Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jesus & Divorce

“In our parents' generation, marriage was still the most powerful social force. In ours, it was divorce. My 44-year-old classmates and I have watched divorce morph from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life.” So wrote David J. Jefferson in his article The Divorce Generation Grows Up which was the cover story for Newsweek magazine in the issue dated April 21, 2008. The article is a candid look at the lingering effects of the divorce revolution as experienced in Jefferson's own 1982 graduating class at Grant High School in California's San Fernando Valley. The article lists the up to date and discouraging divorce statistics. Each year, about 1 million children watch their parents split; triple the number of the '50s. These children are twice as likely as their peers to get divorced themselves and more likely to have mental-health problems…the divorce rate has increased to 3.6 per 1,000…while marriage has sharply decreased to 7.3 per 1,000 people in 2006.

Here is another disturbing statistic, this time from the June 10, 2006 edition of World magazine in an article written by Jamie Dean: During a 10-month period in 2005, an estimated 1.8 million couples got married in the United States. During the same period, nearly 800,000 couples divorced.

While the number of marriages is decreasing, divorces are maintaining a relatively high percentage, and the number of opposite-sex couples (a sign of the times is that we must make that distinction) is at an all time high. According to a July 28, 2008 USAToday article, the number of opposite-sex couples who lived together was less than a million just 30 years ago, but in 2007 that number was 6.4 million. Cohabiting couples now make up almost 10% of all opposite-sex U.S. couples, married and unmarried.

Listen again to what David Jefferson, a man who is only 44 years old, wrote:
“I have watched divorce morph from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life.”

It’s a depressing statement. It’s a true statement, and the numbers back up his assertion. Sadly, his observation is not only true of “secular” couples, but it’s also true of those who would identify themselves as Christians. Within a generation, Christianity in general has watched as divorce morphed from something shocking and shameful into a routine fact of American Christian life. We refer to ourselves as the people who stand for traditional, Biblical marriage, and by this we have come to mean marriage between a man and a woman as opposed to same-gender marriage. Obviously, I completely agree that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman, but let us not lightly pass over the fact that the greatest enemy of marriage is divorce not homosexual matrimony.

If that statement is shocking to you, it is probably because all of us have experienced divorce on some level. Either you’ve walked through one and are now single or remarried, or your parents, or some other loved one, have been divorced. It has become so frequent as to seem, well, routine.


The numbers do not tell the whole story, however. The mere mention of the word carries a huge weight of sorrow and loss. No matter how one looks at divorce it is a tragic disappointment, and it causes anger, regret, and guilt for all involved. Not many things are more painful than divorce. It’s a wound that cuts deep. Emotionally, it is more heart-wrenching than the death of a spouse. Death is usually
clean pain. Divorce is usually dirty pain. In other words, the enormous loss of a spouse in death is compounded in divorce by the ugliness of sin and moral outrage at being wronged.

Of course, there are many who would disagree with my comments. While they are not happy with the failure or their marriage, they are happy to be done with it, and there has arisen an industry that helps the recently divorced to celebrate the dissolution of their marriage. One example is Los Angeles entrepreneur Christine Gallagher who has established a business called "The Divorce Party Planner", and written a book of the same name, to meet the growing demand for post-divorce celebrations.


This cannot be a good thing.


CNN.com ran a story by Elizabeth Bougerol which covered this growing, and in my opinion troubling, trend. It’s troubling; not because of the celebrations per se, but because of what is being celebrated. Gallagher is quoted in the article as saying: “[Divorce is] part of life, and yet it's the only major event for which we have no ritual. A celebration communicates that divorce is OK -- life affirming, even.”

The reason this “major event” has no celebration ritual is because
it has never before been viewed as a celebratory occasion. The dissolution of what was supposed to be a life-long relationship should be mourned, not exalted like the wedding itself. The above quote reveals this age's mood regarding divorce: “it is OK --life affirming, even.”

Actually it is neither.

What does a divorce celebration look like. According to the CNN.com article, one size doesn't fit all. Bougerol writes the following: “Burning is big,” says Gallagher, who's seen everything from wedding dresses to a husband's trophy deer head go up in flames at divorce celebrations organized by her event-planning outfit. The parties, two or three per month, serve up signature cocktails with names like the “So Long” and the “Sucker”, split themed soundtracks (“Hit the Road, Jack” and “I Will Survive” are popular) and dartboards adorned with the ex's face.

This sounds very cathartic, but not very helpful.


I think it’s important for me to state that I am not against divorced people, but I am against divorce, people! I’m against a cultural mindset that views divorce as just another bump along the road of life; as just another event that should be celebrated. “Hey, thanks for coming to our wedding. If it doesn't work out, I'll be sure to invite you to the divorce soiree.”

I am against divorce, but I for marriage!

We’ve rehearsed the sad stats, and we’ve heard from pop culture.
What does Jesus have to say about divorce? We are given a clear answer from the Lord in Mark 10:1-12. As the passage begins, Jesus has moved from Galilee to the Trans-Jordan, drawing ever nearer to Jerusalem and the cross that awaits Him there. As always, along the road He taught His disciples. As always, the Pharisees are on the Lord’s heels, ostensibly to learn from Him but actually to tempt Him. The word translated “tempting” in Mark 10:2 is first used by Mark in Mark 1:13. These men had no desire to learn from Jesus. Their only motivation for asking Jesus questions was to try and incriminate Him. It was also no coincidence that the Pharisees waited until Jesus returned to the territory of Herod Antipas before asking Him about divorce and remarriage. After all, John the Baptist’s position on that subject got him beheaded (Mark 6:14-29).

But there was more than politics involved in their trick question, because divorce was a very controversial subject among the Jewish rabbis. In that day there were two conflicting views on divorce, and which view one espoused depended on how one interpreted the phrase
“some uncleanness” from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Adherents to the liberal school of Rabbi Hillel were outrageously lenient in their interpretation. They permitted a man to divorce his wife for any reason, even burning his food. It gets worse, because some rabbis took the phrase “and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes” to mean that a man could divorce his wife if he found another woman who was more beautiful.

There was an opposing school of thought, that of the conservative Rabbi Shammai. He was much stricter and taught that the critical words
"some uncleanness" referred only to marital indecency (sin) short of adultery. I say “short of adultery” because adultery was punishable by death. If a newly married husband discovered that his wife was not a virgin, then he could put her away; just as Joseph was about to do with Mary before the angel spoke to him (Matthew 1:18-25).

No matter what answer Jesus gave, He would be sure to displease somebody, and this might give opportunity to arrest Him. The verbs indicate that the Pharisees
kept asking Him, as though they hoped to provoke Him to say something incriminating. Of course, Jesus knew the wicked and manipulative hearts of these men. He didn’t answer them based on their erroneous interpretations of Scripture. He took them back to the beginning. Let’s take a look.

Jesus was asked if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. He puts the question back to them in Mark 10:3 to draw out a point about Moses' teaching on divorce. They said (Mark 10:4) that Moses permitted divorce if a man would write a certificate of divorce. To which Jesus responds, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” In other words, the law that you use to justify your divorce and remarriage, testifies not to the desire of God's heart, but to the hardness of your own. God has tolerated and regulated the hardness of your heart in His law. Jesus explained that Moses gave the divorce law because of the sinfulness of the human heart. The law protected the wife by restraining the husband from impulsively divorcing her and abusing her like an unwanted piece of chattel. By giving this commandment to Israel, God was not putting His approval on divorce or even encouraging it. Rather, He was seeking to restrain it and make it more difficult for men to dismiss their wives. He put sufficient regulations around divorce so that the wives would not become victims of their husbands’ whims.

But then Jesus calls for a new standard of faithfulness by pointing back to an old design of God. In Mark 10:6 He says,
“But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” Then He quotes Genesis 1:27 and traces the meaning of marriage back to the very first design of God in creation. The issue of divorce and remarriage, He says, is not mainly about the way God regulated the hardness of heart in the law; it is mainly about the meaning of marriage as designed by God in creation. This takes us back behind the law and teaches us that the basis of marriage is God's action, that marriage is God’s design. Marriage is not man's idea, it’s God’s, and God's design is what’s at stake with divorce.

Then in Mark 10:7-8, Jesus makes the explicit connection between God's creation of male and female on the one hand, and marriage on the other hand by quoting Genesis 2:24:
“For this cause [because God created man male and female with a design for marriage] shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.”

Do you see? The leaving of father and mother and the cleaving to each other to form a new family unit, is God's idea rooted in the way He created and designed mankind as
male and female. Then Jesus gives an important and powerful declaration followed by an important and powerful command in Mark 10:9 He says, “What therefore God hath joined together, [the declaration], let not man put asunder [the command].” The declaration is that marriage is the work of God. “What God has joined together…” It is not just a human tradition, and this is true even for people who don't believe in God. Marriage is God’s, not man’s. Therefore we see that God designed it in Genesis 1:27 and God described it in Genesis 2:24; and God did it the day you got married. Therefore, I say, marriage is a work of God and gets its meaning from God.

Therefore, Jesus ends his answer to the Pharisees, with the powerful command,
“What God has joined let no man separate.” The joining is God's, the separating is to be God's – by death.

“But is it lawful?” That is what the Pharisees had asked, and evidently the disciples, having heard Jesus plainly shut the Pharisees’ collective mouth, needed to ask the question again (Mark 10:10). Is it lawful to divorce and remarry? Jesus answers them in Mark 10:11-12. First He addresses the man who is thinking about leaving his wife to marry another woman: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.” Then He turns it around and focuses on the woman who is thinking about leaving her husband for another man: “And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”

What's the point of these two verses? Why does Jesus say this? Doesn't He know that people who are divorced and remarried; parents of people who are divorced and remarried; that children of people who are divorced and remarried are going to read this? Doesn't He know this will hurt? Yes, He does know that, and He cares about that. There are few things that hurt more than the break-up of a marriage. It is far more painful than the death of a spouse and does much more damage to all concerned. Jesus knows that. But unlike our day, where not hurting feelings is the essence of love, Jesus thinks the essence of love is helping people to live in sync with reality, namely, God. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always meant for our good, if we will believe Him.

I think the aim of Jesus here is prevention, not destruction. He is talking to those who can still turn back, and He is saying: marriage is God's idea: He designed it, He described it, and He does it. It is one of the deepest realities in the world; deeper than any of us knows. What God joins together He joins deeply together; deeper than feelings, deeper than promises, deeper than intimacy, and deeper than friendship. “One flesh” is a deep, deep mystery. That is exactly what Paul calls it in Ephesians 5:32. And he says it is an image of Christ and the church. The union of husband and wife in marriage is like the union of God and His people. It is an ocean of deep, deep unseen wonders. Yet many people today treat it like a backyard wading pool for lounging around as long as we feel like it.


Jesus says: God joined this! The charge of adultery (in Mark 10:11-12) is far deeper than we think. Marriage is an image of the covenant commitment between Christ and the church for which He died. To walk away from marriage for another relationship is not just about marriage, but about Christ and about God. What God has joined together in man and woman, in Christ and church, do not separate. God will never separate Christ and his church. Let your marriage tell the truth about that. Don't lie to the world about the covenant between Christ and His church. God joined this. Don't separate it; even an image of it.


(And just in passing, so that you know where I stand - though I don't have the time to develop it - that is one of the reasons I would not counsel you to end your second marriage. Repent if you should. Start where you are to honor the vows you have made and, cost what it may, fulfill your calling to live out the rock-solid relationship of Christ and His church.)

Marriage is a work of God and gets its meaning from God, and its meaning is mainly the portrayal of the covenant love between Christ and his Church. So don't separate what God has joined. Tough it out, talk it out, pray it out, fast it out, cry it out, wait it out, and when you are at the end of your resources, remember: like a child, like a helpless, insufficient, needy, trusting child, receive the kingdom; receive the King's help. But don't break it up.

He comes to us all and says, “I am an all-providing, all-loving King. If you will receive my kingly design for your marriage (even if you must do it by yourself), I will be there to help you. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible (hence the command not to put asunder what God has joined).”

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