Monday, May 21, 2012

The Suffering Spouse: A Story of Religious Melodrama

Woe is me! How much I suffer!
I consider myself a "New Atheist" because when I assess the effects of mainstream religious beliefs on the world, religion more often than not appears to be harmful.

The harm shows not only in criminals like the pope or in the violence of religiously motivated groups, but also at a very basic, everyday level. At Spiritually Unequal Marriage, a website for Christians married to "non-believers," a woman writes an open letter to the community:
I remember when I came across your site. I was so thankful that I was not alone! I think the most powerful thing that you and Dineen [i.e., Lynn and Dineen, the site owners] have done lately is to post honestly and transparently. Women in these marriages WANT to have hope but they also don't want to necessarily hear that others in "unequal" marriages are thriving and joyful etc. That may sound strange but for the most part unequal marriages suffer, greatly.
This woman wants to be part of a community...of suffering! She will hear nothing of couples happy and satisfied in "unequal" marriages but prefers to dwell in sadness and difficulty.

As the woman continues, see how religious beliefs give her life a context with a narrative based on war/struggle and characters such as the devil:
And truthfully if the marriage is unequal the home has a constant open doorway for the devil. He is always welcome and WE must do battle continually. We may get "breaks” the fog may lift to some degree but the battle is continual. For those of us in marriages where there are serious addictions the battles are that much more intense. The need to cling to the Lord is that much more necessary. I think your honesty lately is revealing more Truth than ever. Because the truth is, we may live our entire lives with our spouse and they may never be saved. The hardest thing to grasp in these relationships is that it is not God's WILL that ALL be saved. It is His desire and He woos and calls people to Himself but He gives them the free will to love Him in return.
This poor woman imagines herself a solitary warrior in her own home. She mentions "addictions," so perhaps she or a loved one (likely) has substance issues. True enough, plenty of people never shake their addictions. More than anything, this woman seems trying to cope with the uncertainty of the addict. Her reality is an allegory of the religious: one may not be saved from addiction as one may not be saved religiously. The final result is beyond her ken and control, even beyond--to some extent--her loved one's control. The woman invokes God because she wants SOMEONE to be in control. The idea of God covers over the unpleasant scenario of no one having intelligent governance over her affairs.

Yet, the idea of SOMEONE being ultimately in charge, even if that someone is God, does not comfort the woman. It costs her to feel part of a purposeful universe, and that cost is separation from her loved one:
This is so difficult for us who have loved ones who are unsaved. At times, I find myself with a lump in my throat, my spirit crying out, and pain that goes deep beyond description, as I watch my loved ones walk further and further away from the Lord. Yet, at other times, there is great peace and there is a sweet surrender. It is then that I realize the peace that Christ had. He mourned those who are lost but pressed forward into God's will, trusting the entire world to God's sovereign care. Jesus prayed that God would "make another way" but prayed nevertheless, that God's WILL be done. God's will called for Christ to die. This side of the Cross we don't argue with God's decision. On the side of the Cross where Jesus' mother Mary kneeled God probably seemed to be failing His people in more ways than they could imagine. But, He knows what He's doing. We must remember that Jesus said . . .Matthew 7:13-14:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

My great peace has not come from giving up hope.
I cling to the Promises and I declare:

"But I will keep on hoping for your help; I will praise you more and more"
Psalm 71:14
In each successive paragraph, the woman toggles between grief and sad resignation. True, the notion of God keeps her from falling into an emotional abyss. However, she would do much better to discard the idea of God altogether.

God and Bible quotes give her consolation, but the potential for happiness lies outside of God and the Bible. If she were not so preoccupied with the "spiritual warfare" scenario, she would have no worry of the saved/unsaved problem. This problem would not exist. She would own her life and her life choices. She would understand that her decisions and actions would be able to help her feel better about her life. Although she would never be able to control her loved one's addictions or know if he would re-lapse, she would be able to adopt a proper "we'll deal with it if it comes up" attitude.To ditch God would be to claim her life in the present.

For this reason, I find that atheism better allows one to compartmentalize. In contrast, religion encourages an awful combination of ceaseless naval gazing and self-flagellation. This woman seems driven to see and open her own wounds:
I pray continually for the salvation of my husband and my loved ones but my hope is not in that outcome. If I hope in that I will find myself disappointed. But if I hope in God, trusting that HE knows best even if that means that He must allow some of my loved ones to turn away from Him then, I will not be disappointed. Just as Jesus' Disciples were not disappointed at the resurrection! So, I guess to make a LONG email short, haha. I just think that the more you share your struggles, the more power you will see in your ministry. God will not force ANYONE to love Him. If He did then the love He offers would not be love at all. You can't FORCE someone to love you. Therefore, each person may choose. Though it is difficult for saved spouses to watch, their unsaved spouse may continue to drift back and forth. It is the power of God moving. Yet, in the end it is the decision of their heart and yes, God allows it. Because of His great love.
Those who have engaged in any sort of discussion with religious people know the familiar fallback, "you must freely choose to love (or fear or submit to) God/Jesus." The fallback, again, says more about the woman's fear and need to cope.

Indeed, the woman says almost nothing of substance about her loved one. In the end, her message has nothing to do with her loved one or God/Jesus. It's all about her and her oh-so-valiant struggle to fight the devil. It's about her telling us to look at her and admire her being tied to the train tracks.

She's like the lyric from the Offspring's great song, "Self Esteem":
The more you suffer,
The more it shows you really care.
And this is where I have a real problem with this woman's outlook and the religious context from which she draws. All of her "suffering" is self-inflicted and totally unnecessary. Any moment she really wanted to, she could remove herself from her marriage and just get along with her life. She could, and she'd probably be happier. Look, I take marriage and divorce very seriously, but when the two people in the marriage are not happy they should separate.

It takes more than love to make a happy marriage. It takes attitude, communication, effort, flexibility, giving, reflection, teamwork, and more. In a happy marriage, no one is "suffering" because of the other partner. On a personal level, there is no freaking way I would ever want or allow my wife to suffer because of me--and I'm sure she feels the same way. We didn't get married to be sources of suffering to each other; we married to be constant sources of comfort, encouragement, and support. For this reason, marriage partners do not need to share the same religious beliefs any more than they need to support the same political candidates or parties.

But if your beliefs or your politics cause you pain if your spouse isn't in the same camp, then you need to re-assess those beliefs and politics. And if those beliefs and politics turn out to be more important to you than your spouse, then break away from the relationship. I doubt your spouse wants to be a pre-text for your suffering.

New Atheism looks at some types of religious narrative--such as that of a world engulfed in spiritual conflict--and religious characters--such as the devil--and argues that these are not only ungrounded but poisonous. The woman who wrote the email I've examined here is one case, but notice all the assent and agreement she gets in the comments section. Instead of advising the woman to chill out and then do something productive for herself, the comments are all of a "me too" variety (although there are some disagreements on bits).

If suffering is avoidable, it should be avoided. If happiness is attainable, it should be attained. These statements seem commonsensical, but in practice we often act against common sense.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.