*I’m writing this as a post that encourages people to stay married. It’s a simple strategy that has allowed for the healing of many broken relationships that I have watched God heal over the years. However, if you or your children are being physically abused or threatened with violence, get help now from a local Christian service and do not stay in harm’s way. There is also a national hotline that will help you make arrangements (1-800-799-SAFE). Leaving a dangerous situation is difficult but necessary, and when physical violence is the issue, temporary separation may be the healthiest thing for your marriage.
Look at the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and you will find them no different than the religious leaders of our time, engaging in debate, taking stances on legal positions and politics, and totally neglecting the actual plight of the poor and widowed, sick, and foreigner. The questions they asked Jesus were, strangely, often about relationships, specifically about marriage. Why were they concerned about marriage? Because, like today, there were differing views about what was allowable. Was it ok to divorce for any reason, or only for certain allowable instances like abuse, neglect, or cheating? What if my ex-spouse committed adultery and I don’t want to forgive him; can I remarry, or is that adultery?
Who does not have someone you love who has been in this situation and asked these questions? Who has not been affected by the terrible pain of one becoming two again. We have all been traumatized by divorce, because it shakes our worlds. What we thought was sure and safe is no longer solid ground. So the questions come, and we cannot ignore them.
And there are answers out there. In fact, if you are looking for it, you can find a “Christian” who will support you in almost any decision you make. After all, you have to “decide what is right for yourself,” right? This is so dangerous. Not only on this subject but on any moral issue. The Bible is what gives us our moral compass and it is to the Bible we must look for our answers, not out of a legalistic desire to make the right ruling on a marriage and divorce decision, but so that we can understand God’s heart and encourage others to stay married, staying strong in their love for one another. Let’s jump in.
Is Divorce for Any Reason Lawful?
If you are asking this question, you are not alone. But it is the wrong question. Anytime you have someone asking about the lawfulness of something, you have already missed the mark. It means your desires are not aligned with God’s best. If they were, the question would be “what does God desire?” If we desire only not to sin, but lack an actual yielded, love-driven, relationship with God, then we have entered into the mindset of the Pharisee. (This legalistic mindset ironically comes from not accepting the call to repent (Luke 7:29-30)).
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” 4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19
Some interesting things to note here. Jesus does not answer this question directly, instead He goes straight to what God DESIRES marriage to be. Marriage is between one man and one woman. They are fused together and made one and are no longer two. And this arrangement is not to be separated.
Then the pharisees say something completely unbiblical in order to trick Jesus. They imply that Moses GAVE A COMMAND to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away. But Moses never gave a blanket command like this, nor does he ever sanction divorce, as we will see later in this post. Jesus corrects them and then Jesus gives a ruling, alright. But it’s about the heart of the issue; that God intends a husband and wife not to separate at all, since they are no longer two but one, and then He offers a clarification of whether a person would be judged by God for committing adultery (breaking the law) in all cases of remarriage. But certainly as followers of Jesus, our desire for God’s desires exceed the Pharisees. We long to know God. We desire to understand Him. And we need to let his law permeate our hearts so we are not looking for rulings, but mercy. Because that’s what He desires. If you want to know what I am talking about, let me tell you a story, grounded in Torah, that spans thousands of years.
THE STORY OF A BROKEN MARRIAGE HEALED
Go back before Christ, before Babylon, before the Kings, to Moses, the judge. The one who seeks the face of God. Ten commandments should be simple to keep right? But it gets tricky. Do not commit adultery. Do not covet your neighbors wife. But what if these sins are committed? What then? What is allowable for the victim to do—stone the unfaithful partner or divorce them or remarry someone who will hopefully prove more faithful? What if they return? Should we forgive them or is it not in keeping with purity codes of the temple to allow the unfaithful one back into your marriage bed? What if you have two wives and one has fallen out of favor? What if you want a woman who is technically a prisoner of war? (umm….😳 wow guys) These are all questions Moses was answering in response to this ONE commandment, not to commit adultery.
No, the people could not keep even ten simple commandments (and we are no better than they…but wow, they invent new ways of breaking God’s law). They bring their Egyptian gods into the desert. There is no stopping their lust. They covet and must be told not to have sexual relations with animals, their mothers, and their mother-in-laws! Read the sorts of laws Moses gave and and sense the ridiculousness of the level of sin we are dealing with.
Regarding men with multiple wives (since Abraham they have multiple wives–not technically a sin, but not God’s ideal): “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. (Exodus 21:10-11)
Note there is no mention of a certificate of a divorce here. This is simply a case of a ruling of woman being able to physically leave her husband without paying for her freedom if she is neglected. Some have used this verse as rationalization for divorce based on uncaring behavior, but there is no mention of divorce here, and unless they have multiple wives, this verse is really irrelevant to monogamous marriages.
Regarding marrying a captive woman: “When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.” Deuteronomy 21:10-14
Again, this scripture is often used as rationalization for divorce if not “delighting in a person,” but rather it is God protecting the woman. He is saying to the men, that they are not to rape the women they take as prisoners of war in passion-filled adrenaline and leave them desolate, you are to take them on as your responsibility, treat them respectfully giving them time to mourn, and then take them as wives, and if you do send them out afterwards, you must let them go free (as a part of society, not foreigners or slaves); and you cannot sell them as property.
Then we have directions for not taking back a woman who you have divorced for purity purposes: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency (shame, uncleanness) in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
A man who divorced and sent his wife out (for her unclean or shameful behavior) may not accept her back if she creates a new covenant by remarrying. This brings sin into the land because she has been defiled by another man. In other words, this is limiting the mercy a man is to extend to an unfaithful wife because she is causing the people to not be able to enter the presence of God, literally because she is defiled and dirty. Here is the basis many people use to support divorce on the premise of adultery. But look closely and see that Moses does not give outright permission to divorce based on adultery, it is saying what a man should do if he has divorced his wife for adultery. And it certainly is not saying that the man should divorce his wife for adultery. So, in the above passage, we finally have mention of a certificate of divorce, but not a command or even permission to divorce. It is discussing what a man should do when he has given a certificate of divorce and the wife wants to return. It never commands or sanctions this action.
And NOW congratulations🥳, you have just read all the commands of Moses regarding divorce and remarriage.
This is important to wrap our minds around. The Bible, including the commandments of Moses, never commands or sanctions human divorce. Moses simply does not shut it down…it’s something God’s people are doing that God hates (Malachi 2), and Moses must issue purity and humanitarian regulations for the people who are divorcing their wives already.
If the Bible never commands or sanctions divorce, we shouldn’t either.
I understand that this position may seem unmerciful to some. But knowing that God is merciful, we must reconcile ourselves to His desires. What this means is that God may intend our suffering so that reconciliation is still on the table. In other words, He always desires reconciliation and healing as a couple more than He desires you to heal individually through marital separation from your spouse. How do we know this? Because He said the two become one and are no longer two but one. He is even willing to sanctify an unbeliever through the belief of their spouse! (1 Corinthians 7:17)
God can restore and heal a lot of things. But He can not heal and restore a broken marriage if one of the people goes and makes a new covenant with someone else. If adultery has taken place, that new covenant is already made in Biblical terms. And that is why a person will not be judged as an adulterer if they remarry after their spouse commits adultery. But God does not desire this scenario. He desires the healing of the first marriage, even if it takes a lifetime. How do we know this? Because 1) the biblical narrative is completely consistent; 2) the nature of the covenant: two become one and are no longer two and are not to be separated by men; and 3) the actions of God demonstrate this kind of long-term, radical, faithfulness, even when being treated terribly, even after He divorces His people. Wait! What? How could God something he hated? Because the covenant was broken in adultery.
GOD DIVORCES HIS PEOPLE
God’s people began falling over and over again into sin and idolatry. After the sins of the desert, the people forgot God even one generation after going into the promised land as well! (Judges 2:10) The kings had harems and, surprisingly, it was not in this that they sinned, although it was not what God intended marriage to be, but sin occurred when David desired in his heart to take the wife of a covenanted woman for himself, killing the man to get him out of the way. It was a coveting (unfaithfulness to God and neighbor), that led to adultery (unfaithfulness to God and neighbor), that led to murder (unfaithfulness to God and neighbor). It all started when David’s heart lost sight of faithfulness to the command of God. After he was confronted by Nathan the prophet, we see David write Psalm 51, a Psalm of brokenhearted repentance in which he acknowledges that he sinned against God and how God desires “truth (faithfulness) in the inmost parts.” David had lied to himself, and was unfaithful to his brother Uriah, even murdering him, because He was unrepentant. Solomon also had a lust for women that went unchecked and led God’s people deeper into idolatry.
THE UNFAITHFUL WIFE METAPHOR
God was about to bring judgment against Israel (the Northern tribes) and ushers a warning through the prophet Hosea. Despite His great mercy to forgive His people from their repeated idolatry, they never truly repented. Out of the mouths of God’s prophets begin to come a metaphor which likens God’s people to an adulterous woman, worthy of death, because of their detestable idolatry and subsequent uncleanliness. God’s people are now collectively being portrayed as an adulterous wife, and adulterers are put to death at worst (or maybe given a certificate of divorce and cast out as beggars if allowed to live).
To demonstrate His love for His people, He tells a man named Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife. He does. Then she leaves him and he has to buy her back. He has to buy back the woman who was already his (notice the foreshadowing to Jesus). Surely the people would be moved to see the heart of God in this way. He is offering to take her back, polluted as she is. He wants her still. He is making an provision for adultery to not mean the end of relationship. Instead, he will make her clean. He will make it difficult for her to be unfaithful.
“But now bring charges against Israel—your mother—
for she is no longer my wife,
and I am no longer her husband. [God’s DIVORCING of the Northern tribes]
Tell her to remove the prostitute’s makeup from her face
and the clothing that exposes her breasts.
3 Otherwise, I will strip her as naked
as she was on the day she was born.
I will leave her to die of thirst,
as in a dry and barren wilderness.
4 And I will not love her children,
for they were conceived in prostitution.
5 Their mother is a shameless prostitute
and became pregnant in a shameful way.
She said, ‘I’ll run after other lovers
and sell myself to them for food and water,
for clothing of wool and linen,
and for olive oil and drinks.’
6 “For this reason I will fence her in with thornbushes.
I will block her path with a wall
to make her lose her way.
7 When she runs after her lovers,
she won’t be able to catch them.
She will search for them
but not find them.
Then she will think,
‘I might as well return to my husband,
for I was better off with him than I am now.’
14 “But then I will win her back once again.
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her there.
15 I will return her vineyards to her
and transform the Valley of Troubleinto a gateway of hope.
She will give herself to me there,
as she did long ago when she was young,
when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.
16 When that day comes,” says the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband’
instead of ‘my master.’
19 I will make you my wife forever,
showing you righteousness and justice,
unfailing love and compassion.
20 I will be faithful to you and make you mine,
and you will finally know me as the Lord.’” Hosea 2:2-23 (selected)
So God desires to show mercy, even still. He will lead His people through a heart journey of missing him and repentance. Love will emerge miraculously victorious. He will fulfill His original covenant and stay faithful to His entire Bride. This is impossible love. He will put a block in the road and thornbushes to block her way to her lovers. He will make it difficult for her to leave him. He will punish and discipline her and then…
Then. Then he will love her tenderly again.
He will marry this harlot. And He announces this through the true-life prophetic drama of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, the harlot. This woman not only is a harlot to begin with, she returns to her life of harlotry and Hosea must go buy her back again! How insulting. How ridiculous this love. How impossible this devotion.
“‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. 60 Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you…62 and you will know that I am the Lord. 63 Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (Ezekiel 16:59-63)
But Israel does not repent.
So the Assyrians attack Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and those 10 tribes almost vanish (so much so that they are often called the Lost Tribes of Israel), but there is a remnant. They are not lost completely.
In the book of Chronicles chapters 30-31, you can read about King Hezekiah inviting all the remnant to come back and resettle the cities. They come to celebrate the feasts in Jerusalem and then go out to their own lands to resettle. There was great joy as all the idols were destroyed, but the faithfulness to God did not last. They did not repent in their hearts, and God decides He will punish Judah for pretending to repent but not actually repenting (Jeremiah 5:1-5). The people of God do not repent. His judgment is executed. His anger burns against the remnant from the North (who now lives in Judah) and the Kingdom of Judah (in the South).
I remember how eager you were to please me
as a young bride long ago,
how you loved me and followed me
even through the barren wilderness.
3 In those days Israel was holy to the Lord,
the first of his children. Jeremiah 2:2-3
If a man divorces a woman
and she goes and belongs to someone else,
he will not take her back again,
for that would surely corrupt the land.
But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers,
so why are you trying to come back to me?”
says the Lord…
I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. 9 Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. 10 But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken! Jeremiah 3:1, 8-10
Throughout the book of Jeremiah, you see God looking for one honest person who will admit that they have been falsely repenting. You think you see honesty in Jeremiah 4, but chapter 5 says it was a false repentance, that Israel was only pretending to be sorry. He also says they could repent if they wanted to (4:1). God knows the heart. The word has been given. The judgment is death and exile on the basis of adultery, a sin that never had been truly and permanently eradicated since the generation after Joshua. Now Judah is taken away to Babylon, a divorced adulterous woman. Even when brought back, God’s people never experience the glory of God’s presence. There is a rift, a distance. He brought them back, but as a shadow of what was to come.
So this is the heart of God. He longs for a mutual love and for a true circumcision of the heart in faithfulness to Him. Finally, through Malachi, God brings these charges against His people. They are holding back money from the temple, and they are divorcing their wives. God says He is not receiving their worship because their lack of love for their wife, culminating in these divorces, is committing violence against these women. They are charged to remain faithful to the wives of their youth.
13 Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure. 14 You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. 15 Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. 16 “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” Malachi 2:13-16
His charge is that the people are not faithful to their spouses. That is why He is not receiving their worship. He describes divorce as violent cruelty against which you must guard your heart. He asserts that He made them one. In body and spirit you are His as one. And he wants to multiply and bless that union with children. But His desire is rejected.
God’s promises of thriving life, of Him teaching us Himself, of rivers flowing from the desert. None of that had come to pass. It looked like all His promises had been conditional upon the obedience of His people. And the people had failed at faithfulness, to God and to their spouses. Can you imagine the regret that the people felt to know they had been faithless, that if they had wanted to return, they could have. They were a forgotten, enslaved people once again, Babylon fell to Persia and Persia to Greece and Greece to Rome. None of the captives had been set free, not really, and all of God’s people looked for a Messiah. The promised one. Because clearly, he had no come yet. Oh sure, there was Solomon who built a temple, and Zechariah and Nehemiah, but their lives prophecies, even as they fulfilled promises, prophesied someone else. Another descendant. Son of God and Son of Man. Someone who would be able to bring the promises of God to pass and write the law of God on our hearts, into flesh, not stone.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:32-34
JESUS, GOD’S PROVISION FOR FORGIVENESS AND RECONCILIATION
Then Jesus comes. The hope of the world, the light of all humankind. Finally, the Messiah who has come to save all people from their sin. The second Adam. But He is also a teacher and a law-bringer. The second Moses. So He gives an explanation of the law that does not abolish the first law written on stones, but fulfills it, in His blood, and by writing it onto our hearts by the Holy Spirit who would be given after He left (John 14-16).
Clearly He is merciful. But He is also intolerant of sin. One day, “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:3-11
Jesus somehow demonstrated mercy, but without downplaying the devastating consequences of sin. For Him, they coexist. It may look like He is easy on the sinner, but He does not lower his expectations for righteous living. He tells her to go and leave her life of sin. On the sermon on the mount, Jesus explains that He came to not to abolish the rulings of Moses and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. He wanted to deepen the law of God from the surface level to the heart, to allow our righteousness (by His Spirit’s power) to exceed the Scribe’s and Pharisees’ behavior-based religious righteousness. The disciples soon realize that He is not making it easier to obey the law, He is making it more intense. Now it is not simply possible to avoid sin by limiting your actions, but Jesus is saying we will be judged even on the level of our thoughts and inner motivations! This is near-to-impossible obedience.
You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot,you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell…
You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…
You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’32 But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, CAUSES HER to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.” (Matthew 5)
The adultery is here is related to violating the covenant of a married person—they are off limits. Jesus is not redefining what adultery is, He is redefining what faithfulness is—what love is. A woman being divorced in those days would almost certainly have to remarry to provide for herself. Therefore she would have been forced to commit adultery. If she is unfaithful, she has already committed it.
Right here Jesus took three commandments and drove them from the action to the motivation. Murder happens in the heart before it happens in the body. Adultery happens in the mind before the bed, and divorce for reasons other than adultery is unforgiveness and hardness of the heart toward the person you are about to make an adulterer of—because they will be tempted /forced to remarry, causing defilement and ending all hope of reconciliation.
How can we live this kind of level of obedience? We were not even able to obey the Law of Moses which governed behavior? Jesus says (specifically regarding money), “With man it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God, but with God all things are possible!” He said this about the Holy Spirit who they did not know would come to indwell everyone who believed and was truly baptized into Christ, not just with a baptism of repentance but with consuming fire that would burn up the desires of our flesh and open us up to the Living Water of life. Jesus continued to teach toward the heart of the matter, worship will happen in spirit and truth, not in the temple made with human hands. The Sabbath was given as a gift for men to rest, not to be constrained by laws that make it a burden.
But Jesus’ emphasis on obedience from the heart and the clarification of the heart of God put frustrated the Rabbinical leaders judgments, their love of books and manuscripts, and their convoluted interpretations of the law of Moses. Here’s Mark’s version of the same story we read in Matthew:
So then we get to a place where the religious leaders approach him again about this topic of divorce. “Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” 3 Jesus answered them with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” 4 “Well, he permitted it,” they replied. “He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away.” 5 But Jesus responded,
“He wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. 6 But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. 7 ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife,8 and the two are united into one.’Since they are no longer two but one, 9 let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
10 Later, when he was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. 11 He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.” Mark 10
Observe how the leaders are looking for the legal ruling and interpretation here. Can a man divorce his wife for any reason? And look how Jesus exposes either their bad reading of scripture or their intent to trick Him, and tries to show them the heart of the issue. The issue for Jesus is not whether or not a person is allowed to divorce based on certain circumstances. The issue is that the one who truly understands the love of God would have a softness of heart that would not end in their divorcing their spouse, but hold out hope for reconciliation like a lighthouse. Matthew’s version adds adultery as an exception here and this is important, because God did divorce Israel and Judah. He will not hold you to a standard he is not holding himself to. But He is inviting you to do what He did, remain faithful in the face of someone else’s faithlessness and even after a relationship has been seemingly ruined by unfaithfulness. In essence, Jesus said you missed the point again. Let me show you the fulfillment of this law…the issue is not whether or not it’s ok, the issue is that you don’t understand what marriage is. You are no longer two but one and my ruling is the same it has always been since the first marriage. Let it not be separated. That is the “ruling” of God on the matter. The covenant of marriage has no end but death. The two are made one flesh. And this ruling is completely consistent throughout scripture.
The disciples could not let that stand and so we get a very clear reiteration of His point. Notice how he focuses, not on divorce, but on remarriage:
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.”
In other words, the divorce is a human certificate. It has no bearing on the spiritual reality, that you are still one in the sight of God. OK, your heart is too hard to be together and you choose to separate. God will not constrain your free will. But to God, this connection is not severed until death except in the case of adultery, and even then, the story is not over. How do we know? He divorced His adulterous people and eventually married them again. He loved His people who were unfaithful to Him and made a way back to relationship. Ideally, those who go through with divorce should remarry…their first spouse. That is the biblically-supported intent of God when people choose to divorce. A hurt spouse, especially who has experienced the pain of rejection, may not even be able to entertain that possibility and that’s ok. It’s enough to just not leave. It’s enough to just not divorce them. It’s enough to just wait.
Jesus is asking the same of His people. It is the freedom and encouragement to hope for salvation, healing, and restoration. You do not have to divorce because someone was unfaithful to you. You can legally do it and the church will not stop you. And you might choose to remarry if adultery was committed against you or if your spouse has already remarried and you burn with lust (these decisions should be made within your close circles of Biblical accountability), but Jesus clearly advises not to remarry in Mark 10:10-12. In fact, He endorses not marrying at all in some cases.
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19:10-12
Jesus is calling some to bear a special cross of celibacy–those who have been divorced (for non-adultery related causes), and those born Eunuchs (may refer to those born sexually atypical), those made Eunuchs by others (slaves and servants were sometimes castrated), or those who live in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom (this should never be a rule imposed on priests or on a whole order of people, but individually lived out in obedience to Christ in engaging the world with the gospel). His invitation on these things is not given to us, to be cruel or demanding to confine divorced people (or eunuchs) to a life of loneliness. In the case of divorce, Jesus gives this command to keep both parties AVAILABLE for reconciliation once hearts soften. In other words, leave room for resurrection.
But above all His teachings on marriage, adultery, and remarriage, the greatest statement Jesus made on divorce was in the first communion. Jesus ended His time before His death on the cross by instituting a new marriage covenant in His blood. As He said He would do through the prophets, God betrothed Himself to His people once again.
Once again, He offers Himself. To a harlot. He is still in love with His people, the Jews, and the whole world reaps those benefits when we come into faith in Christ. Because His desire was so great, He loved us even when we were His enemies. He paid the price for what He already owned, like Hosea did when He bought back His wife again. And because of this New Covenant, we can be forgiven for our own idolatry. We can know God. We can be with Him. We can extend radical mercy and forgiveness, because we were idolaters and harlots to God and He showed us mercy. And we can stay with our spouses for life. Because He redeemed us. He bought us back. We give mercy because we were shown such mercy.
Bringing it Home
The reality is that our hearts get hard. And that is the truth that our hearts need to hear. A person’s contempt for their husband or wife begins much earlier than the act of divorce. It is an anger that is not dealt with. The sun is allowed to go down over and over, and before you know it, resentment has led to a feeling of separation of the heart and mind. But God says two have become one. So you yield. To one another, but also to God. You submit. And this is how the two stay as one. And our refusal to do this yielding, makes our hearts hard. We must repent. Change our mind toward our spouse often, to stay soft, even when you don’t want to.
Paul, who is, like Moses and Jesus, asked to give rulings about marriage problems, also takes this approach to a spouse leaving. He says not to,
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
[this makes it possible for both parties to remain free for reconciliation–the wife should remain unmarried and the husband should not divorce her and again, there is no other “view or opinion” in scripture that contradicts]
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
[Note that there is no permission to divorce given here…only to let an unbeliever separate if they desire to.]
You have the power and strength to remain faithful to one another until death parts you. It is this deep-rooted nature of God, His faithfulness that He is inviting you into. He is not cruel or harsh in expecting anything of you that HE has not done. This is not cross He is asking you to carry that He has not carried. You can do this kind of love because He is inside you. You can live years alone and not really be alone, and there will definitely be times when the loneliness is earth-shatteringly terrible. But God puts the lonely in families. You will be ok. You can pursue your unfaithful spouse even when you do not have a shred of self-dignity left. They belong to you. You can also be unmarried and be full of joy. You can wait and hope for God to work miracles and potentially have a story of resurrection in your marriage. How great our need for a Savior! Even the teachers of the law cannot manage this! But by His Spirit, we can! God makes it possible for His faithfulness to be our story, for His faithfulness to empower our faithfulness. I have seen God breathe life back into dead marriages, even when the husband and wife have been unfaithful. I have seen the dead come to life again. You have to get past desire for the legal ruling and get to the heart. It’s about the heart of God, two-made-one for life, inseparable by man, no matter what.
Everyone who comes into Christ is asked to carry His yoke of obedience. If this is your cross, being faithful to a difficult spouse, or staying unmarried in obedience to Jesus (when adultery is not the issue), or not marrying a divorced person you desire to marry, it is not an easy thing you are doing, but it is a glorious and good thing and in that sense, it is easy and light. You are doing it willingly, not because someone told you to but because you are choosing to love and trust that God’s way leads to life. You will feel Jesus bear this with you. No one should make light of it. You may even be persecuted for taking this approach. But it is the only Biblical approach and it all fits together perfectly. It may seem unfair that you are obeying God while others do whatever they want, but you are not the first to carry this cross in obedient love to Jesus. The purpose of this life is not to be happy, but to know Christ and the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death and so attaining to the resurrection of the dead. In this trial, you will come to know Him better by walking out His experience of a faithful spouse to an unfaithful spouse. After all, our God is a God who marries harlots and buys them back when they leave Him again. I am one of those harlots. I’m glad He waited for me.
If you have already been divorced and remarried, this post is not to condemn you, but if you have sinned against a spouse or against God in that journey, I invite you to repent, seek forgiveness, and leave sin behind (if sin remains) so you can experience God’s mercy. May God give grace to everyone who reads this, as He gave grace to me writing this, because I am a chief sinner saved by His love and constantly made aware of His “forgetting” forgiveness; that because of Jesus, when I honestly confess my sin, He chooses does not remember it from that day forward. May you experience that same honesty in confession and that same wild and faithful love today and every day. It cannot be overemphasized that this study of marriage, adultery, and remarriage is not meant to judge or condemn. It was done in an effort to expose false teaching on this subject and promote healthy, biblical understanding, so we can teach our family and community what God intends in marriage and how to responsibly and Biblically advise those in difficult marriage/remarriage situations. If this post is ever turned to legalistic ruling, then it is better for it to be burned, but if it is to be used to understand the heart of God, so that we as the followers of Jesus can extend the way of life in loving mercy to others, then let it stand.