God offers grace to divorcees, like he does to each and every person. In the meantime, his plan is for those who are married to stay married.
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Matthew #17. Matthew 5:31-32
Let’s get some things out in the open right away: It’s an awkward thing to teach on the topic of divorce. To put it bluntly, the reason it is awkward is that the Bible quite clearly condemns it, and yet literally half the people who have been married in this country have also been divorced – Christians included. So I realize that what scripture teaches on this subject may offend some people, hurt others, and even tempt some people to feel condemned. I want to strongly encourage you to resist all those feelings (which are often understandable), and instead listen today to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Frankly, however, the divorce rate is what it is, in part because churches stopped teaching what the Bible really says about divorce. James 3:1 says that those of us who teach the scriptures will be judged more strictly, and so I believe I have a responsibility to teach clearly on this subject, even if I risk offending some people.
If you have been divorced, I want to plead with you to seriously consider what God says about it. I also want to assure you, on the basis of the Bible, that God certainly offers forgiveness to divorcees, exactly the same way he offers forgiveness to those who gossip and slander, to those who steal, lie, cheat, envy, lust, are selfish, or commit any other sin. Divorce has huge consequences on individuals and societies, but it is neither less nor more of a sin than any other sin. We have all sinned in various ways – not one of us is perfect, and we all deserve eternal punishment as a consequence. But the good news is, Jesus died to take the punishment for what we have done wrong, divorce included.
So please understand, when I teach on divorce, I am not singling anyone out, and I do not somehow think it is the most terrible thing anyone can do. But I have a serious responsibility to clearly explain what scripture says about it, just as I had to do with anger, and lust, and will have to do with everything else that Jesus said in the book of Matthew.
Let’s start with Jesus’ own words:
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32).
This is not the only place where Jesus talks about divorce. In Matthew 19:4, the Pharisees asked him if divorce was “ok.” He replied:
“Haven’t you read…that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
In other words, he is saying that human beings ought not to tamper with marriage, which is a union God has created and blessed. When the Pharisees asked him specifically why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus had this shocking reply:
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
Just in case there was any question about how God feels about this topic, read Malachi 2:16
“I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.”
Please be very clear on this – God does not hate divorced people – he hates the practice of divorce, the sin. If you are divorced and you have any doubt about whether God still loves you, please consider the cross that Jesus died on. Whipped raw with blows that had killed many lesser men, Jesus hung on the cross and drowned in his own body fluid in slow, barbaric, tortuous death. He did it for you. He had the power to avoid that terrible death – the thing that kept him there all the way to death was his love for you. When you consider that, there should be no doubt in your mind that he loves you.
Let’s think about this topic a little bit differently. Smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. There are many, wide-ranging and long-term health consequences to smoking. If you are presently a smoker, there’s no point beating yourself up because you got yourself hooked. Suppose you are suffering from the effects of smoking. The important thing is to figure out what to do now, and how to manage those health problems, now that you have them. Even if you recently got hooked, condemning yourself for the past won’t help you in the present.
On the other hand, it is vitally important to make sure that people who are not yet smokers understand that it is a really bad idea to start. Telling non-smokers to stay away from cigarettes is not the same thing as condemning those who smoke. And it is worthwhile to risk offending a few smokers in order to save others from the damage that smoking causes.
Teaching on divorce is kind of the same way. Divorce is a bad idea, most of the time. There are many, wide-ranging and long-term consequences to divorce. But if you’ve already done it, there’s no point in condemning yourself, or letting others condemn you. Acknowledge your mistake, receive the forgiveness of Jesus, and focus on what he wants to do in your life right now. And I think it is worthwhile to get the message out to others before they also experience some of the long-term problems caused by divorce.
Now that I have made people who both smoke and are divorced feel doubly bad, let’s move on. First, God views marriage as a permanent union. That’s why divorce is a sin. No matter what the laws of the government are, once two people are married, in God’s eyes they remain so until one of them dies. So if a couple divorces, and they remarry other people, in the eyes of God they are simply committing adultery. Now, I am aware that many of you reading this have already divorced and remarried. Please don’t compound the problem by divorcing again. That would only be to sin again. Do ask for forgiveness for your sinful action of divorce, and do thank the Lord for that forgiveness, and live in your new marriage as a forgiven person. The good news about Jesus is, he gives us a clean slate to work with. Jesus’ forgiveness is the answer; multiple divorces are not.
I think divorce breaks God’s heart. He created human beings to be in permanent community with each other. The means he gave to do this, is the family. And the foundation of family is marriage. When a marriage is torn apart, it destroys something God was creating. It does violence to our human need for permanent community based on love and relationship (in fact the Hebrew word for divorce is very closely related to the word for violence). It has now been proven that divorce usually has significant negative consequences on children of divorcees. In the early seventies, some ridiculous studies came out, claiming that divorce really doesn’t faze kids. Some kooky people claimed (and some still do) that divorce is actually better for the kids than a rocky marriage. But the longest most respectable study of the effect of divorce on children came out in the mid 1990s, and it showed that children of divorce struggle much more with long term depression, and they exhibit a whole host of emotional problems that stay with them well into adulthood. I think God weeps whenever divorce papers are signed. If you have had a part in putting your children in this situation, remember that God is available to them to bring them healing and wholeness. His grace and forgiveness covers this also. Commit your kids to him.
Now, many of you will have noticed that Jesus makes a sort of “exception.” He implies that when there has been “marital unfaithfulness,” it is not a sin for the partner who has not been unfaithful to divorce the other. Let’s make it clear that “marital unfaithfulness” in these passages, means simply and only, sexual activity outside the marriage. It doesn’t mean that Bob can divorce Sally because she hasn’t been “faithful” in meeting his needs for beer and backrubs. In fact the Greek word for “marital unfaithfulness” is porneia, and it means simply any sort of sexual activity with someone you are not married to. So when one partner commits adultery, the other is free to divorce. Even so, there is nothing in these passages to suggest that this person has to divorce his or her spouse, or even that he or she should – only that the spouse in this situation may do so without committing a sin. There are, of course many important factors in this sort of decision, and if there are children, they should be high on the list of considerations.
For those of you who are single, these teachings of Jesus ought to create very strong motivation for you to choose carefully when seeking a spouse. If God sees marriage as permanent, you had better start seeing it that way too. Divorce should never be “an option” for a Christian couple. This might also motivate you to do everything you can to help support the marriages of your married friends.
For those of you who are currently married, it is vital, if you haven’t already, to train yourself to see your marriage like God sees it – a permanent union until one of you passes away. When you have that viewpoint, it is possible to work through any difficulties, because you know that no one is going anywhere, that you have time a commitment on your side.
God doesn’t like divorce. It is a sin, and it breaks his heart. It violates the very way he created people to be. There is one instance where God allows it, though even then, reconciliation is God’s first choice. If you have committed the sin of divorce, be assured, it is not an unforgivable offense. But if you have never admitted to yourself and to God and to another person that it is a sin, I highly recommend that you do so right now, and ask God for forgiveness. And if you are married right now, please learn to view your marriage as absolutely permanent – the way God designed it to be.
Invite the Holy Spirit to speak to you right now, and lead you.
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