How’s your marriage going? Is it happy and fulfilled, each of you supporting and enjoying the other? Or are there problems? Do you, as many others also do, struggle to even stay married at this point–thinking, as each day passes, that perhaps you too might eventually end up joining the ever-increasing ranks of those who are divorced?
“Now I give this command for the married people. (The command is not from me; it is from the Lord.) A wife should not leave her husband. But if she does leave, she must not marry again, or she should make up with her husband. Also the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11 NCV)
Christians have interpreted the Bible’s teaching about divorce and remarriage differently, but one has to wonder if it has not been frequently more to suit the times rather than to faithfully examine God’s heart on the matter. Yet what He says on the topic is straightforward. According to the passage above from the first letter to the Corinthian Christians, a wife struggling in a marriage has a choice to make: to stay or to leave–but if she chooses to leave, she must either eventually come back, or else remain unmarried.
Isn’t it telling that even two thousand years ago when this was written there were situations that bordered on the genuinely unbearable? How unfortunate it is that since the entry of sin into humankind we are capable of some very terrible things–that there are husbands who physically endanger the life of their wife or children, or who attempt to coerce them into perversion. God understands better than we the depth of the depravity of man–and that there will be times when a wife may flee from her husband to protect either herself or their children.
Leaving her husband, however, is not an escape clause–she is not free to use this as an excuse to subsequently pretend she was never married and find another spouse. When she leaves, her options are to continue alone or be reconciled to her spouse. It is valuable to understand, also, that the word translated as “leave” basically means “break up the marriage”–the significant factor is who is initiating the break-up, not who physically leaves the home. The wife is not off the hook, for example, if she makes her husband pack up his things and move out; she is still the one initiating the dissolution.
So, from where in the Bible do some people get the idea that a person is free to remarry after a divorce–how do they justify this? I suspect they use the verses that follow today’s verse:
“For all the others I say this (I am saying this, not the Lord): If a Christian man has a wife who is not a believer, and she is happy to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a Christian woman has a husband who is not a believer, and he is happy to live with her, she must not divorce him. The husband who is not a believer is made holy through his believing wife. And the wife who is not a believer is made holy through her believing husband. If this were not true, your children would not be clean, but now your children are holy. But if those who are not believers decide to leave, let them leave. When this happens, the Christian man or woman is free. But God called us to live in peace. Wife, you don’t know; maybe you will save your husband. And husband, you don’t know; maybe you will save your wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:12-16 NCV)
Let’s look again at the bolded part: “…if those who are not believers decide to leave, let them leave. When this happens, the Christian man or woman is free.” The problem with using these verses to justify remarriage after a divorce is that Paul specifically prefaces this portion with the disclaimer that the instruction is from him, not the Lord, whereas the previous admonition to remain alone or be reconciled is prefaced by “The command is not from me; it is from the Lord.” So regardless of how you interpret the word “free“–whether it means free to remarry or merely off the hook for trying to keep a difficult marriage together– the Lord’s authority (that she is to remain single or return to her husband) suspercedes Paul’s, does it not?
Another part of Scripture some have used to argue that remarriage is permissible in certain circumstances is Jesus’ comments about divorce and remarriage recorded in the book of Matthew:
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce [not a reflection of God’s heart on the matter, but a concession on the part of Moses toward those who were intent on leaving their wives].’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32 NIV)
Jesus is explaining that unless a wife has already been unfaithful to her husband, divorcing her causes her to commit adultery when she subsequently remarries. A related passage follows:
“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”” (Matthew 19:3-9)
While this passage seems to indicate that the ONE circumstance where divorce may be permissible is after the adultery of the other–and remarriage ONLY for the non-offending partner–most of us miss the entire point of what Jesus was explaining: that divorce is not God’s heart for us!
But, what should you do if things aren’t going well–if it even seems like your marriage may be on the rocks? Our culture would advise you to do what’s “right for you,” and you might just want to get away from the hurt and nightmare of the entire situation. But God has not taught us to seek our own good with no regard to what He says is right, or to give up and run away from difficult situations. To the contrary, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) And, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (II Timothy 1:7) So, what should you do if your marriage is in jeopardy? Two things:
“My brothers and sisters, when you have many kinds of troubles [including trouble in your marriage], (1) you should be full of joy, because you know that these troubles test your faith, and this will give you patience. Let your patience show itself perfectly in what you do. Then you will be perfect and complete and will have everything you need. (2) But if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He is generous to everyone and will give you wisdom without criticizing you.” (James 1:2-5 NCV)
First of all, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we should be full of joy, because trouble means God considers us ready to be used for His purposes! Secondly, we should implore God for the wisdom to understand, in very practical moment-by-moment ways, not only how to keep the marriage together, but also how to make it better!
Hang in there! But also recognize spiritual forces are at work in your marriage, and resolve through this situation to bless your spouse and bring great glory to God! Remember that the grass is not greener on the other side, that the quickest way to poverty for a woman is through divorce, and that a woman who brings a man who is not her daughter’s biological father into the household is setting up a dangerous situation. And, on a personal level, make sure that you are reading the Bible and praying to God daily, and going to a church that teaches His word faithfully each week–this is how He will get you through this!
Jesus never promised following Him would be easy–in fact, He said, “I told you these things so that you can have peace in Me. In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world.” (John 16:33 NCV) Trust in the power and wisdom He will give you, dig in your heels, and make your marriage work!
Your Word says, “if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it;” I need wisdom and am asking You for it! Thank You that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and that You have “not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Thank You that even though in this world I will have trouble, I can be brave because You have defeated this world. Help me know what You say so I can have peace in You. Show me how to keep my marriage together, and give me the strength to do it! Amen!