Down through 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? First, you need to read the statement in its context; God made the statement remonstrating Israelite men who had literally divorced their Israelite wives in order to marry foreign—pagan—wives, something God had forbidden them to do knowing that 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 committing adultery (idolatry). You can read about that in Jeremiah 3: 8 and related references in the Old Testament. God did not arbitrarily wake up one morning and capriciously decide He would hate divorce; no, He hates divorce because He knows how much it hurts the people involved. Understand this very clearly: God hates divorce…not divorced persons! He loves people who are divorced…no more, no less than he loves everyone.
Having given you that brief background, let’s now examine what both Jesus and one of his spokespersons, Paul, have to say about the subject. Both Jesus and Paul deal very constructively and positively with this matter of 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 this conversation, Jesus reaches back in time before Moses’ law to the creation 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 that Moses had proclaimed centuries before their time. After Jesus, God used Paul to make the same type of clarifications under the New Covenant.
This sometimes causes confusion among Bible readers 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. In other words, know who the speakers and the hearers are.
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 “putting away” (divorcing) someone, about fornication, and about adultery are his amplification and clarification of what Moses “really” said. 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: 24 and 24 state: “The law of Moses served as our trainer and guide to Jesus; He 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 Jesus summed up the subject by explaining that anyone who builds his “house” on Moses’ law builds on sand. Anyone who builds on Jesus’ new law (New Covenant) builds on a 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. In verses 1 and 8, Paul begins by stating 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 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, well, that happens to sinful, mortal humans. 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.
God knows some marriages are unbearable…and unrepairable. He doesn’t expect anyone to endure such a relationship forever. Even He Himself didn’t do it. He divorced his “wife,” Israel. 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 only by divorce. Hardness of heart is the real problem, not divorce. Hardness of heart occurs when people stubbornly resist the loving attention of God, wanting to do their “own thing” in spite of what God says or does.
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 light 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 remarriage in misery and condemnation.
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 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.
There are four reasons why this is so: 1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 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) We human see only what other people do; God alone sees why they do it!
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Revised and Updated December 2020