Remarriage, Death & Love: Answering the Unasked Questions
Because of the ambiguity, I often feel like I am swimming in a sea of unasked questions with people. It is an awkward topic, and challenging to address, and full of complicated emotions. But I hate unasked questions. So as I get ready for this weekend with joy but also with some sadness, I wanted to try to name and answer some of them, partly as a pastor and partly as a guy who’s been wrestling with them himself.
How do you think, biblically, about something like remarriage?
Theologically this is relatively simple, albiet something we don't always discuss. Marriage in Scripture is not eternal. The only permanent union is of God’s people with their Bridegroom; every earthly union is a passing reflection of that reality (Matthew 22:29-30, Romans 7:1-2, Ephesians 5:25-32, Revelation 19:6-9). This truth doesn’t mean marriage isn’t massively important to how we experience the world, but it does relativize it in crucial ways.
Even before wrestling with the question of remarriage, one of the hardest things I had to grapple with leading up to Elizabeth’s (my first wife’s) death was the realization that there were ways I had made an idol of our marriage. I looked to her to provide me with things only Jesus can provide, and I sought to do things for her that only Jesus can do. Her mortality was an unmasking of our limitations. I feel some of the same impulses now with Leah (my second wife.) This idolatry is an ordinary failing in marriage, but it is also sin, and it can create real problems because neither of us are Jesus. The best sort of love always flows from a place of absolute security in and dedication to Him.
I think modern Protestant Christianity is especially prone to this idolatry. Originally as a reaction to a medieval theology that devalued marriage and now as a reaction to a culture that we sense also devalues it, we have tended to make marriage more than Scripture does. In the Bible, it is a wonderful gift and a sweet blessing when shared with someone who is walking after Jesus beside you. It is not, however, essential nor eternal. You can have a fulfilled, blessed human life with out it (Jesus did), and we will all ultimately move beyond it.
How do you emotionally experience something like falling in love again?
If the theological answer is simple, the emotional answer is not. It is incredibly messy. Let me just survey some of that mess as I walked through it.
First of all, there is the habituated guilt I felt from things that were wrong in the past but weren’t in the present. This struggle was most pronounced in the early days of infatuation and dating, especially since it was something I had not planned on happening when it did. After thirteen years of not flirting with, desiring, or pursuing other women (because it would have been wrong), suddenly doing those things with a woman that wasn’t Elizabeth felt strange.
There was also a lot of mistrust of my own feelings. The human heart is deceptive and inscrutable, no heart more than your own. Even more so when, like me, you know grief and aloneness can make you crave connection like an addict craves relief. I was deeply self-conscious about the complexities at play, and deeply mistrustful of myself. When I realized what was happening, I talked it through with several of my closest friends who know me the longest. I asked them to check my heart, to tell me if I have permission to do this, if they thought I’m pursuing it for appropriate reasons. I did that, and fully submitted myself to their questions and advice (which was universally to be open to it), because it was the only way I could get out of the cul-de-sac of my own uncertainty.
And then there is the guilt I felt from others. There is no truly private human relationship; other people are always involved. In this case, on two separate levels.
First is the category that is just emotionally frustrating. There are lots of outside observers who have opinions at a distance, especially in situations like ours. Plenty of them are probably negative or at least skeptical. And part of what that skepticism is about is, put bluntly, whether or not I adequately loved my first wife. I often felt like the magnitude of my pain was being used by some people as a barometer for my past love. Never mind the thirteen years of faithfulness, never mind the final brutal months of care, never mind the heart I tried my best to leave open and bleed through the process of her cancer when everything in me wanted to pull back. I realize my falling in love again somehow called that into question in some peoples’ minds. Only rarely did anyone say something like that to me (although it has happened.) I know plenty of people don’t actually have such opinions. But I also know plenty of people do, because I’ve heard people say exactly those things about other people in the past when they weren’t around to hear it. And because I felt some of those insecurities in my own heart. And I don’t know who is who.
Then there is guilt from relationships that are understandably, unavoidably complicated by it all. I don’t want to dwell here because these are the people that I love the most in it, not observers in the peanut gallery but friends and family who want to be supportive but who are also struggling with their own griefs. People for whom I’m adding an additional level of pain. I would feel the same way if I was them. And that isn’t wrong; that pain is just human. It’s part of why death is so evil, and it is just inescapably hard. But I felt the weight of that.
So I felt all of that guilt and uncertainty, and then I also felt the excitement and joy of a new love and of discovering this new person and of God’s unbelievable generosity to her. Except because of the emotional mess, I also didn’t feel like I can be for her quite what I wish I could be. Because there are scars and memories and fears that are a part of me now too.
Part of what made Leah’s and my relationship work was that we had both processed our wounds enough to help each other navigate them. Before our first date, without intending to, we had a conversation about all the places we couldn’t get dinner because they would be triggering to one or the other of us. She’s visited Elizabeth’s grave with me, and asks questions about her and the past, and is secure in herself even with the mess. And I seek to do the same for her in her own complicated story.
That might seem like spilling some ink that belongs on journal pages, and Lord knows I’ve done that as well. I don’t write it so you can be a therapist trying to parse that mess. Mostly, I share it all in the hopes that for those of you who have navigated similar spaces, some of your feelings can be named as normal. Life is messy. Death and loss and remarriage are all things that make it even messier. Welcome to the struggle.
How can you love two people?
I struggles for a long time to answer this question. The reason, I’ve realized, is that it fuses two ideas into the one word love.
In Scripture, when we speak of marital love, what I think we should mean is something like “committed, delighting service.” To love your spouse means to be committed to them, committed specifically to delighting in them and serving them above yourself. This flows out of God’s love for us. He commits Himself to us in His faithful determination to seek and save us, delights in us as His children and gives Himself up for us on the cross.
In that sense you cannot love two women as your wife at the same time. To do that for one of them would be to break your commitment to the other one. But in that sense, you also cannot love someone who is dead. Because they are not there to serve anymore. And, more painfully, because you are not actually delighting in them anymore (with all the stubborn refusal of a living person to be quite what you desire but instead only what God made them to be) but in a memory of them, a memory which over time is slowly detaching itself from the person they actually were. That is not a truth many discuss, but it is something I’ve come to realize—it is one thing to be lovingly loyal to a person and another to have that sort of loyalty to a ghost.
That said, now for the other side: what I think we call “love” in the years after a person has died is a combination of deeply missing that person’s particularity, feeling sadness for the future that will never exist with them, and grieving the goodness they brought to the world that has now gone out of it. You might hear laughter, but never again their laugh. Your world has been irrevocably changed and will never be what it would have been otherwise. And each person has a specific glory goes out of the world when they do. That’s why we long for the resurrection.
I still love Elizabeth in that sense, and I grieve her passing precisely because people aren’t interchangeable. What was lost from the world can never be replaced by someone else. But that sort of love is not exclusive, and I can also love someone new in the committed, delighting service sense without diminishing it. Such love simply acknowledges that the two people are not one.
Does this mean you aren’t grieving for your first wife anymore?
Of course not.
Look, I’m not going to dwell here because it is part of a much larger discussion about grief and I already wrote a book trying to process that topic. And because the question stings. But I will say this: sorrow and joy are not mutually exclusive emotions. Feeling one doesn’t mean you don’t also experience the other. I still miss Elizabeth and think of her often. My kids and I discuss her almost daily. That doesn’t keep me from loving and rejoicing in the next season with someone new.
Practically, what are the challenges of remarriage?
I don’t know that I’m all that qualified to speak to this one, since I’m just starting out on the journey. I’ll let you know in a few years, once I’ve made a bunch of mistakes and had the chance to learn from them.
That said, I will say one thing more generally about falling in love after loss. I have always viewed a healthy dynamic as resting on two commitments. One is that we will never ask the other person to hide their pasts. Ways we have been hurt, things that have been beautiful: they are a part of us in ways that ought not be threatening. The other commitment is that we will seek to not let that past define our future. We are the people who our stories created, but this is a new chapter we are living together. After death comes resurrection, in a cosmic sense, but also within the pages of a story being written by a God whose mercies are new every morning. So we are trying to live into that.
How do you think things will look after the resurrection, when you are reunited with both of your wives?
As mentioned earlier, marriage is an estate only for this age (Matthew 22:29-30, Romans 7:1-2). Neither Elizabeth nor Leah will be my wife in heaven; we will all be united with Jesus as our true and perfect lover.
Of course, we will still have relationships with those we loved in this age, but that is something radically changed by the simple reality of eternity. Over the billion billion years that are but the first pages of the story of forever, our relationship with every human being will grow to a level of intimacy we can’t begin to imagine in this age. As I’m fond of pointing out, in that billion billion years, even if there are (say) a hundred billion people in the new creation, we will have had ten million years to get to know each one of them.
Even more than that, those relationships will be totally untouched by sin, which is something we cannot really begin to grasp. The whole reason for the question of how we’ll relate is that we subconsciously assume the deep ways sin has wormed into our hearts. In the age to come there will be not even a hint of insecurity, of jealousy, of selfishness, of feeling threatened or uncertain of ourselves. We will each have full confidence in our God-given beauty and dignity while also perfectly treasuring the God-given beauty and dignity of everyone else. In such a world, the reasons we might worry about those relationships all melt away because what they assume will have become unthinkable. If anything, such reflections should reveal just how much our hearts still need to be remade.
But practically (this is what I told my kids when they asked the question), I suspect Elizabeth and Leah will be friends. They will laugh together at what an exasperating husband I was back in this mirror-dimmed age when the pale reflection that is human marriage was the greatest love most of us could imagine. And then we will all turn our faces and bask in the radiant love of our Creator and live endless lives of meaning and glory with each other and our children and parents and grandchildren and grandparents and billions of others from every tribe and tongue and nation who are all together the Bride finally come into her splendor.