What Willie Nelson Can Teach Us About Divorce

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Willie Nelson, the legendary country musician, has framed himself as an “outlaw.” He flouted the conventional norms of the Nashville music industry, and even, legend says, smoked marijuana in the Carter White House. He’s less of an outlaw, though, when he talks about the sadness of his failed marriages. There’s something in the way he speaks about divorce that I think resonates across culture today, something we need to hear.

Nelson married his first wife when he was eighteen and has been married, repeatedly, ever since. As a matter of fact, he once was married (accidentally, he says) in the 1970s to two women at one time. Even so, Nelson reveals to his biographer that he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as an ex-wife.

“There is no such thing as an ex-wife, there are only additional wives,” Nelson says. “It’s an accumulation.”

Clearly, Nelson’s relationships to women are quite different from that of the typical American male. Despite looking, well, like Willie Nelson, women all over the country swoon in his presence. But he is typical in the way he treats divorce. It is seen as a sad thing, but almost the equivalent of a high school breakup, except with lawyers involved. Nelson seems quite casual about his divorces, his marriages, and his serial adulteries.

But he seems to recognize in this one off-hand statement that marriage isn’t as casual as he pretends it is. Even in the voice of the man happy to be “insisting that the world keep moving our way,” you can hear a bone-chilling sadness.

I wonder how many American men and women ponder the same reality. They thought a divorce would “free” them to pursue the next phase of life, but there’s always something “accumulated.” A one-flesh covenant cannot be so easily rended. What God hath joined together can be pronounced “asunder” by a court system, and even by a family. But is it ever really over?

Maybe that’s why our church pews are filled with divorced men and women who are grieving, not just over a failed marriage or over the loneliness of being “single again,” as we so callously put it. Maybe they are grieving too because they’ve been sold a package of lies. They’ve been told a divorce means a “new start.” They’ve been told the next marriage will be the one that counts, with a whole new family in the bargain. They’ve been told there’s such a thing as an “ex-wife.”

As we minister in a divorce culture, we need to recognize that, even in the hatred and violence of divorce, a marriage cannot be simply forgotten. A covenant cannot just be packed up in boxes and moved out the door. Let’s remember as we teach about marriage, and as we love those who’ve been scarred by divorce, that this isn’t something casual. An ex-spouse may be hated, but cannot be forgotten. Whatever Hollywood and the town clerk says, there are millions of people who look in anguish at pictures of a covenant ceremony and say, with Willie Nelson, “You were always on my mind.”

This commentary is a revision and update of a piece that originally ran on July 4, 2006.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).