Back during summer 2010, I addressed Jesus’ teachings on divorce from Matthew 5:31-32. My thoughts have not changed since then, so instead of preaching Matthew 19:1-12 this week, I have decided to reproduce a large portion of my thoughts from last summer on this difficult topic with a few edits.
One of the dangers of the internet is you cannot see the angst in which I write these tough truths. I know people have been in awful marriages and it is not my intent to heap heavy burdens on anyone. God is gracious and kind; He is the God of second and third chances. If you have caused or been the recipient of pain in marriage (then or even now), know that I love you and have prayed that these words below offer hope and healing as they point us all to the God who is always faithful.
In the midst of large crowds, the Pharisees show up to ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason” (Mt 19:1-3). What the Pharisees are referring to was that in the first century, people used a few verses in Deuteronomy 24 to allow for an easy-out of marriage (for only the men, of course). In fact, men could divorce their wives if the wife burned the food or if their wives grew plain looking and a newer model could be found. What they didn’t understand and sadly I do not think we in the 21st century understand much better is that divorce is never a good thing (19:6). Divorce is allowed as a concession because of the hardness of human hearts (19:8). Many times I have heard people talk about, “a biblical divorce,” as if there is some God-approved version of divorce. There is no such thing as a Biblical divorce. Yes, divorce is sometimes the lesser of 2 evils. I read of a man who married a woman to cover up his homosexuality. Then for several years he brought male sexual partners into his home, even while his wife was present. This dear woman refused to get divorced because every pastor she talked to said she’d be an adulteress for the rest of her life if she did (a shameful and cruel use of the pastoral role).
Well, here’s where I want to write candidly, but also, Lord willing, graciously. All divorce is adultery. There is no version of divorce that does not have a connection to adultery. Adultery involves a violation and betrayal of the intimate, exclusive bond formed at marriage. It’s more than sex; yes, having sex with another human being is worse than just walking out on a spouse and ending the relationship. But all of it is adultery. God repeatedly said that Israel was an adulterous people. They were not having sex with other gods (usually anyway), but they had broken their vows against God, and every single divorce will have devastating results. The natural effects of a divorce are like a baby who does not bond with his mother or an infant not giving proper nutrients. There will be consequences; there has to be. That's why Jesus warns us not to separate what God has joined together (Mt. 19:6).
Michael Green writes in his Matthew commentary in The Bible Speaks Today, “[Marriage] was intended to be exclusive and lifelong. That is the ideal. To fail to keep this ideal is to spoil God’s plan for man and women. It does not mean failure cannot be forgiven, or that a subsequent marriage cannot be happy and fruitful. It simply asserts that such a marriage is adulterous and can never bear testimony to the one-man-one-woman relationship, for good or for ill, which marriage was intended by the Creator to be . . . In the kingdom, as at the creation, marriage is meant to be exclusive and lifelong.”
Marriage, every marriage, is to be a testimony of faithfulness, a faithfulness that reflects the faithfulness Christ has shown to us.
If you are single or a widow, be faithful in your singleness to God and to your future spouse by staying morally pure (not just avoiding sex, but guarding your mind, heart, etc.). Use your singleness to invest in the Kingdom of God (Mt. 19:12).
If you are married, love your spouse. Stay faithful to them even if they have not been faithful to you. God will give you the strength to love them. Keep praying for them. Serve them. Forgive them. God will use your love in deep and profound ways.
If you are separated, I think in most cases, staying single is the best way to express your faithfulness to your spouse (even if they are far from faithful). Keep loving the person with whom you’ve separated. Seek reconciliation; try and save the marriage for as long as possible. Even if they remarry, there is no reason you cannot choose to honor the oneness that was created in your marriage.
If you are remarried, still pursue reconciliation with your ex-spouse. Biblically I don’t think you should remarry your first spouse if either of you have already remarried (see Deut. 24:1-4). But I do think forgiveness and reconciliation should be pursued. Nothing is irredeemable. God loves you. Yes, you have broken a sacred vow with your spouse. Yes, it was sin. Yes, it will have dangerous consequences. BUT you are not a second class citizen in the kingdom of God. God can and will use you for his service. You won’t be able to have the testimony of faithfulness that the Bible calls for, but you can sure seek God’s redemption in the midst of the mess!
Conclusion: God’s faithfulness to us enables us to be faithful to others (cf. Jer. 3). God’s faithfulness is demonstrated by His vigilance to keep His promises to faithless people. He promised to send His Son to save people from sin (Rom. 3:23-26). He did that. God promises to bring life to those in death. He has done this time and time again. He can do it in your life, in your marriage, and even in the steps you take to pursue reconciliation. Trust in Christ; He always provides what we need (Philippians 4:19).