Divorce: Grounds, Prevention, Coping, Recovery
Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Malachi 2:13-17

We are continuing our summer long series on marriage and the family, and today it is my task to speak to you on divorce. It would be impossible to talk about marriage and family in any kind of complete way without touching on this painful subject. The issue is ubiquitous, even in our congregation, but also in our culture.

William Bennett, in his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, says, “The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world. At present rates, approximately half of all U.S. marriages can be expected to end in divorce. Both co-habiting and remarried couples are more likely to break up in their subsequent marriages than couples in first marriages. Divorce has a tremendous impact on children. Apparently its most significant repercussions are on girls with regard to future marital stability. A 1987 study found that white women who were younger than 16 when their parents divorced or separated were about 60% more likely to be divorced and separated themselves. Even the Clinton administration's domestic policy senior advisor to the Vice President said, ‘Because of the shattering and emotional developmental effects of divorce on children, it would be reasonable for us to introduce breaking mechanisms that require parents to contemplating divorce to pause for reflection.’”

This is a very relevant subject, but it's a subject that's hard to speak on. It's hard to speak on this subject for a variety of reasons. When I preach on divorce, there are those in the audience who are going through divorce or who have just gone through it and they are so emotionally raw that it is hard for them to hear the message. There are those who are divorced but who didn't want the divorce that they got and they are second-guessing themselves, wondering what they could have done, and some of the things that I may say may even seem to encourage their second-guessing. There are those who had biblical grounds for divorce and who only reluctantly pursued divorce but who are still troubled in their consciences and disappointed at the end of their dream for a happy lifetime marriage, and they may feel a sting in the preacher's words not intended for them. There are those who have a marriage teetering on the edge and they are out of energy and they are out of answers, and their spouse has long-since given up and to hear the subject mentioned from the pulpit seems to be inviting a doom that they are now beginning to reluctantly expect. There are those who are unbiblically divorced and so internally defensive about the subject but they've never come to grips with their own sin. There are those who think the Bible's teaching on divorce is unrealistic, out of touch, pie in the sky. There are those who have friends or family members divorced or divorcing, and it's hard for them to even think about the subject. There are those who are deeply concerned about marriages in our church and who feel frustrated as to what they might do to help There are those who are worried about the effects of divorce on their children or grandchildren or on other children in the church. And there are the children of divorce–hurting, angry, and confused. And one neither wants to ordain the future effects of parental divorce upon them nor ignore the reality of the impact on them nor fail to show compassion for them as this most sensitive subject is approached. And each of those groups of people has different questions they are asking and wanting answers for. All of those things add up to a huge challenge for the minister who wants to be faithful to God's word–but preach we must, for Jesus has spoken.

We’re going to look at four key passages tonight: Deuteronomy 24, Malachi 2, Matthew 19, and 1 Corinthians 7. Now, bear in mind that everything that Derek has already taught us about marriage, is relevant to this discussion of divorce tonight. It forms the backdrop to that discussion because it is certainly true, that you cannot understand the Bible's teaching about divorce unless you understand the Bible's teaching about marriage. Now let's hear God's word. We’ll begin in Deuteronomy 24.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” Thus far God's word.

Turn to the very end of the Old Testament to Malachi 2:13.

“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring. Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of Hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them.” or, “Where is the God of justice?” Thus far God's holy word.

Turn forward to 1 Corinthians 7:1.

“Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each man is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and one in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, I say, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” Amen. Thus far the reading of God's holy Word. Now, let's look to him in prayer:

Our Lord and our God, we ask for your help as we consider this word tonight. Teach us wonderful things from your law. Convict us of sin; convince us of grace. Change our lives. Turn back marriages headed for disaster. Restore the joy of salvation unto the broken hearted and do all these things for your own glory, in Jesus' name. Amen.

In these four passages we see four things.

First, in Deuteronomy 24, we see a law that had been taken out of context. Second, in Malachi 2, an Old Testament expression of God's heart regarding divorce. Thirdly, Paul's words, which are almost like a New Covenant case law about mixed marriages and divorce. And then in the passage we’ll read in just a few moments, in Matthew 19, we see Jesus’ clear limitations on legitimate divorce.

I. Divorce is almost always wrong.
I'd like to look at these passages with you tonight. Let me ask you to turn back to Deuteronomy 24, and I want to point out two things about this passage. This is the passage that you’re going to hear the Pharisees throwing in Jesus’ face in just a few minutes. It's the passage on which they based their divorce law. And I want you to note two things about Deuteronomy 24. It is a law that had been taken out of context by the Pharisees and here are the two things I want you to see. First, the important thing to note here is that this is not a command for divorce. It's not even an approbation of divorce. It is a case law primarily preventing certain remarriages. The second thing I want you to see is this: the reason that this case law is given in order to prevent certain kinds of remarriages, is to prevent the abuse of the sanctity of marriage. The case law requires that if you divorce your wife and subsequently, your ex-wife remarries, she can never remarry you. That law, on the one hand, protects wives especially in a vulnerable culture from frivolous divorce, but on the other hand, upholds the sanctity of marriage.

But even that having been said, Jesus is going to say, this law is concessionary. Moses, He will say, gave it, not because it meets the ideal of Genesis 2, but he gave it because of the hardness of your hearts.

Turn to Malachi 2 again with me and there are two things I want you to see about this passage. First, here we have God Himself declaring His heart about divorce, and His declaration that “I hate divorce” shows us that divorce undercuts the creational directives and ordinances of God recorded in Genesis 2. That's the first thing I want you to see. The second thing it does, this passage lets you know, is that unbiblical divorce is not a modern problem; it was a problem for Israel at the end of the Old Testament or Malachi wouldn't have been talking about it. Unbiblical divorce was a big problem for Israel at the end of the Old Testament age.

Now, turn forward to the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 7 and there are three things I want to show you here. In 1 Corinthians 7, we have Paul's words in response to the letter that the Corinthians had written to him about divorce, about remarriage, about celibacy and singleness and sexuality in marriage. First thing you need to see is that the Corinthians have written to Paul asking him specific questions about celibacy, sexuality in marriage, and in mixed marriages. Look at verse 1. “Concerning the things about which you wrote.” Paul is saying, “You asked me about it; I'm telling you.” He then talks to them about celibacy. He talks to them about not depriving one another sexually within the marital relationship. He talks to them about a call to singleness. He talks to them about continuing singleness after widowhood, and then he talks to them about divorce. In verses 10 and 11– this is the second thing I want you to see–he simply repeats Jesus’ prescription against divorce. He simply stresses the one flesh ideal. He doesn't mention Jesus’ exception clause, the clause that we’ll see in Matthew 19, not because he's contradicting Jesus, but because he's simply repeating Jesus’ ideal. Remember what he says? “Not I, but the Lord, say this.” In other words, what I'm about to tell you is not something that I've had to come up with on my own, I'm quoting Jesus on this. But then, in verses 12 and following, look at them particularly, he deals with the situation of mixed marriages in Corinth. By mixed marriage I mean a marriage in which either the husband is a pagan and the wife is a Christian or the wife is a Christian and the husband is a pagan, and the condition in which that has obtained is not that a pagan has married a Christian or a Christian has married a pagan, but two pagans have married and subsequently, one of them has become a Christian. In other words, this situation of mixed marriages is caused by post-wedding conversions. And the Corinthians have a question and it's a legitimate question: What do we do? In our congregation we have pagan husbands married to newly converted Christian wives, and newly converted Christian husbands married to continuing pagan wives. What do we do? Should they separate? They’re fighting like cats and dogs. And here's Paul's rule; and I want you to notice that this is a rule. Look at what he says in verse 12. “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if a brother has a wife who is an unbeliever and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. “ Paul is not saying, “We don't have any direct word from Jesus on this, so here's my opinion.” Paul is saying, as the inspired apostle vested by the Lord Jesus Christ as a plena pententiary on his behalf, I lay down this law. This is the way it is. If they’ll stay, keep them; don't send them away. Husbands, wives, keep them. His rule is: if the pagan will stay, then the Christian should remain faithful to the pagan. But he goes on to say: if the pagan will not have it, and if the pagan will not stay, then the Christian may let him go and be free. Three very important passages about divorce.

Now let's turn to what may be the most important one of all, Matthew 19. And I want you to see two things from this passage and then I would like to direct you to three or four applications regarding the grounds of divorce, the causes of divorce, prevention of divorce, and coping and recovery.

“And it came about, that when Jesus had finished these words, he departed from Galilee and came unto Judea to the region beyond the Jordan; and great multitudes followed Him and He healed them there. And some Pharisees came to him testing him and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” And he answered and said, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female and for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh?’ “Consequently, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man put separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning, it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and married another woman commits adultery.” And the disciples said to him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it's better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who are made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.

Now, I want to say by background that it is vital to realize that Jesus is the compassionate one in this passage. Who's the one out ministering in Judea? Who's the one out spreading the gospel in Judea? Jesus is out ministering in the borders of Judea and multitudes are following him and as it is reported, he is healing them and it's vital for you to see Jesus as the one who is truly concerned about the well-being of these people–especially in light of the strong words that he is going to use. Jesus is the one who truly cares about people–not these Pharisees who are encouraging easy divorce. As hard as Jesus’ words may seem, as insensitive as his words may seem, he is the one who truly cares about people. He loves them so much that he is ready to give them uncomfortable truth for their ultimate good even if it is temporarily painful. J.C. Ryle says, “In these verses, we have the mind of Christ declared on a subject of great moment, the relation of the husband and wife, and it is difficult to overrate the importance of these two subjects of the well-being of nations and the happiness of society are closely connected with right views upon this. Nations are nothing but a collection of families, and the good order of families depends on keeping the highest standard perspective on the marriage tie. And so we ought to be thankful that on these points the great head of the church has pronounced his judgment so clearly.”

The Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him to give them a ruling. It's important to remember that in Luke 12, they approached Him to ask Him to give a ruling on the inheritance of the man that was in dispute. He refused. But when they approached Him to ask for a ruling on divorce, He quickly weighs in; Jesus is happy to stick His nose in your personal business and tell you what you must do here because He is the Lord of the Church, and His business is our marriage.

Now, the Pharisees come to Him with a trick question wanting to trap him in a theological skirmish. They want to damage His reputation and, actually, they would like to find Him out of accord with Moses’ law or criticizing it. You see, there was a debate among the Pharisees on this. One school of Pharisees says that there was one ground for divorce–marital unfaithfulness–and another school of Pharisees taught that divorce could be on just about any grounds. Jesus’ disciples may have held the latter view. The Pharisees quote to him from Deuteronomy 24, and ask Him His opinion on divorce. Jesus responds by saying, “You went to the wrong passage; you needed to start the discussion at Genesis 2,” and He takes them right back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, and He says that marriage is designed to create oneness and that that should never be violated lightly and He closes with that great phrase that you hear at weddings all the time, “What God has joined together, let no man separate.”

The Pharisees follow up with an explicit question based on Deuteronomy 24: 1-4, and they think that they can get Jesus to criticize Moses, but rather, Jesus explains Moses. He explains that Moses’ divorce law was permission–not command–it was by way of concession. And He says that violation of the law of God on marriage is, in fact, a violation of God on the law of adultery. Jesus’ words are strong. The assumption of those Pharisees is that there are many occasions where divorce it right. Jesus, however, makes it clear, listen carefully, that divorce is almost always wrong. That hurts; listen to it again: divorce is almost always wrong. Instead of asking, “What will God let us get away with in the matter of divorce and remarriage?” We ought to be asking with Jesus, “What does God desire for His creatures in this matter?” Instead of asking, “What can I get out of marriage for myself?” We ought to be asking how we can use this marvelous institution for the benefit of our spouses–the vocation God has given us–our children, our children-to-be, our grandchildren, our fellowmen, the church and God's kingdom. You see, the Pharisees were not asking, “What did God intend marriage to be? Or, “How can we restore broken relationships which bring such agony into marriage?” or “How can we foster reconciliation?” but, “When can we allow people to get a divorce?” And Jesus points them back to the original purpose of God.

II. Jesus places the highest sort of requirement for commitment upon our marriage vows.
Here's the second thing I want you to see. Jesus’ disciples respond to this in a way which, maybe, is not surprising to you and to me. Their response is: If this is what's required for marriage, maybe we should just forego marriage. You see, like many in their age and ours, we are so allergic to commitment that celibacy seems preferable to the kind of commitment that Jesus is asking for. And you know what? Jesus doesn't back down. He says, “Well, if you’re called to be a eunuch; go do it.” There's no backing down from Jesus. You see, marriage is the second greatest commitment that a man makes in this life. And how He performs here, says much about him. Jesus places the highest sort of requirement for commitment upon our marriage vows. So what do we say to this? Four words of application: grounds, common causes, prevention, coping and recovery. Grounds: Jesus and Paul's teaching together make it clear that sexual immorality and irremediable desertion are the biblical grounds of divorce.

Listen to what our Westminster Confession of Faith says in chapter 24, sections 5 and 6:

“Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, gives just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve the contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce, to marry another as if the offending party were dead. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage.” Listen to that sentence again. The English throws you, but it is saying something very important. “Although the corruption of man is such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet nothing but adultery or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding as to be observed and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case. “

This is tremendously wise counsel–biblical counsel–from The Confession and the assembly of the divines. Sexual immorality and irremediable desertion–do I need to say it? Those grounds are extremely rare, even today, especially in Christian divorces.

Secondly, what are the common causes of divorce? There's no way that you could give a comprehensive list, could you? There's so many different things in different cases, but let me point to a few things. I want to suggest to you that our environment makes it difficult for us to be faithful in marriage today. Civil law, easy divorce, and a cultural mindset of autonomy put enormous strains on marriages that used to not be there. A hundred years ago, if you wanted a no-fault divorce–tough–didn't even exist. You didn't have to weigh that as an option in the back of your mind; it wasn't there. You’re in a lousy marriage? You’re going to tough it out; there's no option. That puts an enormous pressure on marriages today. Unrealistic expectations put an enormous pressure on marriages today. People think that marriage is the place where they are going to find meaning and relationship and satisfaction and communion beyond which they've ever experienced; and they get into marriage and they find out–“My heavens, I've married a sinner.” And their hearts get broken and their dreams get dashed and they find out that it's hard work and they say, “This isn't what I was looking for. I was looking for the satisfaction part.” And there are psychological problems that bring about difficulties in marriage and there are unbiblical values that unsettle marriages. One partner is committed to permanent, lifetime marriage and the other, though a professing Christian is not, in principle committed to permanent lifetime marriage and those unbiblical values play havoc. There are personal problems: anger, “I just don't love him anymore”; selfishness, inability to forgive, control issues, bad communication, and the list could go on. But let me tell you one thing that I see over and over in the Christian church is simply this: a deficit of godliness. One partner refusing to think and act biblically.

How do we prevent divorce in this kind of environment? Again there are too many things that need to be said there for me to give anything like a comprehensive answer, but let me suggest five answers to that. The first thing is personal commitment. Marriage is not based on the emotion of love, it is based on commitment. I remember one night sneaking in the back of a ‘Mrs. In Ministry’ meeting at Reformed Seminary. You know, it's supposed to be “girls only” but I figured a guy could sneak in, so I did, and Jane Hogan was speaking. She was talking of her life experience and marriage with Bill Hogan, her husband who was professor of preaching at the seminary, and she said at one point in her talk, “Girls, I want you to know this. I have never ever, in the course of our thirty-plus years of marriage, considered divorce.” And you know, you could hear the, “Awe, isn't that sweet?” And then she went on to say, “Now, murder–that's another thing!” And they reacted just like you did. But what Jane conveyed that night was this. It was not that she had never faced deep grief from her husband and unimaginable disappointment; it was just that she was absolutely committed to not considering the option of bailing out on her commitment. That kind of personal commitment will have to be recovered broadly in our churches today if we ever want to curb and prevent divorce.

Secondly, care in choosing your marriage partner is absolutely vital. I know there are horror stories about godly Christian people who went about a godly process of choosing a partner and everything still fell apart; I understand that. But let me tell you what–they are the exception to the rule. I don't know how many marriages I've officiated or how many marriages I've known since I've been in the ministry, but you know what? That situation has happened about one time in fifteen in comparison to bad choices in marriage being something that results in divorce.

Thirdly, community commitment to God's word is vital. We need to create a culture that does not cultivate or allow an easy attitude towards divorce. And it is vital, by the way, in choosing your mate to realize the spiritual environment your potential mate has been in. Has he or she been in an environment where, even in the church, easy divorce has been cultivated or allowed or encouraged?

Fourth. Whereas in our culture we assume that we have the right to divorce, Jesus’ teaching ought to lead us never to assume we have the right to divorce until we have sought spiritual counsel. See, we do it the other way around; we assume that we have the right to divorce. That's just given. Jesus says that most divorces are wrong and that ought to lead us to never assume that we have the right to divorce.

Furthermore, fifthly, we should never assume we have the right to remarry after divorce; we ought to seek spiritual counsel. Jesus’ teaching is that most divorce and most remarriage is wrong. And that ought to lead us never to assume that we just have those things as rights. We ought to seek spiritual counsel. You would be surprised at what just those things would do to help the prevention of divorce.

What about coping and recovery? It's so hard to do justice to this. Let me suggest that there are at least seven impacts on a person who has experienced divorce. There is an emotional impact in the loss of a marital partner and a relationship which one thought was stable and one thought was for life. I've tried to do my reading this week like Derek has all summer long, and over and over I read accounts of divorce, I heard people talking of divorce as if it were a death, but worse than a death. In fact, one man said, “It's like standing over the grave of my wife but never ever being able to say ‘goodbye’ because she's not dead.”

There's the legal aspect–the nasty, lingering aspects of the judicial process. There's a financial, economic impact and fallout of divorce. There's the parental impact. The subsequent custody situations, the awkward situations with the children; it gets even more awkward when remarriages come into play. There's a relational impact. Of course, there's the relationship with the former spouse, but I'm speaking here in those changes in networks which happened with friends and in the community and even in the church. There are personal impacts; the sense of isolation and loneliness; the new but strange freedoms; the choices that now have to be made alone. And there is a spiritual impact. There is a religious fallout from the divorce.

How can we as the Christian church help in this process of coping and recovery–ten things, very quickly. We can, as friends, take the initiative. You know what our tendency is when this starts happening? It is to pull away; we don't know what to say, and we don't know what to do. Take the initiative–wisely, tactfully–but take the initiative.

Second, having taken the initiative–listen. Call someone up on the phone and ask the question, “How are you doing this week? And then do something really strange, just listen.

Thirdly, show compassion. Sinner or sinned against; show compassion.

Fourthly, act to give practical assistance. There are all sorts of practical fallouts to the disruption of a marriage. What kind of practical assistance are we ready to give? Are we going to say, “Be warm and be filled?” Or, are we really going to help?

Fifthly, aim to provide encouragement to the children–especially to provide Christian examples and models.

Sixth. Pull them into the life of the community. The instinctive reaction of the person who is single again is to fee awkward–to withdraw from community. Pull them in to the life of community.

Seventh. Be patient and ready for the long haul. Recover and coping is not a process which is concluded at the end of five minutes or one hour or two hours or three hours or seven hours of good advice.

Eight. Realize that divorce is like death and the emotional trauma usually takes two years to cycle through from the time the marriage is actually legally over.

Ninth. Become, along with other friends, a natural support group. The secular world has a support group for everything. We ought not to have to title something a support group; we ought to be, as Christian friends, the natural support group.

Tenth. Don't encourage remarriage unless there are biblical grounds. Seek the advice and counsel of spiritual authorities. Don't assume that remarriage is the right thing to do here. So often you hear this, “Oh, you’ll find someone soon.” Don't do that. There's so much more to be said; let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we need so much help. Help to show compassion and love to friends who have experienced this ultimate pain. So much wisdom to counsel friends who are going down a course they ought not to be going.