The Best Way
Love God, Love Our Neighbour
The way Jesus taught us to live was based on two simple but profound statements – to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). We can be distracted by arguing over the meaning of one word or phrase while overlooking a major principle (which, incidentally, is what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing). Everything Jesus taught (including marriage, divorce and remarriage) hinged on these two statements and so the whole question of whether there is a right to divorce and remarry must be considered in their light. That is, is divorce and remarriage consistent with what Jesus and the apostles taught about love?
As Paul said:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
And I show you a still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31).
In the renowned ‘love’ passage of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reveals the characteristics of agape love, it being the mark of one born of God. It is patient, kind, humble, pure, forgiving, bearing, hoping, believing, enduring and never failing.
Can we then say a Christian is free of their responsibility to be faithful, patient, humble, forgiving, bear the load, hope for reconciliation, believe for the good and endure suffering because our spouse has been unfaithful, abused us, deserted and even divorced us? The God type of love, agape, we are told, always hopes, always endures and never fails.
We first should know that marriage is a covenant, not a contract. Marriage is a covenant made between a man and a woman and before God (even for those who don’t believe in God). God calls the marriage bond a covenant (Malachi 2:14). Contracts can be broken when one party fails to meet the terms or promises made, but a covenant does not end if one party is unfaithful to those promises.
Nowhere in Scripture do we find an example of where our spouse’s sin releases us from the obligation to love and be faithful to them. Are we only to love or be faithful as long as our spouse loves and is faithful to us? Jesus said we are to treat others as we want to be treated and to love and do good to those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27-36). The real test of faithfulness comes when things don’t go according to plan. At such times we have to make a decision: will I continue to love and remain faithful or not? It is noteworthy that no marriage vows (at least in the Christian community) make love and faithfulness conditional.
While it is natural to want love from others, the onus is always on us to love. Love cannot be obtained. It can only be given. Love does not take into account a wrong suffered. Love bears and endures all things and never fails (1 Corinthians 13). If we are to love our enemies then should we not love and be faithful to an unfaithful spouse? We are told never to repay evil with evil and are to overcome wrong by doing what is right (Romans 12:17 & 21). Therefore how does divorcing (and here I mean a legal divorce, not just separation) a spouse because of their sin demonstrate love and forgiveness? Isn’t it in fact a form of judgement and shouldn’t we rather show mercy? As James informs us:
For judgement will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement (James 2:13).
I believe unforgiveness is also one of the major reasons marriages run into crisis because it breeds hardness of heart (but where physical abuse is involved you need to take steps to protect yourself). Spouses inevitably sin against each other from time to time and unless we forgive on a daily basis, that unforgiveness will fester and create bitterness which can turn into hostility and finally rejection. I can understand the pain that is experienced at such times but when we see how great is our own sinfulness before God and how great is His forgiveness for us in Christ we can bear and forgive our spouse’s sins against us, no matter what they have done. This is not to say sin is condoned for all sin is against God and so there has to be repentance before there is forgiveness before God.
I would suggest another reason marriages run into difficulty and love for a spouse has grown cold, it is because love for God and the love of God within has grown cold first. As Jesus admonished the church at Ephesus “you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4). We can’t use the excuse “it didn’t work out” when we have stopped working at love. Love is not just something we feel but needs to be nurtured in an act of our will.
The ‘right’ to divorce and remarry on the grounds of adultery, desertion or other sinful behaviour establishes the principle that forgiveness and reconciliation are an option rather than a necessity. Jesus gave us the law of forgiveness:
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15).
Therefore we need to have a forgiving heart. It is very easy to justify why we ought not to forgive. Jesus said we are to forgive seventy times seven if necessary (Matthew 18:22). I don’t believe Jesus gave us here a numerical limit but rather that we should not put a limit on forgiveness.
Give Opportunity for Reconciliation
How long does the wronged partner give opportunity for reconciliation? Some years ago I was told of a Christian man whose wife left him to live with another man. He divorced her and remarried. Later his first wife’s relationship with the other man broke up. She realised her sin and wanted to reconcile with her husband but could not because he had married another woman.
Divorce and remarriage effectively closes the door to reconciliation. For this reason even if we have been unwillingly divorced we must continue to be faithful to our estranged spouse and give opportunity for reconciliation. It may be thought that divorce is not mandated in cases of adultery or desertion but if it is persistent and unrepentant then it (and a ‘right’ to remarry) is permissible. The problem with this thought is that a judgement must then be made as to what is persistent and unrepentant and how long to give opportunity. This can be very subjective. Can we know what a sinful spouse will do in the future?
Patience is one of the 16 characteristics of agape love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). God shows His patience towards us ‘not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance‘ (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore we too should be patient, always be prepared to forgive and when there is repentance, to reconcile. It is not limited by an arbitrary time frame.
The Innocent Spouse?
The prevailing view of divorce and remarriage says the ‘innocent’ spouse has a right to remarry. But a cold wife could contribute to her husband’s temptation to commit adultery. In the same way, an unloving husband may cause his wife to succumb to the affectionate attention of another man. The fact is we all fail in many ways to love our spouse as we should. Therefore, while we may not be guilty of adultery, none of us can say we are truly innocent. As sinners justified by God’s grace, do we earn the right to cease loving our partner because they have wronged us? When we divorce and/or remarry we effectively are saying “Because of your sin, you are no longer my husband/wife”. Do we have the right to say that? If God has shown us mercy, shouldn’t we show mercy to those who sin against us?
In the Old Testament we find the story of Hosea who was told to take back an adulterous wife (Hosea 3:1). Love, faithfulness and forgiveness are shown instead of judgement and rejection. And God Himself at one time divorced Israel because of her unfaithfulness (Jeremiah 3:8) but note how He speaks to His unfaithful wife, Israel:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15).
When God Divorced Israel
Some have argued for the legitimacy of divorce and remarriage because God divorced Israel. Yes, though God did divorce (literally: ‘sent away’) Israel (as recorded in Jeremiah chapter 3) because of unfaithfulness, He did not seek and ‘marry’ another nation. God’s covenant with Israel still stood despite Israel’s unfaithfulness and His purpose in sending her away was redemptive, so she would return to Him. He sought, not a new wife but that His unfaithful wife be made new.
In Leviticus God says if Israel broke the covenant He would not reject them or break His covenant with them but give them opportunity to return (Leviticus 26:15 and 42-45). This shows us unfaithfulness does not break or end a covenant. His loving intention then was redemptive; to restore His bride and wife, Israel, and His promise to them still remains today (Romans 10:1-2).
How Long Does Love Wait?
How long does love wait? According to God’s word love endures all things, hopes all things and is unfailing. That is the standard of love and faithfulness God expects of His people. Is this unreasonable? I don’t believe anything God asks of us is unreasonable. Difficult or hard to our own desires maybe, but not impossible. In fact I would suggest it is the way of life God expects of His children. Scripture encourages us to love and patiently endure suffering, as Christ did (1 Peter 2:19-23). Nor should we think we have to do this in our own strength for if we have been born again, of God, we have His divine nature in us and by that we are able to demonstrate His love (1 John 4:19, 2 Peter 1:3-4). God will not ask of us what we cannot do.
Paul encourages us to draw on God’s power to love:
that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; [and] that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:16-19).
Is it not more blessed to give than to receive, to give love than receive love, to show mercy than receive mercy and to give forgiveness than receive forgiveness? And I would say too there is more joy in giving these things than in receiving them. That I can say from personal experience.
While we may not be able to love an estranged spouse in the way we have done, we can be faithful (see also ‘Epilogue’ for some practical ways we can build and maintain bridges). Furthermore, we can and ought to pray for them. What is impossible for us is possible for God (see here for how to pray for your spouse).
Our continued faithfulness in prayer and practical ways are an expression of true love, the God type of love. In fact I would say the foundational principle of marriage is faithfulness (as the traditional marriage vows state). Too many think that if the feelings of love are gone the basis for marriage no longer exists. Yet it is on the foundation of faithfulness true love and the feelings of love grow. Faithfulness is based on the promise we made and sometimes that will be tested: will we continue to be faithful when it seems all hope is lost and that promise is in vain?