Barnabas Piper on Divorce—The Scarlet Letter of the Evangelical World

Barnabas Piper knows what you might be thinking. His divorce is not how God would want things to happen. Early in a Christianity Today podcast, Piper says “Let’s acknowledge the weirdness up front: this is not something that’s good. This is not something that’s supposed to happen in God’s kingdom. It’s like death: there’s treatment, there’s therapy, there’s things you’re trying to do to stop the disease. And then eventually those don’t work and you are just praying for a miracle. To the end I still believed God could save it.”

Initially Barnabas Piper was best known as the son of the hugely influential John Piper, but for years has crafted his own legacy as a writer and speaker in the evangelical church world. On his blog on January 10, 2017, Piper wrote a post entitled “When a Marriage Dies,” in which he says despite years of struggling to stay together, his wife has chosen to leave the marriage and he is officially divorced. The post is both transparent and private, full of vulnerability and lacking on details. And it stirs up a question the evangelical church is often divided on: How should the church respond to divorce?

“A lot of what I do is put my finger on things in the church that don’t seem quite right,” Piper said on the CT podcast. “There seems to be a lid on things [in the church] that are not sinful but we are ashamed of. Divorce includes a lot of sin and doesn’t happen without sin, but someone being divorced doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve sinned. There’s a billion reasons why divorces happen, but we don’t talk about it. It’s scarlet letter-y. Part of what I wanted to do was bring it to light. I don’t want to be ashamed. There’s nothing for me to be ashamed of.”

Piper said he struggled with knowing the right way to announce the divorce without demonizing his ex-wife or sharing too much; however, he felt like it was important to make sure people heard the news from him. “There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy. Privacy are the things you share with the RIGHT people in authenticity but in that context only. Secrecy is something you hide because you’re ashamed. I didn’t want some Christian watchblog stumbling on my divorce months from now and twisting it into me keeping something secret. As somebody who wants to have a voice to help people and speak truth, how can you speak truth if they question whether they can trust you?”

While Piper never directly says it, over the interview it becomes clear that at some point in Piper’s marriage his wife stopped considering herself a Christian. For a significant amount of time Piper and his wife attempted to keep the marriage together, until eventually Piper’s wife announced she was done and wanted a divorce. The question for Piper then became what God would want for his life moving forward, and how he’s dealing with having a different opinion on that then many in the church have … including his dad.

“My dad believes I should be in the persistent pursuit of a marriage that no longer is in existence. He believes I should only get remarried if my ex-wife does or if she passes away. If the possibility of reconciliation still exists, he believes that should be the aim of my prayers. And that is a sticking point for us.”

In many traditional, evangelical church cultures remarrying after a divorce—no matter what the reason—disqualifies them from leadership in the church. Other churches largely ignore divorce, not talking about it and minimizing its seriousness. In the podcast, Piper seems stuck in between, attempting to find a third way. While Piper clearly fought for his marriage up until the point his wife requested a divorce, he also now feels free to move on. He specifically states it can be harmful for a Christian who has been divorced to actively pursue reconciliation with someone who has chosen to leave.

“If you’re invested in a marriage those feelings don’t just turn off,” Piper said. The only way to turn off those feelings is to start hating—which isn’t good. I had to make the decision to stop praying for my ex once we were divorced. This is one of those things that’s going to make people scrunch up their eyebrows, but I believe the best thing to do once someone has divorced you is when they come to mind surrender them to God. It’s the prayer of Jesus in the garden ‘not my will, but yours be done.’ You may be letting go of them to experience God’s judgment for their actions or to experience a change or heart. But that’s not up to you anymore. You’re moving on.”

While Piper is still recovering from his divorce, he says he can already see the good things God has brought out of a terrible situation. Counter-intuitively, Piper says he believes more in the beauty of marriage than he ever has. He says “it makes no sense” that until the last day he was fighting for a marriage that had become soul-wrecking for years before that. He talks about the freedom that comes as a father and communicator now that he’s not married to someone who doesn’t “have his back” when it comes to a commitment to Jesus.

He also says his approach to writing has changed. A prolific author who has released a book almost annually, Piper says he can’t write the same way anymore.

“One thing I’ve learned is the value of transparency. I view myself as writer—it’s what I love to do. One thing I’ve learned is what needs to be poured into my writing isn’t just ideas or persuasion. It’s soul and heart that brings life to it. I’m writing less because I can crank out idea pieces easily, but if I want to write with soul then there’s a type of steeping in experience and feeling that takes time. I think about David and Bathsheba. When their child is dying David prays and begs and mourns for the child’s life. But once the child has died David gets up, gives it to God, and moves on with life.

“There’s an element of realistic hopefulness to that. It sucks. It hurts. But you get up and eat something and don’t forget loss and you feel your pain and you live your life as best you can with relationships and faith and all the things that make life vibrant.”

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Joshua Pease
Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.