On Tuesday I made quite a stir on Facebook when I wrote about divorce and remarriage. In regards to this post on when you should give up trying to get your ex back, I wrote:
I’m having to delete a lot of comments on the blog today from people saying that divorce is never a biblical option. I find that sad. I know God hates divorce–but He hates people being wounded and abused and betrayed, too. And Jesus gave us some reasons for divorce. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am very pro-marriage and anti-divorce, but more importantly I’m pro-truth and pro-healing. If a marriage is based on abuse, manipulation, and lies, then that is not God-honouring, either. Most of these situations are not black and white; they are grey, and I believe God’s grace is there for us. If I let those comments through, I fear that they will do emotional damage to the very hurt and wounded people whose marriages have fallen apart who wind up at my site. We need to be pointed towards following God in the situation we find ourselves in now, not being yelled at for very tortured decisions we made earlier.
The outpouring was immense, and so I thought I should do a follow-up and explain what I really think about divorce and remarriage. Please keep in mind that I am not a theologian. I have just thought about this a lot and prayed through it, and this is what I believe.
Divorce Is a Last Resort–and there are only a few reasons for it
I am absolutely anti-divorce. I’ve written that the vow matters. I’ve questioned whether women are leaving marriages too fast. I’ve said that sometimes we live in a loveless marriage–and we need to find a way to get through that.
However, with that said, I am also fully aware that sometimes divorce is necessary, and sometimes divorce happens when you didn’t want it to. My father left my mother. My mother certainly never wanted to divorce, and it pulled the rug out right under her. But divorce wasn’t her choice.
Then there are those who live in a physically dangerous marriage, or an emotionally destructive marriage. For them, too, divorce was likely not what they wanted–but they had no option.
What are biblical grounds for divorce?
The Bible lists two: adultery and abandonment.
Matthew 19:9 says:
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.
Then 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 says this:
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.(emphasis mine)
Clearly Paul here is saying that if a spouse leaves you, you are no longer bound.
Notice anything that isn’t mentioned here? You’ve got it:
What about Abuse?
And this is where I get really uncomfortable and why I started deleting those comments. The divorce “purists”, as I will call them, read the Matthew passage (and seem to ignore the Corinthians passage) and say that the only acceptable reason for divorce is adultery. Because Jesus gave us no other reason, then there can be no other reason.
To them I would ask this:
Why do you believe abortion is wrong?
It’s because we’ve inferred an awful lot from a few verses. Abortion itself isn’t mentioned in the Bible because it wasn’t relevant for the culture. So the Bible doesn’t speak directly about it, yet pretty much all Christians fight against it for one simple reason: Because of what we know about God from the rest of Scripture. He knew us while we were yet unformed in our mother’s womb, and He planned our days (Psalm 139:13-16). He planned good works for us before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 2:10). God is love. The rest of Scripture speaks to the sanctity of life. The Bible doesn’t mention lots of things we struggle with today–pornography, career choices, education choices–because these weren’t talked about or relevant then. But we can still infer from the Bible what godly decisions are.
So what, then, can we infer from the rest of Scripture about living in an abusive marriage? Does God expect us to stay?
Absolutely not. Read the Old Testament prophets and you come away with the overwhelming impression of a God who goes to battle for the downtrodden and who notices injustice. We serve a God who hates abuse in all its forms.
God Cares About Children
And here’s an important point: living in an abusive marriage, even if the woman is willing to put up with it, harms the children. Over and over again in Scripture God talks about rescuing children from those who would mistreat them (see Luke 17:2).
If staying in a marriage to an abusive person, or staying in a marriage to an alcoholic or drug addict, would hurt a child, then God does not want that.
I do believe that the word abuse is thrown around a little too quickly today, and I’ve written what is abuse and what is not. Not all yelling is abusive; it depends on the pattern, the effect, and the bigger picture. But emotional, sexual, and physical abuse are real and they are not God’s plan for His children.
One important point, though: We often believe that “kids are only happy if the parents are happy, so if the parents’ marriage is unhappy, it’s better to divorce.” Not true. Researcher Judith Wallerstein found that kids who grew up in an unhappy marriage (even a loveless marriage) fared better than kids who grew up with divorced parents. The effect of parents’ unhappiness on the kids is not a legitimate reason to divorce–except in one case. Studies also showed that children who grew up in violent or abusive marriages did better if the parents did divorce. So if you’re just unhappy in your marriage, it’s better for the kids if you stick with it and make it work. If you’re being abused or you’re in a high-conflict marriage, it’s not.
God Cares About Sin
Another theme of Scripture is that God cares about the heart, not appearances. Divorce purists seem to stress the form over the heart–as long as the two people are technically married, God is happy. But no, God doesn’t want appearances. God wants changed hearts and changed lives! Here’s what I wrote in another post, Are You a Spouse or an Enabler?:
If your spouse is acting in such a way that they are denying a vital part of themselves and a vital part of the Christian life–like responsibility or intimacy or community–then doing nothing about it enables that spouse to avoid any impetus for spiritual growth.
Churches should be places where the wounded come to find healing, not where the wounded come to give them cover so they can avoid healing.
And yet all too often that is what we’ve done–we hate divorce so much that we ignore the other side: God does not want an army of wounded, damaged people. He wants wholeness. And so we must deal with people who are refusing to confront huge issues.
In that post I show what the Bible says we should do if a spouse is sinning. One of the Facebook commenters on Tuesday wrote this:
One truth that I believe that is overlooked or dismissed by people who are quick to judge those of us who have suffered through divorce (it was a heartrending and crushing experience) is that pleasing God and being like Him is not about keeping up appearances. God looks at the heart, and in light of that reality a true divorce has happened long before any secular legal actions have been taken – or can happen even when no actions are taken. A dead marriage is equal to a divorce in all the ways that are visible and valuable to God, and it’s sad to me to see married couples who obviously despise one another or (perhaps worse) are completely indifferent – especially if children are involved and being hurt by their parents’ situation. I am a child of Christian divorce as well and our young lives were fraught with secret abuse, sadness and confusion until my father (a well-educated preacher who led a double life) left my mom and abandoned us. Life was hard and sad growing up after that too, and I felt very mixed emotions of relief, abandonment and guilt once our father was gone. However, I was nothing but glad for my mom because she had done all she could to be a good wife, and had been so mistreated and disrespected by him in every area you could imagine – she didnt deserve that.
Scripture does not contradict Scripture. We aren’t told in one place to confront sin and live blameless lives and look to the heart and then told in another place to just keep the form in place and ignore sin. The heart matters. And if someone is sinning so much, either through abuse or adultery or an addiction or a refusal to work, then this must be dealt with.
None of this means that divorce is necessary in these cases; usually, I believe, a separation is a better tool. If a spouse is addicted to porn, or refusing to work, or an alcoholic, or gambling away the paycheque, then a separation says, “you need to shape up and this will no longer be tolerated.” That’s what James Dobson recommends in Love Must Be Tough. And, ironically, it’s this separation that often kickstarts real change which leads to reconciliation. That’s what Leslie Vernick also shows in her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, for those living in emotionally, spiritually, or physically abusive marriages.
Why Does God Hate Divorce?
Divorce “purists” point to the verse that God hates divorce as proof that we should not divorce except in the rarest circumstances. But here’s the thing–I think we would all agree. In fact, most divorced people would be the first to say that God hates divorce, because they hate divorce, too. They know how awful it is. They’re anti-divorce too!
The more important question, then, is WHY does God hate divorce?
I do not believe that He hates divorce because people who divorce are somehow worse sinners. I believe He hates divorce because He loves us so much, and He knows the severe trauma of divorce. He knows the havoc it wreaks on our hearts. He knows what it does to the children. And He knows what a culture of divorce does to undermine the culture of marriage and family and commitment. Divorce has major ripple effects.
So God hates divorce because of its effects–not because divorce is any worse sin. We know that if one is guilty of breaking one part of the law, one is guilty of breaking the whole law. We are all sinners. I believe that when it says, “God hates divorce”, it’s really saying that if your husband left you or beat you or made your marriage unbearable, and you are weeping buckets of tears, that God is weeping those tears with you.
The Beauty of Grace and Living in the Present
I’ve explained why I believe that adultery, abuse, abandonment, and other major sins that endanger the whole family (like addictions or refusal to work) are grounds for separation and/or divorce.
But what if you don’t have those?
Another commenter wrote:
I’m divorced. No excuses, no Biblically sound reason. I was young, stupid, and a big ol’ sinner. He didn’t beat me or abuse me in any way. However, it’s done. It’s in the past and I feel absolutely certain that it is forgiven like any number of other sins in my past. I was wrong but that awesomely mighty God forgave it AND was generous enough to send me a husband who loves me and doesn’t judge my past.
She did not have biblical grounds for divorce, and she knows that. But now she is a believer, and that means that she is a new creation. And you can’t turn back the clock, and God does not intend you to. Why is that we say some sins can be forgiven but not others? Paul was a murderer, yet God still used him. David was an adulterer, yet God still used him (and his son through Bathsheba). Indeed, that adulterous relationship is in Jesus’ line.
God hates divorce–but there is grace.
So if you divorced in the past, and then became a believer, are you supposed to reconcile with your husband? I believe that, if possible, you should try. That’s what Juana Mikels did in Choosing Him All Over Again, and God showed them tremendous grace.
But that does not always work. Sometimes you can’t reconcile because he doesn’t want to, or he’s moved on. So then what?
What About Remarriage?
Divorce purists will also say that remarriage is never an option. God may have given us grounds for divorce, but not remarriage.
However, I don’t believe this is true for two reasons. In the Matthew verse quoted above, Jesus said:
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.
That means that if you divorce and marry another and it was because of sexual immorality, you are not committing adultery. So if you had grounds for divorce, you also have grounds for remarriage.
Yes, it says “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18), but you can’t look at that verse without also looking at this one. Jesus obviously was carving out an exception.
And in Corinthians, Paul wrote that the husband or wife was no longer bound if they were abandoned. They aren’t bound anymore–therefore they can remarry.
The Cultural Reason for Remarriage
Why isn’t the Bible more obvious that remarriage after divorce is okay? Because it was just assumed. In those days a woman was either under her father’s care or under her husband’s care. There was no way for an adult single woman to make a living. That’s why caring for widows was such a huge deal in the New Testament church. For Jesus to allow divorce, then, meant that He was also allowing remarriage. He would not allow divorce just to consign women to desperation and abject poverty. People simply had to remarry.
I know many of you who are here on this site are remarried–and want to make these remarriages work. I welcome you here; and I hope that I can help you with just that! I never want you to feel that because you are not on your first marriage that you are somehow inferior. God wants you to honour Him in the here and now.
And so that’s where I’m at: I’m anti-divorce, because I think it should be the last resort, and only in certain circumstances. But if divorce has been inevitable for you, then I wish you great happiness and intimacy with someone else, if God brings someone into your life.
The comment with the most likes was one from my friend Kathy, whom I know in real life. I’d like to leave you with it:
As a divorced person myself (with what I understand to be a biblical divorce–abandoned by an unbelieving spouse who was committing adultery), and someone who desperately wanted her marriage back, I feel the weight & sting of those who think in judgmental terms as if their own sin issues are minor compared to a divorce. I always jokingly say that divorce is the unpardonable sin in the church, but sadly, it seems far too often that it is looked at in that way. I have done my share of study on the topic of divorce and remarriage as a biblical counsellor, but also as someone who hoped to be married again one day, but only if it did not offend God. As far as I can understand in my simplistic way, God has allowed for remarriage in my circumstance. I was blessed with the offer of marriage just over two years ago from a wonderful Christian man who took divorce and remarriage as seriously as I, and also did his research (and by the way, he was widowed after 36 years of marriage so no divorce on his record). We consulted many “wise counsellors” and studied God’s Word before taking on our vows of marriage because again, we did not want to be out of step with God. We are convinced God is the author of our love story, but should we find that in our fallible state we were mistaken, is not the blood of Christ valid even on this? I believe we should take marriage, divorce, and remarriage very, very seriously, but I also believe we must approach it all with truth IN LOVE. Divorce seems to just be one of those divisive issues, and invokes much emotion, but hopefully it will not invoke undue unkindness from those of us who have been shown unfathomable love.
Blessings on all of you.