Lord, your word tells me that someone who delights in your law and meditates on it day and night is like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in season and flourishing in all ways. As I approach your word today, let it nourish my heart and edify my mind, so that I might glorify you and be a source of life, hope, and love to those around me.
After spending a week or so meditating on Psalm 1, I’m back in Mark today, beginning a new chapter. So read Mark 10:1-12 a few times, circling words and phrases that strike you and noting anything that comes to mind as you read.
And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:1-12 ESV)
So I’ll say right off the bat that this is a hard one. This passage directly deals with (or even confronts) some of the hardest topics of our day: marriage and divorce. It is a hard passage for me, because I know and love many people who either don’t fit this passage’s definition of marriage (a man and a woman, united by God) or are divorced and remarried. But a faithful reading of scripture means that we have to deal with everything we read—the parts we like and agree with, and the parts we struggle with. So that’s what I’m aiming to do here.
The first thing that strikes me is this question asked by the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This question is the very epitome of legalism: rather than seeking what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8), they want to know what is “legal.” Notice that Jesus does not answer “yes” or “no.” Instead, he points to God’s original intention from the very creation of man and woman:
But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
So from this passage, I conclude that when God brings two people together in marriage—a man and a woman—they are meant to stay married as long as they are both alive. The prophet Malachi captures a bit more of God’s passion for divorce, saying, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? …So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 2:15-16)
If the question we are asking is, “Is it lawful to divorce?” we are missing the very heart of God and are more closely aligned with the legalists. As Paul wrote (twice) in 1 Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful,” and, “All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” The question we should be asking is not, “Is it lawful,” but rather, “Is it helpful? Does it build up?”
Yet read on. Jesus’s response when the Pharisees asked him about divorce must have surprised his disciples, because, “in the house, the disciples asked him again about this matter.” I wonder why? Is it possible that some of them had divorced their wives? The only apostle we read of having a wife was Simon Peter. But in that age, it would not have been common for all of these fishermen and tax collectors and others to be single. Marriage was the custom; it was the norm. Are we to conclude that others beside Simon Peter were not married? I don’t necessarily think so. Is it possible that their curiosity was piqued by personal experience?
Or perhaps divorce was then, as it is now, a cultural norm. Today, 45-50% of first marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate actually increases with second and third marriages. (Click for source.) I have been in at least three weddings of friends whose marriage later ended in divorce. My husband has a friend whose wife just filed for divorce. I have had conversations with at least six people in the past week who are divorced and remarried. Perhaps in the first century AD, divorce was as common as it is today. Something had to make the disciples ask Jesus about this again!
And how did Jesus answer this question? By saying one of the hardest things he has ever said for me to comprehend: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
This is just a really, really hard passage to deal with, because I know and love people who have left—or been left by—their spouses for various (sometimes good) reasons and are now married to others. Honestly, I’m tempted to just skim past it here and not even talk about it publicly. It is possible that some of the readers of this blog are actually in really hard marriages and are contemplating divorce themselves right now. And I hope if that is you, you’ll read this whole post and not stop at the hardest part. I promise, there is encouragement, even in the midst of the difficult verses. As uncomfortable as I am publicly commenting on something that is so intensely painful and personal, my commitment on this blog is to read the Bible and reflect on it—publicly—with the hopes that it will encourage others to do so also.
Even the hard parts.
So here goes.
First, when a man and a woman make a marriage covenant before God, to break that covenant is sin. (Of course, this raises questions: what about two people who marry, but are not believers, and their marriage is not one made as a covenant before God? What about if God didn’t bring the two together, but rather they married against God’s will? I don’t have answers to these questions, but they come up when I read the nuances of this passage and the one from Malachi.) But God allows sin; God allows his people to make sinful choices every day—and to bear the consequences of that sin. And there are always consequences. Even with the beautiful hope of grace and redemption, sin bears consequences. In the case of divorce where there are children involved, the consequences are multiplied. There are also financial, relational, and, yes, spiritual consequences to sin.
Second, when one spouse who has made a covenant of marriage before God leaves and re-marries, in God’s eyes, he or she is committing adultery. Because while God allows a person to break a marriage covenant with God, God, it seems,does not break God’s covenant. If a covenant was made before God, and “a portion of the Spirit was in their union,” that covenant stands, whether both people involved honor it or not. From this passage and others, I conclude that God still looks on that original marriage as a covenant, and when a husband or wife leaves and takes another woman or man as his or her spouse, if we’re just taking what Jesus says here, that is adultery.
I do find it interesting that in this passage, Jesus seems to differentiate between the man/woman who leaves and the man/woman being left. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This seems to suggest that the person who initiates a divorce and remarries is the adulterer.
Either way, there’s no getting around that God hates divorce and it’s a reflection of human brokenness. One of many reflections of human brokenness, I might add. And this is where the hope is: the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all human brokenness—yes, even divorce. This is the very essence of the gospel: not that it permits or excuses sin, but that, in our sin, there is hope. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:5-10 ESV)
The thing we cannot do—and this is the tempting part—is to justify our sin. If a man leaves his wife because he is unhappy, or, as Jesus put it, has “hardness of heart,” and takes a second wife, this passage says that he is an adulterer. There is no sugar-coating it, at least as far as Jesus was concerned. But the thing that we must remember is that no sin is justified. No matter what we have done, or what we will do, if we are in Christ, Christ alone is our justification. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And of course it raises more hard questions. What about an abusive situation? What if a woman is being abused by her husband, either emotionally or physically or both? What if her children are? Should she simply stay and take it? My take is that, no, of course she shouldn’t. She should get out—and fast. But removing yourself (and your children) from abuse is not the same thing as immediately filing for a divorce. Is it possible that, after a time of separation, an abuser may have a change of heart? It’s possible… and worth a try.
But what if he or she doesn’t repent? My husband and I were talking about this, and he pointed out that a person might have to choose between two “less than ideal situations,” one being an abusive marriage, the other being divorce. We know people who have faced those two choices and have chosen divorce, and that was the better choice. (If those are the only options a person has, surely the better choice is to divorce? After all, hasn’t a spouse who is abusive already broken their marriage covenant first?)
In another passage of scripture dealing with divorce, from 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” If a spouse, even one claiming to be a Christian, behaves like an unbeliever and seeks a divorce, doesn’t that free a believer from being “enslaved?”
I would love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with this difficult passage? Pastors and elders, how do you counsel people whose marriage is on the rocks? What do you say about this passage?
I guess at the end of the day, when I read a hard passage like this, with the many (many!) other questions it raises, my main encouragement is not that there are times when divorce is the absolute right answer for a couple, but rather that the gospel means there is hope. Yes, even in the wake of divorce. Through repentance, forgiveness, and the cleansing of all unrighteousness that comes only through Christ, there is hope. Regardless of your marital status, regardless of your past or even present, your future righteousness can be found in Christ alone. And God can do a tremendous work of redemption in the face of divorce. I have seen and experienced with my own eyes what can happen when, following the aftermath and fallout and hard consequences of divorce, over time, there is forgiveness and restoration. I have seen God do beautiful things years after a bitter divorce. He is powerful and merciful that way. And even when there is not reconciliation, when the brokenness remains, when we turn to God, he will comfort and heal and bring new life to all who seek him in humility.
So no matter what, there is hope. Because of Christ, because of the gospel, there is always hope.
I’ve wrestled with this passage here, and I know there is a lot more to say. I would love to hear from you. You may comment anonymously if you like, but I welcome your thoughts. When a marriage is falling apart, there are no easy answers. But if we are going to walk through scripture, hard questions will come up.
For this passage’s application, I would simply ask that you join me in prayer for those marriages that are in trouble. Pray for God’s mercy and kindness for those who are facing the hard decision of whether to stay or whether to go. I reiterate that just because this passage seems to make a clear and conclusive statement, the many layers of human sin and brokenness force us not to settle for easy answers, especially when we’re not the ones walking through it. As in all cases where human sin and brokenness causes destruction, our only option is to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
And with that, I welcome you again to please share your own thoughts in the comments below. I want to learn from you, even as I share with you how I wrestle with hard passages like this.