03/09/2012 11:48 am ET Updated May 13, 2012

What The Church Needs To Understand About Divorce

Just about everyone has experienced the particular brand of awkward silence that follows an exchange like this: You meet someone, start chatting and eventually ask an innocent question like "What does your husband do?" only to be met with a flat, "Oh, we're divorced."

Awkward silence.

Saying "I'm sorry" seems like the best response, but as a divorced woman, I tend to agree with comedian Louis C.K. In his DVD Hilarious, when he tells the crowd "I'm divorced" and the audience responds with a big "Awwwww," Louis almost reprimands them.

"No!" he says. He explains his outburst by saying we are allowed to feel bad when two people who really loved each other and had a healthy relationship got divorced, but as he points out, that has "Never happened!"

He's got a point. It's one that society in general and the church in particular could stand to grasp: People who are divorced need kindness and compassion, but they do not need the sympathy or pity that often stems from a belief that divorce is always bad -- that somehow people would be better off staying in diseased marriages they've tried without success to fix. Of course, there are people and churches who will always believe divorce is bad, but it's time for them to at least acknowledge that not everyone who has been divorced would agree.

Simply recognizing that would be a big step toward reducing the alienation many divorced people feel in churches. Here are a few other things I wish our churches would understand about both marriage and divorce -- perspectives that are important for them to grasp if they truly believe their primary mission is bringing all people closer to God.

Stop encouraging couples to marry too soon and too young, just to avoid sex outside of marriage. Though churches might think they're steering people away from one pitfall, in the process they're often steering them directly toward another: divorce. Rather than focusing so much energy and attention on a few specific sins to avoid, the church should invest time and energy into helping all people be more healthy and whole -- in other words, more capable of making healthy decisions in all areas of their lives, both before and after they marry (if they do at all). (Related: churches need to take the pressure off marrying and be more supportive and accepting of singles in their communities.)

Oversimplifying what makes marriages work does no one any favors. I have heard both ends of the spectrum, both from everyday Christians and prominent authors and pastors: Some say a lasting marriage is simply about "finding The Person God intends for you to marry," while others say, "A strong marriage isn't about who you marry, it's about prayer and commitment." I think both extremes are just that -- extremes. And they're dangerous in terms of the expectations we develop as teens and young adults, and the realities we encounter in marriage. Can't the church just say, "There is no single perfect person for you, but some people are definitely better for you than others"? And can't we just explain -- and model -- that love and commitment are about so much more than just "deciding" divorce is "not an option"?

Punishing or shunning those who have been through a divorce does not scare others into staying married. It more likely causes people to go underground with their marriage problems rather than seek help. If they eventually do get divorced, they are likely to leave the church all together -- to relegate it to the growing pile of relics divorced people create as they separate their past lives from their futures.

It is absolutely possible for a church to accept and support someone who has been divorced without sending the message "We think divorce is great!" Many churches, in their concern about sending the wrong message, err toward a severe response to divorce rather than a compassionate one. Ideally, a church can even move a step beyond acceptance to acknowledging that divorce may have freed an individual to grow and change -- to become more the person God intended them to be, and to move their life in a direction that's ultimately closer to God's desires for his people. That doesn't mean the church is "pro-divorce" any more than it means God is; it simply demonstrates that the church recognizes God's ability to work through and redeem all circumstances, even less-than-ideal ones.

Redemption and healing come not through guilt and shame, but from a person's ability to ask forgiveness and to forgive; to mend and strengthen their relationships, especially with God, and to bask in God's love, forgiveness, and hope for a better future. If churches truly want to participate in this redemptive, healing process, they should be doing everything they can to usher those who are hurting into deeper relationships with God and his community, not blocking the path and driving people away.