In my role as a pastor, I often find it necessary to argue with Jesus. You might find that a strange thing for a pastor to say. It would be laughable for any mortal to argue with the infinite wisdom of a God who created the universe? Some might think to argue with Jesus reveals a lack of faith. So let me explain what I mean by “arguing with Jesus.”
I often find people misunderstand what Jesus really meant or they take his words in the Bible out of context. They will come to me and say, “But in the Bible Jesus said…” and they will use Jesus’ words in the wrong way. And then as a pastor, I find myself in the awkward position of arguing with Jesus. So, I’m not so much arguing with Jesus as I am arguing with the way people misuse or misunderstand Jesus.
Jesus said and did many things in the Bible. In this series, I would like to address some of the passages that are often misused or misunderstood. I hope you will come to Pleasant Grove UMC or read this blog for each of these messages. Perhaps you know someone else who is particularly interested in one of these subjects. Invite them to come too!
Today, I want to “argue with Jesus” about the issue of divorce. It might surprise you to find out how often people come to me racked with guilt because they have been divorced—even if the divorce was justified. They will even quote Jesus’ words about divorce in the Bible and I find myself awkwardly “arguing with Jesus” on behalf of someone who needs grace and forgiveness. So to start off, let’s turn in our Bibles to see what Jesus said about divorce.
Then Jesus left Capernaum and went down to the region of Judea and into the area east of the Jordan River. Once again crowds gathered around him, and as usual he was teaching them.
2 Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?”
3 Jesus answered them with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?”
4 “Well, he permitted it,” they replied. “He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away.”
5 But Jesus responded, “He wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. 6 But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. 7 ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, 8 and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, 9 let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
10 Later, when he was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. 11 He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.”
The Apparent LessonJesus clearly takes a strong position against divorce in this passage. Even though the Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 24:1 allowed for divorce, Jesus apparently does not. This is a very strict teaching. The disciples struggled with it and Christians have struggled with it ever since. Let’s take a quick look at another passage from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus listed only one acceptable excuse for divorce.
Matthew 5:31-32“You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ 32 But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.
Only One Acceptable Excuse?In Matthew, Jesus says pretty much the same thing he does in Mark except he allows for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness. What are we to make of all this?
Well clearly, divorce is not God’s original intention. Jesus’ view of marriage goes back to the original plan in creation where God designed a man and a woman for each other to become so unified in marriage that it’s as if they become one person. Anything less falls short of God’s original plan.
If we only take Jesus’ words at face value (which is what many people do), we quickly run into problems. Is unfaithfulness really the only acceptable cause for divorce? What about physical abuse? If a man is beating his wife, shouldn’t we advise her to get a divorce as soon as possible for the sake of her own safety? What about harsh verbal or mental abuse? Should a person remain in a marriage where they are being torn apart inside by the ongoing and excessive cruelty of their spouse? The answers to these questions should be obvious.
Sometimes a divorce is right thing to do. Sometimes it is the only way out of an extremely harmful marital situation. You would be surprised by the number of times I have counseled with both men and women in just these kinds of situations. I believe Jesus would embrace them and comfort them and tell many of them to get a divorce as soon as possible. And yet, these unfortunate victims struggle with guilt because of what Jesus said in the passages we just read.
Understanding the Context
It is crucial for us to understand what Jesus said about divorce within the proper context in which he said it. First of all, look at verse 2. “Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?”” You see, this conversation was not a sincere attempt of the Pharisees to understand God’s plan for marriage and divorce. This whole issue was brought to Jesus as a way to get Jesus in trouble and make him look bad. So, we need to keep that in mind as we consider what Jesus said about divorce.
The second thing we need to consider is what divorce was like in Jesus day. The Jewish law in the Old Testament had a provision for divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1 says, “Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.”
Now let’s think about that a little. It’s saying that if a wife does not please her husband, he can just divorce her. That’s pretty harsh! So maybe she’s getting a little older and she doesn’t look as appealing as the younger woman who just moved in next door. Does that qualify? It seems so if you take the Llw literally. Or maybe the wife doesn’t agree with everything the husband says. Is that cause for divorce? It seems so according to a literal reading of the Old Testament law. If you’re going strictly by what Deuteronomy 24:1 says, a husband can divorce his wife for any reason she does not please him—and that could be almost anything. And that is exactly what many husbands were doing to their wives in Jesus day. Furthermore, there is no provision in the Old Testament law for a woman who wants to divorce a man!
Jesus lived in a society where women had few rights or privileges. Moreover, they had limited (if any) means to provide for themselves outside of marriage. So a woman who was divorced and sent away from her husband’s house often faced tremendous hardship in addition to shame. So when Jesus spoke out to forbid divorce, he was actually speaking out to protect women from unjust treatment and exploitation. How ironic it is then that today women often come to me consumed with guilt because they had to divorce a man who was mistreating or exploiting them!
Times Have Changed
In the original context, Jesus was trying to protect women, but times have changed. Women have many more opportunities now than they did 2,000 years ago. A wife who divorces can make it on her own in ways that women in Jesus’ day could not imagine. I, myself, grew up as the product of a single, divorced mom. It was not easy for her to provide for our family, but she managed in ways women in the New Testament probably could not. So times have changed—somewhat for the better—since Jesus spoke out against divorce.
Today, I find that men often need protection when it comes to divorce. I have counseled with a number of men in heart breaking situations where the wife was asking for a divorce and the husband did not want it. The husband was not necessarily guilty of any grave offence or abuse. Furthermore, the husband was even willing to seek marital counseling to improve the relationship with the wife, but the wife was unwilling. So men sometimes—just as much as women—can find themselves devastated and completely heartbroken—having to deal with an unwanted divorce and all the financial troubles and familial complications a divorce brings. And sometimes I have felt that if Jesus were present he might grab a few mean-spirited wives and just shake them and say, “Don’t you realize how cruel and unchristian you are being!” It was not that divorce was evil; it was the fact that the divorce was unnecessary, but the wife didn’t care and was not willing to even try and fix the problem.
The Bottom Line about Divorce
So what’s the bottom line? What should we think about divorce? If Jesus were speaking from this pulpit today, what would he say? Well, God did not part the clouds and give me the answer in an audible voice. However, I have thought deeply and prayed about this over many years of walking with the Lord and serving as a pastor to counsel numerous couples facing divorce and here’s what I believe Jesus would say.
First of all, divorce is not God’s original plan. From the beginning of creation, God designed marriage to be a lifelong, deep and sacred union between a man and a woman. The closer a husband and wife come to this goal, the closer they are to God’s will and the more fulfilling their life together will be. This is God’s hope for all married people.
However, marriage is not easy. It takes a lot of work—especially because we are broken individuals that live in an imperfect world. Sometimes we will face problems in our marriage—maybe even very difficult problems. Yet we should strive very hard to work through our marital troubles if at all possible. A marriage that is worth having is worth fighting for. And you would be amazed at some of the stories I could tell you of broken marriages I have seen healed. It often saddens me to see marriages fail that I believe could be fixed if only both the husband and wife were willing to work on it. So divorce should be a last resort, when everything else has been tried and failed.
Unfortunately, sometimes divorce is the only option. When repeated attempts to fix the marriage have failed (including sincere attempts at marriage counseling and appeals to God for divine help), divorce may be better than staying in a destructive marriage. A good analogy might be the way you would treat your own body in a medical emergency. For instance, suppose you were in a terrible accident and your arm was badly injured. You would do everything you could to save your arm. However, if you couldn’t save the arm and the only way to save your life was to cut off your arm, you would have a surgeon cut it off in order to save your life. You would be without an arm for the rest of your life, but at least you would be alive. In the same way, you should do everything you can to save your marriage; but if you cannot save it and to stay in the marriage would devastate you, by all means get a divorce. But understand this: there will always be a terrible scar.
To those of you who have suffered through a divorce (or who will suffer through one in the future), understand that Jesus is not against you. Most likely, you divorced because it was forced upon you or else you could see no other way out. And Jesus, who knows all things, knows your heart. He is full of grace and mercy and love. Come to him and know that he welcomes you with open arms. Do not let the words he spoke 2,000 years ago in a different time and place when evil men were trying to trap him hinder you. Jesus speaks on your behalf today and says, “I love you. You are welcome. Do not be ashamed. I offer healing for your scars and your broken heart.”
Even if you believe today that your divorce was not justified—that for some reason you acted inappropriately—Jesus still offers forgiveness and grace. There is no sin you have committed that puts you out of reach of God’s love in Jesus Christ. If you recognize your fault and ask Jesus to forgive you, he will wash you clean. Your sin will be forgotten forever by the Lord and you can make a fresh start from this day forward. If you would like forgiveness for this or any other sin, pray to Jesus for forgiveness today.
Lastly, it may be that some of you are struggling in your marriage. Maybe you are even contemplating a divorce. Let me encourage you as strongly as I know how—talk to a pastor or a marriage counselor. It may be that Jesus can heal the brokenness in your marriage and make your relationship stronger than you ever imagined. I have seen it happen. However, nothing will get better if you keep your struggles to yourself. Talk to a pastor or marriage counselor they can help you start on a better road. Or they may find out that a divorce is the best road for you to choose and then you can have the peace of mind in knowing you tried everything you could.