Back in September, the television evangelist Pat Robertson took a unique position on marriage and several other issues when he answered a viewer question on his show Christian Broadcaster. The question was "I have a friend whose wife suffers from Alzheimer's. She doesn't even recognize him anymore, and, as you can imagine, the marriage has been rough. My friend has gotten bitter at God for allowing his wife to be in that condition, and now he's started seeing another woman. He says that he should be allowed to see other people, because his wife as he knows her is gone...I'm not quite sure what to tell him. Please help!" After expressing his hatred for the disease Alzheimer's, Robertson responded to the questions saying, "I know it sounds cruel but if he's going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again." Since then, Robertson has continued to make outlandish statements further proving his lack of credibility as an "Evangelical" leader. So my purpose in writing this 7 months after the fact is not to prove that Robertson is a lunatic as he has proven that himself. Rather I want to address the issue here of marriage and the gospel as it hits especially close to home for me and my family.
My grandfather was a tremendous man. He served in the Army during the Korean War and then spent 18 years in the Navy as a chaplain. After retiring from the Navy he served as a pastor in Texas for 7 years. My parents were married in 1979 and my grandfather did the wedding. At that point he already had the early signs of Alzheimer's and this terrible disease would impact our entire family for the next 18 years. My earliest memories of my grandfather were ones of him stumbling through the house and not being able to play with my toys in the living room because Granddaddy would trip over them. But these memories are very few as the majority of my childhood is marked by my grandfather, a bed ridden man, who could not take care of himself at all. The daily rituals that we all take for granted, bathing, brushing our teeth, eating, putting on clothes, were left up to my grandmother, Alice Ann.
My grandmother is one of my heroes. She had every reason in the world to be mad at life and at God but of all the people I’ve ever known, she is the most beautiful model of grace and mercy. I never saw my grandmother angry; though I’m sure she was at times. I never saw my grandmother frustrated; though I’m sure this emotion was a common friend. I never saw my grandmother sad; though sadness is the only word one can use to describe this disease. No, she was always grace. Always joy. Always hope. Always peace. Whenever I read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 I picture my grandmother. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is my grandmother. This is Alice Ann. This is the gospel lived out for my family to see.
In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul says of marriage, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Marriage is a beautiful picture of the gospel. The wife submitting to the husband as the church submits to her redeemer. The husband loving the wife just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her so that she might be sanctified. God intended for this union between a man and a woman to be a proclamation to the whole world of his grace and mercy from the beginning of time.
In his book, When Sinners Say I Do, Dave Harvey argues that in order to be a good spouse, you must be a good theologian. He says, “To be a good theologian and therefore a good spouse, we must study God as he really is. We must get our understanding and interpretation of God and reality from Scripture. It is in Scripture that God is revealed truly—his character, his activity, his heart, and his glorious, redemptive plan. Most profoundly, in the Bible we encounter God as he has ultimately made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is ‘the truth’ (John 14:6). To know him is to know the truth. Truth-based marriages are inherently centered on Christ.” The problem with Pat Robertson’s view on marriage is that it does not put Christ at the center. Now I’m sure that he would argue otherwise but if you truly believe that Christ needs to be at the center of marriages, how can you make a statement of absoluteness that is completely contradictory to God’s character, activity, heart, and glorious redemptive plan.
In our sickness and rebellion, God showed us his love by sending his son to die for us. When we deserved death, Christ took death in our place. We did not know God but by his grace we have come to know him. When we deserved to be abandoned for the sin we chose, God chose to redeem us and draw us to himself. It is impossible then, for a “minister” of the gospel, to say this man has the right to abandon his wife based solely on the fact that “she does not even recognize him anymore.” This is not living out the gospel, this is living out sin.
I do not want to minimize the significance of this situation. It is a difficult trial that is not easy to face for any family. This is a reality that couples come to face every day that their spouse is no longer the person they married. What a horrible thing to not have your spouse remember who you are. It’s overwhelming to think about. But change doesn’t just come is big ways, it comes in small ways. It shows up in little things like wrinkles or weight gain and if you have the right to divorce your wife when she is sick, you should have the right to divorce her when she has wrinkles. See, this is the beauty found in Ephesians 5. I can continue to love my wife in the midst of her flaws because Christ loved me in the midst of my sin. It’s so easy to say, “I should be allowed to see other people because the spouse that I knew is gone.” The gospel calls me to something greater though. I don’t love my wife to bring glory to myself; I love my wife to bring glory to Christ.
One thing I can agree with Robertson on is that Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. But his perspective on marriage would probably change if his hatred was less towards the disease and more towards the cause of that disease, sin. My grandfather didn’t choose to have Alzheimer’s but he did choose sin. My grandmother didn’t choose to marry a man who would someday have Alzheimer’s but she did choose to marry a sinner. Maybe if we understood this truth and applied it every day in our marriages we wouldn’t ask questions like “Is it okay to cheat on my wife when…?”
Our time in marriage on earth is a faulty image of what we long for in our eternal relationship with our Savior. Dave Harvey concludes his book When Sinners Say I Do saying, “As real as our marriages are to us on this earth, they are just a shadow of the reality we will experience when Christ comes to claim his bride. Then we will have a wedding feast to celebrate our union with Christ that is unlike any feast that has ever been celebrated before. The entire family of Christ will be there—not one missing from the whole earth. The joy at that feast will not be marred by sin, struggle, pain, or disappointment. We will be forever with Christ in our new home. What glory is set before us as sinners who said, ‘I Do.’”
Thank you, Grandmother, for being such a beautiful picture of something so much greater that is to come for those who are in Christ Jesus.
In Christ, Nathan