Clutches of Sin



After a week of nightly seminars among one local congregation, things were rounded off by a special day for all the elders in the region. The main subject with these men and their wives: Christian marriage. Afterwards I once again found myself packing my bags and on the point of being whisked away to another town in this South American country. Then someone whispered:

“Carlos (not his real name) wants a conversation with you.”

“Fine,” I said, “could you just ask him to allow me a few minutes to finish my packing?”

When I stepped into the crowded room, children and young people were milling about, and the adults chatted over their “hierba-mate”, the boiling liquid sipped through a metal tube from a small container, often simply a cow’s horn or a gourd. Stuffed with the green herb and with the hot water poured on, it is passed from hand to hand, and makes an excellent tool for socializing.

I immediately spotted Carlos, who was obviously anxious to talk. We disappeared into what had been my bedroom for the week, and sat down. Then he told me his story.

He had set out early that morning from his small village to make the 3-hour journey and meet a “real live missionary”, but above all to find out more about the God who had so drastically changed his life. Wanting to deepen his roots in the Word, it turned out to be a wonderful surprise that one of the subjects was precisely Christian marriage. It was in that area he had long felt at his wit’s end.

For centuries Latin America has been known for its “polygamous” practices. Of course, the law prohibits polygamy, but there have always been easy ways around that. In North America and Europe things are very similar nowadays. While one wife is “official”, there may be one or more “unofficial” ones on the sly. Or, as the case may be, there could be a succession of wives, even though the “husband” is not a widower.

Carlos and his first wife had been married for five years and had three lovely girls. Then he took the fateful decision and walked out on them … Was it because of “the other woman”? It doesn’t seem to have been; but the point is he abandoned them and eventually joined up with the other one, the “third party”.

The Bible term for this is “adultery”. It takes us back to the idea of an illegal ‘mixture’. Think, for instance, of ‘adulterated wine’. In marriage there is room for two only. At your peril do you ‘mix in’ a third person. And, says Paul in so many words, when a married person commits fornication, he (or she) sins against his (or her) “own body” (see 1 Corinthians 5 & 6), referring, of course, to the fact that the married couple is “one flesh or body” before God. Violate that rule, established in Creation itself, and the whole of that “body” will suffer the dire consequences. How powerful and sharp is the two-edged sword of God’s Word. Whatever a man sows, that also will he reap.

However, Carlos was not a Christian, even though professing to be a Roman Catholic. A new family was started with his new “wife” without too much protest from his conscience. Again there were three children. They knew a measure of happiness and he was faithful to her. At the same time he didn’t forget his first family and, unlike many others, continued to support them through the years. Then God in his sovereignty stepped in. He hates sin and cannot forgive the person who holds on to sin and rebellion. Yet He loves the sinner. So much so that on Calvary He himself paid the terrible price for our eternal redemption. When there is true repentance and true faith in the Savior, the sinner is made clean; he receives forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.

First of all, at some point, wife number one heard the Gospel, and responded. And now, as a mother who loves the Lord, she is seeking to lead her three daughters to him as well. Any deeply embedded bitterness was dealt with and changed into God’s peace. And then …, lo and behold, Carlos and his present wife heard the Gospel. In their case it was through the testimony of the believers of the New Testament congregation in the village. They too responded! And life took on new meaning and dimensions. The past had been dealt with once and for all! Or … had it …? Sins had been blotted out! And yet …?

With great joy they are participating in the Christians’ meetings, learning so much more about God’s love and wonderful plans for their lives. Their three little kids are thriving in the Sunday School. The other Christians rejoice with them and help them along. Logically, they have learned about baptism and now long to take that step. It will be their public testimony about the new life in Christ they received. It will also fully integrate them into the group.

Two quandaries here come into focus: Can they be baptized when they are not legally married? If the elders feel they cannot, what should they tell them? To separate, and Carlos to go back to his first wife? The elders do not see that as an option. It would mean the destruction of this union (one flesh before God) and of the lovely home, undeniably Christian now, even if it was never legalized. As the elders pray, and urge the couple to pray, they feel the only way open to them is to get the marriage status sorted out in accordance with the laws of the country. This must inevitably involve the sad business of divorce. However, in the case of Christians, that is not an easy solution. Had that dear woman not been converted and remained ‘single’, it might have been easier. As things stand, she belongs to a Christian denomination where divorce is (rightly) frowned upon. Her church’s leadership, however, not only discourage divorce, they also rule out its possibility under all circumstances, whatever these might be. This, of course, means she will never be able to remarry herself (barring the death of Carlos), nor is she supposed to allow her ex-husband to do so …

Complicated as that quandary may seem, this one is undoubtedly worse. Carlos’ conscience, fully awakened by the indwelling Holy Spirit, shows him ever more realistically the enormity of his past actions. It is not that he doubts the effects of the precious blood, shed by the Savior to wipe out all his guilt. No, he marvels at the love of God for a sinner like himself, once lost beyond all human hope. Rather, what deeply upsets him is the fact that he cannot undo what once he did; that even God Almighty does not, and cannot, undo that terrible damage. It is the old ‘fact of life’ that the thief’s program of John 10:10 is still in place. It has everything to do with “stealing, killing, destroying”.

Even when the old, festering ‘wound’ has healed wonderfully and completely, the very ugly ‘scar’ may still be there. How often a man or woman would retrace his or her steps and undo, or ‘unsay’ things, and find it is simply too late.

Carlos continues to visit his former family and makes sure their material needs are met. He is on good terms with his ex-wife; now more than ever, since both belong to the same Lord. He loves the three girls, and how happy they always are to see him. The eldest is nine. When he said goodbye after his last visit, she turned to her mother and said: – Mommy, why can’t Daddy just stay with us like other daddies?

His heart seemed to break as he walked away. And now, telling the story brought out the tears again …

What counsel was I to give him? We prayed together that God might show him the way, we prayed for wisdom for the elders in any decisions to be taken, we prayed for the women and for the children. I reminded him of the fact that God is faithful and, in his mercy, wonderfully overrules when things are truly committed to him. In that same verse of John 10:10 the Savior adds that, in spite of sin’s reality, He is still the one who came to give life, even abundant LIFE.

It could be that this story puts some things into perspective for the reader, giving an apt illustration of the way sin works havoc in far off countries as much as at home, and how God’s Spirit works in spite of sin, wonderfully re-creating lives and families. May it also help your intercession for workers and believers alike.

ü “DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE”, an excellent study on this subject by George W. Peters, and reprinted by permission from Moody Press, figures on this website as one of the e-booklets of the PRESSING ISSUES series. Don’t miss it!