Divorce is a very difficult topic for people of faith in the 21st century. No one celebrates a divorce. Some who are divorcing might feel they are better off being divorced. But no one, at least that I have met, is every happy that they were involved in a marriage that failed. It is never what anyone intends who stands up and makes promises to another to be their spouse “as long as they both shall live.”
What does the Bible say about divorce? A great deal more than it does about other topics that tend to divide us today. It is as if we have all agreed to leave this “delicate topic” alone. And I have never heard in all my years of ministry anyone advocating a return to Biblical principles regarding divorce. Does this mean we discard what we find difficult? No.
First, it is clear in Scripture that God intends for some men and women to marry. God also intends for those that do to be bonded together in a partnership of love and mutuality throughout their lives. Second, this was a hot topic to Jesus. He spoke against divorce a number of times and gave as the only exception when a spouse has been unfaithful. Third, we know weddings were important back then as they are today. Jesus’ first miracle is performed at a wedding. I don’t believe this is just by chance.
All this said, we live in a very different time and a very different culture than the times and culture we read about in the Bible. Through much of the Bible, a man could marry multiple wives. On top of this, he could divorce his wife for little reason (the wife had no such privilege). And the wife had no capacity to go out and get a job and provide for herself. I believe this should all be kept in mind as we read the injunctions against divorce in our modern context. I also think that we need to recognize that spouses can be unfaithful in many ways more than sexually. If there is no love or mutuality, is it really a marriage? I also believe our culture sets forth very unrealistic expectations of people: Only marry for love, make sure that person provides for you in every way and keeps you happy all your life, only get married when you both can provide financially (which often is a decade or more beyond when men and women married in the Bible), and marriage should not be challenging or difficult.
What’s the answer? The real issue before us frequently is not that a divorce shouldn’t have happened, but rather a marriage should not have happened. Pre-marriage counseling is often sought out and given only after a couple is absolutely committed to getting married. Most are not about to blow the investments they have put down (financial and emotional) when talking to whomever is performing the wedding with the absolute truth. How often have you heard of a couple not able to get married because the officiant refused? It doesn’t happen very often. We need to encourage couples to talk to their pastors long before they are ready to marry. Second, if a marriage is in jeopardy, we need to find ways to intervene and help. We need to encourage couples to seek out marriage counseling (which has saved many a marriage). We also need to help folks not feel alone in their difficulties because the difficulties they face are likely faced by many many others. Help, real help, is there in that dark valley. And third, if a marriage fails, Christians need to offer grace, not judgment. There is no need to take sides. If a marriage fails, at some stage, both parties were at fault. We need to offer help to those who have divorced. And that help is not just to the individuals but to their children who also go through great turmoil.
We often think of what we can do after a hurricane, tornado, or other natural disaster takes place. Let us recognize divorce (or potential divorce) for what it is, a relational disaster. But God is there in the midst of it and his people need to help others find a better place.
Let us give thanks to God that he is there with us through not just the good times, but maybe especially through the most difficult times.
Until next time,