I nearly dropped the phone. I knew things had been bad, but I had blindly assumed that they were working through their issues. After all, it was their first year of marriage. Everyone’s first year is tough. I had grossly miscalculated their relational progress, and the truth left me breathless. It was a strange cocktail of panic, fear, anger and overwhelming sadness.
He must have sensed my state of utter confusion as I muttered something less than adequate: He quickly told me it was okay, and abruptly ended our conversation.
After a few moments of mental disarray, I started to focus. “What could I do?”
I began listing solutions. I knew the biblical teaching against divorce, as did my friend, but what did the Bible teach about resolving marital disputes? Nothing came to mind that could be neatly packaged and directly applied. So I began to look elsewhere. After spinning my wheels for hours and frantically discovering no satisfactory solutions, I again landed in Scripture.
Although I didn’t find a direct teaching that could help my friend work through his marriage problems, I found a biblical model that moved me in the right direction: the leader Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s actions provide us with three practical steps for situations where there is no obvious way forward.
After hearing that his beloved Jerusalem lay in ruins, Nehemiah takes time to mourn and pray. He cites God’s greatness and God’s love for His people:
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven (Neh 1:4–6 NASB).
When we’re anxious and uncertain, we need footing on solid ground. Before making a life-altering decision, like getting a divorce in my friend’s case, we need to remind ourselves that God loves us and hears us via prayer. When everything is changing around us, we need to focus on what doesn’t change.
We ask little of God, but expect to receive a lot. My gut reaction is to resolve my problems by leaning on my own strength. Rather, I should ask God to partner with me in them. Nehemiah specifically petitions God for favor from King Artaxerxes:
Please O Lord, listen attentively to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of your servants who take pleasure in showing respect to your name. Grant your servant success today and show compassion to me in the presence of this man (Neh 1:11 NASB).
In times of trial, we need to be specific with God. We need to ask for guidance and wisdom for our interactions with others. In my friend’s case, he could have prayed directly about each problem he and his wife had, and then asked for discernment in resolving it. We need to ask God for favor and success, and then trust Him completely with the outcome. For my friend, this meant believing that God wants his marriage to succeed, being willing to work through the problems, and then trusting God with his marriage.
We must marry our prayers and petitions with our actions. It is far too easy for me to pray about something, and then naively trust that God will navigate the entire situation: God requires my direct involvement.
After thoughtful prayer and specific petition about a strategic relationship, Nehemiah finds the right moment to converse with the king.
The king said to me [Nehemiah], “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” … And the king granted [my request] because the good hand of my God was on me (Neh 2:1–5, 9 NASB).
Just as Nehemiah waited for the right moment to converse with the king, my friend needed to find the right moment to talk with his wife. He needed to be strategic about making his marriage work. My friend was probably praying, although he may not have been praying specifically about each issue, but he wasn’t following through yet. Praying is the obvious and easy part. It is the follow through that we struggle with.
I pray that you will follow the model of Nehemiah—no matter how severe the situation. Pray, petition and follow through.