Let me begin by stating that by writing this I am not trying to create a law for the church, and neither am I trying to state an opposing argument to the teachings of others on the subject of marriage and divorce. Instead, I’m responding to a need. Divorce is epidemic. I’ve heard statistics of anywhere between 35 to 50% of marriages end in divorce (though the exact figure is actually harder to calculate than one might think).
Additionally, this article is not intended to bring condemnation on you, regardless of your past decisions or the situation with which you are currently in. Likewise, this article isn’t intended to help justify getting a divorce. After all, Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:17 (All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise stated) that “each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.” This means that you shouldn’t abandon your marriage or change your family status simply because of new information. Instead, keep seeking the Lord and make the best of your situation. The grace of God is sufficient for your circumstance.
With that being said, my audience for this piece is Christians considering divorce, Christians who have gone through a divorce in the past, and believers who are considering entering into a relationship with another previously divorced individual. This is obviously a sensitive subject, so I encourage you to read and stay with the article all the way through to the end. I truly believe that this message will be good news for the hurting — especially my conclusion!
TO THE DIVORCED AND THOSE CONSIDERING DIVORCE
In Malachi 2:16, God clearly says, “I hate divorce.” I think this is important to point out right from the beginning. God is not for divorce. It isn’t the best option. If you are considering divorce, I believe that you should do whatever you can to reconcile your marriage. Most at this point say, “I’ve tried that and it didn’t work!” If this describes you, then perhaps you won’t like what I have to say next. There are circumstances where scripture permits divorce, which we’ll discuss shortly, but never does scripture permit divorce for the following reasons:
- Because you aren’t happy. It isn’t the job of your spouse to make you happy. Happiness is a choice. Even in prison, Paul was able to operate in the joy of the Lord. Seek out biblical help to gain insight and principles to positively affect your marriage and restore joy in your life and relationship.
- Because you fell in love with someone else. According to scripture, this is called adultery, and it’s one of the greatest enemies to marriage. Every single one of us, at some point, must confront evil desires that try to draw us away from our mate. James admonishes us to “resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) Likewise, Proverbs 27:20 states, “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.” If you just allow yourself to follow every single feeling or attraction that you have, you’ll always be blown around like the wind. If you leave this relationship, because you “fell out of love,” you’ll leave the next one the same way. Love is a choice and marriage is a commitment to choose to love your spouse, even when it’s hard.
- Because it’s challenging or difficult. People seem to have this misconception that the problems in their marriage are the result of being with the wrong person. This isn’t the case. Regardless of God’s original intent, your spouse became the right person the moment you said, “I do.” Difficulties in marriage, and all relationships, stem from self-centeredness. Proverbs 13:10 in the KJV states that “only by pride cometh contention.” This means that pride is the cause of the contention and strife in your relationship. This shouldn’t condemn you; instead this understanding should encourage you and equip you with the power that you need to end strife forever in your marriage. Get it at the root by partnering with your spouse to eradicate self-centeredness on both of your parts.
- When your spouse wants to stay married to you. This is assuming that your spouse isn’t or wasn’t unfaithful and is not potentially harmful to you physically. 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 says, “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 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.” If your mate is willing to work and live with you, you shouldn’t leave or divorce him or her, even if your mate is not a believer. Obviously there are cases when the situation is unsafe due to substance abuse or violent abusive tendencies. In these situations, it might be necessary to separate for the sake of safety, but still I believe God’s best would be to pursue your mate’s emotional well-being and to seek reconciliation and healing if possible. Divorce in these situations should be an absolute last resort. (Please note, both parties’ physical safety in a marriage is paramount. If you are unsafe or undergoing physical abuse, seek a safe harbor immediately. I personally don’t believe that God would ever require someone to stay in a situation defined by abuse. Don’t wait! Surround yourself with godly counsel and people who can help you walk through the difficult decisions related to your situation. You don’t have to go at it alone.)
When is it Permissible to Divorce?
Under the Old Covenant, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives specific instructions on divorce and remarriage under the law:
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”
Jesus provided further commentary on this passage in Matthew 19:8, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Jesus’ teaching was so strong on this topic that it caused his disciples to say (in verse 10), “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus’ disciples seemed to think, if the rules are this tough, it’s better to never get married!
Regarding this, John MacArthur states, “The rabbis had taken these laws and broadened them to permit divorce for virtually any reason. Under the rabbinical laws, if a wife displeased her husband in any way, he was entitled to divorce her. Jesus stated that this was never the purpose of Moses’ Law. In fact, Jesus’ teaching on divorce was given specifically to refute the rabbinical loopholes.”
Jesus strategically used the law to expose the sinfulness of the self-righteous Jews of his day. As Paul says, in 1st Timothy 1:8-9, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels…” Jesus took the Law to the extreme and used it to expose those that were trying to use the Mosaic Law to promote their own selfishness and agenda. The teaching of Jesus stopped them in their tracks.
Paul later clarifies the doctrine of the church regarding marriage and divorce in 1St Corinthians 7:10, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” Some might be surprised to find that the commands for marriage and divorce actually appear stricter under the New Covenant. Paul agrees with Moses by stating that divorce isn’t permissible (except for marital unfaithfulness), but both Paul and Jesus added to the Mosaic law by teaching that if you DO get a divorce, you should remain unmarried. This instruction, in my opinion, is addressed specifically to the spouse seeking divorce, in order to expose their motives.
But what about the finished work of the Cross? Didn’t Christ die to free us from our sin?
Absolutely, but Christ didn’t free us so that we could sin, but rather so that we could be freed from sin.
So does this mean that if I get a divorce, God won’t have grace for me?
If only I could answer this question that easily, but, ultimately, I believe it comes down to the condition of the heart. If you are simply looking for a spiritual excuse to divorce your spouse, how can God bless that? But if you go through a divorce, despite your best efforts to seek the Lord and make things work, why would you think that God’s grace is not present in your life? Many times over the years people have come to me for counsel wanting to divorce their spouse, but they’re afraid of the spiritual ramifications of divorce. At this point, they’ve already divorced their spouse in their heart, but think that by maintaining the marriage from a legal standpoint that their righteousness is intact. This is sort of thinking is steeped in self-righteousness, and carries an inherent misunderstanding of law and grace.
On the flip side, too often churches have made divorcees feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God — this shouldn’t be either. Is divorce greater than any other sin a man might commit? Are couples living in continuous strife and grief any better? Is it better to remain unmarried post-divorce and become riddled with depression, lust, or even sexual sin? The real question is what’s in your heart? Why do you want to get a divorce? Why do you want to remarry? These issues aren’t as black and white as some might prefer, but I believe being honest with our hearts is the only way that we can really live in confidence before God and man and find wisdom to walk through our present circumstances.
Many times people seem to want me to answer their question, “Can I get a divorce or not?” It is so hard to make blanket statements about this though, because situations do vary considerably. Those looking for a “rule” in the New Testament won’t find it; much like the rich young ruler, Jesus will simply answer, “There’s one thing you lack.”
Even in writing this, I’m well aware that someone might try to twist certain liberties or permissions to justify doing what they want to do. At the end of the day, I can’t be responsible for that; neither can the Word. This is just one of many reasons I believe aspects of Paul’s writings are vague on the subject — the new covenant was never intended to become law, but rather principles based upon love. My intention in writing this is to speak to those who are trying to do the right thing, to follow God’s word, and to break free from the guilt and condemnation associated with their past.
If you are married and considering divorce, seek solid biblical counsel, and more importantly, seek God for strength and hope. Remember, it took time and effort to create the hurts in your relationship and in the same way, it’ll take time and effort to bring healing and to regain intimacy. Don’t give up early, don’t rush the process. Give it time and healing will come in your life — regardless of the final state of your marriage. God is faithful!
When is it Better to Remarry?
First Corinthians 7:8-9 provides additional insight into the question, “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”
Paul says that if you’re unmarried or a widow, it’s best to remain that way, but if you cannot, it is much better to marry than to be bogged down by feelings of lust, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. The word for “unmarried” in the Greek, means simply that – unmarried. It’s different from the word for “a virgin,” and doesn’t seem to take into account the person’s history or past. Essentially, Paul is stating that regardless of your past, it is better to marry, than burn with lust and passion.
DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE
First off, if you haven’t yet, read the section above, as I believe it will give some biblical insight into the nature of divorce and God’s perspective on the issue. Beyond this, it’s important to note that divorce in most cases (almost always) is the result of two people’s shortcomings and failings and not just one party. More often, when one party has an affair or files for divorce first, they typically are seen as the “bad guy” (or gal). But in divorce, everyone loses; no one leaves unscathed.
Also, let’s be honest — no one really knows what goes on inside of a relationship between two people and we need to be careful of making quick judgment-calls as to fault, etc. As the saying goes, “It does take two to tango.” Often one’s behavior is simply a response to the other’s behavior. You treated me like this, therefore, I’ll do this, and so on it goes. As marriage counselor Emerson Eggerichs calls it, couples enter the “crazy cycle,” spiraling downward until someone eventually can’t take it anymore and the relationship is inevitably dissolved.
You need to be honest with yourself and with your spouse or significant other. If you’re divorced, it’s okay to take ownership of your short comings and your mistakes in the relationship. You’re human – and we all make mistakes. Some mistakes have greater impact and consequences in our lives, but as Paul shares with the Roman church, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Take ownership and learn from the mistakes of your past. In fact, simply blaming the entirety of your divorce on your ex does little to help your new husband or wife. They would be much better off knowing realistically what caused the problems in the relationship. If they really love you, they’ll want to understand and work with you through these struggles or past tendencies.
Except in extreme cases, there are most likely things that both parties could have done differently to salvage the relationship. The exception would be in extremely abusive relationships, either physically or emotionally, where one party is being victimized. As tragic as these situations are, many of them (note not all) could have been avoided all together by not rushing into a relationship without taking time to really know the other person and their past. In no way though does this excuse the abusive person from their behavior. Rather, it should serve as a warning as to the danger of rushing into relationships or just naively assuming that “once we get married they’ll change.” In entering marriage, you should assume that the person will never change and in fact, their problems are likely to get worse. After all, while dating we are all on our best behavior.
Often times, I’m asked if as a Christian, it’s okay to marry someone who has been divorced. (Earlier I dealt with if it’s okay as a divorced Christian to get remarried, which in some ways is the same answer.) Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV), “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled from her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” For obvious reasons this teaching isn’t very popular.
Paul starts off in this passage and tells the church, as a charge from God, that husbands and wives should not separate from each other. This is God’s best. Marriage is supposed to be a picture of God’s love towards us. He never leaves us nor forsakes us. Unfortunately, in today’s world, many have ignored this charge or been unable to live under it. But Paul (and the Lord) anticipates this, and states, “But if she does”. And then he goes on to give instruction that if someone does divorce, that she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.
I think it’s important to point out that these instructions were given to Christians within the church. Personally, I believe that if divorce or remarriage happened prior to a person coming to Christ, then Paul’s instruction aren’t applicable. It is also important to note that Paul was not writing to the person whose spouse divorced them, but rather to the Christian person who filed for divorce and decided to leave. If they are leaving for reasons other than physical abuse or marital unfaithfulness, then they should remain unmarried. Marriage should be treated with the highest level of respect and not abandoned lightly. This charge should make someone considering leaving their marriage for superficial reasons think twice and should be a motivation to try to make it work. Unfortunately, many ignore this and leave anyway.
Throughout scripture, marriage is used as the closet analogy of Christ’s relationship with the church. Scripture tells us that even when we are unfaithful, that He will remain faithful to us. We would do well to learn from Christ as to how to love our spouse and have a successful marriage.
God’s Grace in Marriage and Divorce
Some of you might ask, so where is God’s grace in all of this? Obviously, as with anything, it is ever present and is sufficient towards us in all ways! First off, if this is the first time you’ve heard any of this teaching or you’ve recently became a Christian, or you’ve been divorced before and are now remarried, engaged to be married, or are wanting to get remarried someday, I don’t believe Paul’s words are meant to condemn you or to restrict you from enjoying your life as a Christian.
Beyond all of this, the Bible teaches that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Were you divorced and later became remarried? Stay as you are, there is grace for you. Did your spouse divorce you? You are free to remarry. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:15, “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstance.”
As a Christian, did you divorce your spouse for reasons other than abuse or their unfaithfulness? Repent and realize your mistake, God’s grace is sufficient for you. Of course, the best case scenario would be to restore your failed marriage (assuming they haven’t yet remarried). If you divorced your spouse prior to becoming a Christian, you are not bound to your previous life, God’s grace is sufficient for you. Personally, I believe, you are free to marry.
Are you considering marrying someone who is divorced? If, as a Christian, they divorced their spouse for reasons other than what scripture provides, how do you know that they will not do the same to you? This is not a situation to enter into lightly. Seek the Lord for wisdom in what you should do.
As I think about this, really the only person who might be offended by this teaching is the believer who is currently thinking of divorcing their spouse for ungodly reasons. And for that, should you not be offended? If that is you, repent, change your heart, and seek counsel on how to restore your marriage.
But if you do get divorced, I tell you the same as Paul states, you are not to get remarried; for you are making that choice now with full knowledge and with rebellion towards the truth. As James reminds us in 4:6, “But he gives us more grace. That is why scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”