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My pastoral career went under because I threw a big rock into the pond, and the resulting waves drowned myself and others. The responsibility for that tsunami is mine, and I own that. But as often happens, by the time the waves had subsided, there was a lot of blame to pass around. Obviously my delinquent coconspirator bore her share. Then the church leadership managed to increase the general suffering for everyone. It became a bit of a free-for-all of people hurling rocks into the pool while pointing at everyone else’s waves.
In all this, however, one party threw no rocks, yet endured most of the horrible consequences—my wife. I now realize that my story is not unique. Quite often, the spouse endures all of the worst consequences, yet has contributed little to the fray. What is the innocent spouse to do when they’ve become the recipient of all the life-altering after-effects of their spouse’s bad choices? Should they stay or go?
This is Jilted by St. Asinus.
When things go south between a pastor or staff member and their church, suffering is experienced by everyone—the departing leader, the remaining leadership, the congregation. Everyone. Behind all of this fury, however, stands a party that often endures all the same difficulties, but without all the attention.
The spouse. Wives and husbands, who had little to do with whatever the problems were, and yet still find themselves shouldering much of the emotional burden. This suffering has its own ghastly quality because they usually did little to deserve it.
Oh sure, it may be that no one is ever completely innocent. I’ve known it to happen that a spouse will wade into the fray with recriminations and vendettas and earn their share of the culpability, but just as often, spouse’s stand marginalized and forgotten as parties with more social power duke it out.
St. Asinus wants to speak very bluntly to the leader’s spouse—to that spouse who feels trapped and powerless, who cannot effect any change in the situation, but who bears the burden of it nonetheless.
While the focus here is the spouse of someone who’s wrecked their lives with bad choices, I’ve known the same questions to be asked by people whose spouses or even children are merely subject to misfortune—physical handicap, mental illness, traumatic pasts. These spouses carry many of the same griefs and are struggling with the same decisions. Though I have less experience with these kinds of burdens, I suspect I may be speaking to you as well.
The first thing to understand is that, while your options may not be pleasant nor the ones you would desire, they are your options. The powerlessness you feel may be acute, but it is not absolutely unique. It is only one permutation of the reality under which we all labor all the time. Everyone struggles under weights they did not choose—a physical deformity or disease or a burden of imposed poverty or other hardship. This is your burden. You did not chose it. But that makes no difference. There are still choices here that you need to make. Part of the outcome of this is within your power. You still have the opportunity and the responsibility of making a choice.
At the very least you have the choice to go or to stay. You may have very good grounds for leaving and equally strong reasons for remaining with your spouse. What are you to do?
Now listen carefully, the Saintly Mule is not here to tell you which option you should choose. He cannot know that. But he does want you to realize that you are the one who must make that choice…no one else. It rests on your shoulders, and he wishes to impress upon you how freeing it can be to realize that in the midst of all your powerlessness, you still get to make this choice.
Let’s look at these two choices…
First, you can go—leave your spouse. This is probably the one your friends will counsel you toward. Why? Because they don’t want to see you hurt, and good people want to see hurting people rescued from their hurt. They of course don’t understand that telling a person that they ought to dump their loved one and start over may actually heap additional hurt on you, but the Holy Ass not talking to them right now.
Now I no advice to give on this option. I’m told by others who’ve been through separations and divorces that even when the grounds are solid, it still feels more like the amputation of a limb than the dissolution of a contract. If you believe this is the right choice then I must simply refer you to others with more experience in it.
The other option is to stay and try to restore the marriage. I would like to talk more about this less popular option. I do so in part because it seems so lacking in advocates, but more importantly because it’s my story. My wife chose to stay and wait, and it is my hope that in a future homily, you will get to hear her reflect on how she made that choice.
We must acknowledge that in a few ways staying is harder than leaving. Divorce is nasty, awful, and life-shattering, yes. But by definition, a day comes when it is over. You are comparatively free to move on. But staying, by definition, means perpetual enduring. That is harder in the long term and has the more uncertain outcome. Everybody knows what the endgame of a divorce is. The question of who gets what stuff and who will owe who how much to whom is an outstanding question only for a matter of months. Then is it settled. But Bono wrote his famous lyric about those who stay—those who must daily face being unable to live either “with or without you.”
Now I want it understood clearly that nothing I say here should be construed as a suggestion to remain in a place where you fear for your physical safety. I am not advocating a battered-wives syndrome or emotional codependency or any nonsense like that. If safety is your greatest fear, then absolutely get away and seek help. I’m suggesting something different, an act of such strength and fearlessness that I do not wonder that few attempt it, but I do not advocate a fool-hardy disregard for your safety or that of any children involved. Use the sense God gave you.
It is also possible, however, that you still deeply love your wrecked person. While you know you’re permitted to kick the them to the curb, something deep within you still desires to see the relationship restored. Some deep faith in you believes that against every metric, it can be. How are you to think about the self-abnegating choice to remain and hope? Are you just a sentimental fool? A coward without the will to make the hard choice?
Perhaps, but I think that’s the case less often than people think. More often, particularly if it’s a Christian of any maturity or depth, a much deeper spiritual principle may be at work. A principle that St. Peter works out in his first epistle, which was written specifically to Christians throughout Asia Minor suffering unjustly at the hands of a pagan world.
In a previous homily I spoke from I Peter 2 and outlined the apostle’s argument for Christian citizens and Christian laborers who suffer under inescapable mistreatment at the hands of pagan rulers or masters. He offered Christ as a model of willful submission to injustice for his Father’s greater glory and our greater good.
That was the beginning of our question here, because now in chapter 3, Peter continues this conversation with a third example—that of wives suffering under injustices from their husbands
The passage reads…
2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
3:1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be [merely] external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
Herein, Peter invites Christian wives to make the same act of submission with an almost identical purpose that he just attributed to Christ—“so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.” Here in this example we find that even the distinction between pagan and Christian seems to break down—is this an unbelieving husband or a Christian who is being disobedient to his obligations, the text could mean either. Could it be that even Christian spouses inflict deep injustices on one another to which a response must be sought? I have reason to think they do.
Again, if Christ is to be the model of this choice, then it must be thought of as a voluntary act. Yes, it might be just and right to give such a spouse the ax. It would be permissible to claim your rights as the aggrieved spouse, and no one should fault you for it. It is precisely your right to do so, and I along with everyone else affirm it. Yet, Peter suggests that this is not the inevitable and only permissible response. You do in fact still have a choice. You can also choose to remain—remain with the goal of redeeming and restoring the erring spouse, remain with a commitment to outlast the fever. This too is permissible, and no one should fault you for it. It is not cowardly or inauthentic.
You can also choose to remain. This too is permissible, and no one should fault you for it. It is not cowardly or inauthentic.
This is all made abundantly clear by the example Peter gives—that of Old Testament Sarah, who “calls her husband lord.” Peter is vague as to what situation in the life of Abraham and Sarah he is referring to, and he could very well mean the whole nature and tenor of their marriage. It is also possible he is referring to those two situations where he actually demanded she call him “lord” instead of “husband.” You may recall them. Abraham, sojourning in lands governed by pagan rulers, fears that they will desire his beautiful wife as their own, and, so fearing for his life, demands that she forego her rights as wife and matriarch of the clan. “You shall deny that you are chief woman of the tribe—wife of the patriarch. You shall say rather that you are only ‘sister,’ one of the women of the camp.” Now would anyone blame Sarah if she had stood up to such cowardice and demanded her rights as wife? No, of course not. It would have been right and good for her to do so. It was a permissible choice. And yet, remarkably she did not. Like Christ (in her case, by foreshadow), she willingly endured the injustice—she chose to remain in it—in the hopes that by that choice, her husband would be restored.
In verse 6, Peter credits her, not with a failure to self-actualize, but with courage. “You have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” She is called brave and righteous for her willing and voluntary abandonment of her rights for the apparent purpose of redeeming her husband.
It is likely that Peter aims this passages uniquely at wives because of the socially subordinate place they had in both Abrahamic times and in his own first-century world. The wife, particularly if she was a Christian and the husband was not, was far more likely to be on the victim end of the scale along with Peter’s Christian citizen and Christian laborer from the previous chapter. But of course, in the more egalitarian settings we find ourselves, it is possible to imagine the roles reversed—where a husband is the one in the socially powerless position—and I have known more than one situation where they were. So in many ways this story has an even wider application—that is, to both sexes—than it did in Peter’s day.
Nevertheless unlike in the first two examples of citizen and laborer, Peter now offers in verse 7, admonitions to the power-possessed party—the errant husband. He tells such a man to acknowledge the socially powerless place in which his wife finds herself (my read of “weaker vessel”) and rather than confirming that inferior status, honor her for what she actually is—a “fellow-heir of the gospel.”
Then he closes with a warning—“that your prayers not be hindered.” This is an odd expression I take to mean as follows: When this unjust man goes out into the wider world as the Christian citizen or Christian laborer and experiences injustice there at the hands of those who have more social power than he, he will of course cry out to God. God, however, will point such a man back to his own covenant relationship with his wife and ask, “Why should I address your cries for justice when you withhold it from those who depend upon you?” His prayers for justice then will be of no avail because of his hypocrisy.
Peter’s whole argument here flies in the face of everything our culture tells us about the need to preserve and defend our rights at all costs. If I am correct, Peter is saying, yes, it would be a permissible choice to assert your rights, that’s what it means to have a right. And surely, no one had more right to do so than Jesus. And yet, here is another set of values upon which a different and equally permissible choice may be made—a culturally subversive choice, a choice requiring even greater courage…a choice to remain and redeem.
Here is another set of values upon which a different and equally permissible choice may be made—a culturally subversive choice, a choice requiring even greater courage…a choice to remain and redeem.
This is the choice of the man or women, whose spouse has blown everything up, destroyed themselves and everything they’ve worked for, become wretched and worthless in the eyes of all others. Yet in the face of all that ignominy and shame, this Sarah-like spouse says, “I will remain. The Gospel will be more loudly proclaimed and the Kingdom more clearly foreshadowed by me NOT demanding my rights be honored. I make the voluntary choice—which I need not make—to remain and seek the redemption of the one lost soul who means more to me than any other soul in this world—my husband, my wife.”
Now if you feel it is the right thing to depart from that person who has broken covenant with you, I have nothing to say against you. Blessings on you as you go. God is good enough and strong enough to restore your lost fortunes on that journey as well. So be it.
But if you have decided to remain with your broken spouse, I invite you to do so not out of sense of resigned powerlessness, as if you could’ve done nothing else—or even because it just looks easier than separation. No, remain because you have chosen to take Peter at his word…
I cannot know which choice is right in your situation. I cannot promise you that remaining will bring reconciliation or that going will produce peace. I cannot tell you which will be harder or which is best for the children. I cannot say whether the best alternative is not some combination of going and remaining—some distance, but with an open door. Your situation is unique. But I’d suggest you beware of your friends’ protestations. If you go, do not think too much of their affirmation, and if you remain, do not pay attention to their scorn. You are taking this journey, not them.
Perhaps in the end, you should take as your values, not whatever message the culture seems to be shouting at you in the moment, but Peter’s closing words of the argument—“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” Yes, that seems right. Whatever choice you make, let the desire behind it be to give and receive a blessing. You may have to wait a long time to do either…but remember, even Jesus waited three days for his vindication, and even now patiently awaits the good pleasure of his Father.
This has been Jilted by St. Asinus
If you want to talk about your journey, get in touch with the Holy Ass through Facebook or by email, or leave a comment. He’d love to hear from you. If you would like to help in the production of these little essays, please visit his Patreon page. We’ll catch you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.