Written by Neil Powell
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
Having considered what it means that God hates divorce in an earlier resource we now need to recognise that the holiness of God means that he permits divorce.
Although God hates divorce we also find in the Bible that in a world marked by sin God does in certain, exceptional circumstances, permit divorce. There can be times when it might be right to end a marriage and in a future post I’ll say more on which situations God permits divorce.
In Matthew 19 we see Jesus at odds with the religious leaders of his day. As we read v.4-8 the difference in attitude is obvious.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will 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.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
Did you notice that crucial difference in the thinking and attitude of Jesus over against the Pharisees? The Pharisees said that in the law of Moses there were certain circumstances which required a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees said ‘Moses commanded that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.’
Now Jesus only agreed with them in part. For Jesus knew that the law of Moses did not command divorce. As John McArthur says ‘God never commands it, endorses it, or blesses it.’ But Jesus says (v.8) ‘because of the hardness of human hearts God does permit it.’ In this statement Jesus affirms that divorce is possible and it is possible to divorce without being sinful.
I guess that means it is really important to realise that if a divorce takes place between a couple who are members of the church, although we can be sure that it is as a result of sin, we are not saying that both parties are to blame. In fact it is quite possible in situations of divorce that one party is innocent of sin. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel ,1:19, we read ‘because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.’
The church has far too often been quick to condemn all who divorce and we can be quick to judge others with no knowledge of the facts. In the face of wilful, persistent, unrepentant sin it can be the most godly thing you can do to divorce and the single strongest indicator that this must be the case is the fact that God himself initiates divorce against unrepentant adulterous Israel. In Jeremiah 3:6-10 we read;
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.
We saw in the previous post that God’s amazing patience, revealed in his dealing with Israel in the book of Hosea, is a model for our marriages but so also is his radical holiness.
Real love is not a pitiful acceptance of others — sin and all. Lines have to be drawn and they are drawn as an expression of love. Tough love means telling the person you love that there are limits to what conduct is acceptable in your relationship. If someone seeks to mock God by deliberately breaking their marriage vows divorce is a righteous act and one the church should be willing to, with a heavy-heart, support.
The mercy of God means that he permits divorce
Divorcing a spouse does not sound like a mercy but in many instances it has proved to be the only action that has brought about a true repentance. As someone has written ‘helping others to face up to responsibility without protecting them from the consequences of their own decisions is what tough love is all about. Setting limits as to how far we can reasonably go in helping our spouses allows God to work His loving discipline in their lives.’
And that is exactly the principle we find at work in God’s own covenant commitment to Israel. When God divorces Israel he sends her away – for a long period of separation – even as he is at work to see that relationship restored. Back in Jeremiah 3, In the very same chapter where God says he has divorced Israel, the Lord also proclaims, 3v.12 and again v.14 ‘return faithless people for I am your husband….I will choose you and bring you to Zion.. .at that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel.’
And God’s mercy is seen in relation to the innocent victim of divorce as well. God permits divorce out of loving concern for an innocent party in a marriage. We will return to the issue of re-marriage in a future post when we turn to the questions of what are the biblical grounds for divorce and when, if ever, is it right to remarry. But God’s concern for the innocent party means, at the very least, she is not bound to stay in the home with an abusive spouse, nor is she bound to her marriage if deserted by an unbelieving spouse, nor forced to stay in a marriage in which her husband is sleeping with other people.
God permits divorce out of loving concern for spouses who are victims of abuse and adultery.
But whether we are single, married, divorced or widowed – whatever our situation – the extraordinary truth that we rest upon today is that God is a God of complete faithfulness to us. Despite Israel’s repeated spiritual adultery – God’s plan to raise up a saviour for us from the Jews – is gloriously fulfilled in Jesus. God could have given up on us – but his covenant love and covenant promises remain secure.
© Neil Powell