Tragic or Triumphant

Several years ago on his television show Pat Robertson was asked a question concerning a man whose wife was suffering from the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and who had begun dating another woman, claiming that “he should be allowed to see other people, because his wife as he knows her is gone.” After acknowledging that this man’s situation is terribly difficult, Robertson gave this advice:

I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here’s the loved-one, this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, or 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone! So, what he says basically is correct, but, I know it sounds cruel, but…if he’s gonna do something, he should divorce her and start all over again. But, you know, to make sure she has custodial care and someone looking after her.

Robertson’s co-host responded by suggesting that this man’s response was in violation of the vow that he made when he married his wife – “to death do us part.” To which Robertson responded, “Yeah, well I know, if you respect that vow, but you say ’till death do us part, this is a kind of death…” After he fumbles around for a little while longer, Robertson then concludes by saying that this man should consult some ethicist besides himself for an answer to his question, however, he would not condemn the man or put a guilt trip on him for seeking some companionship since his wife is suffering a kind of “walking death.”

What tragic words from a man who claims to be a Christian spokesperson and teacher, and who once was a Southern Baptist minister. Instead of using her Alzheimer’s as an opportunity to explore his freedom, this husband ought to consider his wife’s condition as an opportunity to explore the love of Christ and serve the one he promised to serve until parted by death. For Robertson, however, this disease is a kind of “walking death,” that can be equated to actual death for the purpose of freeing the spouse from his responsibility to uphold his covenant promise. Of course, if he actually believed that Alzheimer’s was a form of death, then he would not advocate that this man divorce his wife, since Romans 7:2 says that a wife is bound to her husband while he lives, but “if the husband dies, she is freed from the law of her husband.” So his statements reveal much more about his view of the marriage commitment then he probably intended.

In contrast to this pitiful response, Robertson McQuilkin resigned his position as the president of Columbia International University in 1990 to care for his wife, Muriel, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. On the day of his resignation, he gave this speech to an assembly of the student body and faculty:

I haven’t in my life experienced easy decision making on major decision. But one of the simplest and clearest decisions I’ve had to make is this one, because circumstances dictated it. Muriel now in the last couple of months seems to be almost happy when with me, and almost never happy when not with me. In fact she seems to feel trapped, becomes very fearful, sometimes almost terror, and when she can’t get to me there can be anger, she’s in distress. But when I am with her she’s happy and contented. And so I must be with her at all times. And you see, it’s not only that I promised in sickness and in health till death do us part, and I am a man of my word, but as I have said, I don’t know with this group, but I have said publicly, it’s the only fair thing. She sacrificed for me for forty years, to make my life possible. So if I cared for her for forty years, I would still be in debt. However, there is much more. It’s not that I have to, it’s that I get to. I love her very dearly, and you can tell it’s not easy to talk about. She is a delight. It’s a great honor to care for such a wonderful person.

His faithful and loving commitment to care for his wife in the darkest days of her life is a wonderful example of what it means for a husband to love his wife, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).

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