Down through the corridors of almost 24 centuries of time echoes this exclamation by God: I hate divorce!”
That statement (found in Malachi 2: 16) troubled me for many years. Why would God make such a statement? Did He arbitrarily and capriciously wake up one morning and decide that He would hate a few things—including divorce? What might have been his reasons for making such a strong statement?
First, you need to read the statement in its context; God made the statement remonstrating Israelite men who had divorced their Israelite wives in order to marry foreign—pagan—wives, something God had forbidden them to do knowing that such marriage alliances detract from a pure (unmixed) relationship with the one true and living God.
That principle has been carried over into the New Covenant wherein God forbids Jesus-believers to marry pre-believers (2 Corinthians 6: 14).
But the statement “I hate divorce!” goes deeper than that. The reason God hates divorce is that He was divorced…and He knows the pain of divorce; He knows the terrible hurt of divorce. He knows the agony and suffering involved in most divorces. God divorced Israel and Judah for commiting spiritual adultery (idolatry). You can read about that in Jeremiah 3: 8 and related references in the Old Testament. God hates divorce because He knows how much it hurts the parties involved in divorce. Understand this very clearly: God hates divorce…not divorced persons! He loves people who are divorced…no less, no more than he loves everyone.
God knows—humanly speaking—that some marital situations are just plain unbearable and unrepairable, and He doesn’t expect a mere fallible mortal to endure such a failed relationship forever. Even God didn’t endure Israel’s unbelief forever! He divorced her. You might want to think about that for a while.
Having given you that brief background, let’s now examine what both Jesus and one of his spokespersons, Paul, have to say about the matter of divorce. Both Jesus and Paul deal very constructively and positively with divorce. Let’s explore in detail what they have to say.
Let’s listen in on a conversation between Jesus, his disciples, and a few Pharisees as recorded in Matthew 19: 3 – 11. (There are quotes in this passage from Genesis 1: 27 and 2: 24, and Deuteronomy 24: 1 – 4 in the Old Testament.) In the conversation beginning in Matthew 19: 3, Jesus reaches back in time before He gave the Law to Moses, and shows how God really intends things to be. By doing this, Jesus demonstrates there are weak points in Moses’ law—because it’s a law that applies to sinful and weak humans.
Please understand that Jesus actually came along and “expanded” Moses’ law; that is, He amplified, clarified, and explained the “spirit” of the law contrasted with the “letter” of the law. Centuries earlier, King David and King Solomon had done the same with Moses’ law, amplifying, clarifying, and giving the spirit of the law Moses had proclaimed centuries before their time. After Jesus, God used Paul and other New Testament writers to make the same type of clarifications under the New Covenant.
This sometimes causes confusion among Bible-believers because they don’t understand the “progression” of the law since Moses. This is particularly true about some things Jesus said because He often talked with Jews who were trying to find favor with God by keeping the law of Moses. He told them time and time again what the “spirit” of Moses’ law was—with the idea that it is impossible to please God through keeping the law of Moses. He said the law of Moses could not be kept in its entirety by anyone (Himself excluded).
Looking again at Matthew 19, in this reference Jesus is attempting to explain the depth and the narrowness of Moses’ law about divorce and remarriage. Jesus is saying that not all men are able to accept and live with what He said about Moses’ commandment concerning divorce. Even his own disciples didn’t want to hear it; they were actually saying that, in their opinion, if divorce and remarriage are not possible under the law of Moses, they don’t want anything to do with marriage—even Peter whom we know was already married!
Jesus is saying, “If you can keep the rules God handed down to Moses, that’s good; if you can’t keep them, leave them alone!” He is saying it’s a commandment that is best kept, while realizing fully that not all people can keep it. Confusing? Maybe this will help. While reading the four Gospels (the entire New Testament, for that matter) keep three things in mind: 1. What Jesus said. 2. What Moses said. 3. What Jesus said Moses said. Simply keep in mind who is speaking, to whom they are speaking, and exactly what the speaker is saying.
Often, when Jesus explains in more detail what Moses said, people mistakenly think this is what Jesus says and teaches. That’s the case in Matthew 5: 31 and 32, for example. Jesus’ comments about divorcing someone, about fornication, and about adultery are his amplification and clarification of what Moses wrote.
Often, Jesus’ explanations are to show that no one can keep the law of Moses…so they need a new covenant; the old law (covenant) was given by God to Moses so that people would have a “tutor”—some general guidelines to live by—until Jesus came to fulfill that law and give it a new and higher meaning. For example, Galatians 3: 23 – 25 states: “The law of Moses served as our tutor, trainer, and guide to Jesus, who is now a ‘ higher Law.'” God’s laws are now written in the hearts of people rather than upon tablets of stone.
Another example. Jesus speaks about “looking on a woman” with lust being the same as committing adultery. (Matthew 5: 28) All He is doing is explaining the true spirit of Moses’ law. Jesus is not instituting a new law; He is simply explaining the fact that no one can find favor with God by keeping Moses’ laws. Then in Matthew 7 Jesus summed up the subject by explaining that anyone who builds his “house” on Moses’ law builds on shifting, unstable sand. Anyone who builds on Jesus’ new law (New Covenant) builds on a firm, solid Rock.
Now let’s examine what God has to say through Paul about divorce and remarriage. His main teaching on this subject is in 1 Corinthians 7. He write that in view of a situation he calls “the impending distress” (verse 26), his readers in the city of Corinth shouldn’t even get married in the first place.
Historically, we know “the impending distress” was a terrible time of persecution soon to be unleashed against both Jews and Jesus-believers throughout the Roman Empire. We know Paul’s recommendation against marriage in “the impending distress” was not a permanent recommendation by God because it does not fit the flow of the Bible’s overall teachings about marriage; God highly regards marriage. Paul’s restrictions were only because of “the impending distress,” there being no need to heed such restrictions in normal times and circumstances.
In 1 Corinthians 7, verse 1, Paul admonishes people to remain unmarried. But…if they do marry, here are the rules (verse 2 and following). In verse 8, he says to the unmarried and the widowed it would be best if they stay single. But…if they choose to marry, here are the rules. In both instances, he teaches if people get married, work at it; commit to it; give it every chance they can.
Verse 10 says don’t get separated. Verse 11 says if you do separate, here are the rules. Verse 15 says don’t get divorced. But…if you do, here are the rules (verse 16). Verse 27 says don’t get remarried. Verse 28 says if you do remarry, here are the rules. God says if people happen to get divorced, it’s okay. It’s not what God intended from the very beginning, but it happens. If you’re divorced, don’t go looking for another spouse unless you feel you really need to; if you do remarry, it’s okay…it’s not sin.
What actually causes divorce? Is there one single cause that is instrumental in all divorces? I believe there is. Jesus put his finger on that basic cause in Matthew 19: 8: Hardness of Heart! Divorce is only a symptom of the real problem—hardness of heart—which creates intolerable situations that can be resolved sometimes only by divorce. Hardness of heart is the real problem, not divorce. Hardness of heart occurs when people stubbornly resist the loving workings of God in their lives, wanting to do their “own thing” in spite of what God says or does.
Sin in its very essence is living a self-filled, self-consumed, self-seeking, self-focused, self-centered life instead of a God-filled life. That type of emphasis on “self” rather than upon God all too often leads to hardness of heart in a marriage.
For example, one spouse may have a “soft heart” and want to remain married, whereas the other spouse has a “hard heart” and wants to get divorced. If the spouse having the hard heart is unwilling to change, then the hardness of heart could very well lead to divorce even if the soft-hearted spouse does not want to be divorced. In such cases, it’s not the divorce that is sin; it is the hardness of heart, the emphasis on self rather than upon God and what He wants for one’s life.
Please understand this very clearly: I am not encouraging divorce, nor making light of it! I am merely attempting to shed some light on a very difficult matter. I do not have the final word on the matter; I am merely sharing what little biblical insight I presently have about this matter. But I do want to help divorced people. Far too many separated and divorced people cry themselves to sleep every night (and do many regrettable—even crazy—things) in reaction to condemnation heaped upon them by misinformed people…and by themselves.
Some spend the remainder of their lives after divorce and/or remarriage in misery and self-condemnation—or condemnation by others. We must not condemn those who have experienced divorce and remarriage. Usually, some situations caused by hardness of heart “kill” the marriage long before the actual date stamped on the divorce papers. One or both spouses—having hard hearts—created the situations that became intolerable. That hardness of heart is sin; divorce is merely a response to that sin.
When He is asked to do so, God can—and does—forgive any and all sin…including hardness of heart! There is no condemnation to those who are in Jesus…single, married, widowed, divorced, or remarried!
What should be my response—my position—toward someone who is separated or divorced? Each situation is unique, but I can say this: we are never in a position to judge, condemn, or criticize someone for being divorced.
There are four reasons why this is so:
- We do not know how hard a person worked to save his or her marriage; we do not know who was “at fault.” In fact, it is never true that only one person is at fault. Don’t think of fault; think of responsibility. Each party to a separation or divorce is at least partly responsible—never just one person. There are degrees of responsibility for both spouses, more than simply which spouse is at fault.
- We do not know the power of the “forces” that assailed the marriage and each of the parties in the marriage. We do not know the emotional, mental, and character strengths and weaknesses of the divorced persons; we never know another human intimately enough to know the depths of their strengths and weaknesses. We don’t know how hard they may have fought to keep the marriage intact; or, how weak they might have been in those areas of their lives that might have served to strengthen the marriage had they been stronger.
- We never know the exact, precise details of the circumstances or events (as experienced and perceived by the parties involved) which led to their actions.
- There is no way we can ever know exactly and precisely what we would have done in the exact, same circumstances or events.
For these reasons—and more—we are never in a position to judge, condemn or criticize a person who is separated or divorced…or subsequently remarried. It is particularly true that a person who has previously been a party to a divorce is never in a position to judge someone who is presently undergoing a separation or divorce. Of all people, such persons ought to be a source of strength and support; they need to just “be there” in a positive manner for the person presently suffering the pain and anguish of separation or divorce.
Most of us don’t understand even a small fraction of our inner selves and why we sometimes do what we do; our insight into our own motives and behavior is at best very clouded and murky. God alone knows us perfectly. God alone executes perfect judgment arising from his full and perfect knowledge. And, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth judge in a perfectly righteous manner [because He alone has all the facts; He alone knows the truth, the entire truth, and nothing but the truth about all our deepest motives and actions]?!” (Genesis 18: 25)
In many respects, the Bible is a teaching textbook. For most teaching subjects covered by the Bible, there are usually one or two major references about that subject. Along with one or two major references, there are usually many other “minor” texts and references about that subject. For the subject of this teaching, I have selected the two major texts (Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7), but since this teaching is not exhaustive I won’t cover many of the minor texts—although there are many of them. I simply don’t want to make this teaching too lengthy. Keep in mind, then, that I am covering only a couple of major texts about divorce and remarriage; I am not covering many, many, minor references—although for the most part, all the minor texts (when properly understood) teach the same as the major texts.
I’m not trying to “pull the wool over your eyes” by using “proof texts”; as I always tell all my students, “Check me out. Don’t simply take my word about what I teach. I’m human; I make mistakes. I’m not the final authority about what the Bible teaches.” On the subjects I’m teaching herein, if you, the reader, check me out with an open mind I think you’ll come to see my conclusions are correct. If not, well, I’ve been wrong before and probably will be again….
And…just so you’ll know where I’m at in my own understanding and comprehension, I’ll say it as plainly as I can: The Bible does not teach that divorce and remarriage are unforgivable sins. Divorce is forgivable and remarriage is not a sin. Jesus and Paul deal constructively with both matters and show us how to deal with them, too. But in order to understand both subjects, we must separate what many Bible-believers mistakenly teach from what the Bible actually teaches about divorce and remarriage.
Let’s look at in more depth what God teaches through Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, one of our two major texts. In the first part of the chapter, Paul teaches that in view of impending, distressful events happening in their first century world it would be best not to get married in the first place; we won’t address that issue in this teaching. In verse 10 Paul tells married women not to leave their husbands. The verse goes on to teach, however, that if she departs, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband divorce his wife in such a situation.
Thus, in verse 10 Paul closed the door on separation by telling wives not to depart. But in verse 11 he opens the door by stating if she departs—recognizing that some could not follow the instructions and would choose to depart. In the 15th verse, Paul goes on to teach, “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart.” This does not mean a non-Jesus-believer who departs, but an “unbelieving” Jesus-believer—a believer with a “hardened heart”—(whether male or female) who is not under bondage in such cases but is called to peace. The false commandments and religious traditions of most Jesus-believers keep such people under bondage; God calls them to peace.
Here’s one of Jesus’ comment on such a case: Look at John 4: 18. Jesus did not tell the woman at the well to go find her first husband. No! Jesus told her to worship God. Some well-intended (but misguided) Jesus-believers even tell a divorced and remarried person to divorce their present spouse and go remarry their first spouse. They say the first spouse is the proper one and if they marry anyone else they are living in adultery. Such bondage! No. Jesus calls us to peace and tells us to worship God.
Now back to 1 Corinthians 7. Verse 16 says, “There is no assurance to a spouse if they stay that the other spouse will cease their unbelieving.” This is another verse many Jesus-believers use to heap guilt upon a spouse to keep them from leaving an unbelieving spouse. But God says let them go. Yes, life would be better for both spouses if they tried to work out their problems together, but that doesn’t always happen. That’s just the way life is sometimes among mortal, sinful humans—some can’t resolve their marriage problems, and they have to depart.
Why does God permit separation? Why does He permit divorce? Because he went through his own divorce as we read earlier, and he knows how tough it can be trying to stick it out with a spouse who’s causing intolerable pain to the other. Look at Jeremiah 3: 6-8. God got so upset with Israel (his spouse) that he divorced her. The book of Hosea refers to the same situation.
Those, then are the Bible’s main teachings about divorce and remarriage. There should be no condemnation from others. There should be no self-condemnation or self-recrimination. Jesus does not condemn you. God does not condemn you. You are free to live life to the fullest with the joy and peace the Holy Spirit (who lives inside you) gives everyone who is “softhearted” (not hardhearted), pliable, humble, and open to God’s living his own life in them, through them, and as them.
[NOTE: This teaching is based upon an article published in September 1979 by David Ebaugh, who has since that time exited this mortal stage and continued on to the next stage of Life’s Great Journey in time and eternity. David was a dear Jesus-believer brother and a great teacher of the Bible. I miss both him and his teachings.]
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Revised and Updated December 2018