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When is divorce OK?

There it is in black and white: “God hates divorce.” It’s Malachi 2:16 and it doesn’t leave much wiggle room. That’s how God feels about divorce. But then there’s what he actually allows. Jesus made a couple of references* to divorce being permissible in cases of marital unfaithfulness, so it see…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
There it is in black and white: “God hates divorce.” It’s Malachi 2:16 and it doesn’t leave much wiggle room. That’s how God feels about divorce. But then there’s what he actually allows. Jesus made a couple of references* to divorce being permissible in cases of marital unfaithfulness, so it seems that God makes allowances for extreme situations. 
A number of my college friends have gotten a divorce. And even now some of my friends are headed down that path. You can’t help but empathize with them. Modern marriage is a dicey proposition with a high failure rate – not for the faint of heart. Like any of you who have been married a while, Karen and I have had our moments. Dave Pitt shared the following story with me that gives perspective on what to do when your marriage seems to be on the rocks:

Peter Lord was my pastor in the ’70’s.  I have read all his books and have never met a man like him.  If I attempted to write about him here there would not be sufficient space. But this does need to be passed on: While living in Titusville I decided to tell my wife of two years that I wanted a divorce. She convinced me to go see Peter. After just a minute or two he asked me, “What do you want them to put on your tombstone?”

Attempting to be as self-serving as I could be, I said, “He gave all he had.”  This undoubtedly came from my years of playing sports and coaching.
 

He said, “Gave all you had to what?”

After a few more minutes of talking about why I wanted a divorce, he said, “Your problem is not that you don’t love your sweet wife.  Your problem is that you don’t love God. You learn to love Him first and He will let you love your wife like you never believed you could.”
 

We celebrate our 38th anniversary last April……

Irreconcilable differences isn’t in Scripture. Unfaithfulness is. If you’re in a tough marriage, remember, you play to an audience of one. He knows your heart. He knows how much you can take. Seek wise counsel and see the Lord’s opinion in the matter. For more info, here’s a good resource.

 
* Matt. 5:32, Matt.19:10.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the original OT source for this view.

Comments (16)

  • In my opinion, marriage is the best thing that God came up with. I like to tell young people that marriage makes life easier, not harder. My life was a big mess before I met the Lord and my wife thirty years ago.
    A good marriage enables many life ventures that could not have otherwise happened.

  • Sticky area. I agree, God hates divorce. He says so. I agree He makes provision, as Jesus said about Moses’ law, for our hardness of heart. Thing is, you can have all the best will in the world and pray and try to trust God like there’s no tomorrow, but you can’t force someone else’s heart. Marriage takes two and divorce is sometimes a consequence of not having the two hearts that are willing.

    This is an area to tread carefully in. Too many Christians crush their brothers and sisters with condemnation and slick uncompromising words when they may have done all they can and more, but it still fell apart because there were not two hearts committed to it.

    If you have a good marriage, congratulations! Fight to keep it. But please never lose the compassion in your heart for your struggling brothers and sisters who are just as much in Christ as you.

  • This blog and Carol’s response shows the tightrope we walk re Jesus’ words on divorce. The Word is clear and the need to stand with it is GREAT. For those who got an unwanted divorce, the standard is a sword through their hearts. But the standard must still be raised, strong and clear. My sister has been through two unwanted divorces, and she is one of the most compassionate, enduring Christians I know. I hear your heart, Carol. Yet, right now we are seeing too many “strong” Christian couples divorcing, from those who have been married for 2 years up to 24 years. I’d be lying to say I’m not angry and grieved. I’m weary of seeing so many wimping out and caring more about their own temporal, personal happiness. At the same time, I hate the misery it creates for dear friends, and want to see them released. God hates divorce because He loves people. What emotional wreckage! My prayer is that God guards the hearts of those who “have done all they can and more” and breaks the hearts that are hard. I think this is one of those times that God goes through a bunch of mixed emotions. I feel it.

    I often tell my daughter and other young, single women in my life what Peter Lord, in essence, said. Don’t look for a man head over heels in love with you, but one who is head over heels in love with Jesus. For one who has a broken and contrite heart, wanting to please Jesus above all else. When the marriage hits rough waters, he’ll stick with it for the love of Jesus. And they need to bring that heart into their marriage, as well.

    Tough subject, but I’m glad you brought it up, Seth.

  • Lori Stanley Roeleveld

    We had many rocky years of marriage and I’ve endured the comments from others about “being crazy to stick it out”. We recently celebrated our 21st anniversary and my husband, who has grown greatly in the Lord in the past few years went around telling people “I’ve always been happily married but now my wife is, too.” 🙂 There were looooonnnnggg years, however, of wondering if my faithfulness to God was going to be rewarded on this side of heaven. Marriage is a tough gig. Not for the faint of heart. But faithfulness to God is always the right path.

  • Where do we get this idea that all things in life are supposed to give us happy, fulfilling, successful feelings?

    I’ve only been married for 4 years, so by no means am I an expert on the subject, but there’s a disconnect in our society. My generation, especially, has forgetten how to commit. We think love is a feeling and once it’s gone, we can move on. Whether it’s in marriage, church, etc…

    Where do we learn commitment from? Where are our kids going to learn it? God has chosen the best example for all things (including His relationship with us)to be marriage. In no other venue are we going to experience more joy, laughter, heartache, anger, etc… but He did it to show us how we can be with Him! So, I hope to encourage the generation above and below me to fight the good fight, not just expect the happy feelings. (Although, those feelings many times come after the battle is won)

  • Ive had been a christian over 20 years and during that time been married 3 times, twice divorced. Both my Ex husbands were not christian….I disobeyed the word of God and married non christians.Like in the book of Ezra where Gods people ended up having to repent and send their partners away I have had similar experiences. Trying to “trick” God into changing His word just to get what we want is a serious mistake to make….one lesson I had to learn twice before it sunk in!

    Much tears, much pain, much heartache….as the word of God says “too people walk the same path only if they agreed to do so”…..even 2 Christians need to be equally yolked, in my opinion, to have a happy marraige.

    I agreed with what Kathy says, find someone who is head over heels in love with Jesus not one who is head over heels in love with you….that becomes Idoltry, you become an idol in someone elses life and that is not a great start to any marraige!

  • Read this and thought — WOW!

    “Your problem is not that you don’t love your sweet wife. Your problem is that you don’t love God. You learn to love Him first and He will let you love your wife like you never believed you could.”

    Funny how we can say so easily we love God and not love (or be loving) to those around us.

    First chapter in Marriage on the Rock deals with our relationship with Christ. I wonder if my last 20 years would have been less turbulant if I just loved Jesus more. Here is to the next 20 and deepening my love for Christ and those around me.

    I cannot point fingers anymore. It’s my heart that needs to be captivated! You spoke to this husband and dad. As always Seth thanks.

  • Lori Stanley Roeleveld

    During the worst time in my marriage, I’m embarrassed to say, I complained to God that “my husband does not deserve me.” God replied, “I’ve given you many things you did not deserve. You’ve promised me you’ll go anywhere and be anything for me. Are you willing to be a gift your husband doesn’t deserve?” Wow. I mean. Wow. That hit me where it hurts. I realized in that moment that God is my husband’s FATHER not his father-in-law and I began to change how I treated him even as he did not change for many years. That was a turning point marriage for me, and now I can see, for my marriage as well.

  • I cannot believe that I’ve come across this in your blog Seth. I sit here amazed at God AGAIN! I tell ya, he is blowing my mind anymore.

    For last week as I sat in the Atlanta airport waiting to board my flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, one of my former counselees called me on my cell. Talk about break throughs of GOd’s mercy, well that is what happened as I worked with this woman for over a period of two months at my church in counseling her. After I released her from my counseling things went good to bad, as her husband took a turn for the worse. With him not being saved, and my counselee saved, he had noticed major changes in her that seemed to highten the war that was building within him.

    Long story short, he was trying but could not understand what was happening to his wife. They tried marriage counselors at our church but continued to struggle for the issues I could see were much deeper. So as I do not counsel couples yet I got the name of a counselor our church refers too that does marriage counseling. They went, and I baby sat a few times but I saw no real changes being made or issues being addressed that were clearly needed too be addressed. Then right before I left for Africa he walks out. So at the airport prior to my flight we prayed and talked for a while which seemed to help calm her down and give peace.

    Then in Johanneburg my first night I couldn’t sleep as my thoughts were on my counselee and the pain her husband was causing her. I open my bible and what do I see, but the verse you post at the beginning of your note above in Malachi 2: 14-16. Reading this verse was as if God was telling me what he is saying to my counselee’s husband. For it jumped out in a way that I know God was speaking it like He was speaking it to my counselees husband. So I knew I was to give it to him when I got back.
    So speaking to my counselee today I gave her that verse and told her it was meant for her husband. That God gave it to me on the other side of the world. lol And after I hung up the phone a few hours ago, I knew there had to be something else I’m to give to this guy, who is clearly in a relaitionship with another woman or not women. Then just now I see your blog and how I was led to go to it still slips my mind. lol
    Needless to say, I have what I need which comes with ALL the responses to your post that proves many things. That God is with us in all the things we do, and whereever we go in this world and will reveal what we need at the perfect time if we keep our eyes open and wait for Him to move it to our attention.

    Great post my brother and see ya soon!

  • I want out of this marriage nightmare and this is why, I begged and begged my husband to make sure he knew how to pay taxes before he started his business. He brushed me off and said he looked into it and acted as if I was just annoying him. As time went on I wondered why I hadn’t been asked to sign anything regarding taxes and when I asked him he said he hadn’t filed them “yet” but would be doing so soon. Time went on and I still hadn’t signed anything thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to because he had an LLC. I was wrong, I still had to sign personal taxes but he still didn’t have anything for me to sign. When he was finally honest with me I found out he hadn’t filed ANY taxes for 5 years!!! 3 of those years we did great financially but he decided to keep blaming the economy and that is a out and out lie. He just didn’t file them, end of story. I have again begged and begged for him to finally file 4 years, it has been like pulling teeth to get him to finish them. Now, we are $200,000.00 in the whole because of the all the years of unfilled taxes. He hasn’t been the most honest man and I have struggled with his dishonesty for years now. I am basically ruined financially and the only way for me to get out of this horrifying mess is to file with the IRS a spousal relief and the only way I can get that is if I am legally separated or divorced. I have raised two boys, home schooled them and always encouraged them to love the Lord and walk in Him. I have been a Christian for over 30 years and yet I hate this situation so much and I don’t love my husband anymore. I need advise!

  • Mary…

    What a difficult place in which to be. The feeling I get just in listening to your story is like trying to slog through a mud swamp. I think many people, going through what you have sketched here, would feel as you have said.

    I am a spiritual director who myself has struggled to come to terms with a divorce, so I would like to offer you just a couple of things. Like that God sometimes leads in surprising ways. I dearly hope that as you engage this very complex and emotionally arduous question, that you will give yourself the gift of a companion in the form of an LPC counselor or spiritual director in your area, with whom you can meet over an extended time face to face. These two types of counselors have both been trained to create hospitable space for you to reveal and dig more deeply into your feelings, which both deserve to be honored and also carry in them messages that can be revelatory in discerning what to do. These types of counselors can help you sort through these over time, processing them so you don’t choose out of reacting, any more than choosing out of obedience to anybody else’s “authority” but God’s. And they can help you learn to hear God’s voice in you. God does still speak, to us as individuals, and often in surprising ways. I don’t know what liberation and wholeness and love and good – for your husband, children, and yourself – will look like in your particular situation, but God can lead you there. Somebody just blithely quoting a verse to you to tell you what to do would most likely shortcut this difficult, possibly lengthy, priceless, precious, entirely authentic and completely irreplacable process.

    Because I expect that you, like me, take it from the Bible that divorce is a serious matter before God, I would like to encourage you to take the Bible passages about it seriously – perhaps even more seriously than those who might have quoted them to you in the past to imply it would be an unforgivable travesty to fail your marital dream and intention. In seminary I learned how important it is to consider the context in which something was written: who was the author?, who was the intended audience?, what was going on at the time?, what was the intent of the message? One of the ways of picking up on some of these cues is by looking at the scriptures surrounding the quote. Deut 24:1-4, for instance, is in the middle of a ton of rules, most of which are no longer followed in the letter, because contexts have changed, but whose spirit is still beautiful, and is fairly well summed up in 25:3: you are not to degrade each other. Women at this time were considered property. They had no other means of supporting themselves than by their relationship status to men as daughter, then wife, then mother. They are included in consideration here alongside orphans, widows, foreigners, and the poor, because they were equally powerless. I don’t think the good of this passage lies in calling women defiled, a stupid (if you look at it, and at Jesus’ radical grace), abusive word we no longer use to describe categories of people, but rather in calling the men (who would be the ones hearing this) to account, who could legally take a woman valued then above all for her sexual purity and production, “defile” her with sex, and then dismiss her at will, without reason. Do not do this lightly, this passage warns. Jesus takes it even further: a certificate of divorce doesn’t absolve you of what you’ve done to this person. His actions, honoring of all kinds of categories of “inferior” women, speak even more profoundly.

    I believe you will find your answer, Mary, but it might take an extended while being in safe space to be able to say and feel all your anger, work through it, and make a decision with God that is neither reactionary nor submitted to rules stated in the same breath as don’t defecate where you live or God will turn away; don’t oppress runaway slaves; don’t be a temple prostitute (all of which are irrelevant now, though we can see that they imply a different time, as we are in a different time now also with status of women and divorce), and likewise in the same breath with guidelines of compassionate wisdom about how to treat someone with respect and honor. I pray you will give yourself the gifts of time, space and compassionate company with this, find yourself transformed in your identity with God as you move through this honest discernment, and with God find a way that feels respectful and honoring to your partner, your children, AND yourself. I truly believe this is possible.

    God’s best to you…. And in the meantime, deep peace in God’s abiding, tender, always-present love….

  • I have always believed marriage was for a life time,but as i got older i realized people are not always honest with each other.They jump into the marriage to soon sometimes when they really dont know that person well.I have always been friends with my husband,but i see now we made a big mistake.we live two seperate lifes and have for years and marriage shouldnt be that way.I think at my age now and the things i have been through if we divorce I think i will be okay with that.some people are just not meant for each other.If i never marry again I think i will be okay with that.God should be first and foremost in our life and our marriage has been far from that.we stopped having a relationship many years ago.i wish to no longer be in this relationship I believe he feels the same.He never had children.I had three from a previous relationship.I now have grandchildren.He never wanted kids so i figure this has been a major factor in our relationship not working,but i deal with what i have to in this life.I had kids and that is the way it is.I just wish the best for him.I will be okay no matter.

  • I have always believed marriage was for a life time,but as i got older i realized people are not always honest with each other.They jump into the marriage to soon sometimes when they really dont know that person well.I have always been friends with my husband,but i see now we made a big mistake.we live two seperate lifes and have for years and marriage shouldnt be that way.I think at my age now and the things i have been through if we divorce I think i will be okay with that.some people are just not meant for each other.If i never marry again I think i will be okay with that.God should be first and foremost in our life and our marriage has been far from that.we stopped having a relationship many years ago.i wish to no longer be in this relationship I believe he feels the same.He never had children.I had three from a previous relationship.I now have grandchildren.He never wanted kids so i figure this has been a major factor in our relationship not working,but i deal with what i have to in this life.I had kids and that is the way it is.I just wish the best for him.I will be okay no matter.

  • This is a powerful article, Seth. A great story about how Peter handled that near-divorce situation. I will remember and use that. Thanks for posting.

    Warren

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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