Maybe not God (on Divorce)

29.04.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 007  



In December 2003, a committee of the House of Representatives delivered a report into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation. “During the enquiry there were many tears shed by the general public, witnesses, their families and even by the committee members,” wrote Kay Hull, who chaired the committee. “I can say that this definitely was, and will be the most difficult inquiry any member will ever have to undertake.” The inquiry “attracted a record 1700 submissions and opened a vein of misery and anger which profoundly shocked committee chair Kay Hull from the outset of hearings,” wrote Diana Bagnall, herself divorced, in a recent Bulletin article.

The inquiry was tasked to keep the best interests of children as its paramount consideration, and particularly to examine “whether there should be a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent”. Many of the submissions that swamped the Committee were from divorced men, who thought that the Family Court had judged unfairly against them.

Men who only see their child every second or third weekend are common among us. It is easy to think this unjust. Conversely, it is hard not to feel for women who have become the main carer for their children. When these women have to work, they only see their children properly on the other weekend. The expanse of time which these women apparently have with their children, and which seems so unfair for the man, is often merely filled with juggling childcare, buying groceries, changing nappies, preparing food. It is not really very attractive time. ‘But,’ replies the man, ‘at least you are with our child. I'll share the menial work, if that's what it takes.’

After a moment of trying to look at the situation from both sides, we catch a glimpse of how impossibly difficult it must be for officers of the state to arbitrate for these devastated families. Officers of the law are weary of being seen as the cause of problems. Diana Bagnall cites Patrick Parkinson and Judy Cashmore, experts in family law based at the University of Sydney, who put it this way in their submission to the inquiry:

One of the premises involved in establishing this inquiry is that the answer is somehow to change the law ... To blame the family law system for the pain and stress so often caused by relationship breakdown is like blaming the health system for sickness, the welfare agencies for poverty or the police for crime.

Even so, the inquiry has proposed a major change to ‘the system’, which the Federal Cabinet has endorsed for a two year trial. Recognising that the Family Law Court is inherently adversarial and should be reserved for the hardest cases, a new Families Tribunal will become the first stop for separating parents, and will encourage them to agree to joint custody of their children. It will include child experts, psychologists and a judge or senior lawyer, and will try to educate the parents on the damage that will certainly be done to their children if they engage in protracted, acrimonious conflict.

To be frank, Christians (who are often a negative lot) must pause and thank God for the best efforts of our leaders to make life liveable in a broken world. This Committee of inquiry has obviously ploughed enormous effort into overcoming their political differences and listening, at great personal cost, to hundreds of sad and sometimes bitter people. They have raked over the current state of affairs, and agreed upon a viable new way forward. Anyone who has tried to turn any idea into a practical result will know how hard that is, and especially for a group of people of differing political persuasion. These leaders deserve our respect and thanks for helping to make the horror of divorce slightly less awful and slightly less prey to the debilitating process of litigation.

We must also ask our leaders to acknowledge (as many do) that they are dealing with something so much greater than their best efforts. Parkinson and Cashmore put it well:

It may be that the time has come to look beyond the family law system as ‘the problem’ and beyond legal changes as a solution. Over the last 30 years, we have sown the wind in terms of the revolution in attitudes to sex, procreation and marriage. We are now reaping the whirlwind.

That is, divorce is so much larger than any legal system. It always has been. When asked to comment on ancient Jewish divorce law, Jesus replied, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.” Later in the Bible, Paul adds to the discussion of divorce with a most melancholy comment: “God has called us to live in peace.” Sometimes, the only way to ‘peace’ (of a sort) is this most awful of ways, because the human heart is so very, very hard.

‘The heart’ is biblical code for the intersection of desire, thought and will. According to Jesus, it is a most desperate place. “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Divorcees will recognise much in that list. So do we all, in all the relationships that matter to us. We see it, although we don't usually see it in ourselves. But the whirlwind our society reaps begins in each of our hearts.

Although Christians must respect and support the best efforts of our leaders to make for peace where hearts are hard, it is our task to tell this story behind the story. Diana Bagnall writes of Sean and Theresa, a couple who had a relatively benign breakup after Sean's adultery. She tells it to make the point that breakups can be civilised. But she makes this admission:

If something feels different about this couple, there's one piece of information you should know. Sean was ordained as a Buddhist monk at 19, and lived for four years in a Thai monastery. It may be drawing too long a bow, but I reckon you need some extra assistance—maybe not God, but someone godly, or spiritually inclined—to find your way to such an ending from such a beginning in the prevailing climate.

‘Maybe not God.’ The human heart can be so very hard that even in the teeth of most severe trial, we can still utter the heart's granite core: ‘maybe not God’. It seems that nothing, not even the ruination and loss of something as potentially beautiful as marriage, will drive the hard-hearted to say ‘yes’ to God. Even in the place called divorce, which Bagnall poignantly describes as ‘dark’ and confused, the response of untouchable hardness remains: ‘maybe not God’. My heart stalks my marriage, renders it vulnerable, threatens it with sudden death.

What if the heart wasn't so hard? What would that look like? As the hard-hearted know, it is impossible to back down. It is impossible to utter the healing words that start to heal dying marriages. As the pain piles up, year after year, the stakes are too high, and there is too much to lose. Such thoughts harden hearts even more.

But long before Jesus, Ezekiel spoke of a time when stony hearts would be transplanted with new hearts. For people like us, who want our relationships to have any hope of succeeding, the possibility of ‘a new heart’ is irresistible. Even someone who doesn't yet believe in God might be intrigued by this hope.

The Bible writers explain how Jesus has made new hearts possible. People who have received a new heart learn how to back down. In biblical language, they discover how to ‘repent’, and how to forgive. In a broken world, where nothing in human relationships is guaranteed, repentance and forgiveness is the best hope to help relationships forward.

We can't reinvent our own heart. It takes a ‘transplant’. James, brother of Jesus and obviously affected by his teachings, shows us the start to this ‘transplant’ in an elegant, passionate plea:

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

We thank our rulers for doing their best, but we honour them more when we know their limitations. The horror of divorce starts in the heart. Even those who know God's promise of a ‘new heart’ can undergo the pain of divorce. But our own heart is the only thing we can bring to God, and we all do well to notice James' words—and take them to heart.


The Bible: Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Mark 10:5; 1 Cor 7:15; Mark 7:21-22; Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26; James 4:8-10.

Kay Hull et al., Every picture tells a story: report on the inquiry into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation. Canberra: Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, December 2003. (Quotation from p. xii.)

Louise Dodson and Lauren Martin, “Joint custody trial to calm break-up fury,” SMH April 27, 2004

Diana Bagnall, “The Ex Files,” The Bulletin February 11, 2004


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