God’s Divorce

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God hates divorce. He says so in Malachi 2:16. Jesus is pretty clear in Mark 10 that God made men and women for love and unity, but human sin forced God to make an allowance for separation, a very narrow allowance. Paul tells the Corinthians that only death can release them from their marriage vows, even if they separate.

With such a clear and confining biblical mandate, it’s no wonder that Christian marriages can be so problematic. What do we do when we struggle? Hide? Strap a smile on? What do we do when the Bible is basically forcing us to choose between a lifetime of frustration and arguing and separate beds, or living the rest of our lives with private, social and spiritual shame?

Historically, the Church has not been kind to couples that suffer in marriage, especially when they’re ready to wave the white flag. The very brutal, very public divorce of Amy Grant comes to mind. Christians were ruthless, eager to explore controversies of seduction and adultery posed by Gill and Grant’s ex-spouses despite Gill and Grant’s adamant denials.

Did they do it? Was Amy using her looks and celebrity status to explore a crush at the expense of her Christian witness? Was she too distracted by her pursuit of wealth and fame to really focus on her family?

I don’t know if you’ve struggled in your marriage or lived alongside people that have, but it can be nasty and painful and grueling. This excerpt from Amy’s 1999 CCM interview sums it up well:

“If people say that I was leaning on a man emotionally that I wasn’t married to, that I developed a friendship that was inappropriate,’ I want to go, ‘You know, if you’re gonna list my faults, let’s get to the real meat. You ain’t even scratched the surface with that stuff. Let’s get real. Humanity is humanity. You want to know what my real black ugly stuff is? Go look in a mirror and everything that’s black and ugly about you, it’s the same about me.’ That’s what Jesus died for. This should not be a surprise to any of us.”

Is God insensitive to our human struggles? Doesn’t he know what will happen when two fallen human beings make a binding oath in the throes of infatuated bliss? Why make it so difficult to escape when reality turns bliss into heartache?

Take comfort in this: The story of the Bible is the story of God’s first and second marriages. That’s right. God had a wife, struggled for a long time, got divorced, then re-married. And he still struggles with his marriage today.

‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘and you became mine.’ Ezekiel 16:8

For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. Isaiah 54:5

‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me
 and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.’ Jeremiah 2:2

‘But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,’ 
declares the Lord. Jeremiah 3:20 

‘You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband. All prostitutes receive gifts, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere for your illicit favors. So in your prostitution you are the opposite of others. No one runs after you for your favors. You are the very opposite, for you give payment and none is given to you.” Ezekiel 16:32-34

‘All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people.’ Isaiah 65:2

This is what the Lord says: ‘Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?
Or to which of my creditors did I sell you?
 Because of your sins you were sold, because of your transgressions your mother was sent away.’ Isaiah 50:1

‘I will make you envious by those who are not a nation. I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.’ Deuteronomy 32:21

‘I was found by those who did not seek me. I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’ Isaiah 65:1

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless . . .For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:25-27, 31-32

You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 10:19–22

You have left your first love. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. Revelation 2:4-5

If you lose this story, you lose the heart of God. If you think God simply rules everything from a lofty throne, spinning some cosmic chess game for his own glory, glowering down at all the sinners with a raised gavel, you have missed the Biblical story, promoting a God that looks more like Zeus than the crucified Christ.

Why does God hate divorce? For the same reason that we do. It hurts. It distorts. It’s not what he wanted when he called Adam and Eve “one flesh.” Why does God make it so difficult to break our marital vows? He wants us to work as hard as he did to try to fix it. Healing requires honesty, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and perseverance. It forces us to abandon our warped, self-oriented selves for the sake of another. If we had an easy out, we’d probably take it every time.

But sometimes it doesn’t work out. Just ask God. He’s still working on his second marriage. And this one’s just about as problematic as the first.

13 thoughts on “God’s Divorce

  1. It does seem that once the mind is made up, it can find so many “valid” reasons for divorce. With pastors learning family counseling as a science, even the church will accept that some marriages are beyond hope and salvation. Divorce becomes a civil business with God out of the picture. Where is the faith in God’s Holy Spirit? Must we always favor our own judgement rather than look to the Holy Spirit for guidance? God may not make repairs according to our plan. God might allow us to make a huge mess before we see the light. God does have the power to pull us out of our wreckage.

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    • I agree. God is a redeemer. If a husband and wife are believers, want a healthy marriage, but find themselves struggling with loneliness, unhappiness or even a variety of abuses, I do believe that God can heal and stabilize these couples. However, what do we do when one parter is cheating on the other with no intention of stopping? Or abusing the other with no intention of stopping? When is divorce the just and righteous thing to do?

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      • I think separation is more often the appropriate course than divorce. Jesus gives us one cause for divorce: sexual sin (not meaning pornography or snogging but intercourse). Under the law the adulterer would be stoned and the “innocent party” would be a widow/widower and free to remarry, within certain constraints. The fact that the law has become merciful toward adulterers doesn’t mean it should be legalistic toward the “innocent party” (scare quotes because in marriage there’s always plenty of blame to go around – we’re selfish creatures, nonetheless responsible for our behavior – I don’t buy the “he made me/she made me do it” line of thought). More often, though, I think the solution is separation and we are far too quick to go into divorce, hoping to put it behind us, get on with our lives– “Getting on” with our lives may well mean living a celibate life from there out, NOT a new and different marital partner. We are too fond of serial monogamy in this society. So I don’t believe divorce is ever the “righteous” thing to do; I do believe sometimes it may be the best option. But we have to stop thinking in terms of a new life, as if the old one never happened.

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      • I like how Jesus said that he permitted divorce because of the weakness of our flesh. Marriage was instituted for spiritual people, established before the Fall. It’s actually the only institution established before the Fall, having nothing to do with redemption (like, say, baptism or communion, etc.). It is a sanctity that is sort of “just holding on” until the next age, when heaven and earth are united like a husband to a bride (Rev. 21:2). There is whole heck of a lot of depth and beauty to this thing that certainly pervades rules about when God does or does not allow divorce. He hates it. Pure and simple. It’s not supposed to exist. But he also (begrudgingly) allows it when necessary, and for the same reason he was divorced—infidelity.

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  2. A friend of mine posed an interesting question:

    If the new covenant in Christ was God’s intention from the beginning, how can we call the Church God’s “second marriage”? That makes it sound like the old covenant, given to Israel through Moses, was God’s first love and full intention. But when the covenant failed because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God tried something new with the Gentiles through Christ, as if the new covenant is more like a second try rather than God’s plan from the beginning.

    Here is my answer:

    Jesus was always the plan. He was prepared before the world was made, was prophesied in Eden, was prefigured in Noah, was bound to the covenant with Abraham, was presented in shadow and type at Sinai, came in the flesh in the first century, established his Church, and will return to restore the relationship between heaven and earth.

    Of all the nations of the earth, God chose Israel to make this plan a reality. As God said to Abraham, “all the nations of the earth with be blessed through you.” They were not the covenant itself, they were the agents of the covenant. Not only were they supposed to bring this revolution to the world, but they were supposed to show the world what it means to be God’s agents in the world, to be holy, set apart in righteousness in justice.

    But despite God’s persistence, sending prophet after prophet, moving from warnings to wars, preserving just enough righteous men to fulfill his promises, he finally had enough. The Jews thought their Messiah was coming to make them the pre-eminent nation in the world, but he came with a final warning. He proved himself with miracles, confronted them with parables, and they still crucified him.

    Jesus was always the plan, but the Gentiles were not. God wanted to bless the Gentiles through the Jews, not cut off the Jews and fulfill his covenant through the Gentiles. But that’s what happened. If you read the Gospels in this light, the tragedy of this “divorce” becomes clear. If you read Romans 9 – 11, it really hits home. I think you can equate his discussion of the Jews being grafted out and the Gentiles being grafted in as moving from one “wife” to another. The covenant is not the wife. The agent is the wife.

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    • I believe there’s a problem with your language in this post: God-the-Father is the husband of Israel and God-the-Son is the husband of the Church. Yes, God is One and God is Triune and we little humans have a hard time wrapping our brains around the trinity – but I don’t think you’re right to consider *Jesus* the husband of Israel (if you do, I’d love to walk through the scriptures which cause you to understand it that way).

      The Jews cannot be grafted out – they are the root, they are the trunk of the tree. They were pruned away and the wild gentile branches grafted in, so the Church is grafted IN to Israel, does not replace Israel, and part of the purpose of that is to provoke the pruned branches to envy– (an aside: I heard from a farmer that the pruned branches, left in the proximity of the tree, often put out leaves on their own after new branches have been grafted in; the farmer referred to it as “envy” – he also said that the original branches can always be re-grafted onto the tree but that the transplanted branches, if severed, cannot be grafted back onto the tree. Hmmm).

      And if we go down the road with Jesus’ teaching that He is the vine and we are the branches, it gets very deep.

      There are too many prophetic words about the restoration of Israel as God’s beloved for me to view this as a “divorce” but rather as a separation. In Isaiah 50 God asks, “where is the certificate of divorce by which I have sent your mother away?” – and I think *there is none* – there is separation but no divorce and God does take back his faithless wife, just as Jesus is cleansing the church so that she will be spotless and pure. Otherwise Hosea doesn’t make sense.

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  3. This is not the only time when God tragically changes the agents of his covenant. We see a similar story when we look at Saul and David. I was always taught that God chose Saul as the people’s choice, then David as his choice. A closer look at the text proves otherwise.

    “What have you done?” asked Samuel. Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Mikmash, I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”

    “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, HE WOULD HAVE ESTABLISHED YOUR KINGDOM OVER ISRAEL FOR ALL TIME. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

    Think about that. For all time? That sounds like the promise God made to David late in his life, that he would have an heir to his throne FOREVER. We know now that this heir was going to be Jesus, a man born in the line of David. But what if Saul had been faithful? Was God lying that he would have established Saul’s line over Israel for all time? He had anointed Saul, filled him with his Spirit, given him victory in battle. Saul’s son Jonathan was a Godly man of faith, David’s best friend. He would have made a great king.

    I think God could have brought the Messiah through Saul’s line just as easily as through David’s, but Saul lost his opportunity because of his disobedience. That’s the witness of the text. The only objection that pops into my brain is the question of sovereignty. Didn’t God know that Saul was going to be unfaithful, if so, why make him king? We could say the same thing about Lucifer. And Eve.

    I don’t think God makes Stepford Wives. He wants his relationships to be just as real as we do. And he’s not threatened by our freedom.

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    • “This is not the only time when God tragically changes the agents of his covenant.” Shoot, you want to look at something arguably “tragic,” look at the flood! Virtually all human and animal life destroyed and yes, the desires of man’s heart are wicked but the sentimental part asks, “what about the children, the babies?” It’s very hard not to see God as cruel, in such situations. I think that means we don’t understand the situation nor the solution. But I don’t think anything God does is “tragic”, at least not as I understand the word (or God!). What God does is redemptive: Saul is unfaithful (as God knew he would be) and needs to be replaced. Somehow this was necessary for the good of Israel (to bring David to kingship, apparently to grow David up and prepare him to be king) – it wouldn’t have worked to simply make David the shepherd boy the king of Israel and it wouldn’t be fair to Saul to judge him before he does the thing which provokes the judgment. It’s kind of the Minority Report dynamic: you cannot execute justice *before* the crime.

      I’ve really struggled with this, ironically in the context of the dramatic and ugly end of my second marriage (this being a post about divorce :/) – why did God tell me to marry that man, *knowing* what he would do, 17 years down the line? Because the possibility of the good marriage was real, even though God knew we wouldn’t manage to get there; because providing a stable environment for my 8 year old son (from my *first* failed marriage, the one at 17, and after we separated due to violence he started living with another woman so it was a “legit” divorce, ultimately – although I was passive throughout, he divorced me. Years later I realized it qualified under Jesus’ exception). So for the sake of the real good done for my son and the potential good done through the marriage, God moved us to marry (not in the throes of infatuated bliss, fwiw – not a good reason to marry, imho, because infatuated bliss will fade and there’s got to be a more solid footing on which the marriage can continue, after the bliss has faded) – God gave us the opportunity to fail, instead of acting on His foreknowledge that we would fail.

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      • So many thoughts, so little time . . . I wish you were around. I’d enjoy hashing this one out over coffee, though I don’t we could get to the bottom of anything. It would still be fun.

        Aside from God’s redemptive program, do we EVER see him imposing on human freedom? The problem is, how can we know? When I listen to “Angels” by Amy Grant, I always cringe a little when she sings, “a reckless car ran out of gas before it ran my way.” If God does that for Amy, what about when Steven Curtis Chapman’s son ran over his adopted child?? No. God is not unjust like that. There is something legitimate to human freedom that allows for our judgment to be genuine.

        Jesus showed us that God knows that we will make mistakes (especially in the case with Peter) but he doesn’t seem threatened by them. Apparently, he’s all about redemption. And apparently he wants the redemptive process to be as free and genuine as the sin.

        Just my thoughts . . . for now.

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